Sweater Season: Swatching for Sweaters

[Emily Greene's Fall Creek, from Spring 2020]

Okay, we admit it: we're both die-hard sweater knitters, and we think pretty much any time of the year is sweater season. But, both of us have a penchant for starting new projects in this after-holiday time, as a moment to reflect and start to focus on something a little longer-term after our frenzied needles knit gifts for friends and relatives. It's still deep enough in the winter that there's plenty of time to wear the FO, and we're able to imbue it with hopes, dreams, and plans for the year ahead. As we've been working on sweaters for our upcoming Deep Winter collection, we've been thinking about some of our favorite sweater knitting tips and tricks from now, well, a lot of years and a lot of sweaters. We'll be sharing them with you over the next few weeks, in the hopes that some of them may help your first sweater projects of 2021, whether they're your first sweaters or your hundredth. See the full series here. Looking for an H+W sweater to start your year off right? Find the full set here.

Swatching for Sweater Knitting

I know, I know: you heard the word "swatch," and you're groaning already. But, bear with me. As I have told all of my sweater-knitting students over the years, there are two kinds of successful sweater knitters: planners and froggers.

I personally hate frogging, and am willing to do quite a lot of planning to avoid it. So, that's my personal bias, and a lot of my sweater-knitting tips and tricks are really about improving this planning phase of the process so that the sweater we end up with at the end is as close as possible to the one we envisioned when we set out. And swatching — predictive, useful swatching — is a key part of that process.

So, how do we make a good swatch? We need to accurately simulate the knitting conditions that we're likely to face for this particular sweater. This means:

  • We need to cast on enough stitches to mimic the physical experience of knitting the large pieces involved in a sweater. This usually means somewhere between 36 and 46 stitches, for most people. Small-object knitting is just a physically different enterprise, and we need to experience the weight and tension of a bigger piece.
  • We need to knit enough vertical distance to see the stitch pattern emerge, and to get an accurate measurement. This is usually 5-6" of vertical distance.
  • We need to knit in approximately similar conditions to the conditions we'll knit the sweater in. Literally. The same needles, the same techniques, the same basic environment. I once knit half a sweater in a series of dark bars in Times Square during Vogue Knitting Live; the swatch I did in my brightly-lit office was not very predictive.
  • We need to block our swatches the way we block our sweaters. If you're using Forge or Weld, we recommend that this means a dip in a bath of lukewarm water and old-fashioned dish soap, followed by a gentle rinse. If you plan to pin your sweater out, pin your swatch to the same degree, and vice versa.

Ultimately, what you're looking for out of your swatch is a fabric that feels like what you want this sweater to feel like on your body. Assuming it has some structural integrity, the real question is whether it has the combination of drape and texture that you're hoping for, not whether you've perfectly matched the designer's (arbitrary!) gauge. A small amount of arithmetic (we'll talk about this next week) can usually get us out of minor mismatches; no amount of math can fix a sweater that doesn't drape properly because you've "matched gauge" but the fabric is way too stiff to wear. If you can think of swatching as an experiment, not a test, that usually helps: the goal here is to figure out how you're going to knit this sweater, not to evaluate whether you knit exactly like someone else did.

We've got a whole bunch of our favorite sweater-knitting insights to share over the next few weeks, but we'd love to hear yours! Drop us a line at info@hudsonandwestco.com or in the comments below with your favorite sweater-knitting tip.

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