I was fortunate enough when I was growing up to live next door to my grandparents. They were the kinds of grandparents you hear about in story books. The ones where Granddad lets you steal fresh peas from his vege garden and helps you build snowmen in winter, and Grandma bakes your favourite cookies and calls you her ‘treasure’.
I spent countless hours sitting next to Grandma’s chair listening her to tell me stories of when she was young and watching her work. Her hands were never still. Constantly in motion as she embroidered, crocheted or knitted. I watched in fascination and marveled at her skill. I still have the pretty pastel coloured scarf she made me when I was 4 years old and moving to a place where it snowed. I remember the green crochet vest I begged for to match my party skirt at 9 years old. The batwing sweater that she knitted in a week when I was a moody teenager.
As I grew older she taught me some basics. I was never patient enough, but finally managed to learn enough to be able to cast on, knit and purl, and cast off. Over the years I tried many different crafts, but somehow always picked up the needles again at different points in my life.
Hidden in the bottom of a storage box is the sweater that Mum and I worked on together. A wonderful example of the importance of gauge with sleeves I knitted that are way too big for the body that Mum made to fit.
I knitted again when my niece was born, because neither her grandmother or great-grandmother was alive to do it. Every baby should have something handmade, even if it is by an auntie who has no idea how to sew up the sweater she made.
After a car accident left me with a concussion that lasted for months, and ruined my career leaving me unable to work, I walked into a yarn shop desperate for something to do. The steadily growing full length cable coat meant that I had achieved something that day.
I’m still not brave enough to tackle an entire sweater for my husband even though he has picked the yarn. He’ll have to make do with the garter stitch scarf that I made in pure alpaca which doubles in length as he wears it.
Finally I knitted again, for my own daughter. A chubby cheeked toddler who had outgrown the handknitted baby gifts from my best friend and her mother.
And as I sit wrapped in the granny square blanket my grandmother crocheted, I realise that yarn has been woven into the strands of my life. Sometimes it has been therapy, sometimes it has been comfort. It is always an inspiration, but above all, I know that yarn is love.
Righto, we need to have a little chat. About gauge, and swatching, and garments.
Just because you CAN get the gauge listed on the pattern it does NOT guarantee a great finished project.
All yarn is not created equal!
As well as different thicknesses, yarn can also have different fibre content and different construction.
Think of it like this - if you want to paint your fence are you going to go out and buy the first paint you see that you like the colour of? You can’t paint your fence with artist’s watercolours and then get mad at the paint for not doing the job and washing off in the rain! There’s nothing wrong with the paint, but you are expecting it to do something it's not designed for. I see this time and time again with yarn substitutions.
So, how do you know if the yarn you have chosen will work for your pattern?
Now, I know most of you treat swatching like it’s a dirty word, but that’s the answer to most of the questions people ask about choosing a yarn. Although before you even get to the swatching stage you need to take a few things into consideration.
What’s the fibre content of the yarn in the pattern and the yarn you want to use. Are they similar? A yarn with 100% wool content is going to hold structure more than one with a large alpaca or silk content, so the crisp, defined cables that you love in the pattern won’t look the same if you knit them in a soft, drapey alpaca. And the gorgeous flow of that silk blend swing cardie is going to be curtailed in a sticky colourwork wool. Does this mean that you can’t use that yarn? No, but you do need to understand how the characteristics of the yarn you choose will affect your finished result.
What is the gauge on the pattern compared to the suggested gauge for the yarn?
The gauge for the yarn is IMPORTANT.
To use an example we had recently. Yes, you CAN knit Bohemia Sport on 5mm needles and get 18 sts per 10cm, but that doesn’t mean you SHOULD. That gauge is waaaaaaay too loose for the yarn.
Note - I’m specifically talking about garments, shawls are different. Yes, you can knit a shawl at a looser gauge, because a shawl doesn’t have as much wear and tear on it as a garment.
When you wear a garment it creates friction every time you move. The bigger the gaps are between stitches the more the yarn can move around. The more the yarn can move around the more pilling and stretching there is. So, a garment at that gauge is going to look dreadful in no time. Does that mean there is something wrong with the yarn? NO! You are just asking it to do something it’s not physically capable of.
Bohemia Sport was designed as a colourwork yarn. It’s a loosely spun yarn that sticks to itself and blends together. Perfect for colourwork. That’s not the only thing you can knit with it, but it’s going to give you the best performance at a tighter gauge (many people use it at a fingering gauge as well). The suggested gauge is 26 sts per 10cm. Most people can probably get that using a 3.5mm needle, but you might have to go up or down a size depending on how tightly you knit. That's why you need to swatch. Once you know what your gauge is then you can work out how that relates to the pattern you want to knit. But that's a whole other equation - yes, maths is sometimes necessary and that's why we have calculators.
And I hate to say it, but another thing to consider when you are choosing a pattern is whether the designer actually knows what they are doing. I have seen patterns where I suspect the designer is just trying to create a ‘fast knit’ using bigger needles and I know the that garment is just not going to hold it’s shape with that yarn at that gauge. Luckily there are so many great designers out there that actually understand garment construction there is no shortage of fabulous patterns to choose from.
Also, I often see people wanting a super soft, hard wearing yarn. It’s a bit like wanting to clean your cooking pots with cotton wool instead of steel wool. A loosely spun 17 micron yarn is going to be gorgeous and soft, but it’s not going to wear like a high twist 28 micron yarn. There will be pilling. Probably lots of it. If you want to wear it while you wrestle alligators, all power to you. Invest in some version of a depiller and spend 10 minutes every so often taking care of your fabulous garment. Some yarns (like Bohemia) pill less, the more often you wear them.
One of the best things about knitting is that there are no knitting police. So, if you want to knit a fingering weight 100% silk sweater with all over cables at 18 sts per 10cm you can! But be prepared for the outcome to possibly be a little different than you expected.
And don’t blame the yarn!