As a designer, I think I probably do more swatching (and ripping out), than the average knitter. Part of figuring out a design is to experiment, and I accept this as part of the job. Deborah Newton is a big proponent of swatching for fun and says this is the most important stage of her design process.
I am not sure how yarn companies decide what needle size to suggest on their ball bands, but it often functions as a starting point for me. If I’m starting a new project, and I’m not sure what needle size I want to use, I start swatching with the suggested needle size and then go up or down based on what fabric that makes and what kind of fabric I’m trying to achieve.
Recently, I did a bunch of swatching with different yarns, and I started noticing a pattern. I realized that no matter the thickness of the yarn or the fiber type, every single swatch came out much more drapey when I went up a needle size or two from what is on the ball band. And I realized almost every knitted piece I’ve been most happy with has always been using a bigger needle size than what is on the ball band.
These two swatches are done in chunky yarn with the same number of stitches. One is knit on size 11’s, and the other on size 17, and you can see the difference in drape. I liked what I was getting on the 11’s until I did the one on 17’s. Now the swatch done on 11’s feels and looks very stiff to me.
Again, both swatches have the same number of stitches, just different sizes. This is a sport weight yarn done on size 6 and size 8. Again, I am happier with the drape of the swatch done on the larger size.
You get the idea – same number of stitches, this is double stranded done on sizes 7 and 11. This one surprised me – I really loved the first swatch done on smaller needles, and was considering just going with that. But when I did the second swatch, I realized what a difference in drape there was, and if I were to make a sweater out of this, I would definitely go with the larger needles.
This would be the best tip I could offer fellow knitters: don’t be afraid to go up a needle size or more to get the best possible drape in your fabric. In all of these swatches, and usually in most of the projects I’m happiest with, the best drape has come from using needles at least 1 or 2 sizes larger than what is recommended on the ball band of the yarn. If you can spare the time, even if you like the swatch results, try it on larger needles and compare your swatches because you might be pleasantly surprised.