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To swatch, or not to swatch? That is the question–

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And, by opposing, end them.

–Hamknit, Act III, Scene I

I have a dirty little secret: I hate to swatch. Thankfully, I know a lot of knitters, and I know I’m not alone. In fact, swatching is generally loathed to some degree by all but the purest of process knitters. Which brings me to my second dirty little secret: I don’t always swatch.  I know that probably comes as a shock, since I tend to be rather particular about my knitting, but there you have it. Now, lest you be concerned for my sanity or my knitting, let me explain.

As Shakespurle’s Hamknit so eloquently put it, swatching does save us a great deal of grief and anguish. Unfortunately, it also takes a great deal of time, which is a hot commodity these days (mind you, not as much time as knitting a sweater in the wrong size, ripping it back, and then re-knitting it in the correct size–but time, nonetheless). Also, some pattern designers don’t even have the decency to give us a Stockinette gauge reference. Instead, they’ll tell us with a straight face (and I’m sure they’re giggling secretly to themselves) that 17 stitches and 25 rows in their crazy-twisty-cabled-lacey-ribbey pattern equal 4″ square (slightly stretched, of course). Should be easy, right? Wrong! The stitch pattern is 23 stitches wide, which means that now you have to cast on 23 stitches and try to count your 17 stitches over aforementioned crazy-twisty-cabled-lacey-ribbey pattern with some degree of accuracy (and don’t forget–slightly stretched). “Kill me now. Or better yet….” Forget what I said earlier about swatches sparing us grief and anguish.

Still, swatching is often our best defense against Murphy’s Law rearing its ugly head–and even then, swatching sometimes lets us down. Therefore, when planning a new project, I often ask myself the following series of questions:

  1. Does this object have to fit something/someone with a reasonable degree of accuracy? If the answer is yes, swatching is highly recommended, but please see Questions 3 & 4.
  2. Do I have enough yarn to allow for a difference in gauge? If the answer is no, swatch.
  3. Is this a small project? If the answer is yes, I will consider starting my project and taking early gauge measurements. If my gauge is appropriate, I’ve just saved myself some swatch knitting. The best swatch is the actual piece itself.
  4. If the project isn’t small, is there a smaller piece of it that I can start on to check my gauge (such as a sleeve or a pocket)? If the answer is yes, please see the answer to Question 3.
  5. Is my yarn sturdy enough to bear a little ripping and re-knitting? If the answer is no, swatch.
  6. Am I sturdy enough to bear a little ripping and re-knitting? Ah, this is what it really boils down to, isn’t it? How much time am I willing to invest in something that may not turn out the way I want? In reality, I believe we all take that chance when we choose to knit. Sometimes even the best swatch won’t grant us safe passage through the “sea of troubles,” or shield us from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” All knitting involves risk, but it doesn’t have to be uncalculated risk.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say is this: If in doubt, swatch. If you have only one chance to get it right, swatch. If you stand to lose a lot in the event of failure (time, money, yarn, self-respect, sanity, etc.), swatch. But be prepared for the occasional curve ball.