I have an insanely large gauge. I know that. It’s remained constant for my entire 18-year knitting career. About the only time I have a gauge that approaches what’s called for in a given pattern is when I’m knitting stockinette in the round. Otherwise, my gauge is crazy huge.
After my first major knitting mishap, when I knitted myself a sweater so huge that my family practically had to launch a search-and-rescue mission to find me when I tried the thing on for the first time, I became an acolyte of the Way of the Swatch.
These days, every project I undertake, from the humblest dishcloth to the most elaborate gossamer shawl, requires at least one gauge swatch. I usually go way beyond the swatching called for in a pattern, and will cheerfully (OK, mostly) run through a skein or even more of yarn, swatching with various needles and patterns, all so that I can rest pretty easy, knowing that the finished article will be about the size I was expecting.
A few weeks ago, my much-anticipated Birdsfoot Wrap kit arrived from Alice Starmore’s Virtual Yarns. A normal knitter might think that this wouldn’t require swatching, as, well, it’s just a rectangle. I’m not normal, though. About as soon as I’d admired the yarn and wound the first hank,
I knit up a gauge swatch.
The yarn is 2-ply Hebridean in Pebble Beach.
Actually, it was more than one gauge swatch. I tried out several needles before settling on my trusty size 4 circulars. I paid special attention to Starmore’s instructions for knitting, washing, and measuring. Although I didn’t feel like I had to be as spot-on as for a sweater, the kit had a finite amount of yarn, and a gauge error could mean I’d run out well before I intended to bind off, leaving me with an awkward rectangle.
I got gauge with the size 4’s. Thus relieved, I parked the yarn and swatch. I needed the size 4’s to finish my husband’s Aran, after which they’d be freed up for this new project.
Fast forward a few weeks. I finally have my husband’s Aran mostly finished — what’s left is sewing up and then the collar, neither of which require the size 4 needles. What’s more, our trip to London is coming up later this spring. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the Birdsfoot Wrap finished in time to take it on the trip? The colorway is perfect for a travel-friendly wrap. It contains about every color in my wardrobe, so will go with everything. Plus, the styling can be dressed up or down, so it will go as easily with casual pants and a trenchcoat as it will with a dress. With the last piece of my husband’s Aran drying on the blocking boards, I cast on.
I cranked through a 10-row repeat and examined my work. This thing seemed to be chewing up a lot of yarn. It also seemed — well — big. I decided it was time for a sanity check.
In addition to knitting a bunch of gauge swatches, another thing I’ll do with every project is to sanity check the work in progress. I cast off the project onto some waste yarn and spread it out for an accurate measurement. I usually do this an inch or two or three into a project — enough for me to be able to tell how my gauge is really running, but not so much that I have to be talked off a ledge if it’s so big that I have to frog the thing.
The sanity check has saved my sanity more times than I can count. No matter how many swatches I knit, no matter how I wash and block them, no matter how meticulously I measure them, they sometimes lie. The only way I can truly tell how large a project is going to be is to measure the project, sometimes multiple times during the knitting.
I cast off the wrap-in-progress and stretched it gently to measure it. 28 inches! Yikes! Based on my swatch, I’d calculated that the wrap would be 24 inches wide, which was exactly what I wanted. But four inches more? Four whole inches? Gee, no wonder the thing was eating yarn faster than a 14-year-old boy can put down a T-bone.
I didn’t waste a lot of mental energy trying to figure out why the gauge swatch lied to me. I knew what to do. I frogged the wrap and cast on again, this time, with two fewer pattern repeats. And yes, I’ll be sanity checking it again once I’m finished with the first inch or so. While I hate having to re-do an afternoon’s work, it’s a much better alternative to making something that would be a good deal wider (and shorter) than I intended.