My Best Knitting Discovery

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.



Vogue Knitting Live Tip #1: Swatching

Swatches from Lorilee Beltman's Vertical Color Stranding Class
Swatches from Lorilee Beltman’s Vertical Color Stranding Class

As previously mentioned, I booked myself as many classes at Vogue Knitting Live as I could. It’s not every week that I have the chance to study with the best of the best, so I took full advantage when I had the opportunity! I’m generally a pretty adventurous knitter – I don’t really care about making mistakes if I have the opportunity to learn something, but I do get very frustrated if I spend alot of time on something and then can’t use it once it’s done. As with so many problems in knitting, the answer is to swatch.

I took a class in vertical color stranding in cables with Lorilee Beltman. The swatches in the photo above are from that class, although we only had time to do two of them in the class period. I knitted the rest at home because I didn’t want to forget how to do it, and I wanted to explore it further. As a designer who is moved first by color, this class was incredibly inspiring. I have never done this technique, so Lorilee opened a whole new world to me. It is a bit involved, and to be honest, I was very happy to learn it in a class instead of staying up half the night watching Youtube videos like I usually do when I’m figuring things out on my own. (For those of you who are wondering what this is, it’s a way of introducing different colored strands of yarn that work their way up your knitting without having to be wrapped and twisted as in Fair Isle or intarsia.)

I took other classes over the weekend also, which I will be sharing soon. However, all weekend long, I heard a recurring theme from all of the teachers, which was to swatch, swatch, swatch. After learning my lesson the hard way once, I have always been a person who swatches to get gauge before casting on for a garment. This truly is the best way to ensure that a garment will fit! But I’ve never really thought of swatching as a learning tool until I kept hearing every teacher mention it last weekend. Of course, it’s common sense. If you want to try or explore a new technique, there is no better way to do it than to work through a series of swatches. You can try all the variations without having to knit an entire sweater or shawl. Of course, if you are knitting a garment, it’s advisable to knit bigger swatches to get a feel for the drape of the fabric.

I was a bit burned out this week, as you might imagine (see my previous post). However, I did spend alot of time knitting swatches based on the things I learned in class. It was really relaxing and stimulating to simply knit swatches without having to worry just yet about how I’d apply it to a design. If you have certain techniques you’re interested in learning, I would encourage you to browse the knitting books at your local library, and start knitting swatches. Even though it feels like you’re not accomplishing much, you are expanding your skills and it will pay off when you start a new project!

Thanks to the teachers I was privileged to study with, I will now look at swatching as a chance to explore, rather than as a chore that needs to be done before I start a project. I hope you will too.

Pressing on and life after swatching

For any knitter or crocheter, there is life before swatching, and life after. I learned to appreciate the value of swatching with the sweater I am currently working on. I began following the pattern for the size I normally wear, and after a few days of working on it, it became obvious that there was not a chance it would fit me when I finished. I wasted a few days before I realized this, ripped it all out and started over. After swatching. If I had taken a few hours to knit up a swatch, I might already be done with it, since I now only have a few days’ worth of knitting left on it. My friends, unless you are an expert at what you do, and have had flawless luck in following a pattern without swatching first, do not skip this step. It seems like a waste of time, but it helps immensely, and even though it feels like a waste of time, you save oodles of time in the long run. Check out Knitty for complete instructions on swatching. Also, if it makes you feel better, I know some expert knitters, and not one of them starts a pattern WITHOUT swatching! I’ve noticed since I’ve started swatching that I’m much more aware of how needle size and yarn weight affect patterns and fit.

Now that my sermon is over, back to my never-ending sweater. It is going to be a long belted cardigan. I’m knitting with the most beautiful navy variegated yarn by Manos del Uruguay. This yarn is so soft, so gorgeous, and so pleasant to work with that it took me a very long time into this project to actually get bored and wish to be finished. Much longer than with most other projects. I’m know I’m not the only knitter who feels a great rush of excitement at the caston, pure bliss for the first few weeks into it, and then when it’s about 3/4 of the way done, the torturous feeling that it will never GET done. I have finally reached that point with this sweater. Plus, I want to be able to wear the thing before it’s 100 degrees out. When such boredom and torture set in, one must either set the project aside for awhile with the acceptance that this is a dangerous thing to do, as said project might never reach completion. Or, one must suck it up, press on, and find a means of distraction while knitting the last rounds of stockinette.

My distraction of choice over the weekend was a movie – The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), to be exact. My husband and I have both loved this movie from way back when it came out and we saw it in the theater. All the priceless artwork, the creative way Thomas Crown returns the painting he stole, Renee Russo’s Celine wardrobe, the soundtrack…I’ve watched this movie so many times I lost count, and I can’t get enough of it. It is sophisticated and makes me want to live in that world. Pierce Brosnan has the slick, handsome, wealthy businessman down to a “T”, and Renee Russo plays a strong, independent woman who knows how to enjoy the finer things of life. But my favorite part of this movie has always been her fantastic wardrobe. Even before I started knitting and crocheting, I always paused the movie to admire the sweater she wears in one of the scenes at police HQ. It is a cream colored turtleneck, cashmere, I’m sure, and looks so dreamy with her red hair and copper makeup. There is another scene in which she’s wearing a tweed pencil skirt and a beautiful blue chunky knit turtleneck. If you need a few hours of heavenly distraction to help you plow through a project, this will help. If I still haven’t finished my sweater by the weekend, I may have to take a trip to Blockbuster and rent the original with Faye Dunaway, which is also very good.