Swatching: Not just for size – How and Why It Helps

A few days ago my friend and I went to WEBS, the mecca for knitters and weavers in these parts, to stock up on supplies for upcoming projects. Jennifer weaves and knits designer garments, and I have recently volunteered to knit a few things for family members, so taking advantage of the annual sale was a good opportunity.

While at the store I decided to purchase a little treat for myself – 100% lace-weight alpaca at a ridiculously low sale price. This isn’t the type of yarn I’d usually purchase, but the thought of a light, elegant shawl in super-soft yarn really appealed to me. Jennifer decided she wanted a new, easy-knitting project for herself, so she bought a set of 3 colors in the same yarn to make one also (her swatching experience is here).

I’ll admit something: I don’t often swatch before starting a project. I find that I can generally read a pattern, look at the yarn and needles it calls for, and know if I’m going to get the designer’s gauge or not. Even for something larger that has to fit, like a sweater, I’ll often just start with a sleeve and use that as my gauge swatch. For a hat I can get a good sense just knitting the brim. Or mitten cuffs – you get the idea.

But for this project (the Color Affection shawl by Veera Välimäki), even though I’ve made one before, I wanted to check my gauge because the yarn is so radically different than what I usually knit with, and I wanted to test the look of the colors in the stripes. I also discovered that I didn’t have the size needle the designer called for in the lace-weight version, and I wanted to check my fabric before diving in.

Test swatch for the Color Affection shawl
Test swatch for the Color Affection shawl

So, I did a little swatch.

From the bottom, we have:
#3 needles, yarn held single section. I don’t like this at all. There’s no consistent rhythm to the stitches. Looks like it was woven by one of those LSD test spiders.

#3, yarn held double section – dense, consistent, and smooshy and soft.

Then I went down to #2 needles, with yarn held single for some color/stripe testing. The fabric is more consistent than the #3 section but still has a Swiss Cheese texture. And, by the time I finished the swatch I wanted to throw it across the room. The thinness of the yarn and the #2 needles made this un-fun to knit (I think it’s the first time I’ve knit with a fine lace-weight yarn, which may not be my gig).

So clearly, the yarn-held-double-on-Size-3-needles option is the winner here. Of course that means ordering another skein of each color, but fortunately the sale is still going and the yarn is cheap. And it really is worthwhile to spend a little extra time and money rather than struggling with and despising a project that’s supposed to be a fun treat resulting in a lux garment.

Unfortunately some of the yarn I need is now on backorder so it will be a couple of weeks until I can get started on this project. I should be able to get a jump on some gift knitting in the meantime.

Published by Sarah Scully

Sarah is a librarian as well as an avid knitter and occasional knitwear designer. She also enjoys cooking, gardening, hiking, reading, painting, and writing with fountain pens.