Friday, September 11, 2009

Swatching for Primates

A few weeks back, I attended a class on gauge. The class was split over two Sunday mornings, with homework assigned between the sessions. The homework consisted of preparing two separate swatches (one on size 7 needles and one on size 8) each knit from the same skein of yarn. In this case, each of us in the class was using one of my favorite all-around yarns: Cascade 220. The swatches themselves would consist of a set number of stitches in stockinette (the theoretical number which according to the manufacturer would result in a 4 inch swatch), with a two stitch border of garter stitch on the sides. For rows, we were to simply knit until we had a finished swatch slightly longer than 4 inches.

The point of the exercise was simply to point out that even with the same yarn and operating with the same sized needles, everyone would get a slightly different gauge. Sure enough, in the second class session everyone had a slightly different gauge. My own work was fairly close to the gauge anticipated on the ball band. I attribute this happy coincidence to the fact that I try very hard to use almost no extra tension when knitting - simply laying the stitches in place - although perhaps it was just luck.
I wanted to take the gauge class despite the fact that I really dislike swatching. Strongly. In fact, I'm prepared to say that it is my least favorite part of knitting. All in all, I'd rather spend hours untangling a ball of two-ply lace weight silk yarn ( than spend much time swatching. No, I wanted to get better with my gauge because I'd recently completed a sweater for my not-yet-then-born youngest son. Although I followed all directions in the pattern for the sweater, I failed to check (or perhaps refused to check - given my distaste for swatching) for gauge. The sweater looks nice enough, unless you happen to see the sleeves.

Now, we haven't discussed it before, but it is worth noting that neither I nor any known member of the TSMK extended family is actually an orangutan. It is true that I have occasionally been accused of being slightly too furry. It is also true that my two older sons greatly enjoy playing in trees. Nevertheless there are important chromosomal and morphological distinctions between the members of the TSMK family and most (if not all) orangutans. For purposes of my youngest son's sweater, the most important of these distinctions is in arm length. Orangutans are known to have arms which are occasionally twice as long as their legs. Humans, even if they are members of the TSMK clan, rarely have such an impressive armspan. By failing to check gauge (and adjust as necessary), I had inadvertently knit a garment for an infant orangutan.

Interestingly, I understand that the sweater might have fit an infant version of Michelangelo's David, as his arms are unusually long.

With this experience fresh in my mind, I enrolled in the gauge class and, having completed the class, I now feel compelled to check gauge early and often.
I first put my newfound gauge-testing mastery to work in preparations for making a hat. Specifically, I'd recently purchased Jared Flood's great new collection of patterns: Made in Brooklyn (available here: Many (almost all, actually) of the patterns in the book are stunning. So much so that Mrs. TSMK has already requested several pieces from the book. The first piece she requested is the hat on the cover: "Quincy".

The hat has an interesting construction, with a garter stitch möbius bounded by built-in I-cords, from which you pick up stitches and knit the crown. Too cool. Anyway, I hadn't done anything quite like this before, so I thought it made sense to take a test trial. I grabbed from the deepest darkest recesses of the stash some ugly blue yarn of questionable parentage but roughly the correct weight and set to work.

Like the good student I am, I first knit a gauge swatch. I counted my stitches and rows over four inches, and decided to move down one needle size.

But the fates were aligned against me.

Roughly nine inches into the garter stitch & I-cord portion of the hat, something unusual began to happen. The diameter of the dreadful, scratchy and completely inorganic yarn began to change. Specifically, what was coming out to 15 stitches over four inches was now around 20 stitches over four inches. This had never happened to me before. Although in my efforts to learn to spin I've recently had occasion to make yarn of erratic diameter, I've never before bought machine-made yarn with this characteristic (i.e., flaw).

I'll be ripping out the offending yarn tonight. I may have some trial and error in my future for construction of the hat, but I'd rather do it with a yarn I enjoy and that I can depend on. Now if only I could get some Cascade 220 in a heavier weight. . .


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