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.

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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.


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.”


What I learned a couple of weeks ago is that there are some real technical problems with knitting that far away from the tips of the needles, because you might distort the bar between the stitches, which will be loose and floppy.


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.

(And a couple of months after I originally wrote this post, I took Patty Lyon’s Improve Your Knitting Craftsy class, and learned a bunch more about stitch formation and distortion. Read about it here!)

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

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