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Why it’s important to swatch superwash yarns

by Cynthia MacDougall

So far in this series, I’ve made a couple of key observations about superwash yarns and the knitting gauges cited on ball bands. See yesterday’s post where I talked about this for Deluxe DK Superwash and Deluxe Worsted Superwash yarns.

They are:

1. The superwash processes used to make wool yarns washable affect the memory of the yarn and its drape; and

2. The gauge given on the ball band (and the recommended needles) are guidelines.

Knowing this, swatching becomes a necessary thing.

These 5 colors are a mere sampling of the 63 colors available in Deluxe DK Superwash. Deluxe Worsted Superwash has 72 colors!

The characteristics of superwash yarn encouraged me to be a little more thorough in my swatching. I wanted to see how these treated yarns would react to washing, and to try and determine why a yarn described one way would have a gauge I normally see for a yarn that has a different description.

The pattern I chose to work with in this series is the Argyle Junior Vest. With just a small section of intarsia work, it’s a great pattern for an adventurous knitter to practice a new-to-them technique.

As I mentioned in my last post, in order to have a garment fit, it’s important to achieve the gauge listed on the pattern –the gauge on the ball band is just a guideline!

The gauge for our pattern is 20 sts to 4″ [10cm] using US 6 [4mm] needles.

I’m using this child’s vest to experiment with gauges and color substitutions. Click to download PDF

If you’d like to knit along on this adventure, here’s a PDF.

When I used the size 6 [4mm] needle with Deluxe DK Superwash, my tension came out to 22 sts to 4” [10cm]. This is exactly what I would expect from a DK yarn, but it’s quite a difference from our pattern’s gauge, and it’s different from the recommended gauge on the ball band.

When I went up a size to US 7 [4.5mm] needles, I got 21 sts to 4” [10cm], still too tight for the gauge for my sweater pattern, and I wasn’t happy with the fabric for a child’s vest. It seemed to have too much drape.

So, I went to the Deluxe Worsted yarn. I began with the recommended needles of US 7 [4.5mm] and achieved a tension of 21 sts to 4” [10cm], almost what I would expect for a knitting worsted yarn – a smidge tight.

Continuing on the sample with US 9 [5mm] needles, I got 19.5 sts to 4” [10cm], a smidge loose!

Again, the section of the swatch knitted with the larger needles gave me a fabric that was a little loose and drapey, whereas the fabric made using the recommended needles for the yarn gave me a firm fabric that a 1-4 years old can’t snag on little fingernails and toys.

So, I think I want to work with the tighter gauge numbers.

These bright samples are for my Junior Argyle Vest. The pink one is made from Deluxe DK Superwash, and the orange one from Deluxe Worsted. The top section on these samples would be great for a colored shawl or slouchy hat, but not so much for a sweater or mittens.

KNOW: there’s a “But you said,” coming my way. And I’ve earned it!

Yes, I did say, “it’s important to achieve the gauge listed one on the pattern” and neither of my swatches match it exactly.

If I am knitting a sweater for ME or if you’re knitting a sweater for you or some other adult, that statement is absolutely true: I have to have the gauge spot on to have it fit correctly. Even if my knitting tension is only out one-half stitch over 4″ [10cm], it can make as much as a 2″ [5cm] difference in the size of an adult sweater.

However, children grow very quickly, and children’s sweater patterns usually give numerous sizes, so I can simply choose a different size for my sweater! Plus, small children are only about half the circumference of an adult, so slight differences in tension (a fraction to a stitch over 4″ [10cm]) won’t be as impactful. Even if you happen knit the sweater to the lengths given for the larger size, it only leaves room to grow!

Now that I have really good data about my tension for both yarns, thanks to my swatches, I can determine the number of stitches I’ll need to begin my little vest.

In the case of the Deluxe Worsted, my gauge is near enough to the pattern tension that I don’t feel the need to worry, but for the Deluxe DK Superwash, my gauge is out a full 2 sts over every 4″ [10cm] around the garment.

If I set out to make a sweater to fit a 1-2 year old, with a pattern measurement of 21¼”, that difference of 2 stitches every 4″ [10cm] means that my finished sweater will only be 19¼” around. (106 total sts divided by 5.5 sts per inch = 19.27″) How did I get 5.5 sts per inch, you ask? 22 sts divided by 4 (inches) = 5.5 sts per in.

Now, if I go up a size to the 2-4 year instructions, my finished sweater will be just slightly larger (less than ¼”) than the size I want! (118 total sts divided by 5.5 sts per in. = 21.45″)

With kids knits, slightly larger is always good!

So now, I can knit on, confident that my little vest will fit my little imaginary child!

Some of final notes:

1. You’ll note that I haven’t said a word about row tension. The reasons for this are that most patterns tell you to knit in distances, not number of rows, so if your row tension is shorter or longer, it won’t matter – you’re going to knit so far for the body or armhole length anyway. Even if you have sleeve or raglan shaping, your difference in tension will usually match the altered scale for the size you’re making.

2. When I’m ‘hybridizing’ my pattern like this, I try to keep the lengths (for armholes, sleeves, and body) correct to whatever size my finished sweater will be, unless I’m knitting my sweater for a taller or stockier child. (We knitters have such control!)

3. Again, with children’s patterns, the chances are good that you’ll have enough yarn to play around with the pattern directions, but if you’re near size where you might run short, I recommend that you buy an extra ball. You can always make a matching hat!

In my next post, I’ll talk a LOT about color. I hope you’ll join me!

This is part 3 of 5 in this series.
Go back to part 2: Yarn Weights and Measures with Deluxe DK and Deluxe Worsted Superwash

Go to part 4: 63 and 72 colors in the Deluxe DK and Worsted Superwash collection! Yay!


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