Assignment Three: Measure, Block, Measure, Math

This next assignment in our Spiral Sweater Knitalong involves a bit more of the thinking and the mathy bits of knitting the perfect sweater than most knitters like to admit as necessary. Really, I tend to think that we are all better off learning the rules behind designing a sweater, and then using the wonderful patterns the designers come up as more of suggestions than paint-by-numbers. And honestly, while there are a few numbers to be juggled, the math is simple and straightforward. I already wrote about it in general terms here, but now it is time to walk through it in explicit detail.

I’m here for you. I’m holding your hand. We’re doing it together, and if it still doesn’t make sense after you read this post, we’ll talk through your example in the Ravelry forums.

First step is to pay some close attention to the swatch we’ve just knit. Here’s my unblocked swatch, taken off the needles and strung onto some waste yarn. It is not a good idea to try measuring a swatch while it is still on the needles. You want the stitches all relaxed and flexible for accurate measurement.

Okay, I’ve mentioned a lot of this before, but just to make sure it’s all in one place. Before you wash your swatch, take a look at the way the fabric looks. Maybe even take a photo. Measure it for either stitches and rows per inch in the case of simple patterns, or in the case of lace like this, for repeats (both horizontal and vertical) per inch. More on this in the after-blocking portion of the lecture. All of this is to help save your sanity in the case that the measurements change significantly – and it doesn’t take much to be significant! – between pre-blocking and post-blocking. Write these numbers down! You may decide that a little mathematic double-checking is necessary if your garment looks totally wrong halfway through the knit. Write everything down, and in one place, because the one thing you don’t write down will be the one thing you’ll wish you had.

Okay, and a bit on blocking. We all have our own favorite ways of doing things. I pretty much always wet-block my creations, and in my experience, almost entirely with wool and animal fibers, my method works great and is the way to go. One advantage that washing your swatch provides over steam or even spritzing with a spray bottle is that it tells you what your garment will look like after it’s washed the first time. Is the yarn going to bleed? Is it going to fluff out like crazy? Is it going to felt the moment you look at it cross-eyed? Every garment needs washing eventually. You may as well know the results up front. Also, I have a horrible relationship with all irons, and my method has never failed to work a charm.

So here is exactly what I do. I run the sink full of room-temperature water, usually with a bit of wool-wash (still using the same bottle of Eucalan I bought about eight years ago – it only takes a tiny drop) mixed in. There is nothing wrong with using a drop of your own shampoo or some mild dish soap in a pinch. I turn the water off, then gently lay the swatch/garment in the water, using my hands to push it down to the bottom. It often takes a bit of soaking to get all the air bubbles to float out, but having a bit of soap in the mix does help with that bit. There should be minimal (as in none) of the swishing, scrubbing, agitating motion that one is tempted to do as when washing delicates. It is amazing how much dirt can float off just by letting the thing soak in the sink for 10-15 minutes.

Alright, then you gently lift the thing out of the water, being sure to support the whole soppy mess with both hands so that it doesn’t stretch out from its own weight. Lay it on a big ole towel, and roll it up like a jelly roll cake. At this point I usually give it a gentle squeeze to get the water soaked into the towel. Other people swear by the spin cycle on their top-loading washing machines, or their salad spinners for this purpose. I have two old towels dedicated to the procedure, and I’m sticking with them.

And then all that’s left is to spread the thing out on an appropriate surface – like one’s guest-bedroom bed covered with a vinyl tablecloth and maybe another dry towel on top of that. Or a rug or those fancy foam puzzle-piece thingies that are gaining popularity. Whatever. If it’s a swatch, it likely needs a few pins at the edges to keep things from rolling, but don’t stretch the fabric out tight unless you plan to do that to the finished garment every time you wash it. For a lace shawl or scarf – yes. For a sweater like ours? No!

Wet wool behaves a bit like playdough. It is malleable, and once dried it tends to maintain the shape into which you’ve poked it. It takes a few minutes, but it is totally worth plucking at the bobbles to get them to stay on the outside of the fabric instead of sinking to the back.

Whew! That’s done. Put a fan on the thing, walk away and let it dry. If you block it in the morning, it should be mostly dry by the time the kids are in bed. If you block it after the kids are in bed, hopefully it should be ready by the time you’ve washed the breakfast mess up in the morning. Now it’s time to get serious about the measuring. These are the measurements that really count, the ones we use for our calculations.

For lace patterns like this, I like to put a couple of pins at the beginning of a couple of repeats a few inches apart. That way, I can be sure of the start and finish points of my measurements. Plus, it makes a better picture for the blog, and which I can go back to later when I’m double-checking all my steps because I’ve lost confindence that I’m doing it right. I can’t be alone in this!

Handily enough, in this case I’ve got four repeats and they’ve come out to four inches. So on average, each vertical repeat is an inch tall. I also measured this on a longer scale, and it turned out to be true overall for the swatch.

And Dammit! I thought I had a picture of the measuring tape going horizontally across the swatch, but I can’t find it now. Trust me, though, I measured the entire width of the swatch in several places and it came out to – let’s say it was 3″ wide. I’m sitting in the dark of my kids’ room even though it is 11:15 in the evening because Sophie is having trouble sleeping. Don’t even get me started with that. So we’ll use 3″ as our example for the moment. It is better for this project to know the width of the entire strip than to worry about stitches per inch. It keeps things simple because the different stitch patterns have different gauges, and we’re going to be using the same set of stitches throughout the body, so we may as well just pay attention to the whole strip rather than the individual stitches.

You will also need to know the length of the strip before the stitch pattern starts. I suggest you put a pin or a stitch marker into the spot you designate as the beginning of the first repeat so that you can measure and count consistently. I don’t have that number in front of me right now, but we’ll come back to it in a bit.

Now we need to move on to measuring something else. Most of us have in our closets at least one sweater in which we are comfortable. Hopefully, we feel that the sweater in question is flattering to some extent. This doesn’t have to be a hand-knit sweater – a commercial one will do just fine. It does help if the sweater is shaped in generally the same style of the sweater we’re knitting, and in generally the same thickness. I’m going to use my finished spiral sweater as an example.

First, we measure the width of the sweater laid flat. In my case, it’s 19″, and if I double that I get a circumference of 38″.

Check the lower edge of your sweater to make sure that it’s the same measurement. If not, your sweater is probably shaped. If your sweater is of the longer variety, that’s probably not too much of an issue – just run your tape measure around your own waist and make sure the actual measurement is not bigger than the one you took for the chest circumference of your sweater. If it is, we may need to add a bit of ease. That would be something to discuss over in the Ravelry forum.

Okay, then you need to take similar measurements of the arms at the wrist. You’ll need to double that number (4.5″ x 2 = 9″) to get the circumference of course.

And do the same for the upper arm as well.

We’ll talk about the math for the arms in maybe the next post, but you may as well take all the measurements at once and mark them down on a little picture kind of like this:

I suck at drawing, but am finally able to do little sweater sketches after years of trying. Oh, and I’m reminded – you’ll need the measurement from hemline to underarm as well. Mine was 15″. Oh, and from sleeve cuff to underarm.

Whew! This post is getting long, but luckily we’ve done enough to get us through the main body of the sweater. Almost. All you need to do is figure out how many repeats, plus the ramp-up portion of the strip, it will take to get your body circumference. It’s incredibly easy. Just take your desired circumference for the body, subtract the length of the ramp-up before the stitch pattern, then divide the remaining number by the repeats per inch. So. 38″ circumference minus 10″ ramp-up equals 20″. Since my repeats worked out to one per inch, I needed 20 repeats of the lace pattern. Once I knit my strip to that length, I can join it together as I showed in that previous post and start climbing the spiral staircase.

And then you have to worry about how far to go – how many times around. It’s easy enough. Look at the measurement from hemline to underarm. In my case it’s 15″. Divide that by the width of the strip. 15/3=5. Of course, most cases won’t come out that cleanly, and I’d say round down, so if it’d been 15/3.5=4.285, I would have taken the whole number of four. And you’re saying Woah! I don’t want a *shorter* sweater! But don’t worry. You’re probably going to be picking up stitches and knitting down for a border at the bottom to keep the mess from rolling. that will allow for some adjustment once the sweater is nearly done and you’ve tried it on.

The only catch is – don’t forget to ramp your spiral back down to a point at the top. If you start your decreasing when you are straight above the point of the beginning of the strip, the end of your strip should land directly above the end of the increases at the beginning, and you will have a nice balanced cylinder.

Oh, I know I have left out some detail or other. Don’t be afraid to ask. It is late at night, and I am distracted by insomniac children and other less important stuff. Let’s keep this fun and collaborative – I love the way things are going so far. Also, nobody fret if they’re feeling behind. This is a casual knit-along, and you’ll have the benefit of comments from the overachievers in the crowd.

Now I’m off to knit a few rows before bed, hopefully to finish my first strip and get ready to join my sweater round together before the end of the world. Knitting time has been at a minimum this week!

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