Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Gauge-less gauge swatches, or "dating tips for knitters"

You've read the blah, blah, blah advice a hundred times--make a gauge swatch before you start knitting your garment. Wash the gauge swatch. Dry the gauge swatch. Measure the number of stitches and number of rows per inch to be sure you're getting the same gauge as the pattern calls for. Adjust to smaller needles if you need to get more stitches per inch, larger needles for fewer stitches per inch. Blah, blah, blah.

If you do all that stuff, congratulations--you are a sober, mature person with whom it would be a honor to shake hands--a beacon, a knitting role model. You're all set--no need to read further--read a different blog for today.

Back here in the real world, there's a ball of yarn screeching to be knit, and a pattern demanding to be started NOW. You know you shouldn't, but sister, you know you're going to do it anyway--grab the needles recommended in the pattern, cast on, and hope for the best.

It's a classic in philosophy--what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? What happens when your irresistible desire to start NOW smacks up against the stone-cold fact that, without a gauge swatch, you're most unlikely to actually accomplish that flattering, graceful garment in which your imagination clothes you? Will you stop and reconsider? Will you actually make a gauge swatch? Maybe--but if you're still reading, I'm not laying money on it.

So, how shall you tame the mighty urge?

I have one word: gaugeless objects. (OK, that's two words. But it's still the answer.)

If you're ready to make a whole sweater, starting right NOW, that's puppy love. You've got to face it--you're in the grip of a crush. But no matter how HUGE the crush, you'd never marry that cute guy before you went on even one date, would you? What if he snores? What if he already has a wife? What if on closer inspection, he's unacquainted with the concept of soap? So how about a date with your new yarn--just one date? Check it out, just once, before you commit to slogging through the sleeves (two) the fronts (two) and the endless back; or, for circular garments, the doubly endless tube to the underarms.

Classic gaugeless objects are scarves, potholders, pillow tops, quilt squares and hats. Wouldn't it be a testament to your skill to have a one-of-a-kind unique and amazing patchwork pillow around the house made with one square from every project in recent times? How about a set of potholders, ditto? A quilt?

You might think I'm tricking you into knitting a gauge swatch and just calling it something else. And maybe so. But then, maybe not. Today's fashions are adorable, flattering and short. Maybe it makes actual sense to have a matching shawl to cover the shivery parts left uncovered?

And, maybe you'll be glad you've got that potholder made ahead for your Christmas gift basket when you realize that the yarn with which you were planning to have a long term relationship is a flirt, a liar and a come-on artist. What if you HATE the yarn after you start working with it? What if that hand-dyed, hand-spun one-of-a-kind masterpiece skein turns out to be overtwisted? What if you discover that P5tog (purl 5 together) pattern, although exceeding beautiful, has a side you weren't expecting?

Have I convinced you? A little bit, at least? If so, here are some considerations.

HOW TO go on a date with your new yarn

First, buy only one ball of yarn for a start. If it's too late--if you've already succumbed to the desire to possess massive quantities of THAT yarn right NOW, at least keep the receipt handy--think of it as your rescue call if your first date is going sour. And for heaven's sake, DON'T wind all that yarn off the hanks into balls before your gaugeless object is complete and your decision made to proceed--once it's wound, it's yours.

Second, make the gaugeless object with the exact yarn and with the exact stitch pattern you're going use for the garment. If the garment is in moss stitch, it helps you not at all to have a stockinette stitch object. (Yup, it's obvious. Yup, I've messed up on this myself...)

Third, change needle sizes at least a couple of times over the course of your object. That way, you've got a better chance of actually nailing the desired gauge, and who cares if the gauge for a scarf or potholder or quilt square wanders?

Fourth, make the gaugeless object with the same technique as the garment. If the garment is made back and forth, make the object back and forth--a potholder, quilt square, pillow top, skinny scarf.

If the garment is made circular, cast on enough stitches to go round on dpn's (double pointed needles) or your smallest circulars, and make a gaugeless circular tube neck-scarf. Other than sewing up the ends if you're inclined to, a skinny tube neck-scarf features no finishing at all--all those dangling ends from color changes, etc. will be on the inside and will never, ever, be seen by any mortal again.
click picture
If even a circular neck-scarf is too much work--if you're too deeply smitten by the "right now" bug to go round and round for so long, at least make a potholder by using the method for "circular swatch knitted flat," illustrated below. (For a potholder, cut the ends and tame them by knotting or felting)
click picture

Most important, after you make your gaugeless object, LOOK AT IT. Do all the blah blah blah stuff. Wash it. Measure it. Be honest with yourself. Ten and a half stitches over 2 inches isn't the same thing as five stitches per inch. It just isn't. But, because you were foresightful, and made your gaugeless object with several different needle sizes, you've got exactly ten stitches to 2 inches in there somewhere.

And finally, I've said it before, and I'll say it again. For each garment you make with the same yarn and needles, you'll get an increasingly professional result--your body of experience with that yarn and those needles will make more likely a "handmade" result, as opposed to a "home made" result. And after the first garment, you won't even have to swatch at all.  (Have a look at these made-more-than-once projects on Ravelry to see the lovely possibilities.)