How The Swatch Saved The Day, or At Least, The Bonsai

Sandi's Wise Swatch

Thank you for the hilarious comments, and all the helpful suggestions, that were in the comments on Wednesday's post about the fate of the Bonsai Tunic. I did not realize that the resolution of a problematic UFO would be considered a "cliffhanger," but I should have realized that rescuing a sweater from the frog pile is one of every knitter's most…uh…breath-taking…adventures.

(By the way, because so many have asked the same question…to "frog" a project means to "rip it, rip it, rip it." Say that out loud to yourself and you'll hear froggie sounds, see?)

Fortunately for me, no frogging was necessary on my Bonsai. I came perilously close…but was saved by my swatch. Really. I made a little photo portrait of it above, resting on top of Norah Gaughan's original garment, with a little butterfly to set it off, just to show my appreciation.

So let us once again consider the lowly swatch. We grumble and moan about knitting it, we wonder if we can get away with knitting one that is five stitches wide and five rows long, we resent it because we feel that it takes time away from our "real knitting." However, every now and then, the Swatch proves its worth.
Norah Gaughan's original Bonsai Tunic

In this case, I was totally puzzled by how my Bonsai came out after I blocked it: too large, gauge way off, with an extremely drapey fabric (this would have been truly lovely for a shawl, but wasn't what I needed for the Bonsai). I got a little sidetracked by the whole switching-needle sizes issue, but that did not fully explain the problem.

You see: My swatch fabric did not look like the fabric of my finished garment. The swatch held its shape; it was firm; it was also delightfully soft with a bit of lovely "crunch," and had a nice sheen to it. My garment was more flowing, less crunchy, less firm. Same yarn. Same exact knitting needles. Same knitter.

As a reality check, I examined Norah's original sample Bonsai, which I was fortunate enough to have around the office. The texture and appearance of her garment matched that of my swatch. In contrast, her finished Bonsai and my finished Bonsai looked like they were made out of two different yarns. They weren't. Different colors, yes. Different yarns, no.

The key to this mystery was: How did my swatch differ from my finished Bonsai?

Blocking Tutorial (Part One and Part Two)

When I got the lovely bamboo yarn for the Bonsai, I dutifully sat down to swatch. I will admit that the swatching was accompanied by some impatient growling, some toe-tapping, perhaps even some less-than-knitterly utterances. I persevered, because I had never knit with a bamboo ribbon yarn before, and I wasn't sure which type of needles (wood, metal, plastic) would give me the best gauge results. I will further admit that I was such a Bad Swatcher that I did not follow my own swatch guidelines. What I did right: The swatch is done in three sections, each section knitted on a different size needle (set off by garter ridges). What I did wrong: Each section is barely 2" long— not enough to get an accurate gauge measurement. Bad me.

Nonetheless, I do get points for this next bit. Once I bound off, I proceeded to do what I always do with my swatches: I washed the swatch just as I would the finished garment. I do this so that if there are going to be any issues with shrinking, stretching, or fading, the swatch and I can have it out right then and there, and come to an understanding before an entire garment is produced. I washed the swatch the way I wash all my handknits: Fill the bathroom sink with lukewarm water, dash in a bit of no-rinse soap, let the item soak for a while, then rinse in cool water, and lay flat to dry. for this particular swatch, I also added a final bit of steam at the very end with my steam iron.

Anyone see where this is going yet?

Let's fast forward to the pieces of my finished Bonsai. I decided to use them for my blocking tutorial (Part One and Part Two), so I pinned them out on my fabulous blocking board, sprayed them until they were damp, and let them air-dry. I seamed up the whole thing…and found myself with a flowing Bonsai Tent (as seen in Wednesday's post).

Ta-Da! A Bonsai To Be Proud Of

The difference was that I soaked, rinsed, dried, and steamed the swatch, whereas I only sprayed the finished garment until damp and let it air-dry. Soaking the swatch allowed the water to completely permeate the bamboo fibers; after drying, the steaming applied just a bit of heat to set the stitches in place. My finished garment had not had the benefit of the full-on water-and-steam treatment.

Talk about an "A-HA!" moment. I popped my Bonsai into a sinkful of water, dried it, applied the tiniest bit of steam, and voila: my Bonsai is adorable.

Following your suggestions in several of the comments, I also sewed up the V-neck a bit (1.5" [3.8 cm]), which was the final finishing touch to customize this pretty top to my particular curves.

So I take it back. My swatch did not lie. It was telling me the truth the entire time, and I just wasn't paying attention.

The Swatch is good. The Swatch is wise. Listen to the Swatch.

Sandi Wiseheart is the editor of Knitting Daily.

What's on Sandi's needles? First of all: I believe that the Bonsai no longer counts as a UFO, so my UFO count is now down to 17. The pullover for my husband is nearing the armholes, and I think I need to work on a certain pair of lace socks.

Other Things You May Like to Check Out:


Knitting Daily Blog

85 thoughts on “How The Swatch Saved The Day, or At Least, The Bonsai

  1. I need to “Be One With The Swatch” myself. This has been a fabulous story. Thank you Sandi. I am guilty of making my swatches too small and not a realistic size for proper measuring. I am going to print off “The Swatch is good. The Swatch is wise. Listen to the Swatch.” and maybe cross-stitch it on a small picture for my Wool Room.

  2. I’m so glad you were able to rescue your tunic. It is so pretty on you.

    I always have a huge mental block about blocking by completely soaking a project, for some reason it really I am really scared that I am going to ruin it. But situations like this make me realize that it really helps, not hurts. Does anyone else find it scary?

  3. Wow! Way to go! I love Wendy’s idea of cross-stitching your saying for her “wool room.” Actually, I love the idea of a “wool room!” Hmmm… do you think the kids will mind if I take over their playroom? Just kidding!

  4. Yay Sandi! So did washing, etc., actually bring the garment back to size, or just let you block it to the right measurements? And will you have to block it next time you wash it so it will fit? If so, I confess…I’d probably throw it in the dryer for “shrinkage”. Of course, I don’t know what this particular yarn costs, so I might not! It certainly does look lovely now. Congratulations.

  5. Ah-Ha! I have a completely finished entrelac vest that is saggier and longer than I would like. I followed the swatch, followed the directions and was sadly disappointed with the finished project. I have worn it once and it has been sitting in a drawer so that I wouldn’t fuss and worry about the results constantly. This weekend it will get a full dunk and I bet it will fit better to my liking. The swatch is good, the swatch is wise, listen to the swatch! Thanks, again, Sandi for your wisdom.

  6. Wow. Confession: I’ve never washed a swatch. (bad me, bad me) Your story is inspirational. I have a sweater that I put in the basket.It fits my husband terribly. Of course, I have not yet blocked it… so maybe it will all come together in the water?? I’m counting on it, though until this moment I’d been planning to frog parts of it and reknit it smaller. (cross your fingers) Thanks!

  7. I learned a long time ago that “the Wages of Sin Is Not Counting Your Gauge.” One gadget that works for me is a Knitters’ Rule which measures guages from 3 to 8 sts. per inch. Pattern works has it and the sheer convenience is worth it. Very intresting comments, too.

  8. I have to admit that I only swatch when I have no intention of even coming close to the original gauge (so I can calculate out new stitch and row counts). For example, right now I’m making a child’s cardigan from Jade Starmore’s Burrell Collection, except in thicker yarn and bigger needles because it’s for grown-up-size me.

    Having said that, one way to talk yourself into a swatch is to make it a speed test, as in “Hm, how fast can I knit in this pattern stitch”? It’ll force you to memorise the pattern and you’ll improve your technique, too. Caveat: if you’re one of those knitters who knits tighter/looser when you speed up/slow down, obviously a swatch is a place to pick your middle gear.

  9. I’m considering making tee shirts for myself and my girlfriends who knit that say on the front “The Swatch is good. The Swatch is wise.” and on the back “Listen to the Swatch” (with full credit to Sandi, of course!). 🙂

  10. So to quote Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”. It’s a good lesson! Don’t just prepare the swatch for the gauge, but also to see how the fabric re-acts to washing and even a little steaming if needed.

    I loved this story!

    Your tunic looks great Sandi! Wear it proudly!

  11. The tunic is lovely! I think that will be a spring project for me. As far as bamboo yarn goes, I made the Josephine top with bamboo yarn and it goes into the washer and dryer. It’s held up beautifully!

  12. Yes, that is a fabulous saying, and I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate it into the Xmas gifts for my knitting group. A t-shirt sounds like a great idea! Or little knitted doily-esque affairs, with the saying knit into it in another color. Something….. Thanks again Sandi, you’re the best.

  13. I do have a blocking question that arises out of the bonsai saga: I have a sweater that’s cotton–my knitting group says don’t bother to block it–is this correct? Or should I iron it a little? It’s a gansey knit (lots of pattern in k/p and twisted stitches, with some cabling). Thanks for any help!

  14. You’ve just proven my latest Knitting Rule: Don’t Panic. I keep deciding I’ve counted wrong, I should be knitting/purling, the pattern’s wrong… but when I take a deep breath and really look at the knitting or the pattern? It’s fine.

    Glad yours turned out great. Congrats!

  15. I see that the top looks much better. I still think it and you would look top drawer if you invest in an uplifting bra. Your breasts ,as a rule,should lie between your elbow and your shoulder. Look at your foto!

  16. Sandi, Thank you for sharing the solution to the Bonsai Boo-boo, and also thanks for modeling the newly-renovated model. Since my figure is much closer to yours than to the model in the original photo, I’m now interested in knitting this for myself, since it looks so good on you!

  17. I found the same yarn change with Manos Cotton Stria. If you knit to the recommended gauge, your swatch will look very loosely knit – which isn’t normally acceptable for cotton yarn. BUT when you wash the swatch, the yarn blooms and the resulting fabric is beautifully soft and full. It’s very difficult to knit a whole sweater that looks too loose – you have to keep repeating, “it’ll be OK – look at the swatch!”

  18. Thank you thank you thank you. I just finished my very first sweater and it is way too big. I now have something to attempt since I also steam blocked it prior to seaming up.

    If that does not work, then I will simply finish the sweater and donate it to someone who might be able to wear it.

    I am really pleased with my results, it is simply too large.

  19. Hi everyone, to all those who can’t find “Stitch of the day”, this happened to me too, but I’ve figured it out. Go to the top of the email and click on Today’s Post. Then Hey Presto! You will find stitch of the day down the right hand side. Just click on it. from Barbara, Down Under.

  20. Sandi, I am so happy for you. Your tunic looks fantastic – especially when we get to see it with your lovely smiling face. Thankyou so much for sharing your knitting journeys with us – I look forward to every email!

  21. Ooooops, now I KNOW why I didn’t finish those socks!! I went to frog it, and it wasn’t size 6 needles….it was SIZE 2 NEEDLES!! The sock is totally froged………and so are the needles. It is just ridulous to have size #2 needles !! 🙂

  22. The Swatch is good, The Swatch is wise…LISTEN TO THE BLASTED SWATCH!!!!! YES!!! Someone agrees with me at last!

    I can’t tell you how often I have told my knitting students this very thing. The swatch is very much needed..especially if you are going to altar an established pattern.

    The swatch saved a pair of socks from total embarrasment, ridicule and utter humiliation! I respect the swatch. The swatch is my friend. I do not disobey the swatch. The swatch knows all!! It really does!


  23. Yeah! You saved the Bonsai! It looks great! What a fabulous lesson you have shown us! I am going to make it my mantra:
    “The Swatch is good. The Swatch is wise. Listen to the Swatch.”
    Thanks so much for all your hard work in putting together one of the BEST Blogs on the net. I love learning from you and with you! Kathy aka knittin’ cacher.

  24. I’m glad your swatch helped you and saved the day for your bonsai. But… sometimes… swatches lie. Sometimes when we knit a swatch, conditions aren’t the same as when knitting a garmemt such as stressiness. Or knitting skills improvement over time. Or needles change, maybe because one gets lost or broken or re-purposed…

  25. It sounds like you will need to revise your blocking tutorial and advise people that the steam-blocking method you used may not work on with all fibers. If not, a future knitter may face the same problem you had with the Bonsai top. Anne Marie

  26. wow!!! it turned out marvelously beautiful! and what a great fit. I’m sad to say my feza sweater is put together and not looking too good on me. Neck is toooo big. So I am going to see if I can add a bit of edging and close it up some. Argh!!! otherwise I have to completely take it out and frog it. I just don’t know how the fibers will handle being brutalized. Wahhhh…


  27. Sandi you are SO lucky! But what about not switching to the smaller needles? Didn’t that have any effect on your Bonzai? I’d really like to see a before and after pic side by side so we can really see the difference that correct handling makes. Good job, your swatchness!

  28. It looks like two different garments! No matter how skilled we are, how long we have knitted, how creative we are, there is always more to learn. But I must say that I never think of frogging as a bad thing. I always think of what I have learned from the mistakes. Sometimes trial and error are the only way to make it beautiful – including swatching and frogging.

  29. Well, that’s just not fair. Your swatches turn out NOT to lie. Even my washed swatches prevaricate. But the lesson is still good. I’m remembering that it might not be my swatches. Maybe it’s my math skills. I love this blog. Keep them coming.

  30. Thank you for this post. it was an eye opener for me as well. Never realized how important the washing/blocking of the swatch is! I’ve really learned. thanks, again. K

  31. Oh, Sandi, how I love to read your comments! My UFOs are no longer guilty secrets. Talking about this with a like-minded friend, she remarked, “Well, stamp collectors don’t actually USE the stamps they collect, do they?” And we agreed, we enjoy having some of our UFOs and yarns and fabrics just because we like them. Everything good about that! And now, I’m off to try the wisdom of the swatch, which I’ve always ignored before, but now am persuaded is the wise way to go!

  32. Wonderful Sandi – good for you. Now if I could be as disciplined as you about swatching. I have never ever washed a swatch !!! I’m knitting a sweater now for the 3rd time (frogged twice) … still don’t have a swatch – I’ll let you know how this turns out. At least now I know how important it is to swatch. Loved your bonsai.

  33. Beautiful job on the bonsai! It looks great on you. Now I want to do one (I wanted to the first time I saw it anyway, so now I will have to do it.)

    Cool observations on the swatch and believing in what it did in full water exposure. I need to listen to my swatches better.

    By the way, I wash in lukewarm water too, nearly everything, and a quick swish or two really helps any unevenness in stockinette stitch. Glad to meet a fellow washer.

    marianne r.

  34. What a wonderful happening…and I was just wondering how to ‘fix’ it….and it was just a matter of doing all the same steps, in the same way, to get the same results…..just so down to earth and practical..sounds like a knitter thinkin inside box….delighted you share such insight……..

  35. So, what you’re saying is, 1) wet blocking actually caused the yarn to shrink. From what I’ve read, I thought blocking “relaxed” the yarn and allowed you to make the garment larger. 2) We should really wash the swatch AND then steam or spray it if necessary.(Agreeing with Anne Marie above), maybe washing is the main way to see what the swatch will do.

  36. (Just wondering, Sandi: If you hadn’t had us on the edges of our knitting chairs, holding our breaths, nervously awaiting the next installment, would you have put the tunic in some faraway land at least for a few months or maybe decades?) I, for one, do appreciate being able to breath again. Your Pursuit Of The Truth is awe inspiring. Would that I were so dedicated!

  37. Sandi, I so enjoy the posts from your heart, head, and sense of humor. They’re like a quick chat or note from a dear friend! Not stuffy, too serious or full of yourself because you know so much more than many of us about our craft. It’s been a hassle this week here at home and you have brightened several days of it. Thanks, Joy

  38. Thank you SO much for sharing this story with us. Your humor-filled honesty is both helpful and entertaining. Your Bonsai Tunic looks great and the new neckline suits you well.

  39. Hi Sandi,
    Your swatch report truly deserves to be called a cliff-hanger. What an amazing way for us all to learn about a new ‘yarn’ and this vital information about its characteristics.
    You did include a link to the previous report, with the Before pic of the Bonsai Tunic on you, but the link took me to a page of text without pics. That means anyoneone who missed the first post gets the information, but not the thousand-words-worth pics side by side – Before and After the wash. I suggest you post those two pics together. What a difference it made. You look so good in it!

  40. SO IMPRESSIVE! It turned out perfect for you! Who’d have thought …. I’d have skipped the same steps you did. Thanks for sharing with us. I gotta write this one down to remember!
    Swatching & laundering a must!

  41. About the bonsai tunic…
    your experience bears out the often-used expression ‘it will be alright when it’s washed’
    (This can also be applied to dodgy haircuts)
    Anne – Liverpool, UK

  42. So there was nothing wrong with the Bonsai tunic that a good washing couldn’t fix, and the small closing of the neckline. It does look stunning on you!
    Thanks for sharing your knitting adventures with us.

  43. Wail. I just reread the post on swatching. I very religiously swatched 3 different swatches, looking for a lace pattern to use in a cotton top for me (summer’s coming down under), worked everything out, cast on and merrily knit. Only thing is, my needles, whether metal, plastic or bamboo, all develop the ‘bends’ after prolonged use. ( the only pair which haven’t succumbed are rosewood). I had swatched on bamboo but decided to change to a nice, shiny, new pair of metal needles, which I prefer for lace anyway! DO I have to start all over again?????

  44. I am so pleased that the frog did NOT have to make an appearance this time!

    The Bonsai looks so beautiful on you, and I like how you sewed up the bottom of the V so that it ends a little higher, to suit your individual figure.

  45. Hey, Sandi, I also love the way the tunic came out and how it looks on you! I’m still confused, though, about the effect of your using the wrong (larger) needle size on the end result. Did it not make a difference, in the end, did blocking ‘fix’ it, will you have to keep blocking to adjust each time, was it the fiber that ‘forgave’ the oversight…? and the questions continue 😉

  46. Your Bonsai looks great! Thank you for sharing your experience. You mentioned possible fading problems. Have you had that trouble? I had a mixture of colored and white yarn that faded. Yet, other people I talk with have never had a fading problem. (I used cold water, washed by hand, mild soap as suggested.)

  47. I have learned to love audio books…..they help to make the stockinette (spelling?) stitch just fly along…..your public library has wonderful selections….Betty Collins

  48. Swatch question ! Okay, I need to do my swatch on circular needles because that’s how I will be knitting the garment. How the heck to I do a swatch on the circular needles that I will be using for the project without casting on a gazillion stitches? This has always had me puzzled, so I thought I’d finally ask!

  49. I once made a very expensive 100% llama vest from yarn hand dyed yarn from a local knit shop. I swatched it BUT DIDN’T WASH THE SWATCH. I knit this vest in a class, where the teacher taught us to rip out our swatches and use that yarn in the project. (No mention of washing and blocking of said swatch). When I finished the vest, it fit (wonder of wonders), but the first time I washed it, it STRETCHED 4 INCHES and WAS HUGE. When I returned to the shop where I took the class, the owner (not the teacher) said I had FELTED !! it. I pointed out that felting makes things SMALLER not BIGGER. She told me I had ruined it. Said vest went to a charity group where I hope someone larger than me could use it. I noticed at the time, however, that the feel of the vest had gotten MUCH softer after I had washed it.


    I never went back to that knitting shop again.

  50. To Cherl G: Are you knitting something in the round on your circular needles? Or something flat? If it is in the round, you can start with the sleeve and use that as your swatch, or cast on enough stitches to make a 4-5 inch swatch in the round, like the beginning of a sleeve and use that. Gauge changes in the round, so you should do the swatch in the round. A local highly skilled teacher of Norweigan ski sweaters taught her class to make the sleeve first to get the gauge. Hope this helps.

  51. Every little bit of informations helps to make us better knitters. Now I will knit a larger swatch and wash it. I’m sure this will be quite a helpful lesson and save me time, money and grief.

    The top looks SOOO much better that you have sewn up the v-neck a tad. Though I like that designer and the top seemed cute, the overly open V neck wasn’t speaking to me especially not being svelte of form. Your adaption has peaked my interest and improves the look!. Translating these patterns for us breastier women is a challenge. While at first I raised an eye brow, Celia, has a interesting point about how our bras effect the look of our clothes. Especially for us gals who are shall we say ample of bosom. I am just starting knitting sweaters and such and finding patterns that flatter the larger chesty lass isn’t easy – just cause you’ve got a little bit more to love doesn’t mean you wanna look like a grandmother even if you are one. I want a nice shape without looking like I am thwarting the laws of physics by not falling forward. I’d love to see an article on how some people have learned to adapt patterns and knit to work with full figures in a world that rarely designs or designs elegantly for us full figured beauties of all ages and the odd thing is there is more of us these days than models or those under weight or even exact weight. I’d love to read some tricks and ideas of how to best knit to compensate for a less than perfect figure and what to look for in a design to see if it would flatter us or at least not make us look worse. Thanks! I enjoy the column!

  52. Brilliant story Sandi. I am guilty of never making a swatch and then not wearing anything because I’m just not happy with it. Terrible I know, the one time I did knit a swatch I just couldn’t get the tension correct even after switching needles numerous times.
    I have to say I love your newsletter and it’s probably the only one I really read. I love the way your write and the way you entertain us avid knitters. Keep up the good work. 🙂

  53. Thanks to your advice, I dutifully knitted a swatch prior to starting my current sweater. (It’s one from the Knitters Stash book.) It was good, as I found that I actually needed a smaller needle than the pattern called for. But now, I have found a new use for the swatch – or rather my cats have! I left the thing on my coffee table one day, and someone seems to have taken a liking to it. Every day when I come home from work, I find the swatch somewhere else! It is so funny. It’s not even some kind of fluffy yarn, just Brown Sheep’s Cotton Fleece. They’re not destroying it, just apparently carrying it around!