Adapting a Pattern For a Thinner Yarn : 1. The Gauge

This post is part of a series which will be written as I’m knitting a project in a much thinner yarn than is used by the original pattern. It’s primarily intended as a guide to myself for further reference and, if needed, so that I can pin down what went wrong.

Preamble : The Curse

I’m the repeated victim of a Curse. I call it the “Pattern Curse”. Invariably, the story begins the same way : I see a pattern on Ravelry, and it’s love at first sight. It’s such a pretty thing that I need to knit it. I think about it. I sometimes dream about it. I order yarn for it. After a few days’ wait, I find the yarn in my mailbox. I anxiously open the package, and there it is, in all its glory, its softness and its lovely shades. And it usually is at this point that the curse strikes, taking the form of a perverse revelation : the pattern I had fallen in love with, I so desperately wanted to knit, the pattern for which I had ordered the yarn — this very pattern is clearly not good enough for such loveliness.

Some three weeks ago, I fell in love with a wonderful pattern — Veera Välimäki’s Laneway.  As my birthday was getting close, my husband ordered the yarn for me as a present. I chose two different yarns I wanted to try : one was Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Sock in “Rockwell”, the other Isager Alpaca in pale blue, two fingering weight yarns.

Softness and beauty — Lorna's Laces on the left, Isager on the right

Softness and beauty — Lorna’s Laces on the left, Isager on the right

I was completely delighted by how they felt and looked when they arrived. And, of course, the Curse hit. All of a sudden, Laneway didn’t feel right. Would it really do justice to these glorious colours ? Was I sure I would wear it — after all, this wasn’t the type of clothes I usually wear, was it ? Before I knew it, I was searching Ravelry’s database, looking for that perfect pattern which would make my new yarn shine and sing. I was sure of two things : 1. I wanted it to be long, like a tunic or a mini-dress, and look nice over trousers ; 2. I wanted it to have some stripes.

This is what I settled for : a Drops design poetically called 151-6. (To be fair, its actual name seems to be Orchid Bloom, which is a bit of a mystery since I spot some fairly big leaves, but nothing looking like any kind of flower.)

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Notice how I swapped a perfect pattern for a — sorry, Drops — rather dull one. That’s typical of me. But then, I wonder if that’s not what I like in this pattern : it seems to have lots of unexploited potential, like a blank canvas waiting to be transcended by colour and texture. Laneway, on the other hand, is a design with lots of personality, maybe too much and too different from mine.

As you can see, this Orchid Bloom sure is long, but it has no stripes — and, more importantly, it is written for a much thicker yarn than fingering weight.

I did not allow such trifles to deter me from my aim, though. I made a sketch of what I had in mind, colour-wise :

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As I said, it is only a sketch (and a not very good one), but it shows I’m planning to knit the yoke and the bottom lace edging with the darker, variegated yarn, the rest in blue, and to add some Stripes above the lace edging and the sleeve cuffs. I’ll also probably make the body a bit shorter, but, if I have enough yarn, make the sleeves long instead of three-quarters length. So far, so good.

Serious Matters Begin Here

Now when I begin a new project, I usually (let’s say two times out of three) knit a swatch to check my gauge. This, of course, is to ensure I get the right number of stitches and rows per inch (or per centimeter) so that the garment won’t be unwearable because it’s too tight or too large (if I don’t get the stitch number right), or because the raglan yoke, for example, is too short or too long (if I don’t get the row number right). Here, since I plan on using a yarn of a different weight, the good news is that I don’t need to match the pattern’s gauge. I do need to do two other things though :

  • first, ensuring I’m using the right needle size for those yarns, that is, that I’m happy with how the fabric looks once it’s washed and blocked ;
  • second, establishing the new stitch and row numbers, so that I can do my math and convert the numbers given by the patterns into the right numbers for my yarn.

That sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it ? Don’t worry, that won’t last. I spoilt everything by running the risk of knitting really tiny swatches, and thus of getting not quite accurate results, just because I don’t think I have too much yarn for this project. And besides, being thrifty with one’s yarn is a good thing, right ? So here are my swatches, or rather my two swatches in one, each presenting the grand number of (ahem) 15 stitches over 15 rows and knitted with 3mm needles. 

Colours here are fairly accurate.

Colours here are fairly accurate.

After careful measuring, both yarns gave the same results of 3 stitches and 4 rows per centimeter (that would be 7.5 stitches and 10 rows per inch). There is a noticeable difference in texture, though ; the alpaca is more stretchy than the sock yarn. I’ll have to keep that in mind.

So, I now have my gauge. Next step will be adapting the numbers given by the Drops pattern so that they work with it.

Blocking And Gauge Issues

The sweater I wrote about in my last post is almost finished. It is now drying slowly, waiting only for the ends to be weaved in and cut. But I’m now doubting wether my friend will actually be able to wear it.

A few days ago, I was reading this post over on Yarn Harlot. At the end, she answers a few questions about blocking, addressing in particular some complaints that blocking sweaters causes them to grow in size and turns them into tunics or dresses. This, does she explain, is caused mainly because the garment was knitted with a gauge problem : the fabric, not tight enough, reveals its actual texture after it has been sitting some time in water, allowing the fibers to “bloom” to their natural shape. “That’s not going to happen to me”, I thought smugly. “I’m a tight knitter.”

Right.

Today I washed that purple sweater, let it soak for some twenty minutes in tepid water, and then went on to spread it on a towel and put it into shape. It was huge. And not only that, but washing and blocking made plainly visible something I hadn’t even noticed before : the sweater, made over two different periods of time, is also knitted with two different tensions.

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See this picture here ? That’s the right sleeve. The colours are awful, and I apologize for that, but what that picture shows is that the sleeves are knit at a much tighter tension than the body. If you look closely, you can clearly see a difference in the fabric density before and after the sleeves stitches are picked up from the raglan part. The lower part of the sleeve seems to be a slightly lighter colour, because the stitches sit tightly against one another, while the upper part appears darker, because there are gaps in the fabric through which the other side of the sweater shows. This is purely a tension issue. Both parts were knit on needles of the exact same size. And guess what ? The tightly knit parts held their shape and size all right.

So, blocking here did reveal a serious gauge issue. Is that sweater too big because I blocked it ? Not at all. It is too big because of an underlying problem that was here from the start. Actually, this incident made me really happy that I’m in the habit of blocking pretty much everything. If I hadn’t done it, what would have happened ? My friend would have happily worn it a few times, then washed it, and it would have come out too big. She would probably have thought it was her own fault and she had just ruined, by washing it the wrong way, that nice thing I had taken time to make for her.

Could I have avoided it ? Yes, totally. When I began that sweater, I knit a swatch. I measured the swatch. It seemed about right, and I was concerned about not having enough yarn, so I frogged it and cast on. That disaster would never have happened if I had simply taken time to wash and block the swatch. Then my tension issues would have been made plainly apparent and I could either have knit tighter or gone down one needle size. But because I was lazy, overconfident and in a haste to cast on, I didn’t and now have an oversized sweater on my arms.

Let’s hope I’ve learned my lesson.