A Swatch Guide and the Importance of a Good Gauge

I've been experimenting with some different yarn types lately and have been really intrigued with mohair and merino wool knit together using a technique called "double stranding" where the two yarns are held together and knit as if they are one. To see my swatch, make sure to check out my post Knitting with two strands of yarn - mohair and merino.

As much as I love to dive right into a knit project, it is very important to get a sample swatch knit first and make sure that the gauge matches the pattern. What is a gauge you ask? And how do you use it? Let me tell you what I know and convince you to always knit a swatch and calculate your gauge before starting any knit project!


What is a gauge swatch?

  

How to do a good gauge swatch

Depending on the yarn you are working with, you will use the recommended needle size and determine how many stitches to cast on in order to get a 4" by 4" square. The label should provide some gauge for suggested needle size for either stitches per inch or number of stitches in a 4"x4" swatch. Take whatever the number of stitches for a 4" swatch is and then add 8 stitches, 4 garter stitches for the right and left border. 

For example, for my sprout sock fingering weight yarn, the suggested needle size is US 2 and the gauge is 32 stitches for 4" (see left label above). I'll use the 32 stitches then I'll add 8 stitches 32+8=40 stitches need to be cast on to create my gauge square.

A garter stitch border should be used to prevent curling of stockinette stitch. Knit 6 rows of garter stitch, then switch to stockinette with the first and last 4 stitches remaining garter stitch for 4", then knit 5 rows garter stitch before doing a standard knit bind-off. That's it!

If you are using a textured pattern such as bobbles or lace for your project, you should use that for your swatch instead of stockinette and you may need to cast on a few more or less stitches so that you will still end up with 4" of work for a good gauge measurement.

Why use 4"?? Because it's taking an average measurement which helps with accuracy. For only one inch, you my have a quarter of a stitch or even an eighth of a stitch that you cannot measure easily or accurately just by looking, but over a width of 4" those fractions will be much easier to determine by counting the stitches to the whole or sometimes half a stitch. Here's what I mean - let's say over 1" it seems like you count 5 stitches but it could be a fraction of a stitch at different places in your work. If you measure over 4" you count 21 stitches exactly and consistently. So your gauge per inch is 5.25 stitches per inch and that quarter of a stitch was difficult to accurately measure just by looking. 

There are special swatch rulers you can get that are 4" x 4" square that will make life super easy for counting your stitches, just use the little window and count them up!

Here is the one I use all the time. Clover Swatch Ruler and Needle Gauge


How do I use the gauge?

The importance of a gauge

Once you have counted your stitches for the 4" gauge swatch, compare both the stitches and rows to the pattern you are using for your project. Hopefully it is the exact same and you can follow the pattern just as it is stated and you will get a perfectly fitting garment when you finish your object. If you are designing your own pattern or making some adjustments, you can take the gauge number and divide by 4 to get the number of stitches you will have per inch. Then use that ratio when determining widths based on inches, such as wanting a scarf that is 8" wide, take the number of stitches per inch and multiply by 8 inches and you will have the number of stitches you need to cast-on.

A word on rows

For the most part, the rows aren't used as much when following a pattern. If you have the same stitches per inch but your rows are off you should still be fine as most patterns instruct you to knit until you reach a certain measurement, not a specific number of rows. The reason the row gauge would be important is if you are designing a pattern and are performing increases or decreases over a specific number or rows that need to be done within a certain dimension. The row gauge would be used to do a little math and determine when and how to decrease or increase.

If your stitch gauge is slightly off by a stitch or two this can make a HUGE difference in the finished dimensions of the garment, especially if you want something more form fitted! Let me explain it to you in numbers. Let's say that I am knitting a fitted sweater that has a circumference of 36". If the pattern suggests a gauge of 18 stitches but I have 19 stitches, that is an extra stitch per every 4" and for the 36" garment, that will be an extra 9 stitches. Still may not seem like much, but those 9 stitches are equal to 1.89" or almost 2"!! So instead of having a nice fitted 36" garment, you now have a baggy 38" garment... so take the time to check your gauge. This can also be important when knitting a project in the round versus knitting flat, make sure to check out my other post in the gauge swatch series, "Knitting in the round versus working flat, what's the difference?"

Determine the needle size (or type)

Another great benefit of getting a gauge swatch is making sure you like the feel of the yarn. The tension greatly determines how the garment will feel and behave so if you don't like the tight compressed stitches, you can select a different needle size or a different yarn all together for your project. For my mohair and merino wool double strand swatch, I started with a size 5 but felt the stitches were too tight so I tried again with size 6 and loved the lighter squishy feel of the looser tension in the stitches. Often times for mittens you want the tension to be tighter so that no cold air will seep through and freeze your fingers so you would use a smaller needle size you normally would for the yarn in your project. Once you get the feel of the stitches the way you like, create your swatch on the needles you want and measure your gauge.


What if I have MORE stitches per inch?

So you've got your perfect gauge swatch but your stitch count is off from the pattern GRRR!! Don't lose hope! This can be an easy fix just by using a different needle size. If you have MORE stitches that means your tension is tighter than recommended so you will need to go UP a needle size. As tedious as it may seem you should knit a gauge swatch again on the new needles to make sure the gauge is exactly as it should be for the pattern. 


What if I have LESS stitches per inch?

If you have LESS stitches per inch that means your tension is looser than recommended and you will need to go DOWN a needle size. Another suggestion would be to use a different needle type. Metal needles tend to have less friction than wooden needles and this may lead to looser stitches. If you are working with metal needles, try using the same size but wooden needles to see if that tightens your gauge. (Same goes for trying to loosen your gauge if you ended up with MORE stitches per inch and you were working with wooden needles, try using the same size but metal needles to see if that loosens your gauge.)

Best practices

1. Keep it!

It is suggested that for any yarn in your stash you keep your 4x4 inch swatch for reference and you can have a catalogue of swatches. I love this idea in theory and I will strive to do this for my swatches I make for projects. But let me be honest with you, sometimes I don't want to waste my yarn in a swatch. I've been in the habit of making a small swatch to get a gauge measurement then ripping out the swatch to wind back up in my ball of yarn. But let's see what that swatch really costs you and look at the pros and cons.

Let me break it down a bit. I bought my sprout sock yarn for $32 a skein which is 510 yards and 136 grams. That is about 6 cents per yard and 23 cents per gram. The 4x4 inch swatch weighs about 9 grams so that will be equal to 9x.23= $2.07. For another look, that is 9/136 or 6.6% of the skein and is about .06617x510 or 33.75 yards.


2. Always do it regardless

So you are using up almost 7% of your skein to create the swatch and it costs a little over $2. I would say it's not an insignificant amount, but is it worth stressing over to save a knit sample to reference back to before, during, and after working on a project? I would argue no. It's more important to make an accurate gauge to use before starting your project and remeasure as needed or just admire how beautiful the yarn is. You should always ALWAYS do a gauge swatch before starting any project! What I would recommend though is be prepared to rip it out in case you are near the end of your project and you are several yards short on your yarn! You would want to use that precious bit of yarn from your swatch so you don't have to buy a whole new skein. The only time this would be an issue is if you knit a gauge in the round and you ended up cutting each strand in the back of the work to allow it to lay flat for gauge measurements. For more info on knitting a gauge in the round, check out my post here "Knitting in the round versus working flat, what's the difference?"

3. Block and/or wash

Another tip for best practices is to block your swatch and even wash it before getting your gauge. This would be the absolute most accurate way to get a gauge BUT to me it seems like a step that may not always be necessary. If you are a perfectionist, go right ahead! But for the rest of us know that light blocking will stretch a garment out a tad and wash something with great care and it will behave the same way pre-washing (basically don't aggravate it and it won't felt up on you). Your right-off-the-needles gauge will be good enough to get the information you need for your project!


That concludes my mini lesson on creating gauge swatches. I hope it was informative and I've convinced you to always knit a gauge swatch and perhaps even start keeping a collection of your swatches. I plan on keeping mine from now on! What other questions do you have about knitting a swatch? Other tips I may have missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Make sure to read the other posts in my swatch series

Knitting with two strands of yarn - mohair and merino

"Knitting in the round versus working flat, what's the difference?"

Comments

  1. This is a great article! A very good endorsement for doing a gauge swatch! I hadn't thought about the cost of it before. And I usually convince myself to buy at least one "extra" skein. The cost of doing the swatch to insure I'll love the project seems to be good value! Thanks for a new way of thinking about swatching!

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it and it was informative. I felt it was an interesting perspective to look at cost and wanted to share with the knitting community. Thanks!

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  2. Great job for publishing such a nice article. Your article isn’t only useful but it is additionally really informative. Thank you because you have been willing to share information with us.
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