How + Why To Knit A Gauge Swatch

When a knitter picks up a new skein of yarn, or finds a new pattern, an overwhelming desire to cast on overcomes them. It’s unexplainable, but us knitters don’t ask questions…we just drop everything, find a comfy spot on the sofa, and cast on. But no matter our gusto in those first few rows, we often times find ourselves with a sizing mishap on our hands. A too small sweater or a too big hat can be avoidable by first knitting a gauge swatch.

We know, knitting a gauge swatch seems like a bummer. Why waste your time knitting so many stitches that won’t contribute to the final garment? But a swatch will save you time in the long run. A swatch will tell you how your gauge compares with the pattern designer’s, and how big your finished object will be. While exact size doesn’t matter with some projects (think: scarf), sizing is of particular importance when knitting a sweater, mittens, or hat, so knitting a proper gauge swatch is necessary.

How To Knit A Gauge Swatch

  1. Read the pattern’s direction. Simply knitting your swatch in stockinette stitch might not be enough. Stitch size differs between a knit and purl stitch, not to mention pattern detail. Follow the gauge instructions directed by your pattern so that you can make an accurate calculation of final size. You also want to pay attention to how the gauge should be knit. Knitting in the round and knitting flat can produce far different results. If the pattern does not specify how the gauge was knit, send the pattern designer a message on Ravelry and ask!
  2. Use the needles that you’re going to knit the project with. While needle size is universal, sizes can slightly vary between brand. Not to mention, that your personal tension may differ between bamboo and metal needles.
  3. Knit an entire swatch. While you may think you can get away with using a handful of stitches over a couple of rows to gauge your tension, you should take the time to knit a full swatch, which is typically a 4″x4″ square. The larger size is important so that you can see what sort of fabric your tensions creates (does it have the right “drape?”) and count your stitches in the body of the fabric versus counting the stitches on or near the needle.
  4. Measure your stitches per inch over several inches. Instead of counting the stitches that fall over one inch, count the stitches over two or three and then do the math (the number of stitches divided by the number of inches equals the stitches per inch). This will give you a better approximation of stitches per inch.
  5. Block or not to block? Some patterns will instruct you to measure your tension after blocking your swatch. While this seems like a laborious and pointless extra step, it can be important. Swatches knit with a pattern – especially a lace motif – can curl, causing an inaccurate gauge calculation. The ultimate goal of a gauge swatch is to ensure that the finished object will fit, so measure it how you will wear it!
  6. Remind yourself that a gauge swatch is worth it. A swatch will only take an hour-ish of your time, while a sweater could take up to 20. If your sweater ends up the wrong size, you should factor in another few hours to frog it, and another 20-some hours to knit it again. Save yourself the time (and mental anguish!) to figure out your sizing ahead of time!

How Do I Find My Stitches Per Inch?

Using a gauge ruler, line up a stitch with the first measurement mark. Then, count each individual stitch that fall over the 1-inch mark. For more accurate results, measure your stitches over several inches (which we explain in #4 above). In the swatch below, each pink “v” is one stitch. And when you count them, you will find that there are 3.5 stitches per inch.

How To Alter Your Gauge

If you’re getting a different gauge than the pattern, you can make a simple adjustment to increase of decrease your stitches per inch.

  • Go up a needle size if you’re getting more stitches per inch than the pattern.
  • Go down a needle size if you’re getting fewer stitches per inch than the pattern.

If you do change needle size, don’t forget to do another swatch. You may need to jump 2 needle sizes instead of 1.

Continue To Check Your Gauge

Checking your gauge at the beginning of the project is important, it’s not a bad idea to check your gauge periodically while you are knitting. Your tension can easily change, especially if you knit the project over a longer period of time.

What To Do With Your Gauge Swatches

Don’t let your stitches be in vain! You can make good use of your swatches. Here are a few ideas:

  • Knit them all in a 4″x4″ square and make a memory blanket
  • Stretch them in a wooden embroidery hoop and display as wall hangings.
  • Attach a card that has yarn info, needle size and type, as well as your gauge, to each swatch and create a reference catalog. This may eliminate the need to knit another swatch, should you pick up the same skein for another project.
  • If you have littles in your life, take a page from our Interns’ playbook and use them for doll blankets or fairy hammocks.

Let’s commit to knitting it the right size the first time! Gauge before rage!

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