Block around the Clock
Every knitter has their own way of knitting and their own tension. These may slightly vary from knitter to knitter or vary a lot. Knitting styles, needle types and yarn varieties all play a part in the finished tension of a piece. That's why it's important to swatch. To knit to the same tension as specified in the pattern not only makes sure you get the correct size of garment, but also ensures you have enough yarn to finish the project. Not only is the swatching important but also is blocking those swatches.
Blocking is the process of wetting and forming your finished project to the desired size. This could be a complete soak in water or with steaming. Why do we block and why is it important? Blocking helps relax your knitting, it allows stitches to even out and settle into their final shape. It helps minimise curling edges and opens up a design. For example lace can benefit from a hard stretch and pin while wet to help form and open up the lacey stitches that are often bunched up while knitting. Blocking also helps woolly fibres bloom. By this I mean they relax and become more fluffy after they have been squashed and aligned while being knitted. This is important for projects like colourwork as it helps the fibres grip together. Different fibre types perform differently when blocked which is another important reason to test this in a small swatch rather than plunging in and finding a whole project growing several sizes because you have aggressively wet blocked it. I'm all for having a trial run to minimise disaster.
We love a swatch as its a great excuse to have a play before you decide on your final yarn for a project. We often end up knitting a fair few swatches when playing around with a new yarn or just working on our own projects. We both decided to have a go at swatching and blocking the same yarns and what we found out was interesting.
We have very slightly different tensions, which is what we would expect in the unique variations every knitter has. Both swatches were knitted on 4mm needles. It turned out that I had a slightly looser tension than Maya which was revealed after blocking. I did expect this because I tend to be on the loose side, meaning my swatch was slightly bigger. You can play this to your advantage though if you are looking for something with a bit of positive ease or if your measurements sit between what is written in the pattern. The thing to do is to measure your swatch and check if you match the gauge specified in the pattern. If not go down a needle size if more stitches per cm are needed or go up a needle size if you need less stitches per cm. Most swatches are written for an area of 10cm/4inches and this is the minimum you want to be measuring. If you get more than 10cm with the recommended number of stitches, the project will come out bigger. Say if the gauge requires 22 stitches per 10cm and instead you get 11cm. A pattern that is written to be 60cm wide and requires you to cast on 132 stitches will in fact for you will come out at 66cm wide. Quite a big difference if you are looking for something to fit.
To block these swatches we soaked them in warm water. You can use a wool wash if you wish but its not necessarily just for a swatch. Excess water was gently wrung out between a rolled up towel and then left to dry flat. I pinned mine just at the edges to stop it curling but didn't stretch it in anyway. You want to block your swatch the same way as you would block your final project.
The above swatches were knit in Fyberspates Vivacious DK. Mine at the top and Maya's at the bottom. This yarn gives crisp detail to the stitch and I also like the way the hand dyed colours appear over the leaning slipped stitches. You can see that Maya's swatch is very slightly denser which is more apparent over a larger area.
The above swatches were knit in Hillesvåg Tinde. Mine at the top and Maya's at the bottom. The Tinde is made from a non-superwash Norwegian sheep wool. This yarn has a woollier feel, which blocks out revealing a halo of fibre. This does a couple of things. It makes the finished fabric warmer as the fibres almost blend together. It also softens definition giving a pleasing gentleness to the leaning stitches, especially when compared to a superwash yarn like the Vivacious DK above. Even in this different yarn mine and Maya's personal tension is obvious.
So in conclusion I would always swatch and block especially when knitting garments where fit is required. On saying that I nearly never swatch for accessories like scarfs and shawls where fit is not essential (but maybe I should!). If after swatching you need to change your needle size adjust accordingly. Maybe for small adjustments you might need only a .5 or .25mm difference, but larger discrepancies might need more. Part of the fun of swatching and blocking is seeing how the yarn knits up and performs after washing so don't see it as a chore, just enjoy the process.