The Fishbone Shrug: A little swatching, maths and a great pattern

Today, while I sit here in the heat I want to share with you my penultimate finished object, The Fishbone Cardigan by Neringa Ruke of Ruke knits. Oh my, how I love this, and so it seems do others who’ve complimented it when I’ve worn it.

The Fishbone Cardigan by Ruke Knits

When I saw this cardigan I was drawn in by the sculptural qualities of the surface pattern in the design and knew wanted a yarn that would emphasise that texture with strong stitch definition and great memory. In my stash I had some grey long discontinued Rowan Magpie Aran yarn that I love. I love it because it is a robust but still soft, plump rounded proper aran weight yarn, there’s no flirting with worsted here.

Back in 2009 when it was all the rage, I knit a February Lady cardigan by Pamela Wynne with this yarn in purple and have worn it loads since. It still looks great, if a little snugger (that’s down to me and the menopause, not the yarn). With time and increasing rarity value, I had been saving and perhaps more accurately and appropriately given its name, hoarding this Magpie yarn for a special project. Part of the issue was also that I was limited by the fact that I didn’t quite have a garments worth, but had enough to make me reluctant to use it on multiple accessories. So I began to wonder whether I had sufficient yardage to make a Fishbone without the full sleeves. Modifying to a shrug rather than long sleeve cardigan would transform this into the perfect throw over, shrug off, knit. That way it could accommodate my hot flushes while also staving off the icy chill of the community library where I volunteer and which is glacial in winter.

However, as the title of this post suggests this project also made me think a little more about swatching and how effective swatching gives you wings as a knitter. Apart from leaving off the sleeves and instead replacing them with a ribbed cap I made no other modifications to the actual pattern, despite knitting with a yarn that worked up to a significantly different tension/gauge than recommended and that’s where the maths came in, but now we’re running ahead, lets have a little chat about swatching.

Swatching can be a prickly subject.

I know some people who think of swatching as an unknown territory best avoided. While other people wonder what all the fuss is about and talk about swatching as a seamless integral part of the overall process.

Rarely however are we so simply divided and I, like so many others, fall somewhere in the middle.

I can’t say that I’m in the ‘swatching is like a first date’ school of thought who approach swatching with that mix of excitement and anticipation that accompanies a first date. You know what I mean, you’ve heard the talk; Will this be the one; Will the yarn behave as I think it should; Will it remain true to its fibre and spin characteristics or will there be surprises; Will it be the perfect coupling of yarn and project?

I also don’t hate swatching, it gives me information that I need to know before I proceed to my project. If I was being a little harsh I’d liken it to the government guidance that gives me the information I need to submit my tax return, something you need to work through but gain little pleasure from. You see, knowing what we need to know, while crucial, isn’t alway that exciting.

Perhaps if I was a little more adventurous in my yarn usage, swatching would mean more to me. Often however, especially as I’m knitting mostly from my stash at the moment, I’m using yarns I’ve used several times before. I already know I love them, that’s why they have houseroom, and I know their key characteristics. I know how they bloom when washed. I know how they soften. If one picks up the relationship analogy here again, I’m past the honeymoon period, I’m still in love, I recognise the virtues of my yarn, I know how it behaves and I know from experience any shortfalls it may have. Sometimes I even have previous swatches of the yarn, labelled with needle size and everything, that I can refer back to. With some yarns I have previous garments or accessories that also tell me how the yarn will hold up over time and wear.

I know there’s a lot of excitement generated by new yarns and I do often share that, but there is also something to be said for finding the yarn that meets all of your criteria and sticking with it for a while. The only problem is when that yarn is then discontinued and you get that feeling like when your favourite band splits up. You have all the previous albums but re-listening now accompanied by a certain melancholia.

One of the lessons I learned, or should I say re-learned in swatching for this project is that I should have a little more patience. I wonder how many hours of collective knitting we’ve all had to un-knit because excitement got the better of us and we started in less than optimal conditions. i. e with insufficient thought, focus or light, and an excess of wishful thinking.

I was caught out by a combination of these, my impatience meant that even though it was late at night, I was so excited by the pattern I wanted to at least make a start. So I grabbed my need tips and cable, and yarn, and swatched. I though the fabric looked a little more dense than I would have expected with this yarn and a 5mm needle. But I switched the tips for 5.5mm needles and continued swatching. This time my fabric was much looser and frankly a little unstable and certainly not what I was looking for to hold this stitch pattern in the way I wanted. I was surprised at the difference half a mm would make in the fabric so looked again at the first set of tips I’d used, this time under a bright light and saw that whilst they had been put in the 5mm section of my needle case, they were in fact 4.5mm needles tips. In this light the fact that the fabric was much more dense than I had expected of a 5mm needle made total sense, and on that revelation I decided to stop swatching, go to bed and come back to it in the morning.

The next morning I swatched again with actual 5mm needles, the recommended needle size and while I didn’t get gauge I did get a fabric I liked the look of. At this stage I washed my swatch, because after all I wash my knits and want to be sure that they hold up and retain the fabric characteristics I like in my swatch, and importantly, that they either retain the tension/gauge I have, so that I can compensate for any changes before I start knitting, rather than lamenting them in the final garment. After all, unwashed swatches lie considerably more often than washed ones…

Once my washed swatch had dried I was ready to take my measurements again and, using my gauge, work out how to proceed. My gauge was 16.5 sts and 22 rows to 4 x 4 inches (10cm x 10cm) compared to the pattern gauge of 20 sts and 21 rows. So my stitches were wider and shorter than those the designer got using her chosen yarn for this pattern. This isn’t really a surprise given she used a more luxurious yarn blend of baby alpaca, silk and cashmere; fibres that are renowned for their drape, while my Rowan Magpie a 100% pure new wool yarn is decidedly not. So, armed with this information it was now time to do some maths and explore my options.

To do so I turned first to the pattern schematic which somewhat unusually did not include measurements in centimetres and/or inches but stitch and row counts. The schematic was supplemented by a table showing finished measurements across a number of parts of the garment for each size in a table. Using the stitch and row count schematic was actually just as easy in terms of working out how to adjust my approach to my gauge. I knew I was aiming for finished measurements closely approximate to the medium size with its 47.6 inch bust circumference and 8.3 inch upper arm girth. I also knew that I wanted to err towards a shorter body length, closer to the 17.4 inch small size, and although there was little difference here compared to the 17.7 inch medium, I really didn’t want to be going any longer.

My first step was to convert the stitch and row counts for the medium size into inch measurements based on the designers gauge as listed in the pattern. This gave me the cross body measurement for 1/2 the body as the garment is knit flat, the back first, then over the shoulders to the fronts and seamed along the sides. Then I took my stitch gauge and the stitch counts for the small and calculated the width of the small body stitch count in my gauge. This was 3 inches bigger than the medium at the recommended gauge so I did the same for the XS size which came up 1 inch bigger which was just fine.

Then I needed to do the same with my row gauge. Given that this was closer to the original, it just took me one row more to get to 4 inches, I decided to go with the row counts for the medium which over the full length of the back would have shortened the garment by the 0.7 of an inch I was looking for to be closer the small than medium length.

This combination of XS stitch count with Medium row counts and minus the sleeves made me relatively confident that I would be able to complete the shrug with the 700m of yarn I had compared to the 664m required for the small and 830m for the medium.

In the end I had enough yarn to make the collar a little deeper and finished with 10g of yarn remaining and I didn’t even have to frog my swatch.

As for the knitting, I have to say I really enjoyed it. The stitch pattern is easy to remember once you get going. The ‘cables’ are easy to do without a cable needle, and the designer includes links to video tutorials for various aspects of the pattern in case any of it is new to you. I checked these out and they’re also my favourite type of tutorial, clear, straightforward and straight to the point.

Rear View of the Fishbone Cardigan by Ruke Knits

The shrug knitted up in no time, 5mm needles after all, and before I knew it I was wearing it to the library and it’s perfect. In the time it has taken me to get round to this blog post we’re now in full summer and I won’t be wearing it again until the autumn but I’m already looking forward to it.

I’m not sure I can really convey how pleased I was to find his pattern. Not only did it allow me to turn a much cherished yarn into a much cherished garment, which in itself is not to be underestimated, it also demonstrated that there is still knitting after Ravelry!

Now that I can’t use the site to peruse new pattern releases and purchase patterns, it was great to come across a new to me designer, via the Loop London newsletter and blog, and be able to buy the pattern direct from the designers own site.* Without having Ravelry as a one stop shop for everything I may ever want and more, I have been consciously curating my designer and shop newsletter subscriptions. Post Brexit, a lot of the stores I used to buy from are no longer shipping to Europe so I’ve been cancelling some subscriptions and trying out others. Whilst this has been forced upon me in many respects, its nice to get away from an algorithm and user base that foregrounds a small number of designers and begin to effectively build my own algorithm based on my own preferences and interests. So a lastingly positive experience all round.

How has your knitting been treating you recently? Have you seen your practice developing not only in terms of your craft but also how you interact with the wider industry and community?

Til next time,

Take care

Tess xxx

*At the time of writing and adding the link, there is a sale at and the Fishbone pattern, among others, is 30% off…

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