You saw a project you wanted to make, went to your local yarn store, and picked up all the supplies you needed. Obviously, you’re itching to get started. But hold on there. Did you swatch to test your gauge before you started knitting?
Swatching is right up there with finishing seams on my lazy knitter list. I hate doing it. I admit to making many projects without first swatching, but let me tell ya, those projects sometimes didn’t turn out the way they should’ve. That’s dangerous territory when it comes to knitted garments!
Not swatching can lead to sweaters that are too large, bags that are too tiny, and gloves you have to squeeze your fingers into. Ask me how I know.
When you swatch, you’re measuring the gauge. Gauge is just how many stitches you’re getting per inch with a certain size needles and yarn.
Every knitter is different. You could hand five knitters the same ball of yarn and the same size needles, and some of them would have 6 stitches per inch while others have 9 stitches per inch. It all depends on your tension. That means that five knitters could work the same sweater, and the sweater size would turn out differently for each person.
Let’s say you’re working on a sweater pattern with a gauge of 9 stitches and 12 rows = 4 inches with size 13 needles. Knitting is your escape from your terrible day job, so you tend to knit with a lot of tension. You don’t swatch, and you knit the sweater with a gauge of 7 stitches and 10 rows per 4 inches. It may seem insignificant, but losing 2 stitches for every 4 inches will start to add up as you knit, and when you finish you’ll have a sweater that’s clinging to your body like a leotard!
Sure, you could knit tighter or looser to meet the gauge. But you wouldn’t want to change the way you naturally knit just to satisfy gauge requirements. Swatch that baby and then alter it to figure out what size needles works best for how you knit.
How to swatch
If you’re working from a pattern, the pattern will specify the gauge for you. For example, it could say: 18 stitches and 22 rows = 4 inches with size 8 needles. It might also specify a stitch, like: 8 stitches and 10 rows = 4 inches over the Cable Pattern.
To get started, first use the recommended size needles to knit a square. Don’t just cast on the number of stitches your gauge lists. For example, if your gauge is 9 stitches per 4 inches, don’t just cast on 9 stitches and call it a day. I like to knit extra stitches so that I can take a measurement from the center of my square and get a more accurate count — especially when I’m swatching in stockinette stitch and the edges are rolling up. The same applies to the rows. If your gauge is for 22 rows, knit a dozen extra rows.
Knit the swatch in the stitch the gauge specifies. For example, if the gauge is over stockinette stitch, knit a swatch in stockinette stitch. Sometimes it might be a little more complicated, like a cable pattern or other special stitch. Take this time to not only swatch, but also familiarize yourself with the special stitch so that when you knit the actual project, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing.
After you swatch, bind off. It’s important that your swatch be measured off the needles. Keeping it on the needles can stretch it or bunch it up in places, throwing off the measurement.
Grab a measuring tape or ruler. (I use the Lion Brand knitting gauge ruler with the neat little holes in it to determine needle sizes.) Measure somewhere in the center of the square to get the most accurate measurement possible.
I knitted this swatch with Lion Brand Wool Ease Thick & Quick using size 19 needles. The result was 6 stitches per 4 inches.
Just as you measure stitches across, you need to measure rows up and down. Both stitches and rows are part of gauge. My result was 9 rows in 4 inches.
If your measurements were perfect and met the gauge requirements, it’s time to start the project.
But what if your gauge was wrong? Let’s say you were aiming for 9 stitches per inch, but instead you knitted 6 inches per stitch. That means your knitting is a bit looser than the designer’s knitting, so knit another swatch using a smaller needle to tighten up the stitches. Bind off and measure again.
If you have the opposite problem — say you were aiming for 9 stitches per inch and instead had 13 inches per stitch — then you need to go up a needle size to try and make the knitting looser.
Keep swatching and changing your needle size until you’ve reached the correct gauge. You will use those winning needles to knit the entire project.
Measuring garment swatches
Here’s a useful gauge tip: When you wear a garment, it’s going to hang vertically off your body. So why not measure your swatch based on that? Measuring flat works fine for something like a throw or gloves. But for sweaters and other garments, Lily pins the swatch to a wall or cork board and lets gravity take hold, just as it would when you’re wearing the garment. She measures and alters her swatch based on that measurement.
And once you’ve knitted that swatch, don’t rip it out. Save it so you can test how your garment will wash up. If your yarn is washable, throw that swatch into the washing machine and see how it turns out. Did it pill? Did it fade? Better to find out on a little swatch than on your gorgeous new sweater!
Want to get even more tips on fitting your knits? Sign up for the online Craftsy class Sizing Knitwear Patterns class with Faina Goberstein to learn every calculation involved in grading a range of sizes, from the initial gauge swatch through superbly shaping the garment and calculating yardage.
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