I really wish I could just read a pattern…or write one for that matter…for a boiled wool sweater. But this is where the rubber hits the road with gauge, both of the stitch and row varieties. You really do have to start with swatching. And I don’t mean a wimpy little 3 inch dealy. You want a good big 8-10 inch square whopper. I started by casting on 60 stitches. I gave it a good garter border all around, then knit until it was square. I actually knit two of them so we can compare them as we get further along.
Then we need to know how many stitches per inch. That sounds like a simple thing, and it is…sort of. It has been said by many a sad knitter that swatches lie. Like a good interrogator, I make them repeat their story over and over looking for any inconsistency that might give me a clue about when my swatch is lying and when it is telling the truth. When I measure my gauge, I count the stitches per four inches, the stitches per two inches, and the stitches per inch. Then I do the division. I do this at three or four different places in the middle of my really big swatch. If I’m coming up with a consistent number, I feel reasonably confident that my swatch is telling the truth.
In my case, I came up, pretty consistently, with 5 stitches and 6 rows per inch. Then I measured the over all dimensions of the stockinette portion of my swatch. Why the stockinette section? Because garter and stockinette have different gauge, and will shrink differently. I’ll be knitting my sweater in stockinette so it is the stockinette I want to focus on. My swatches measured 10 inches wide by 9.25 inches tall. Make a note of these numbers. You’re going to need them more than once as you figure things out.
After you’ve precisely measured your stitch and row gauge, it’s time to shrink your swatch. I did mine by hand, though you can throw it in a top load washer with a bath towel if you prefer.
A little hot water, some soap and lots and lots of agitation.
You actually want to be kind of rough with it. Swish it around in the water, squeeze it, knead it like bread dough. When the water starts to get cold, add more hot and keep going.
You want to aim for agitating it until it has gotten as small as it is ever going to get, and you can’t readily see individual stitches or rows any more.
When you’ve achieved maximum shrinkage, measure the stockinette portion of your swatch and recalculate your stitch and row gauges. Since you won’t be able to see your individual stitches or rows, you’ll have to do this by simple division. Measure the stockinette portion of your swatch, and divide by the original stitch and row counts of the stockinette portion of your swatch.
Make note of these new gauge numbers. Then, just for fun, calculate the percentage of shrinkage. In my case 9 inches wide by 7.5 inches tall, which means 10% shrinkage side to side and 19% shrinkage top to bottom.
Once you have all these numbers swimming in your head, go take a nap. You’ve earned it. We’ll talk about casting on next time.