How long must a person knit before she accepts a basic–and crucial–understanding about the craft? How many misshapen, unexpected, Star Trek costume-like sweaters does she need to knit before she realizes she is doing something very, very wrong? How many hundreds of dollars must be wasted on good yarn that is turned into shrouds for octopuses?
“Gauge is discussed more than any other knitting idea and this is probably because
it’s the most important concept in knitting… It’s also the thing
that gives knitters the most grief.” –Stephanie Pearl McPhee, Knitting Rules
For years, I had proudly disdained what was called “a necessity,” the knitting of a small square of a pattern, in the yarn weight, and with the needle that was specified in the same pattern. I hate math (as I’ve said before), can’t DO math, don’t have any understanding of numbers or how they relate to me. So, it was far better to claim loudly as I embarked on a new sweater for a loved one that, “*I* don’t need no stinkin’ gauge swatch!” “I can eyeball the yarn/needles/pattern and know how to knit something!”–and then, in my tiny, inside voice, I add, “…something that will at least resemble a garment for a normal human being.”
In 2019, a mere 15 years after my rebirth as a knitting person, the blinders came off, and I listed all the sweaters I could recall making, who they were supposed to be for, and what happened to them. Plus, as far as I could remember, how much I had spent on the yarn for each. What an embarrassing stroll down The Walk of Everlasting Shame:
There was a heavy green tweed cardigan jacket I made in France for a professional horseman, the man who became my first husband. I had learned to knit in French, so maybe I didn’t fully understand all the words and concepts I was taught? Anyway, I was dirt poor and, as one of my very first knitting projects, I wanted to make something to express my love for the man. I picked out the pattern from pretty pictures of beautiful French people wearing perfectly-fitted sweaters, and the yarn store lady picked out the yarn (at a cost of over $100) and the needles. I knit for months. The end product was never worn by the intended recipient. Or by anyone else. The sleeves went down to the knees. It was wide enough to cover the rump of a large horse. In a pathetic bid to get help salvaging the garment, the yarn store lady helped me cut vertically down the entire back of the sweater and to sew it up to be less wide. It then fit over the rump of a pony. I believe I left it in the back of a closet in France when I fled back to America.
Having learned nothing from the green jacket episode, I tried to make my second husband a tweed cardigan when I had my rebirth in knitting–in English this time. The pattern was lovely. I spent well over $100 for the tweed yarn I saw in a store. I thought the yarn would “match” the yarn specified in the pattern. And I proceeded to knit the whole thing, trying to ignore the obvious distortions, saying to myself that it would all be fixed when I blocked it (soaked it in water, then patted it into shape and let it dry into what it’s supposed to look like). He, the husband, never wore it; the sleeves were about 6″ in diameter and hung to about mid-thigh, the shoulders had a large ridge on them that looked like epaulettes. The marriage ended in a terrible divorce. I *hope* it wasn’t because of the sweater.
“Mistakes with gauge are painful and difficult to accept. This is largely because there is absolutely no one else you can blame. Nobody. … and this happened because you didn’t spend a wee bit of time knitting a tiny square.” –Stephanie Pearl-McPhee
And then there was the sweater I was going to gift myself, a testament to my survival from the divorce, and my rising, reborn from disasters as competent knitter. The Rowan ‘Lima’ yarn (with a % of baby camel yarn in it) was far and away the most I had ever spent (wasted) on anything, nearly $180. I used a Rowan pattern, Alana, and followed Rowan the directions to a ‘T.” But rather than ending up with the pretty cardigan from the Rowan pattern book (photo on the left), I got the feed bag-like sack on the right. Big enough for two of me. I blocked it, of course, trying desperately to pat it into a smaller size, but to no avail. Never wore it except in this Photo of Shame. Perhaps I’m going to rip it out and salvage the yarn even if the knitting was a triumph of mastering short rows and other skills (except for button holes–those were definitely NOT mastered).
After my green baby camel cardigan disaster, I turned to knitting small things that actually fit people: preemie hats, Pussy Hats, chemo hats, fingerless gloves, and Knitted Knockers. My fear of big projects–and the math entailed in adjusting a project based on a gauge swatch–kept me sweater-free for four or five years.
In the early hours of the new year of 2019, I set a knitting goal of “making a sweater I can actually wear.” And I did start on a sweater for myself–a test sweater, with test yarn–in January. But, still math-terrorized, I eye-balled the fun test yarn rather than making a gauge swatch with the yarn called for in the pattern. And, I did devote much time looking at, reading about, and feeling yarns at various stores, “eye-balling” and making caveman-simplistic calculations that convinced me the test sweater would fit me perfectly. The pattern was also chosen with care–it was supposed to yield a really large, drapey and comfy sweater. I used the needles called for and followed pattern directions carefully.
However, what I got was a lovely sweater that fit me “like a glove,” rather than being the loose drapey fit I was hoping for. FORTUNATELY, my niece-in-law who is a svelte, lovely person, agreed to take it and try it. And, bless the gods, it fit her the way it was supposed to fit. She is a very kind person and I’m lucky she is in my life. My shame is hidden beneath this fortuitous outcome.
I’ve started another sweater for myself, one that I did actually knit a swatch for. And I counted the stitches (but not the rows, I realize now, dammit).
I’m following the pattern and using the needles called for–and also measuring myself and the sweater as I go. I have hopes for this sweater. But I also have a new respect for swatches, and am VOWING to learn the correct process for creating the gauge swatch, and to DO ONE FOR EVERY THING I KNIT FOREVER AND EVER IN THE FUTURE. I swear!
“I choose to knit and I love it, even though some parts of it do make me want to rasp off my eyebrows with a nail file, and it’s my choice to pursue it.
I could do something else, something with no swatches,
something like collecting spoons or vacuuming.
Instead, I persist–the rewards are great.” –Stephanie Pearl-McPhee
How to make and understand gauge swatches:
Swatching 101, by Brooklyn Tweed. “There are few things that are more important to successful garment knitting than gauge swatching.”
Learn How to Knit Gauge, by Vogue Knitting. “If there’s one piece of advice we hope you’ll remember, it’s this: always, always, always make a gauge swatch!”
How to Knit a Gauge Swatch, by WikiHow (with lots of pictures). “Make a gauge swatch before you start knitting your garment to ensure the needle size and the yarn chosen will produce the size and shape garment you need.”
Susan Bates’ ‘Knit Check’ tool for measuring gauge swatches. I’m getting one today!
3/4/2019 UPDATE on the sweater: It fit, but it looked HORRIBLE on me. I keep being seduced by the patterns’ photos of finished sweaters worn by young, lithe models, forgetting that I am more zaftig, and certainly decades older than the models in the lovely sweaters. The easy and attractive-to-me, but not FOR-ME rolled neck was what killed this sweater–for me. And again, my niece agreed to take it so I avoid public humiliation once again.
But also, I must make a confession about the gauge square I knit: I didn’t bind off, wash and block it. I realize my mistake. I solemnly swear to do all that if I am ever so STUPID to knit myself a sweater in the future.