Sheepspot

Swatch-o-rama!

how toSasha TorresComment

I'm so excited to bring you Kat Christensen's first contribution to the blog. Kat (you can find her own amazing blog at askatknits.com) is my assistant, Sheepspot's community manager, and a much braver sweater knitter than I am. Here she describes the swatching process she uses to find the ideal gauge for a new yarn. Take it away, Kat! —Sasha

I was so fortunate to get an early treat from Sasha – she sent me several skeins of Sheepspot's newest yarn, the woolen-spun, DK-weight CVM that will hit the Sheepspot shop in February. I was excited to try it and was really hoping that it would be as nice the limited-edition Clun Forest I had gotten from Sheepspot a couple of years ago. That yarn became a sweater that I love, Vodka Limeade.

I was not disappointed – at all! The skeins are lovely. There is the faint smell of sheep and there is a hint of lanolin remaining on the yarn as well. To me, neither of these things is a drawback; rather they're pluses, as they tell me that the wool wasn't over-processed at the mill. 

I sat down with an array of needles and, starting with a US 6, I cast on 46 stitches. And then I just began to knit, adding 6 yarnovers to remind myself that I had knitted that section of the swatch with a size 6. I wanted a row that was long enough that I wasn't constantly having to turn my work, but not so long that it felt like I would never reach the end of the row! I knit big swatches, because the key to swatching successfully is to get into your usual knitting rhythm, which doesn't happen if you are only knitting a small swatch. Things looked nice with the 6, but I wondered what else the yarn could do.

After knitting a bit, I marked my change row and began knitting with a US 5. The 5 produced a much stiffer-feeling fabric, but knitting was not at all difficult. After knitting several more inches, I again marked my change row and picked up a US 7.

This is when the yarn really began to sing to me. The stitches had more room between them and, knowing that the CVM would bloom in washing, I was excited to see what fabric this would produce. I knit on for several more inches and then cast off. I then began to wonder, if the yarn was happy with a US 7, what would it do with a US 8? So, I got out an 8 and cast on the same number of stitches and happily knit more.
 
Now, swatches should always be measured after you have washed and dried them, but I also take measurements before washing so I know if I am knitting to my gauge as I knit the project. And I measure over 4 and 8 inches. I lay the swatch on a table and get out a straight ruler and some pins. And, really – a straight ruler is crucially important! I pin out the measurements and count the stitches. 

Here are my pre-wash measurements:

  • US 6 – 18 stitches = 4 inches, 36 stiches = 8 inches
  • US 5 – 18 stitches = 4 inches, 35 stitches = 8 inches 
  • US 7 – 17 ½ stitches = 4 inches, 35 stitches = 8 inches
  • US 8 – 17 stitches = 4 inches, 34 stitches = 8 inches

The stitch counts did not vary drastically between the needle sizes—that is, until I washed the swatch! I soaked the swatches in hot water with a bit of Soak, and I left them in the water for about 45 minutes. I agitated them manually and then rolled them in a towel to remove the excess moisture and laid them flat to dry. I did not pin them out, I simply laid them flat and gently smoothed out the edges. I did not stretch them at all.

Here are the post-wash measurements: 

  • US 6 – 16 stitches = 4 inches, 32 stitches = 8 inches (4 stitches per inch)
  • US 5 – 17 stitches = 4 inches, 34 stitches = 8 inches (4.25 stiches per inch)
  • US 7 – 16 ½ stitches = 4 inches, 33 stitches = 8 inches (4.125 stitches per inch)
  • US 8 – 14 stitches = 4 inches, 28 stitches = 8 inches (3.5 stitches per inch)

As you can see, there was significant blooming when the stitches had enough room to do so. 

The next thing I looked at was the fabric I created with each needle size: how did they feel, how did they look, and how did they wear? Sometimes, finding the best gauge for a yarn is just a process of elimination. In this case, the swatch knit on the US 8 is soft and has good drape, but there is too much room between the stitches for them to help each other stay in shape for the wear that a sweater would get. I might use this gauge if I wanted to knit a cowl with some drape, but this is not sweater fabric. 

The next swatch that was easy to eliminate was the fabric knit on the US 5 – it's just too stiff. The stitches seem crowded and don’t have the room they need relax and bloom. 

It was a little more challenging to choose between the remaining two swatches. They both look and feel very nice. Ultimately, I preferred the swatch I knit with the US 7. This gauge allowed the yarn to bloom fully, filling in the gaps between the stitches and creating a fabric with a nice hand and drape—but not so much drape that the finished sweater will lose its shape. In contrast, the stitches in the US 6 fabric were a little crowded, but if I needed to use the 6s to match a pattern gauge I would do so. 

Now that I know what gauge will give me a soft, cohesive, and sturdy fabric with this yarn, the pattern hunt is on!

To be continued. . . 

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