Swatching is a big deal. It’s hard to overstate the importance of a large, carefully knitted swatch to a well-fitted finished garment. Taking an hour (or two, or a few) now to swatch and measure is so worth it, because you’ll be able to relax into your project and know that you’re going to be successful. However, we’ve found that this step is often skipped by our customers and students — they cite the time it takes, how it doesn’t always match their project gauge, or, most often, that they’re not quite sure how to swatch properly. Our aim is to explain the steps, then help you troubleshoot so you can be successful!
First, grab your pattern. We’re getting ready for a Vitamin D knitalong, so that’s what we’re using as our example. Kirrmaier calls for sport weight yarn with a gauge of 24 stitches and 32 rows to 4 inches. She’s using a size 4 needle, and working in stockinette stitch to achieve this. It’s important to keep all of this information in mind when selecting your yarn because different brands recommend different gauges and needle sizes on their labels than what you’ll see listed in a pattern. Let’s take a look at the two yarns Celeste is considering: Fibre Company Road to China Light, and Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino (used as the example here). They’re both listed as sport weight yarns, but have slightly different gauges and needle sizes on their labels. Road to China Light states 24-26 stitches = 4 inches on size 4 needles; Baby Cashmerino rings in at 25 stitches = 4 inches on size 3 needles. We know that in the range of needle sizes from 3-10 or so, each needle change will mean a change of approximately half a stitch per inch. So, Road to China Light is potentially okay on a size 4 if she can get the 24 stitches the label suggests, but she may need a size 5 if the swatch comes in at 26 stitches=4″, the high end of the gauge range given on the label. Why a 5? Well, the difference between 26 stitches (high end of label gauge range) and 24 stitches (pattern gauge) is 2. Spread over 4″, 2 stitches is a difference of half a stitch per inch. We go up in needle size to have fewer stitches per inch, so a 5 will potentially give the desired gauge of 24 stitches = 4″. Still with us? Baby Cashmerino is too tight according to the label, measuring 25 stitches to 4″ on a size 3. Celeste will try it on a 4, and likely get something closer to 23 or 24 stitches over 4″. Hopefully, 24! Let’s get started.
First, plan how many stitches you’ll cast on. 4″ square is a good size, but 6″ is even better. With a 6″ swatch you’ll be able to measure the center 4″ and get a true gauge reading. The larger the swatch, the more accurate your results. We’ll use the pattern gauge to plan our stitch count: if 24 stitches = 4″, then the gauge should be 6 stitches = 1″. 6 stitches per inch multiplied by 6″ equals a cast on of 36 stitches. How many rows? If 32 rows = 4″, then the gauge is 8 rows = 1″. 8 rows per inch multiplied by 6″ equals 48 rows. Settle in to watch a good tv show, and get to work! Try to relax and knit as you normally do — it’s important to be in a similar state of mind, because mood can impact gauge. When you’re done with 6″, bind off, wash, and block as you plan to do for your finished sweater. Lay flat to dry, pinning as needed. When your swatch is dry, it’s time to measure:
Grab a gauge checker like the metal Susan Bates Knit Check one we’ve used. It’s important to avoid fabric measuring tapes, because they can stretch with use and are not as accurate. Let’s begin with stitch gauge (first photo, on the left). Working in a little bit from the edge, carefully position the beginning of the ruler at the left side of the first V-shaped stitch you’re going to measure. Take note that you are measuring full V-shaped stitches, so that you know exactly what you’re looking for as you count. Use your finger or a knitting needle as you count across 4″ of fabric. Note the number of stitches, then repeat this measuring process in two more places. Take an average of your stitch counts (add them up, then divide by 3) to find your gauge. We’re not machines, and averaging is a more accurate way to measure hand knit tension. It’s time for row gauge (second photo, on the right): turn the gauge checker 90 degrees to the left and position it at the base of the first full V-shaped stitch you’re going to measure. Again, take care to place your checker carefully and note that you are counting full V-shaped stitches. Again, measure over 4″ in three different places and average. Let’s take a look at the results:
Celeste’s swatch measured 23 stitches and 31 rows to 4″. That’s a little bit off, but how bad could it be if she just cast on and went for it? Time to do the math and find out. The pattern states a gauge of 24 stitches to 4″. Celeste has 23 stitches to 4″, a difference of 1 stitch over 4″. She’s chosen to knit the small, stated to be a 33.5″ bust. A quick calculation using proportions reveals that her difference of 1 stitch over 4″ will translate to 8.375 stitches over 33.5″, or an extra 1.45″ around the bust. That’s not such a big deal if she wants a 35″ finished bust, but she’s really hoping for the 33.5. So how do we fix it? A difference of 1 stitch over 4″ is not easily fixed with a needle size change; chances are, she’ll go to a 3 and get 25 stitches over 5″ and end up with a sweater that’s too small. However, Celeste swatched on bamboo needles. . . and tends to knit just a little bit tighter on metal. She’ll reswatch on a size 4, this time in metal, and hopefully be able to get gauge. This is a good point to keep in mind for future reference, and for projects you’re currently working on — most people experience a slight gauge change between metal and wooden needles, so it’s important to swatch and knit your project on the same type. Take note of your own experiences with metal and wooden needles so you’ll know what your tendencies are! Happy swatching!