Friday, February 20, 2009

Thinking about Gauge and Swatching

There's not a lot to show in my knitting at the moment. Just think "stripier" and you'll get the idea of how the Kauni jacket's coming along. It's gorgeous, but not fascinating enough to photograph right now.

But since I seem to be talking about techniques on Fridays, I thought I'd share things about gauge that I've been talking to friends about lately (along with a big close-up of some stitches for you to imagine practicing the determination of gauge for). It seems like some of the ideas that I pass along are new to some folks, though I am sure that I have read all of them in one source or another. So, in the spirit of "maybe some blog readers might get something out of this," here goes!

1. Some things you don't need a gauge swatch for.
Duh, you say, a dish cloth will work no matter if it's 8 or 8.5 inches wide. And many scarves, afghans and shawls have a lot of leeway as to finished size. But, think about this! I rarely do a gauge swatch for a sock. Why? Well, the gauge swatch is pretty much the beginning of a sock, anyway. So, I take a stab at what I think will work, cast on, and knit the ribbing and an inch or so of pattern. Then I put it on. Does it go over my heel? If yes, it is not too small. Does it stay up when stretched over my calf? If yes, then it is not too big. Most times I get two "yes" answers and can keep on going--my gauge swatch becomes the sock. I would, however, be a LOT more careful with anything involving cables, slipped stitches and stranded colorwork. I'd want to be really careful the eventual sock could get on once it was made.

2. You do not have to make a separate swatch for each different needle size you try. I'm sharing this, since it was news to some people I know. When I am looking for the right needle size for a particular yarn, I usually cast on 35 or so stitches with my best guess then knit a couple of inches and measure. If it is too small, I get a bigger needle and keep going. I use a row marker (a marker you can slip over a completed stitch) to indicate the last row knit with the needles that didn't work. I knit another few inches, then measure again. If that's off, I try again. The most I've ever had it take is 4 tries. Eventually you get gauge or something really close. And I only have one square to unravel and re-use (or to save for another use).

3. Some yarns just won't get the gauge you need for a project and look good. Yep, sometimes you would end up knitting so loosely or tightly with a yarn that it does not look its best. This tells you to go find another yarn or a project that is better matched for the beloved yarn you want. I am truly hoping that will NOT be the case for my Bridget cardigan. Buttons for it are coming. I want to get gauge!

4. If you can't get EXACTLY the right gauge, try what they tell you to do in most garment directions and wash, block and dry your swatch before measuring. You might be able to block it to the exact right size. When I get just a teeny bit off and am using a yarn that has fibers that block well, I assume I can block the finished garment to the right measurements. And, if I have yarn that will stretch a lot, I need to REMEMBER to not make the garment too big in the blocking, like I did on my shiny green sweater I made a couple of years ago and may have done in the recently finished orange sweater. Re-blocking may help. I am thinking of re-blocking the green sweater to make it smaller.

5. Learn whether you knit tightly, loosely or average. This will tell you which direction you'll probably need to go to get the right gauge. I know I knit loosely, so I often need to use two sizes smaller in needles. However, see #6.

6. Gauge for a knitted item is not set by some magic "perfect knitter" who used the exact perfect average tension for an Ideal Knit. No, gauge is set by whoever knit the sample garment. This came as news to me, when I first heard it, but of course it makes perfect sense. If the designer's a tight knitter, what she did on a US size 6 needle I might need a size 2 to duplicate! Remember, regular humans, like you and me, test knit patterns. Some may be 100% average and some may not. This one right here is why you NEED to do a gauge swatch for most things, even if you KNOW you are average and think you "always" do just fine if you use the needles specified in the pattern. You would have a very bad experience if you did that with an item I was the test knitter for! (Actually, when I write instructions, I just go down two sizes from the needles I actually used when I specify the recommended needle size, and so far that has worked well.)

7. Don't forget row gauge! On many patterns, row gauge is not too vital, because you keep going until you get to a certain length, rather than counting rows. But, if you are making something, like my orange sweater, with a motif that needs to finish at the right length for a sleeve to end, or a neckline to start, you'll want the right row gauge. And, of course, if you are knitting a sideways sweater, which I did a couple of times last year and am doing now, row gauge needs to be taken into account. And sometimes you get stitch gauge (width) and not row gauge (height) with a particular set of needles. Figure out which is most important to the pattern you are making!

True Confessions (I am so full of them lately)

I admit I don't often go the whole 9 yards and knit a swatch containing the entire repeat of any lace or cable used, bind it off, wash it as I will wash it in the future, block it, dry completely, then measure the gauge (followed, no doubt by wailing and gnashing of teeth because it's off). But, in any garment I publish a pattern for, I DO give the gauge after washing and blocking. Now, so far, that's just socks and the scarf the top illustration came from, because every sweater I design is too hard even for me to reproduce, as shown by the weirdly colored and multi-patterned example photo. But I WILL be careful to get the finished gauge, not an in-progress gauge when I do publish a garment pattern!

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