Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Technical Bits: The Trials and Errors of the Tension Square

I'm cross posting this article from my IngridNation blog because I thought it might be useful to some of you to read a bit about tension squares and swatching. I resolved this year to knit more swatches. I'm terribly lazy about this most of the time and sometimes it does not matter so much, such as with scarves, but it is very true that being just one or two stitches or rows larger or smaller can make a substantial difference to the finished garment. I've recently been knitting up tension squares for the Sun-Ray Ribbing jumper Knit-Along on knitonthenet's sister group A Stitch in Time - 2008 on Ravelry and it has brought home to me how important it really is.

The Trials and Errors of the Tension Square

No, not the Gauge Swatch, my friends across the Atlantic: the Tension Square. Must be properly British, you know…

Actually, that comment was prompted by my Mum asking me what on earth I was talking about when I mentioned that I was swatching for a jumper last week and then made comments to the effect that my Nan (who taught me to knit) would ‘turn in her grave if she had one’ to hear me say it! So, for my Mum and my Nan, I will be talking about tension squares.

Stack of Tension Squares for Sun-Ray Ribbing

If you’re a member of the A Stitch in Time group over on Ravelry, you will know that we’re starting a Knit-Along (KAL) on Friday 8th January. We’re knitting the pattern Sun-Ray Ribbing from Susan Crawford and Jane Waller’s book A Stitch in Time. The garment is a lovely 1930s jumper with the quintessential sun-ray pattern, popular in design and architecture of the period. I’ve been knitting up tension squares to test out different yarns for the project over the past couple of weeks and after quite a bit of heartache ( more of which later) have come up with my final decision.

Swatches for Sun-Ray Ribbing

These are the same swatches as in the first photograph, above. You can see from this photograph the importance of making tension squares in deciding the final yarn and needle size to use. It really is essential to make sure that your square is knitted to the right size, as a little bigger or smaller at this size (generally 4 inches) could make a difference of one or even two sizes in your finished garment. The pattern instructions will ask you to knit a certain number of stitches and rows over a desired size. Below are my attempts to get the right tension, the right yarn and the right needles for this pattern.

The square top left is knitted in Rowan Cashsoft 4ply, as called for by the pattern. I used the suggested needles but as you can see, it came out rather too big, as I knit a little loosely. I had a number of other yarns to try out, and on the top right is the same yarn in a different colourway, knitted on needles a size smaller. It came out just right, but I’m not so keen on pink for this jumper and decided to keep it for a cardigan. I was set on a green so tried out some double knitting yarn that I had in my stash (bottom left) with the smaller needles, and while the density of the knitted fabric was better the tension square was much too large. My last attempt (and in all honesty the yarn that I really, really, really wanted to use) was with some Artesano Aplaca 4 ply. I knitted it up with the smaller needles again, but despite my best efforts to talk myself into using it, the tension of the fabric was really too loose and holey. It is a rather thinly spun 4ply in contrast with the much bouncier Cashsoft.

Bearing this in mind, and revisiting my stash yarns, I found that I had enough Sirdar Country Style DK in a warm mid-brown to make the jumper. It is a wool/nylon/acrylic mix which and I wasn’t sure if it would have enough spring to retain the shape of the garment as wool would, the tension square turned out quite well, so I’m going with it. Although my previous attempt swatching DK yarn turned out rather large, this is more thinly spun and similar to the American sport weight yarn. Using the smaller needles it actually knitted exactly to the right tension, so that is what I’ll be using.

Final tension square (middle)

There’s still time to join the Knit-Along for Sun-Ray Ribbing if you’re on Ravelry, and if you don’t fancy that pattern, we’ll be having another in April, so do join the group and get voting for your favourite pattern from A Stitch in Time and get your tension squares on the go.

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Anonymous karen mayger said...

Thaks, this is very helpful, I am just starting a swatch in a smaller needle size as the one on 4 mm needles turned out 11 cm rather than 10 cm. Wish me luck, I am detemined to get this right and take part in the knitalong!

6:42 pm  

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