Why swatches (sometimes) lie.

Amy here: One of the most wonderful things about working with Jackie over this past year has been my increasing awareness of her own knitting journey. (As in, it turns out it’s not a typical experience to have your grandmothers and aunts give you proper mattress stitch instruction from an early age. Go figure.)

I think this narrative of improving our craft, and striving to make things that we adore and that are worthy of us, is a narrative worth exploring from every angle. So we’ve decided that it makes a lot of sense to have Jackie sometimes write posts here at the AHD blog. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. 

Hi everyone!  Jackie here.  🙂

A couple of weeks ago I had the great fortune of having an expert assess my knitting technique, and then suggest some technique changes that have resulted in my speed increasing by about 3-fold.

This post isn’t about telling you about how to knit faster.

That is something better taught in person, by someone who is an expert (which I am not).  This post is about the surprising result of improving my technique:

I make better fabric now.

2013-11-06 12.26.31

What does better fabric mean?  It means:

  • my stitches are even and uniform in size
  • the fabric is a consistent gauge throughout
  • the fabric doesn’t “grow” after blocking (this is different from “blooming”)

This last one is the surprising, and really important one.  I had no idea that my fabric was growing during blocking because I wasn’t forming my stitches well.  And considering how many people I’ve heard talk about their fabric / swatches / sweaters mysteriously growing on the blocking board, even when using elastic woolen yarns and getting gauge… I think I’m probably not the only one out there.  That’s why I want to share this with you all.

I set out to learn how to knit faster.  The very general gist of efficient knitting is that your motions are reduced to the smallest amount necessary to actually make the stitch.

There are a million ways that knitters tension the yarn and move the yarn to form the next stitch, but a factor that is constant for all knitters is how we position the stitches on the left-hand needle.  It turns out to be much, much faster if you shove all those stitches right up to the tip of the left-hand needle so they’re ripe and ready to be worked.  Almost jumping off the needle even.

stitch-queue

That sort of blew my mind.  For the past 10 years I had been relying on this bit of advice I had read on the internets way back when I was a brand-new knitter trying to figure out how this knitting thing worked (paraphrasing):

New knitters – don’t feel like you need to knit on the tips of the needles!  Feel free to spread those stitches out over the LH needles, and work your stitches up to an inch or so away from the tips.”

spaced-out

Yes, it’s true that you can work your stitches that far away from the tips, and not technically distort the size of the stitch you’re making (around the needle).  But you might distort the bar between the stitches, which will be loose and floppy.

stretched-bar

Worse yet, this loose distortion may or may not appear in your gauge swatch.  There’s not enough weight in a swatch to really pull at those loose bars… but at sweater scale, everything that can pull loose generally does pull loose.  If not immediately, then over time.

I suspect this is the reason that for years and years I could always get stitch gauge, and never get row gauge.

I suspect it’s also the reason that so many of my sweaters (mysteriously) grew (exponentially) after blocking.

(Want to know why my Afterlight isn’t finished?  I knit the fronts and backs twice(!), appeared to get gauge with washed swatches, and then the pieces grew by 8″ after blocking.  Both times.

It was maddening.)

This is certainly not the only reason that I’ve gotten fabric that behaved differently than I expected.  (Like, having any basic idea about the weight and inelasticity of alpaca would have made blocking this sweater much, much easier.)  But it’s the last aspect of my wonky gauge & fabric issues that had heretofore been unexplained.  No blocking technique or yarn choice could have prevented these “mysterious” growing issues.

Turns out, it was actually in how I was knitting.

Have you had “mysterious” gauge / growth issues with sweaters you’ve knit?  What do you think might be causing them?

43 thoughts on “Why swatches (sometimes) lie.

  1. So it’s actually better to knit the stitches from the tip of the left hand needle?

    1. It’s faster to knit with your stitches all the way scrunched up to the tip of the LH needle, as shown.

      You’ll make better fabric when you don’t stretch your stitches out on the LH needle, because that stretches the bar between the stitches.

      They probably don’t need to be quite as scrunched up as pictured, but you really want to make sure the bars between the stitches (visible on the wrong side of your fabric) pull the “V”s snug against each other. Pushing your stitches close to the tip of the LH hand needles will keep those bars firm.

      Does that make sense?

  2. Thanks, Jackie, for sharing such interesting information. I’m going to practice pushing my left-hand stitches toward the needle tip today.

  3. I think this is what I fear most–you put it into words. I have never been successful at making “fabric”. Thank you for the great information.

  4. I hope you’ll let us know about that row gauge thing, Jackie. I do always knit with my stitches pushed way up to left hand needle tip, but still I never get row gauge. Glad I don’t have to worry about it anymore, thanks to Custom Fit!!!

  5. Lucy Neatby talks about “stitch abuse” in an amusing way, but it’s about stitch distortion. Having two whole needles in a stitch that’s supposed to be the circumference of one needle can’t help but distort the fabric to some extent. So many new knitters are cautioned NOT to knit on the tips! I appreciate your focus on the left needle stitches and explanation of how it all affects the fabric.

  6. Wow! I would never have thought of that! Really interesting post, thank you so much 🙂 Would love to find out more about how the different yarns and methods of knitting change the final fabric so I actually expect what I end up with!

  7. Wow, indeed! Is there any way you could show a moving picture of how you knit?

  8. Really interesting bit of information! I will keep this in mind when I have friends/students with items that “grow.” I do want to know who is/was handing out this advice — it is the exact opposite of what I tell new knitters. I’m always encouraging them to shuffle stitches along, don’t put the whole needle through the stitch, use the tips only, etc.

    1. Yes – I think you and I are in complete agreement. I’ve just learned that it’s much better to keep the stitches close to the tip of the LH needle to prevent distortion of the bar between the stitches. (That’s what you’re saying, right? 🙂

  9. Well! How about that?! Even an old dog like me can learn a new trick. Thanks!

  10. Most people handle the knit stitch differently than the purl. I “throw” rather than knitting in the continental style, which consumes slightly more yarn on purl vs knit rows. You can make them closer in size if you bring the yarn under the needle on purl rows and knit tbl on subsequent rows. Too much trouble…I’m glad CF takes my personal row gauge into account rather than the knitwear designer’s gauge. This factoid doesn’t cause my knitting to grow…I suspect the stretching from keeping stitches away from the needle tips is at fault as you suspect.

  11. So, if you’re stretching out the bar on the left-hand needles, where is the extra yarn coming from? I would think it would be easier to add extra yarn to the newest stitches, by stretching out the stitches on the right-hand needle (the way the stranded-knit people are always recommending).

    1. I’m not sure if I understand what you’re asking – but I’m going to give answering it a shot!

      The extra yarn comes from stretching / distorting the bar of yarn between the LH needle and the RH needle.

      As knitters, we count gauge by looking at the Vs on the front of the fabric, but don’t account for the bars on the back of the fabric.

      When those bars are loose, and you knit something heavy like a sweater, the fabric doesn’t have enough structure to hold its shape because the extra yarn in those loose bars are pulled by the weight of the fabric, and the piece mysteriously grows after blocking – often by several inches.

      Does that answer your question? 🙂

  12. Great post! I’ve often wondered if there was any sacrifice in quality when trying to speed things up. As much as I enjoy being prolific, I think I’d rather enjoy the process AND the finished piece, so thanks for the info!

  13. That’s me, exactly! Self-taught knitter, never get row gauge, reliably deceived by swatches. And, never knit with my stitches at the tips of my needles. Can’t wait to try this.

    Thanks Jackie!

  14. brilliant. i have a tiny request: add a “pin it” button to the page so we can pin stuff when browsing from an ipad! so glad someone posted this twice in the customfit group on ravelry so i’d remember to come back and pin it later. thanks for the awesome info, as always!!

  15. Hmmm… I’m going to give this a try. One thing I notice is that my stitches aren’t consistent – even after blocking. I have some stitches that look bigger than others and stand out in the knitted garment. My finished pieces have also been growing. I’ve been able to block them into submission but I’m going to try what you’re saying and see if that helps. Could kill two birds with one stone.

  16. Very informative post! Thank you, Jackie.

  17. This was very interesting. I’d like to know where to find out more information on how to produce better fabric – it’s not something I’d ever thought about before. Personally, my tension changes throughout a project. It would be nice to know some techniques to control that better.

    1. If you’re interested in improving your knitting technique so that your gauge is consistent throughout your finished piece (which I highly recommend if you want to make a sweater that you feel good wearing!), taking a basic knitting class at your local yarn store is a good place to start.

      I know we all technically know how to form knit and purl stitches, but the instructor will likely have years of experience and help you improve your technique – which should result in better fabric.

      I hope that helps!

  18. So who’d you take the class from!? I want to get 3x faster, too!

  19. What Suzyn said …

    (Thanks for a great post.)

  20. Eureka!!! My finished sweaters always grow, even though I am somewhat of a “tight” knitter. I could never figure out why.

    And… oh crap!!! If I change my knitting style mid sweater, it won’t grow consistently after it is done. Do I rip out my half knit back for my first CF sweater, and start again? Do another swatch? If my gauge changes then I have to re-purchase my pattern.

    Decisions, decisions … I must think this through. Advice anyone?

  21. I am all in favor of what Suzyn said and Mary seconded! I would be very interested to know who shared the information with you and about any classes she may teach on the subject. Also thank you so much for sharing your learning! I think that a lot of us can relate….you can hear the collective AHA! happening in the virtual knitting world. I know that I’ll be testing it on my own swatching immediately.

  22. This puts a whole new insight on how I knit, thank you for sharing this!

  23. Jackie, thanks for including us in your journey. I, too, would like to know whose class you took in which you learned this miracle.

    1. Ditto – then maybe I will be able to make a dent in my stash. LOL

  24. Wendy @ 5:18 – You are right – Just might be worth to do a test swatch before frogging. I would re-swatch, probably frog, buy a new pattern in order to have a great finished product. The amount you spent on the yarn is worth spending such a small amount for a new patter. Just saying.

  25. Jackie, did you find that you had more “tension” in your left hand in keeping your stitches on the needle?

    1. At first I had more tension in my hand, because I was so focused on the new technique. But I practiced relaxing, keeping my hands natural / un-clenched, and now my fingers are just gently keeping the stitches on the needle – which also helps me “read” my knitting with my fingertips, so I know whether to knit or purl next.

      Often when I let go, a couple of stitches will spring off the needles.

  26. I have found that swatches often lie, but I’d never knit a sweater without one. I had never thought of knitting technique to be one of the issues, but it makes perfect sense!

    A few other reasons I’ve figured out as to why they sometimes lie:

    1. The swatch isn’t big enough for the fabric to really take on the characteristics of a large piece. Some people make very tiny swatches. I usually make one that is at least 6″ wide and 4″ high. (I’m lazy… it should really be at least 6×6.)

    2. The swatch is not properly prepared. I always wet-block both the swatch and the finished piece (unless you expect that the finished piece will NEVER be washed). If you only steam-block a swatch, but wet-block the garment, you may get very different results. Steam-blocking doesn’t really relax the fabric in the same way as when it gets soaked. Also, I never pin out a swatch if the actual finished piece won’t be pinned out for blocking (such as for sweaters) – I just pat it into shape and let it dry. If you pin out the swatch, it won’t dry the same way as if it weren’t pinned. On a related note – I dry all swatches and knits on a smooth surface, not on towels or carpeting. That allows the fabric to shrink naturally as it dries, rather than having the textured surface grab it. I also think things dry faster this way. (I use a cardboard Wrights Pattern Cutting Board covered with clear Contact shelf liner.)

    3. You may be more tense or relaxed when knitting the swatch than when knitting the garment, affecting your gauge. I think I tend to knit faster (and a bit looser) when I’m knitting something large for a long time than when I just knit something small.

    4. Knitting a swatch flat, but the garment in the round. A lot of people don’t want to take the time to swatch in the round because it takes so much more time, but many knitters have a different gauge knitting flat than in the round.

    5. Different fibers will stretch in weird ways.

    For example, superwash wool often stretches out like crazy if washed and then laid flat to dry. I try to avoid superwash wool for sweaters for exactly this reason. Even if the yarn’s label says to dry flat, some really need to spend a couple of minutes in the dryer to get the yarn to spring back to its original size. (But of course, you may run the risk of felting/shrinking the item, so you really need to experiment with the specific yarn you’re using – use this tip at your own risk!) I’ve let the garment dry flat until it’s just slightly damp, then put it in the dryer on the delicate cycle for a few minutes – checking it every minute or two.

    Alpaca stretches lengthwise like crazy when worn, because of the weight of the garment itself. There was a great article on knitting with alpaca in Interweave Knits Fall 2000. The recommendation for knitting a swatch is elaborate, but probably better than having a garment that doesn’t fit:

    “Make a large swatch-preferably 10″ by 10″. After washing the swatch in the same manner you intend to wash the garment itself, weight and hang the dried swatch to mimic the effect that gravity will have on the finished project… Thread double-pointed needles through the cast-on and bind-off edges of the swatch; cut two lengths of yarn that are about two to three times the length of the double-pointed needle; run the first length of yarn through a 50-gram ball of yarn and tie the two ends to the bottom needle; tie the two ends of the second piece of yarn to the two ends of the top needle. Hang this assemblage-from the middle of the yarn on top-from a hanger, doorknob, or chandelier.” – Charlotte Quittle, “Alpaca an ancient luxury”

  27. Amazing information – thanks for sharing! I was told in several knitting classes with different teachers to be sure that the stitches were NOT near the tips of the needle since it distorted the gauge. I’m definitely going to try this method…and magically I, also, may knit three times faster!

  28. This was so interesting to read… especially since my sweaters never grow, even when I may want or expect them too. So, perhaps I’ve read that this particular yarn grows like crazy. I make a swatch, and when I block it, it grows only a little, yet I expect my sweater to miraculously grow when completed, which of course, results in a few sweaters that are mysteriously too small.

  29. Interesting! I recently had someone comment on how I knit at the tips of my needles and say that was why I knit so tight. I don’t have them quite as bunched as you do in the photo, but near the tips anyway. I would feel like all my stitches would spring off the needle all bunched like that. That may also explain my weird unevenness at times. I think I get lazy pushing the stitches forward on the left needle and am knitting farther down a few stitches here and there. Never occurred to me that it could be messing with the fabric. Great post! Thanks!

  30. You’ve given me a lot to think about, Jackie. My swatches have lied in the past and usually I get a bigger sweater than I should (despite measuring washed swatches). I have blamed it on construction (drat that raglan shoulder) and fiber (maybe all that silk made it too heavy?) but never my knitting technique.

    In one case my sweater was much shorter after washing. Gauge there was very different than my swatch gauge. I washed very carefully (hand wash, cool water, no agitation, dry flat) but I think the singles yarn fulled anyway.

    I’m currently swatching a 70% alpaca 30% merino yarn for a CustomFit sweater and now I’m worried that it’s a useless yarn for a sweater. Ack!

    1. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the Alpaca / Merino blend – your swatch is the fabric sample for the sweater you’re making. Watch what happens when blocking, spend some time with it (maybe even over a couple of days) and really think about wearing the fabric you made.

      I think if you really listen to it, you’ll hear what it wants to be. If that happens to be different from the sweater you have in your head, you can either change the sweater you decide to make, or change the yarn you’re using for it.

      Does that help?

  31. Thanks for this post. I teach beginning knitting and often have a hard time explaining why a particular technique is ‘right’ or better for the end product. This is a really useful explanation.

  32. This is fascinating to me. I am a VERY loose knitter and yes, my swatches lie and my sweaters grow. Especially when I’m using superwash wool which I have almost completely given up on because of this issue. I always thought it was because I knit continental but I am going to give this a try.

    I have a few questions for you though – do you knit English or continental? Does this tip work for purling too? And who is the teacher who analyzed your knitting method?

    Thanks for the very informative post!

  33. What I’d most like to know: what yarn is that in the picture? Boy, that’s pretty stuff…

  34. I am a former LYS instructor and these are great points. As more people are self taught or learn from online videos, I saw more and more bad habits. Usually a good teacer can see what you are doing wrong by watching you knit for a minute; convincing you to change may take a bit longer, but knitting to gauge, evenly, is huge, and worth taking the time to learn to do…it will save you hours of frogging and distress!

  35. This one post has literally changed my entire knitting. By using this one suggestion, I have started a project where I managed to match gauge perfectly, something I had never experienced before – especially the row gauge. Thank you so much for this.

  36. Thank you very much for this interesting post, Jackie. I am a slow knitter with item-growing issues, too. And, as you mentioned, I knit way back on the left needle. I´ll try your proposal and work on changing my knitting style. Glad that you have written about this topic!

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