While it’s tempting to skip the swatch (and every knitter does at least once), knitting groups and clubs are full of cautionary tales that knitters pass along to each other as a warning of the perils of skipping the gauge swatch: the sweater that was 2 sizes too big, the shawl they couldn’t finish because they ran out of yarn…
Swatching is important if you want the finished piece to be the size stated in the pattern and also to make sure that you have enough yarn to complete the project.
What Is Gauge?
The 2 types of gauges most commonly referred to in knitting are:
working gauge - the gauge you calculate while the project is on the needles
blocked gauge or pattern gauge - the gauge you calculate after you wash and dry the project
Most patterns will state gauge after blocking so you will have to knit a gauge swatch then wash it and dry it as you plan to wash and dry the finished project (or as per the directions on the yarn tag) to get an accurate measurement.
Gauge is the measurement of how many stitches per inch/centimetre and how many rows per inch/centimetre the designer got when knitting a certain stitch pattern with a certain sized needle. In order to achieve the same size project as the pattern, you need to match the designer's gauge. This means you knit small sample squares, wash them, and measure them until you find the right combination of needles and yarn that give you the gauge in the pattern. There is no right or wrong gauge.
For example, gauge for a sock pattern might be 8 stitches and 12 rows per 1 inch/2.5 centimetres using 2.25mm (US 1) needles in stockinette stitch after blocking. That is the designer’s gauge. The gauge s/he got knitting the sample socks for this pattern. Your gauge when working the same pattern stitch with the same size needles and yarn may be different. And that’s ok.
What If You Don’t Get Gauge?
Using our example, if you have fewer than 8 stitches per inch, you need to re-swatch with a smaller needle size. If you have more than 8 sts per inch, you need to re-swatch with a larger needle size. Click here to download a worksheet to help you keep track if you need to make multiple gauge swatches.
What If You Can’t Get Both Stitch Gauge And Row Gauge With The Same Size Needle?
As a rule, stitch gauge is more important than row gauge. If you can only match one, always go for stitch gauge. You can compensate for row gauge by working more or fewer rows, but it’s much trickier (and requires a lot more math) to compensate for stitch gauge.
Always Swatch As You Intend To Knit
Gauge is a finicky and elusive beast. Everything affects gauge. Your gauge can change from wooden to metal needles, from straight needles to DPNs, from cotton yarn to wool yarn. You probably have a different gauge when working flat than you do when working in the round. This is why you need to swatch using the needles and yarn that you intend to use for the project, in the knitting style you will be using for the project. Using socks as an example, socks are worked in the round, therefore, your gauge swatch needs to be worked in the round.
If your sock will be knit using DPNs, your gauge swatch will need to be worked with DPNs. Ditto for Magic Loop. Ditto for 2 circular needles.
If the designer gives gauge in multiple stitch patterns, you need to swatch in all the stitch patterns. Just because you match gauge in stockinette stitch, doesn’t mean you’ll also match gauge in a lace or cable pattern.
Swatching In The Round
Knitting in the round is different than knitting flat because there are no wrong side rows, so you need to work your gauge swatch without wrong side rows. However to make swatching quick, and consume as little yarn as possible, there is an easy way to work a gauge swatch in the round but flat. Click here to see a video where I demonstrate swatching in the round.
Measuring A Gauge Swatch
Here are some tips for measuring your gauge swatch:
If the pattern provides gauge for both inches and centimetres, use one or the other, but never both. And use your preferred standard of measurement consistently throughout the pattern (as in, don’t measure your gauge swatch in inches then follow the pattern instructions for centimetres)
Measure stitches and rows away from the edge of the swatch as your edge stitches may have a slightly different gauge than your centre stitches
Be sure all the stitches you are counting are on the same row (this is why it may be more precise to use a hard ruler instead of a measuring tape)
When counting stockinette stitches, I count the right leg of each ‘v’ stitch as 1 stitch
When counting garter stitch rows, each garter ridge is equal to 2 rows
When counting garter stitches, each ‘frown’ shaped bump is 1 stitch (you can count either the ‘frown’ or the ‘smiles’ but don’t count both)
Don’t stretch the swatch to measure the stitches unless the pattern says that gauge is measured while stretched