Make knitted swatches do dual duty

This week, we’re exploring the qualities of Papyrus, a soft yarn made of strands of softly spun, lofty cotton bound in place by tightly spun, strong strands of silk. In yesterday’s post, we did an in-depth look at Papyrus’ construction. Today, I’m swatching and talking about the qualities of the yarn in the knitted fabric.

So many knitters begrudge the time spent in knitting a gauge swatch, but swatches have a purposeful life.

As I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s post, I’ve been reviewing yarns and knitting swatches from them for 16 years now. After a while, it’s hard to watch boxes filling up with 4″ bits of knitting. For the past couple of years, I’ve been looking for ways to give these swatches a dual purpose.

For lacy pieces, especially ones made from cotton or linen yarns, I’ve been making my swatches bigger and using them for dish and face cloths. Last year, I took my tension sample of Flax Lace and turned it into a beautiful bride’s handkerchief.

The humble gauge swatch, elevated. This piece, made in Flax Lace, another Fibra Natura yarn, is a perfect handkerchief to put in with a bride’s bouquet for her “something blue.”

I always recommend to my knitting students that they make their gauge swatches bigger than the 4″ [10cm] “bare minimum.” Why? First, because a larger swatch will give you the ability to do an “average tension” by measuring off 4″ in several places, and averaging the results. When you knit a wider piece, you more closely mimic the area of an actual sweater – even if it’s only the sleeve. When you knit short, little 4″ [10cm] rows, you can get a false indication of your gauge. For this reason, a wider swatch will be less likely to lie to you.

A wider swatch will also tell you a bit more about the yarn – whether it will develop a nice halo, for example, if it’s a mohair yarn, or whether it will shed or pill.

As well, when you knit a larger gauge swatch, if your tension IS out, it will be more noticeable: an 8″ square will be noticeably larger or smaller than a 4″ counterpart, even if your gauge is only out by a stitch or two.

Am I now suggesting that I fill a box with 8″ or 10” squares? Not at all.

Once our swatches have lived out their useful purpose, they can go on to do honorable service.

In 2006, my Mom wrote an article about a knitting basket she found at Sunnybrook hospital when she was there waiting for my Dad at a specialist’s appointment. Fast forward 12 years and now it’s me waiting for Dad at our local cancer center. In the appointment waiting room, there’s a basket with a pair of scissors tied to it. It’s brimming with balls of yarn and a few pairs of knitting needles. Beside it is a sign that says, “Knit an 8″ square while you wait. We’ll turn them into blankets for our chemo patients!” Isn’t that a great idea?

For chemo blankets, the yarn has to be really washable. Papyrus squeaks in, as the care recommendation for it is machine wash in cold water.

Eight inches [20cm] seems to be the standard for charity project squares, which is convenient for us knitters: all we have to do is double the number of stitches given for 4″ on the ball band. Papyrus’ ideal tension is 21 sts to 4″ [10cm], so I cast on 42 stitches.

The knitting tension for Papyrus is 21 stitches to 4″ [10cm], so 42 stitches should make an 8″ [20cm] wide piece. It should.

Now, normally I get pretty close to tension. Wouldn’t you know that today’s not normal for me? But this is why, it is SO IMPORTANT to DO a gauge swatch, no matter how long you’ve been knitting!

Instead of getting 21 sts to 4″ [10cm] — I’m getting 23 sts. The result of this seemingly tiny discrepancy means that my 8″ swatch now measures a modest 7¼” [18.5 cm]. Worse, it means that if I had blindly cast on for a sweater for myself, it would come up at least 5″ [11.5 cm] shy of the desired finished size. To make it come up to the proper finished size I’d need another 23 stitches if I continue to use US 6/ 4mm needles.

This photo is so close, you can check my gauge for me! The only thing is that the curve of the photo lens on the iPad makes it appear as though the ruler extends a little beyond the first and last stitch of the 0 and 4″ markings.

So, today’s tension swatch is a bit too tiny for any 8″ square charity project, but hey, my heart was in the right place, and your tension swatch might be perfect!

Don’t give away your swatch away too quickly, though. They’re handy to keep around in case you need those few yards of yarn to finish your neckband or lengthen the cuffs of a young person’s sleeves. Some knitters even keep their swatches and wash them every time they wash the sweater. That way, if the piece ever requires mending, the yarn from the tension swatch will match it very very closely. The charity of your choice will never know what year your swatch was made when you donate it!

The plan for the rest of this week is to find some summery patterns for Papyrus and create a little sundress for a little girl. The plan WAS to make a little tunic for moi, but the time got away on me! It appears as though this is not my week!

This is part 2 of 5 in this series.
Go back to part 1: Papyrus – cottony soft knitting!

Go to part 3: Summery patterns for Papyrus, a summery yarn

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Sarah Turnbull December 30, 2018 - 6:50 pm
Hello Cynthia, Did your swatch end up biasing, as mentioned (as a possibility) in the previous post? Regards, Sarah
Cynthia MacDougall December 30, 2018 - 9:29 pm
Hi, Sarah, No, I don't believe it did. If you look at the photo in this post, with the ruler on top of the swatch, you can see that the stitches on the left edge of the swatch are very vertical, and that there's very little angle of the rows at the bottom of that photo. I'm sure that if it had skewed, I would have mentioned it, and you would also see something amiss with the side seams on the tunic. I really enjoyed working with Papyrus.
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