Tuesday, February 06, 2007


On one of the knitting lists I subscribe to, there was a recent discussion of Sally Melville's Einstein Coat, its use of garter stitch, and the various results achieved by different knitters. Several people reported droopy results.

I am afraid that these were the people who did not swatch.

The Einstein is designed specifically to counteract the effect of gravity on garter stitch -- and it holds up quite nicely in real life. The pattern also says quite clearly that it is absolutely essential to get the correct gauge. Thus, it is essential to swatch.

I strongly suspected (and this was confirmed by some individual correspondences) that the disappointed knitters either chose an incompatbile yarn or failed to get exact gauge, or both.

Among those who admitted not bothering to get precise gauge, the most common argument was, "but it's only garter stitch."

There is no such thing as "only garter stitch."

When I went to Stitches West last year, I wore a simple serape to the classes and yarn market one day, and I received what most people would have thought to be an exceedingly odd compliment from a number of hard-core knitting people, including both Rick Mondragon and the Xenakises:

"You do very good garter stitch."

I did not think this odd.

In fact, I was delighted to get such a fine compliment from the sponsors of Stitches and some of my other knitting gurus, like Lily Chin. The same people had also commented on my cables and lace the previous days, but I figured that they were mostly being gracious, and that they fussed over everyone's work to be supportive and encouraging. But having such people notice your garter stitch is something else entirely.

I suspect that most people would think this is an uremarkable thing to get excited about being complimented on, because garter is the first thing we learn, and so we may assume it is the easiest thing to do, and not worth giving serious consideration. Surely we must be on, and quickly, to the business of knitting a beaded Orenberg shawl, or a show-stopping cape with intarsia cables using Bohus techniques, with shadow-knitting in the background panels and enough colors to make even Kaffee Fasset run out of crayons, shouldn't we?

But good garter stitch is the basic. Garter is to knitting what breathing is to yoga.

Garter stitch is the first and most basic thing taught a new knitter, but, contrary to popular belief, "basic" does not mean "simplest."

"Basic" means "essential."

The base of any object is its foundation.

Garter stitch follows all the rules of texture knitting. Just as you would ordinarily choose a firmly twisted, robust yarn to showcase textures, you often need a similar yarn to make garter stitch sing.

You also need to store garter (and all other knitted items) in the folded state, not using hangers for storage, and not even leaving your garment hanging off the back of a chair overnight.

Garter stitch can be glorious if you choose the right yarn (an elastic, firmly plied yarn in most cases) and if you pay attention to both the yarn manufacturer's recommended gauge and the gauge called for in the pattern.

If the yarn manufacturer recommends that paricular yarn to be knitted at five stitches to the inch, and it's worsted weight ... and your pattern calls for worsted weight at four stitches to the inch, do not knit that yarn at 4 stitches to the inch in garter st. and expect good results -- you will not get them.

You will, however, get droopy garter stitch.

How many of you faithfully compare the recommended gauge of the yarn manufacturer to the gauge in the pattern, or do you just look at "worsted weight" on the label and figure that one worsted will do as well as another?

Hmmm .... (squinting toward the rear of the auditorium...) I don't see too many hands.

What about swatching? Do you swatch to make sure you are getting the correct gauge?

What's that I hear? "I don't need to swatch ... it's only garter stitch?"

I have a lovely Brie to go with that whine.

Sorry, but you still are best advised to swatch, and hang it up from a skirt hanger overnight, and regard it in the morning, and then wash and block it, and then let that hang overnight, and measure and regard that. Compare your results. Repeat until desired result is achieved.

I know washing the swatch sounds like a pain the the tookas, and it is. But you do want to know how your yarn will wash, and you do want to know how the resulting fabric will look, and behave, after washing.

You do not want to knit an entire garment and discover, far too late in the game, that the yarn runs and the fabric grows after washing.

Nobody can force you to swatch. It's not a law. But it is best practice. And it is knitting.

You do like knitting don't you? Then don't think of the swatch as an obstacle to remove before you begin your main project.

Just think of it as more to knit.

If you still want to use that yarn in your pattern, you may need to go down a needle size or two, and make your pattern adjustments accordingly, or simply knit the next size up, after you have swatched and measured and calculated and compared results.

On the yarn itself: in any given pattern, you are usually best advised to use either the recommended yarn or another yarn very much like it, that is, a subsitute yarn with very similar construction (number of plies, number of wraps per inch, firmness of twist) and similar behavioral attributes (weight, fiber content, drape). Don't expect comparable results if you substitute Icelandic unspun roving for a four-ply heavy worsted.

The trick is knowing your yarn, swatching, and otherwise respecting your garter stitch. Go down a needle size (or more) if you need to, especially if you wish to use a loosely spun or un-spun yarn. But do your homework. I know this sounds a tad preachy ... but .... um .... well ... it is.

But not in a bad way.


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At 4:37 PM, Blogger Patience said...

Right on. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well.

I have a tough time getting people to recognize the need for craftsmanship. It's not all that difficult, but it just requires attention they may not feel like giving the project. Sigh.

At 6:57 PM, Anonymous Elizabeth D said...

I want to see the serape. . .

(why won't Blogger let you identify yourself if you're not a blogger or a person with a web page??)

At 7:05 AM, Anonymous naomi dagen bloom said...

so reverend dez it is! i, for one, definitely go for educational illumination as here. have you seen the blog, Go Knit in Your Hat?
think you'd appreciate her honest book reviews.

At 8:30 AM, Anonymous Barbara-Kay said...

Dear friend, that was a marvelous discussion. I'm helping a friend who is knitting her first mitts, and following your stunt blogging, too. She just went home with Sally's Knit Stitch book from my library. When she gets home, she'll find an email to read your garter stitch treatise, too. Well said!

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Teresa said...

Great post, wish there was a way to make this required reading.

At 10:20 AM, Blogger thatfarmgirl said...

Argh. Why do you have to be SO right?

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous laurie said...

I loved this!!

And myself, I adore swatching. I must be mad ;)

At 5:40 PM, Blogger Ann said...

Swatch, then check gauge periodically as you knit. It's the only way to be sure!

At 6:42 PM, Anonymous Melissa said...

Amen! I had a woman come into the store today that couldn't understand why her sweater that was to be knit at 5 sts per inch was not 20 inches wide, but 28. "I checked my gauge! I'm getting 5 stitches per inch!" When we checked her gauge over FOUR inches, she was NOT getting 20 stitches, but 18. Man, was she kicking herself.

At 7:35 AM, Anonymous mary lou said...

Good post. I often suffer from gauge drift on big projects, too. Good garter stitch is a fine thing. I once made a vest in twisted garter stitch to make sure it never drooped. It never did but what a big drag to knit. Never again.

BTW, it is beyone fuh-raisin upriver this morning. -7 as I walked over the bridge crossing the Mississippi in MN.

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To echo everyone else here--very well said, with wisdom and humor. Thank you.

Any chance we could see a picture of that garter stitch serape?

Thanks again.

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dez, this entry was timely for me. I just pulled some handpaint merino from the stash, about 500 yds, and decided to do a garter Shapely Shawlette (the pattern that was all the rage a while back but not much on the radar now; this is my first). I took the needle size down until the garter stitch was tight enough to "sing", and it does, and it's still soft and pliable enough to work well. Thanks for well-put words.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Criquette said...

Greetings from a displaced swamp rat! I just read this excellent entry and just in time as I am getting ready to knit my first sweater, in a pattern similar to the Einstein. I want to use a different yarn than what is called for and had no idea how to go about finding an acceptable substitute. I also knew that I was going to have to bite the needle and swatch (for the first time). Because I am a person who wants to know the practical reasons for doing something as seemingly tedious as swatching, I thank you for your clear explanation! What is that luscious yarn in the picture?

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