Friday, February 4, 2011

Circular swatches knit flat (back and forth on two needles)

Here are a couple of tricks to make swatching circular knitting easier. No longer do you have to make a hat to test your gauge for that new seamless sweater, or knit half a sock before discovering you're really making a mitten for your favorite kid.

Today's little tricks let you test your CIRCULAR gauge on a piece of FLAT knitting. One of these tricks has been shown on TECHknitting blog before, although rather hidden, but the other trick is making a first appearance here.  

Why tricks are necessary 

A swatch cannot normally be knit flat to test the gauge of a circular-knit object.  This is because creating stockinette fabric in the round involves nothing-but-knit, whereas creating stockinette fabric knit flat involves knitting-there-and-purling-back.  If, like most knitters, you purl and knit at different tensions, the result of flat-for-circular substitution is a lying gauge swatch.

All knitters know that swatches are dishonest two-timing, bald-faced liars in the best of times, so a substitute swatch is only going to make matters worse.  Yet, nothing-but-knit worked flat (back and forth) yields garter stitch, not stockinette. So, the issue is, how to create a flat swatch in nothing-but-knit yet still produce stockinette fabric?

Trick 1:  "Half-loop" method

This is the trick which was shown on TECHknitting once before, a long time ago (complete with an old-school black and white illustration!)

Here's how in 5 steps:
  • 1. cast a bunch of stitches on to double pointed or circular needles.
  • 2. knit a row  
  • 3. to knit the next following row, slide the whole swatch to the opposite needle point
  • 4. bring the running (working) yarn back to the starting edge by forming a big sloppy loop across the back of the work, then knit the next row
  • 5. keep repeating steps 3 and 4 over and over again until you get a swatch large enough to measure.  
    Because you bring the yarn back to the row-start via a large loop on the back, rather than via purling, you're creating a swatch of nothing-but-knit AND working stockinette fabric at the same time.

    In fact, you are creating a series of giant loops.  You're working the first half of the loop (the knit part) then closing the loop by drawing the un-knit second half of the loop behind the swatch, from left to right.  Because you're only knitting half the loop, this is called the "half-loop" method.

    Half-loop is a nice trick, yes, and I made circular swatches this way for years.  However, over time, this method became crazy-making: the sloppy loops across the back make it hard to lay the darn thing flat to measure it; the SUPER-loose edges affect the gauge a long way into the swatch; and it's really hard to keep messy swatches like this hanging about--laborious to knot off the edges for re-purposing as pot holders, hard to keep intact for future measuring purposes.

    "There has to be a better way," was my constant thought every time one of these loopy messes was laid out to be measured, and ... lo, after a while, a better way did reveal itself.

    Trick 2: "Whole-loop" method

    The essence of this trick is to knit the whole loop, both halves of it, rather than drawing one half of it, unknit, behind the swatch.  Here's how in 8 steps and three illustrations:
    • 1. cast on to double pointed or circular needles, as many stitches as you think your gauge swatch ought to have
    • 2. knit a row.  Mark the end of the row with a pin then tink (tink=unravel, stitch by stitch) back.  Note how long this stretch of yarn is--easiest to measure it against an outstretched arm, a local sofa-back or something equally solid and informal -- a yardstick or tape measure would be not only wobbly but also time-consuming.
    • 3. now, reknit this measured length of yarn (side note: you ought to come out where the pin was placed originally.  If you don't, this is a sign of inconsistent tension from row to row, and something to maybe spend some time working on, swatch-wise)
    • 4. slide the swatch back to the right side of the dpn or circular needle
    • 5. draw out a new measured length of yarn (ie: a piece of yarn the same length as the one originally measured).  In the illustration, the measured yarn is colored red and the end of it is marked with a blue "x."  Note also that the yarn PAST the blue "x," the yarn which is running back to the ball, is colored purple. 
    • 6. Starting at the beginning of the RED MEASURED LENGTH, knit a single stitch, as below.
    • 7. for the rest of the row, work with the RED MEASURED LENGTH and note that you are NOT knitting with the purple yarn which runs back to the ball.  In other words, the blue "x" marking the transition remains parked at the side of the swatch, never moving and the purple yarn remains untouched, while the red loop gets smaller and smaller with each stitch.
    • 8. The last few stitches will take some fancy maneuvering because you can't tension them as usual off your finger due to the ever-shrinking size of the red loop.  However, since the yarn was measured, you KNOW you have enough yardage to finish the row, and will manage somehow!  
      This "whole loop" trick has several advantages: without the unknit back half of each loop coiled up behind the swatch, the swatch lays out smooth at measuring time; if you keep your gauge swatches, you'll easily be able to re-measure these nice, tidy swatches in the future; and you'll eventually be able to re-purpose these nice neat squares as potholders or patches for a quilt top or cushion cover.

      One last note:  In a recent Ravelry discussion of this exact trick, a comment was posted, wondering whether knitting an ever-tightening loop wouldn't distort the left edge. The answer is that yes, the left edge will be distorted.

      Buuut...this doesn't matter very much, because ALL the edges are distorted.

      See, even if you have perfect tension, like from a knitting machine, the tension at every edge of any piece of knitting is always distorted, due to the structure of the knitting itself.  TECHknitting blog has a whole illustrated post about WHY edge stitches are always wonky, but if you don't feel like reading all that, take it on faith, and stay at least an inch (or better, inch-and-a-half) away from EVERY edge--left, right, top and bottom--when measuring a swatch for gauge. 

      Good knitting! --TK