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Is there anything as painful for a designer to read than declarations that a knitter didn’t make a swatch and check their gauge? “I always get gauge,” is almost just as cringe-worthy and indicates a fundamental misunderstanding about how a pattern’s gauge is determined. There’s no swatching conspiracy– designers ask knitters to do it because it sets them up best for a successful project, not because we delight in wasting your time.

Here’s where a pattern’s gauge comes from: A designer knits a responsibly large swatch on the needles of their choice, washes and blocks it, measures their personal gauge, and then bases all of the math used to calculate the pattern on their personal gauge. That’s it. The needle size the designer used is almost always the size listed in the pattern. If the designer knits a little tighter than you, they might use larger needles than you need. If they knit a little looser, they might use smaller ones. You just don’t know. There’s no directing board of pattern gauge who decides that all patterns knit at 4.5 stitches to the inch must be knit on US 8/5mm needles, not US 7/4.5mm needles or US 9/5.5 needles. You might be able to always match a specific designer’s gauge if you always use the same yarn and needle sizes as them, but that’s about it. “I always get gauge,” just means you haven’t knit a diverse number of designers’ patterns and/or gotten adventurous with yarn substitutions and needle brands. Some day you won’t get gauge, and it’s a lot less frustrating to knit swatches before you start than to re-knit an entire ill-fitting sweater.

So please knit a swatch. And please don’t tell the designer you didn’t because you always get gauge. And if you ignore this advice, please don’t blame the designer for your sweater being too big or too small.

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Once you’ve embraced knitting swatches, there are a few things you need to do to knit a good one.

You should plan on making your swatch in the main stitch pattern that’s used for gauge in the pattern with at least a 5in/13cm square of that stitch pattern. To figure out how many to cast on, assume that you have the correct gauge. Pattern typically list gauge over 4in/10cm, so divide the stitches per in/cm by 4 or 10. Multiply the resulting number by 5/13 and add on 4-8 stitches for a non-rolling edging. That’s how many stitches you’ll need to get your swatch started. Work in the given stitch pattern with your non-rolling edging until you have a square.

Wash and block your swatch like you plan on washing and blocking your finished item. You’re going to wash your sweater some day (I hope) so don’t skip this step. Some fibers are particularly rebellious when they meet water. Linen and silk have a tendency to relax and drape, which can change your stitches to rows ratio. Some wool and alpaca yarns will expand and get extra fluffy when washed. Superwash wool likes to stretch, and it can sometimes snap back if you throw it in the dryer, but not all superwash wools behaves the same way. To block your freshly washed swatch, you’ll want to treat it like you will treat your sweater. I never pin out my sweaters, so I don’t stretch and pin my swatches. I just lay them flat and reshape by nudging them into shape with my fingers on my drying rack. Washing and blocking takes time, but it’s best to find out what your knitting is going to do before you’ve committed to a needle size and spent weeks on your project.

Once your large, washed, blocked swatch is dry, the next step is the measure 3-4 4in/10cm squares within the 5in/13cm stitch pattern square of your swatch. Note down all of the different stitch and row counts, and then take the average. That’s your gauge! Does it match the pattern? If not, it’s time to knit more swatches. Here’s a list of things to try if your first attempt at matching gauge didn’t work out.

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I understand that this is a frustrating piece of the process if you’re itching to start your sweater, but it’s an important step, and it’s not something that experienced sweater knitters skip. There are a few things you can do to make it less miserable, though.

Think of swatches as a taste-test to try a new yarn, and knit some swatches before you ever have a project in mind. I’ll often pick up a single skein of an interesting yarn and knit a few swatches on different needle sizes. I keep track of my swatch and needle pairings with photos, but you can also use purl ridges in a bottom corner or knots in the yarn tail to indicate the US needle size. It’s a good, low-commitment way to try new yarns, and if you want to buy more to use for a project, there’s chance that you already have a swatch on hand to tell you if it will work or give you a jumping off point for needle sizes.

Related, knitting multiple swatches at once can spare you some frustration. Knit one in the suggested needle size, one above, and one below, and wash and block them all at the same time. When your knitting is dry, you’ll hopefully have a winner in the mix. And don’t forget that swatches are one of the best portable knitting projects out there. They’re fast, small, and simple, so they’re good for working on the bus or while chatting with friends.

Last but not least, don’t forget that finished projects are just really huge swatches. If you knit a different project in the same stitch pattern and yarn relatively recently, all you need to do is measure your project or check your Ravelry project page to find out your gauge.

In conclusion, please knit a swatch. Please check your gauge. Designers don’t beg knitters to do this because we like to waste your time. We ask you to do it because it will give you better results more consistently.

10 Comments

  • I will admit to not knitting swatches very often, but only if it meets very specific criteria: the gauge is measured in stockinette, I’ve knit with the yarn base before, and I have gotten the *exact* st/row count with a specific needle. I actually have a page in my knitting notebook that lists my needle sizes as correlates to gauge on Tosh Sock and Dream in Color’s Smooshy bases. So far this has not led me wrong, but I also realize I am an oddity when it comes to my tension uniformity over the years.

  • Even if I’ve knit a swatch, I still like to start with the sleeves if it makes sense with the pattern. I cast on my best guess at circumference based on my first swatch. If they end up a little big, maybe I’ll decide that it’s meant to have 3/4 sleeves. If it’s on the snugger side, a 3/4 sleeve vision might be revised to a full length sleeve. I also find my gauge tightens up when I hit my groove knitting in the round. Of course, this is not applicable to a top-down cardigan.

    I also like the EZ suggestion of knitting a hat as a swatch.

  • I always knit a swatch, often severals, because I’m a bit of a loose knitter stitch wise but really tight row wise. Only once I met gauge for a sweater.More often than not I have to make crazy math to get everything right.

    It used to bother me at the first but now I just do my swatch in advance and accept the fact that one day wait hurts me less than to have to rip an almost finished garment.

  • I learned the hard way that swatching is a must do.Thank you for this article. It’s good to be reminded of the reasons for having to do the “Swatch”.

  • I suspect you get a lot of complaints about wrong sizes and it must be the fault of the design? I used to work in a yarn store and we would get similar complaints about yarn and, by default, the person who sold it. Just because the ball band says it’s the exact gauge of your pattern doesn’t mean it will be that gauge when YOU knit it. Yes, sometimes you have to do math and change needle size or pattern size. Own your knitting. It’s not paint-by-numbers.

    • I sometimes get complaints that blame the pattern for making a sweater that’s bigger than they wanted, which could be either an issue with checking gauge or one related to choosing sizes. What I most frequently get are disappointed, slightly-accusatory comments about how the knitter always gets gauge with my pattern so they didn’t expect the one they were knitting to be any different. I don’t take the blame personally, but I do wish those knitters were more proactive about the success of their projects because a sweater is a big time-investment!

  • Sometimes different colors of the same base yarn will swatch up at different gauges and I haven’t been able to figure out why. Maybe the dye concentration affects things? I generally don’t have this problem with my own hand dyes but commercially dyed solids have definitely behaved differently. As a result, I always use the same yarn and color that I plan to make the sweater from.

    • I think it has to do with the bleaching process. Bleaching can really effect the plumpness of fiber (and human hair as I’ve recently discovered). If you’re dyeing your own, you’re likely working with bases that start off at the same level of bleached, but commercially dyed yarns likely don’t bother bleaching fiber that’s destined to be darker colors the same way they would for lighter colors.

  • I will admit that I kick & fuss & try to wiggle out of having to knit a swatch too. But I really like your idea of making random swatches to get an idea of how a skein of yarn will knit up. In fact, I have one in my backpack now for my bus ride knitting. Hopefully this will help me get over my distaste for swatches. Thanks for the idea! 🙂

  • Yep, gotta say I had to relearn the lesson myself recently. I don’t always swatch if it’s a scarf or shawl where the finished size is not all that critical. But I made a hat recently without swatching–just a hat, right? Not a huge investment like a sweater. It knit up great and I was right on gauge–or so I thought until I dropped it into a basin of water for a quick soak…and watched it grow by about two inches. It was a bamboo blend and all the things I love about drapey bamboo worked against me in this case. So even if you “always get gauge,” be aware that every yarn acts differently!

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