There’s a few subjects that keep popping up in the shop, one of them being the swatch. Although some questions are directly related to actual swatches, most of the questions are caused by the results of not swatching properly. Sometimes customers will have poor experiences with woollen projects “sagging” or stretching out of shape, so they will come in and ask specifically for a wool blend, thinking that all wool stretches out of shape.
When I ask them if they’ve made a swatch before knitting/ crocheting, the answer is usually no, or the swatching hasn’t been done properly. It’s not strange really, because most patterns they show me only ask for a swatch to be made, but information on how to make the swatch and how to use or measure the swatch is not provided. Which is a shame really, because this renders the whole idea of a swatch useless, since a swatch is only useful if the swatch is a: large enough and b: washed and dried before taking measurements.
What struck me is that most customers who come in for a ball of yarn usually treat the yarn as a stand-alone item that can be used to make something with. Like for instance watercolors to paint with. But the yarn you just bought isn’t “done” until it’s made into textile, it’s going to “work” while your making your garment because your yarn is still in the middle of the “process”. When you sew garments you’ll buy fabrics and you’ll be advised to wash your fabrics before sewing. When you knit/ crochet a garment you’ll be making the pattern and the fabric simultaneously. Even if you’re knitting flat, you’re still making the fabric, you’re not cutting shapes out of fabric. When the sewing project is done you can iron and steam, but since the fabric is already washed it’s not going to change much.
Let me explain: in short, this is the start to finish process of fiber:
animal/plant -> spin yarn -> knit/crochet -> wear
Obviously there’s more steps in between, but for the sake of brevity and this post we’ll stick to these four steps. When you buy yarn you’re right behind step 2, when you buy fabric for sewing you’re actually on step 2,5.
In current times you don’t need to know a whole lot about materials and the techniques to make garments to acquire them, so the knowledge of the first two steps of the process been “lost”. Unless you specifically make a point to learn about the process or know somebody who either has animals or spins. You don’t need to know all of it, but it helps if you know some of it when you want to make knitted garments. This is where we find the purpose of the swatch.
I’m going to explain parts 1 and 2 in a concise manner below.
No matter what type of yarn you buy, it first started out as a fiber, either on an animal, or on(in) a plant, or it’s man made. No matter which one you choose, it started with fluff.
The picture above shows a cotton boll. Below you’ll see some Wensleydale sheep curls and machine processed roving of Blue Faced Leicester wool.
Fiber can’t be spun right after being harvested. First they are scoured and then it goes through a picker. The fiber is aligned (either by carding or combing), then a roving (or top) is made after which it can be spun.
To keep this post concise we’ll only mention yarns that can be spun at home, the ones that are spun and plied. The fibers are spun with an S twist (counter clockwise), then multiple strands are plied together with a Z twist (clockwise). The amount of threads determine the thickness and stitch definition of the resulting yarn. This is also where the term “4 ply” comes from. Standard sock yarn is a 4 ply yarn, a 6 ply yarn is a heavier weight sockyarn suitable for 3,5mm needles
I’m trying not to get too technical here, but when you add twist to a fiber, you add active energy to the thread. The thread is being twisted, but it wants to twist back and revert to its original shape. You can see this when you release the thread and watch it twist back on itself.
Usually when a yarn is plied the opposite twist is used, but the energy in the twist and the ply doesn’t always match. Sometimes yarns are plied more tightly for extra durability. So when a yarn is done it stil has active energy. If you take it out and knit a sample with it, your sample will be skewed like the sample below:
There are two ways to get rid of this active energy. The first method is washing/ steaming and the second method is time. The energy leaves the yarn and the fiber accepts its new shape. Once dried, the yarn is smooth, supple and won’t kink.
The other method is time. By leaving spun yarn for a while the energy is released slowly. Leaving a relaxed yarn.
There is however, a difference between the washed and unwashed yarns. When a yarn is spun the fibers are squished into shape tightly. Some yarns also still have some lanolin left to keep the yarn smooth for easy knitting/ crocheting. After the first wash most of this lanolin will be washed out and the resulting yarn will “bloom”. This means it will fluff up and become more fluffy and more bouncy. This is a quality and it will make your work look so much better. It also helps to fill up any gaps and make your garment much warmer and more windproof.
animal/plant -> spin yarn -> knit/crochet -> wear
Fabrics are usually spun straight away after the spinning process. The resulting fabric is also usually not washed during the process. This means that the fabric will still have some residual energy left and will probably change after the first wash. Therefore it’s advised to wash your fabrics before cutting into it. The energy from the spinning and weaving process doesn’t return once it’s been gone, so only the first wash is really important for size.
When you knit or crochet a garment, you’ll be creating textile, so it’s impossible to wash before making the pattern, because you’re not cutting the shapes out of knitted fabric. This is why we make a sample before we begin.
When you knit, you force the loose yarn into curls, and like the spinning process, this adds energy to the fabric. The yarn wants to revert back into its original shape, so it pulls and bends the fabric you just created. This is why washing the yarn before knitting doesn’t work, since it’s the knitting that adds the energy.
The sample shown above is just bound off and you can see the sides and the bottom and top edge curl. I don’t think anyone would call this sample a “relaxed” piece of fabric.
The difference between the washed sample and the unwashed sample is clearly visible here.
Imagine the green swatch is your sweater. Of course you can wear it as is, but you can’t stop it from relaxing and turning into the blue sample. At some point the active energy will leave the sample, causing it to relax and drape. This is the exact moment when people say their sweater is “saggy” and “stretched out of shape” and unfortunately the first one they’ll blame is the wool and the yarn.
So how to make a swatch and how to use it?
- Make a swatch that’s big enough to take 10cm horizontally and 10cm vertically from the center, without coming close to the edges.
First of all your swatch should be a square shape, not a rectangle like mine. My swatches are meant to give customers a feel of the finished yarn, not to actually swatch for a sweater. When you make your swatches square shaped make sure to make them at least 20x20cm but preferably 30x30cm. That way you’ll have a large margin between the center and the edge.
- Treat your swatch the way you’re going to treat your garment
Most yarns are really slack and loose when wet, but they firm up again after they’re dry. It’s always best to see this happen to your swatch first, so you won’t panic when it happens to your garment. Because if your swatch returns to a nice firm fabric, your garment will too! Even if it looks like spaghetti when wet. Also very important: if your yarn tends to bleed it’s always best to find out with a colorwork swatch rather than a colorwork garment.
- Save your swatches and label them
There’s a large selection of swatches in our shop because we want to show customers what types of fabrics you can make by combining yarns. It might seem like a hassle, but if you’ve made a swatch with a yarn base once, you’ll never have to do it again. Just keep them in a box, label them, write the needle size and the gauge after washing (because they do scrunch up a bit after a while).
Swatches in practice:
I made a swatch for the purpose of this post to show you why it’s important to swatch and to wash a swatch. My sample is knit using Lang Yarns Merino 120 using 4mm needles. The information on the ball itself states: 50 grams approx. 120m, 3,5mm-4,5mm, gauge 22 x 32.
The gauge on my unwashed sample is 24 x 34 = 10cm x 10cm.
When wet the yarn turns into noodle soup and is very see through.
Once dry the sample is smooth, the stitches are nice and snug and the gauge is now 22 x 31,5 = 10cm x 10cm.
The difference in gauge between unwashed and washed is 2 stitches and 2,5 rows per 10cm.
So this might seem like a minor difference, and on 10cm it’s not that big of a deal. Now imagine you’re knitting a sweater with a bust size of 80cm or 120cm, and now it’s a big deal. If we calculate we find that on the 80cm size we end up with 16 stitches extra, on a 120cm size we end up with 24 stitches more than we need. That is 7,2 cm and 10,9cm respectively. I’m not even going to mention row gauge, but imagine making long sleeves and ending up with 2,5rows more per 10cm. That’s going to be a lot as well.
The thing about swatches is that it’s “looking into the future”. So it’s entirely possible that your project is too tight while knitting, but if you’ve followed the swatch instructions correctly, then your garment is going to fit exactly the way it should once it’s washed and dried. When you trust your swatch, and you wash your garment the way you washed your swatch, then it will turn out exactly right!