Thursday, September 16, 2010

Series ~ Why Swatch?... Dimension, Part One

The reason most often given to "swatch" is so that one can assure themselves they will "obtain gauge" with the yarn and size needles or hook prescribed for a given project. If you are new to knitting or crochet projects... and for far too many who are not... this exercise seems like a complete waste of time, not unlike washing dishes and making beds. In other words, if it gets done, great... if it doesn't, oh well. But, the truth is, swatching... done properly... serves many useful purposes, and as bizarre as it sounds, saving time, is actually one of the best. Swatch. Odd word isn't it? In the arena of "tmi" (too much information), the word can be traced back to 1512, meaning to "countercheck a tally," and later from 1612 it came to mean "a tally attached to cloth sent to be dyed." But, by 1647, it was simplified to mean "a sample piece of cloth." So, a swatch is intended to be a characteristic prototype of the fabric you will create with this size tool and this weight and texture of yarn. For the crocheter or knitter, this specimen is most frequently referred to as a "gauge swatch." This is where the time saving comes in. You create a sample fabric of sufficient size to accurately measure how many stitches per inch you will get, which directly translates into the final measurements of your project. It is the "accurate" part that is most important. If your swatch is too small, relative to your needle or hook size and the thickness of your yarn - particularly - you will not obtain an accurate measurement of stitches per inch... gauge. You create a sample swatch so that you can accurately gauge what your finished dimensions will be. Depending upon what your project is, the gauge part of making a swatch may be more or less critical. In terms of size, if you aren't making one thing that has to fit another thing in a specific way, one might be inclined to think a swatch isn't all that important. If one is making a washcloth or scarf or baby blanket, for example, there probably won't be a major problem... in terms of size... if your gauge swatch is off a couple of stitch counts one direction or the other. It isn't going to matter all that much if the finished project is larger or smaller so long as it is not dramatically so. Not "getting gauge" for these projects will matter in one of three ways more than any other:
  • you will either not have a sufficient amount of yarn to make the project the same size as your pattern dictates, or,
  • you will have yarn left over in an amount you didn't expect; (there is no such thing as "too much yarn," by the way), and,
  • your fabric will be more "stiff" or less "stiff," (have a different "hand" or "drape"), than it was designed to have; "hand" = the tactile feel of, texture; "drape" = manner of hang, flow, loose folds
You determine your gauge by creating your swatch then measuring off one to four inches from the center of the fabric, and carefully counting off (tally) the number of stitches... and portion of a stitch, fractions matter... that you have within your marked off section. Some suggest that three different sections of your swatch be marked off, measured, and then average the total of the three sections for the most accurate gauge measurement. (Add all three counts together; divide total by three.) This may be the only way to get an accurate gauge measurement with some yarns and some stitch patterns. Later in the series, we'll look specifically at the process of checking gauge with a swatch. In the beginning, I'll be focusing more on the theory involved in swatching. This number of stitches per inch is the "gauge" listed in your pattern and usually on your yarn label. Sometimes you will see it referred to as your "tension." These are not exactly the same thing but you will frequently see them used as interchangeable terms. "Tension," however, also relates to how tightly or loosely you work your stitches and although this can have a significant impact on your stitch per inch count, it is only one aspect of your gauge. The material your knitting needles or crochet hook are made of, and the yarn you are using with that material, also affect your gauge. For example, using the same yarn with slick metal needles or hook can render a looser gauge than the same yarn with wood or plastic tools that provide more resistance to your stitches. How comfortable you are, and how confident you feel, also affects the tension of your stitches and therefore, your gauge. If you are calm and not rushed, you may tend to work more loosely than you might when you are stressed and in a hurry. Some people who have been crafting for a long time have told me they try to assess their state of mind before sitting down to work, check their gauge after working on a project for a while, and once they've calmed themselves with the project, will have to change to a smaller or larger needle or hook because their gauge has changed too much. Particularly when working on a garment, this change in tension can affect the finished size of the project and the way it fits. If this description fits you, take that into account when you pick up your project. Do you have stories to share about not doing a gauge swatch... and wishing later you'd taken the time? What about a story where doing a gauge swatch caused you to realize there was no way this particular yarn would ever give you the results you expected for this project, based solely on the fabric characteristics you saw in the swatch? Is your gauge usually pretty close using the same size needles or hook recommended in a pattern? Or do you generally have to go up or down one or more sizes to obtain the same gauge? Do you find you get a different gauge depending on the material your hook or needles are made from? And/or, do you find the fiber your yarn is made of affects your gauge? Are there any other factors that you have become aware consistently affect your gauge that you could share? It might just solve a mystery another reader has been puzzled by. Next episode, we'll continue the issue of Dimension relative to gauge swatches. We'll also talk about ways your swatch can change after you've done the bind off... Joy in the journey! Elianastar
Additional comments may be found at the Knit Picks Community Etymology: swatch:

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