Craptastic© projects. We all have ‘em, let’s just get that out of the way right now. Somewhere in your closet or dresser drawer is a craptastic project: The Too Big Sweater, The Too Short Sweater, The Sweater with Three Arms (well, perhaps not that craptastic), The Socks that are Two Different Sizes, The Ran Out of Yarn and Finished in a Different Dye Lot project.
Crappy, yes, but also partially fantastic. You poured your heart and soul into this garment; wouldn’t it have been so fulfilling if it had actually fit?
I taught myself to knit in college from a book I found at Wal-Mart. My first project was a scarf nightmare: garter-stitch (uneven at the edges), holes, and a horrible mauve color. Next, I made a pair of mittens (knit flat, I had never even heard of knitting in the round). I couldn’t always keep track of when I was supposed to be knitting and purling (it seems like second nature to me now), so there was a big strip of garter around one stockinette mitten.
From then on I mostly made scarves and blankets.
Fast forward to 2009 when I decided to knit a sweater for my toddler. I had heard of a yarn store in town, so I drove on over one Saturday and strolled in. This is how it went:
Shop Lady: “Hello, can I help you?”
Me: “Hey! Yeah! I want to knit a sweater.”
Shop Lady: “Well…what kind of sweater?”
Me: “Well I can sort of knit. I can knit and purl, basically. I want to knit a cardigan for my son.”
Shop Lady: (shows me basic baby cardigan in stockinette with rib edging) “This is simple, we have the pattern for this. Do you know what kind of yarn you want to use? Do you need needles? Are you tight or loose?”
That last question really threw me. Was she questioning my sexual prowess for some odd reason? What the heck kind of shop is this?!?
She told me to hold out my arms, and she filled them with skeins of yarn and needles in the correct size, muttering nonsense words like “weight,” “gauge,” “dye lot,” and “mattress stitch.” She suggested I use seed stitch instead of rib, put her hand out for my money, and watched me walk out the door.
I immediately went home and googled “seed stitch.” You can probably guess what happened next. There were tears, there was ripping, there was a lot of Googling. But by God, I finished that dang cardigan.
It was too small.
Finally, one fine day, I discovered Ravelry. The past four years I’ve spent a lot of my time knitting, and learning about knitting. I consider myself to be fairly proficient, nowadays, and I’ve learned quite a few lessons the hard way. The most important knitting lesson I have learned, bar none, is to Plan Ahead.
I have created a handy dandy checklist for you to follow when beginning the project. Yes, completing all the steps will take up some time, but consider that when the project is done, it will not end up in the Craptastic© heap in your closet, never to see the light of day; you’ll be wearing it proudly.
Seems so simple, right? Why do so many of us forget to do it? Or choose not to?
1. Print pattern.
This may seem a little “Duh,” but depending on how the pattern is written, you may need to make some adjustments to how it comes out on the page. Nothing is more frustrating than having to continually flip back and forth to read a repeating pattern instruction. You may need to actually cut the pattern up into manageable pieces, and glue them onto new paper.
2. Read pattern.
We’ve all done it. You’re halfway through a pattern and it calls for a material that was left off the materials list, and you must now pause your knitting in order to go to the store and buy it. Or the famous phrase “At the same time…” makes you suddenly realize you’ve messed up the last 10 inches of your sweater because you didn’t bother to pre-read (see my own real-life experience in item #6 here).
Read it. It’ll save you some grief.
3. Gather materials
It’s so much more seamless to be able to keep creating, rather than having to put aside your knitting to go buy buttons, or an extra stitch marker, or stitch holders, etc. Get it all together first, and you can get to your finished product faster! Most people I know use a project bag (a simple cloth bag) to hold the knitting and may have some organizers like this one from Knit Happy.
You do not need specialized bags, but it is fun.
4. Knit a Proper Swatch
Start with the suggested needle size (I always start with one smaller because I know I’m a loose girl)
Cast on 5 stitches, then cast on the number of stitches the pattern says will make 4 inches, then cast on 5 more stitches. Knit the next 6 rows (garter stitch). Knit the first and last 5 stitches of every row to create a garter stitch border (to make sure your swatch won’t curl), and knit the number of rows the pattern says will make 4 inches. Finally, knit 6 more rows, then bind off.
If the pattern says gauge is 8 stitches per inch “in pattern,” you better knit that puppy in the pattern, not in stockinette. If it’s a stranded or striped pattern, knit it in the stranded pattern or the stripes, they can change your gauge.
5. Block Swatch
Block your swatch the way you plan to wash your finished garment (or else risk spending 2 months on The Amazing Growing/Shrinking Sweater). If it’s superwash and you’re going to put it in the machines, wash and dry that sucker before you measure. If you’re going to soak the sweater if it gets dirty, soak and block that bad boy.
Do not omit this step.
6. Measure Swatch
Is it dry? Measure it carefully. Measure it again, more carefully. Measure your stitches per inch, then measure your rows per inch.
If your stitch count is off by even half a stitch, it can affect the size of your garment. Even if you’re knitting a shawl or scarf or some other project which requires very little exact measurement for fit, if your gauge is off it can mean the difference between having enough yarn (the yardage called for in the pattern) or running out.
What if your stitches are off? If you had too many stitches per inch, repeat step 4 in a larger needle size, then repeat steps 5 and 6. If you had too few stitches per inch, repeat step 4 with a smaller needle size, then repeat steps 5 and 6. Until you get it right.
What if your rows are off? If taking the steps listed above don’t also fix your row problem, you may need to make adjustments in the pattern. You wouldn’t want to knit an entire sweater only to find out it comes down to your belly button and the sleeves only reach your elbow. You may need to add or subtract rows of knitting in order for your garment to be the correct length. Pay close attention to the schema and measurements of the size you are making. Try it on whenever possible.
You will note that half of my checklist deals with swatching. It’s that important. I know, it’s a time suck. It’s boring. But it is so so so so worth it. So worth it.
Just remember the words of the great EZ: “A swatch is not wasted labor by any means; it makes an excellent pocket…” – The Opinionated Knitter, Elizabeth Zimmermann
“Now, let us all take a deep breath and forge on into the future; knitting at the ready.” – The Opinionated Knitter