I freely admit, I was a non-believer. There was a time that I scoffed at the idea of knitting a gauge swatch. Why waste the time? why waste the yarn?? If I use yarn that is the same weight as the pattern calls for, and appropriate needles, I’ll be close enough. And if I’m off just a little, it won’t matter; or I can somehow make adjustments as I knit.
Well, close enough may be fine when you are talking about a lace shawl or scarf or something else that doesn’t have to actually fit. When talking about something like a hat, however, gauge does become important and when you are considering a sweater, gauge is essential. Ignored, and your project is unlikely to fit the intended wearer. I can speak from experience here, as the producer of not one or two but many hats that were either 1) large enough to be used as a grocery bag, or 2) so small they would barely fit onto an orange. Mostly the first. And sweaters large enough for a linebacker. And socks too small to get over the toes. The problem becomes even more pronounced when you are changing yarns entirely – a pattern written for bulky but you want to use worsted – or when you are dabbling in pattern writing or modifying an existing one. Or when you are trying to fit someone with unique shaping (like an especially bulbous head, for example).
Gauge is simply the number of stitches and rows that you are getting with your chosen yarn and needles, in a particular stitch. It is best to knit a 4″ X 4″ square in the desired stitch (or larger, if needed to fit a repeat), and then wash and block it however you will for the final project (including tossing into the dryer, for machine-washable yarns). It is important to knit your swatch how you will knit your project – in the round, or flat. Your gauge is likely different for each method. For in the round, just make a little tube on DPN’s or magic loop a circular needle.
To measure your gauge, lay your swatch out flat and unstretched, and count the number of stitches you have in a 2″ section near the center. You must count partial stitches, too! Move your ruler around and double-check your counts. Depending on your project, you will also want to know your row gauge – you can usually get away with ignoring this on projects where you “knit until XX” long” but if your project tells you to knit a certain number of rows, you better try to match the recommended gauge.
Here are five really good reasons to knit a swatch.
1. You can test out a stitch pattern on something small, before you commit to casting on 847 stitches. This is how I learned that I really hate nupps. Cables are another really good thing to practice on a swatch, because they pull in a lot, which can distort your fabric. Colorwork, too (intarsia / fair isle).
2. You can see if you like your combination of yarn & needles. Are you satisfied with the resulting fabric? Or is it too loose / tight? If you are making socks, you want a firm fabric, but in a scarf you want something with more drape. We all knit differently, so while one person may knit a drapey, swingy cardigan with Noro Silk Garden, another person may knit up planks of fabric so dense it’s waterproof.
3. You can see how the final fabric will act after laundering. Many yarns soften up but some can lose their bounce, or stretch out beyond recognition. Better to learn that on a little swatch than on a sweater, lest ye end up with gorilla arms.
4. Washing will cause many yarns to “bloom” – soften and fuzz out a bit. You might like this effect, you might not.
5. Swatching will bring you closer to having a project that fits. It will enable you to sub out yarns in a pattern, make size modifications, or create your own patterns.
A real-life gauge example: I’ve knit a couple of hats from the Turn a Square pattern recently, a fitted beanie hat. The pattern calls for yarn I don’t have, at a gauge of 5 stitches per inch over stockinette in the round (this is important, for most people knit tighter in the round than they do flat). At this gauge, the hat will fit a person with an average head size of 22″ or so, with some negative ease – meaning, the hat is supposed to be snug to the head and stretch just a bit when you put it on. What you want is a hat slightly smaller than the actual head it will warm; I aim for 1″ of negative ease in these kinds of hats, so this hat should end up 21″ around. Scary math time: 21″ times 5 stitches per inch equals 105 stitches around. The pattern rounds that down to 104 for an even number.
Thing is, my gauge was 4.5 stitches per inch (see photo above). 21″ times 4.5 stitches equals 94.5 stitches around. If I’d gone with the pattern as written, I would have had two inches of extra hat circumference (104 minus 95 is 9 stitches, divided by 4.5 stitches per inch is 2 inches). That’s a big difference, and would have made the hat floppy on the wearer’s noggin. Not how a beanie is supposed to fit.
Isn’t it amazing what a scant half stitch per inch difference in gauge can do? I know it is tempting to ignore such a small thing, but multiplied over a hundred stitches, it adds up. Multiplied over several hundred – as for a sweater – and the results are catastrophic.
You gotta trust me, spending twenty minutes on a gauge swatch can save you hours of time and frustration. I want to enjoy my knitting, and having ripped out countless projects due to gauge denial, I see gauge swatches as a small sacrifice to my knitting happiness.