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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