Every knitter knows the importance of doing a tension swatch before starting a new project. But when a bright, shiny ball of yarn is sitting within arm’s reach, and the pattern is sending out sparks of enticement, this tiny 4 x 4 test piece tends to get overlooked.
A tension swatch will determine the finished size of a sweater. If you are knitting loosely, the test square will measure larger than the required size, if you tend to knit too tightly, the test square will measure smaller than the required size. It’s simple to adjust your knitting tension by changing needle sizes until your swatch measures exactly the required size. One stitch or one row difference on a 4 x 4 test piece may not seem like a big deal, yet on an adult sweater it can change the finished size by more than an inch or two.
Swatching is also useful when a knitter chooses a yarn for all the right reasons (eye candy) but has absolutely no idea what pattern would be suitable for it. Then it’s time to experiment with different size needles. Begin with the recommended size listed on the information section of the ball band, cast on twenty stitches or so, and try ten rows of basic knitting. Think of this part as the test drive, take a moment to feel the texture and the handle of the yarn. Sit back and look at the swatch. Try different stitches to see what brings out the best qualities in the yarn. Smooth yarns sometimes look best in a rib or seed stitch pattern. Nubby and textured yarns speak well on their own, they tend to look best in garter and stocking stitch. Change needle sizes until the yarn feels soft enough yet sturdy enough to keep its shape.
The fun part of knitting starts with the anticipation of what a ball of yarn can be transformed into. Swatching lets us take a test drive before we invest time and energy into a full size project.