Naughty or nice? December 6, 2012 – Posted in: How to, Thursday This and That

Today is Sankt Nikolaus, the day where kids either find goodies in their boots they put out the night before or get visited at night by Nikolaus who kept book about them being naughty or nice and brings a switch (or: birch, which was for whipping) for the not so nice ones. Sounds familiar? Yeah, I guess this is where folks got the idea for Santa and the stockings while in Germany – at least the part where I come from – the Christkind visits on Christmas Eve and brings (more) presents.

                                                                                      (photo from here)

I am not going to ask if you behaved this year, instead, I am going to talk about the swatches for your knitting and ask how they did. Naughty or nice? I’m pretty sure you’ll say “that depends” – if you swatched at all, I mean.

As a habit I swatch for almost every project. Most importantly for sweaters or garments of any kind, sometimes when gauge is not so important I swatch to see how the yarn behaves when knit up. Hats! Please swatch for hats, or else you’ll end up knitting a beret three times, because the first time it was too small, the second it fit Big Foot and…you get the picture.  Ask me how I know.

Secondly, depending on what you knit with, i.e. wool, alpaca, cashmere (mmmmh…), silk etc. you want to know how the knitted item is going to behave after it is worn and washed. I mean, there comes the time when any knitted thing needs a bath. And if you do not know what happens to the knitted fabric once you get it soaked (heh, get it?) there might be naughty, naughty surprises. Which are not a reflection on the quality of the yarn you used. Please do not blame the yarn, it cannot help it. It will react in its given nature, you just have to know what to look for and to realize what to expect from its behaviour.

Granted, if you use wool, there won’t be much of a surprise. Usually. Unless it is superwash. Superwash means in general that the wool is treated in a way that it can be washed in the washing machine – on the gentle or hand wash cycle, not just any regular cycle. This process means that the yarn itself is coated in a thin, thin layer of some or other kind of polymer, or plastic if you will, to avoid the felting during the washing. This in return means that superwash yarn can react differently to water than your average 100% wool. I have experienced stretching, softening, loosening of swatches knit with superwash yarn. Which means the gauge can change also. See? A garment knit in a gauge that hasn’t been proofed by washing the swatch might turn out too loose and big after the first real wash. I am not saying it has to every time, but it could.

I for one wash swatches of yarns in doubt. Lay them flat to dry (unless you need blocking – for a lace gauge for example) and then measure. Sometimes the stitch count does not change, but the row count is suddenly much lower. Which is not a bad thing per se, but consider a sweater: it will still fit, but might be about 10 cm/4″ longer now. Unless you grew with it, that might pose a problem.

Silliness aside: the yarn amount in the pattern should provide enough yarn to swatch, and leave the swatch to wash and do whatever you need to do with it. If not, the pattern should explicitly mention that yarn for swatching is not allotted.

So, knitters, time to get serious! Wash your swatches. Do it right the first time!

– Mona