Knitting and Gauge: Gauge Swatches, How to Knit Them, and Why It's Important
Grab your knitting needles and your favorite yarn! Knitting a gauge swatch will guarantee results and save you time. And honestly, don't you need a good excuse to start handling that fabulous yarn?
You just knit a sweater for the love of your life and you are horrified to see that you, who have been knitting complicated scarves and shawls for at least a year, have just committed that most comical of knitting stereotypes. The sleeves are hanging around his knees, the body fits him a little too much like a glove, and the poor guy's face is turning purple because the neck is a wee bit too tight.
What went wrong? Well... you probably didn't knit a gauge swatch. And if you had, your poor boyfriend might never have worn that sweater to his nephew's wedding and passed out just as the bride was walking down the aisle. Read on to learn the whys and hows of knitting a gauge swatch. Your love will thank you.
What is a gauge swatch?
A gauge swatch will tell you how many stitches you will have in any given amount of inches using a particular type of yarn and a particular size needles.
A gauge swatch is a vital part of knitting necessary if it's to be worn and size is relevant. If you were to knit a scarf, which is only as long as you choose, then a gauge swatch is not necessary. If you were to make a cardigan, however, and you want to be sure it fits you comfortably around the waist and the sleeves hit just at your wrist, a gauge swatch will save you valuable hours.
As a knitter, and one with severely limited time, I understand the impatience that can grip anybody drooling over a beautiful pattern. But a gauge swatch must be done if you don't want to waste hours or possibly miss the perfect weather for that cardigan (I have, out of spite, worn a sweater in the dead of summer just because I wanted desperately to wear it)
How to knit a gauge swatch
If you are using a pattern, take note of the section called "Gauge." Gauge is often given by designers in a stitches per 4 inches format. Four inches gives you plenty of space to account for half stitches (which does make a difference, as I will show you below). There is also a row count, so you may see something like this:
Gauge: 24 sts and 28 rows = 4" in stockinette stitch
That is the gauge you must get for your garment to be the size you want.
With those numbers in mind, take up the yarn and needles you would like to use for the project* (choose a yarn and needle size similar to that called for in the pattern if you're not using the recommended yarn and needles). Cast on at least the number of stitches called for in the 4 inch square then add at least 15 more stitches. The extra 15 stitches will leave more room for proper counting; without it, you may end up pulling and fussing when counting stitches, all of which inevitably leaves you with wishful thinking rather than actual stitch count.
For the above gauge, I would have cast on 39 stitches, but because I have OCD tendencies in my knitting, an even 40 will set me right. Then,
- Knit at least 6 rows in garter stitch to make a sturdy border (that is, knit every row for 6 rows. Knitting every row will create a "ridge" after two rows; therefore, 6 rows will create 3 easy-to-count ridges).
- Knit 4 stitches
- Knit the stitch recommended by the gauge requirements until 4 stitches remain (in this example, we are doing stockinette stitch, so I will knit this row and purl these stitches when we turn the gauge swatch)
- Knit the remaining 4 stitches.
Continue in this pattern until you have knit at minimum the recommended row count (in this case, 28) and then knit 10 more rows—again because you want enough extra room for accurate counting. Knit 6 more rows in garter stitch and bind off.
SPECIAL NOTE: You will often need to knit several swatches before you hit on the perfect pairing of yarn and needles. To avoid forgetting what needles you used to obtain the perfect gauge, I will often purl a number of stitches in the middle of the swatch equal to the size needle I am using. So I will knit about 15 rows and go in about 15 stitches, then if I am using a size 6 needles, I will purl 6 stitches. This will let me know that that swatch was knit with a size 6 needle. I recommend you do this! It will make you less crazy (the other crazy you must resolve on your own!).
Wash and block your swatch
Wash your swatch and block it as you would your garment. It is the number after washing that will tell you if you have chosen yarn and needles wisely.
I know. You thought you could just count the stitches and be done, then cast on for the cardigan you see yourself wearing next month at the social, right? Sorry. I want you to do this right so that everyone gives you compliments too.
If you are taking the time to knit yourself a garment, you probably plan on taking care of it. That means, you might want to wash it at some point; therefore, it is crucial you wash your swatch as well. It would be terrible for all of us if you washed your garment after five uses, threw it in the sink to wash, and ended up with something two feet longer than it used to be. These things do happen. Avoid it!
Wool soaks for blocking
Counting your stitches
Since you have been so patient and given your garment-to-be the respect it deserves, take your washed and blocked and dried gauge swatch to a flat surface and get ready to count.
Accuracy is key. I like to use pins (typically the kind used for sewing) and a metal ruler, or in this case, a guide that shows me needle sizes as well a gauge window for counting stitches.
If the given gauge by the designer specifies 4 inches, count the stitches for 4 inches—do not cheat! Being off by even a half stitch will have consequences in the final garment.
Place your ruler to the edge of your swatch and move in about three or four stitches from the garter stitch edge. Carefully place a pin at the edge of the first stitch you will count. Move to the other end of your ruler, and at exactly 4 inches, place another pin. Be accurate! If 4 inches ends in the middle of a stitch, mark it at the middle of that stitch. Be sure your swatch is lying flat and do not pull or stretch.
Using a needle, start counting. I will sometimes also use a business card. I find that focusing so closely on the stitches makes me see double, that and the anxiety makes me insane—a small tool like a business card really helps me stay clear-headed and count accurately.
Count them again.
How did you do?
A bed, carpet, or thick set of towels will also work, but blocking mats are sure to stay firm and in place. They're great for all knitted items.
How Does a Gauge Swatch Work? (Or What I'm Really Asking Is: Why Should I Care?)
Let's say you counted and you're off by 2 stitches. Seems small enough. Let's start knitting, right? Wrong. Here is a scenario:
If I choose a bulky weight yarn and big needles, I may get about two stitches per inch of knitting (or, put in terms of our 4 inch swatch, 8 stitches = 4"). If I knit with a fingering weight yarn, however, and started with small needles, such as size US1, I may get 8 stitches per inch of knitting (or 32 stitches = 4").
Imagine somebody decided that because they have 8 balls of a bulky weight yarn they will use that yarn to make their first sweater. They immediately start in on the project.
Body: Row One: Cast on 144sts
This will be one enormous sweater. At 2sts for every inch of knitting, casting on 144sts will yield a whopping 72 inches of body. Did I mention that this sweater is for herself (thank goodness) and she is a petite 5'1" with a 32" bust?
Here is how the math works out:
144 cast on stitches divided by 2sts/inch = 72 inches.
Or, put in terms of a 4" swatch:
8sts = 4" so 8sts divided 4 = 2sts per inch.
144 cast on stitches divided 2 sts per inch = 72 inches.
If she had knit a gauge swatch, she would know that this is a bad idea.
Let's say she started with the fingering weight yarn. 144sts divided by 8sts/inch = 18 inches.
Whoops. I don't think that's going to work either.
But 2 stitches off? Can't be bad, right? Think again. Say she got a gauge that was 22 sts per 4 inches in some other yarn/needle combo.
22sts divided by 4 = 5.5 sts per inch
144 sts divided by 5.5 sts per inch = 26.181818 inches
Still too small. Two stitches per 4 inches does make a difference!
Okay, I get it. What are some other tips?
Trying to get gauge is an exercise in patience. You would think that knitters are loaded with the stuff considering how long it takes to create something, but I have found the opposite to be true. We are always on the go, keeping careful track of our progress, imagining how it will look, what the recipient will say, etc. And sometimes we just want the whole mess done with! I get it. So say I did the swatch above and I was two stitches shy, and the swatch before that came out, miraculously, exactly the same with another yarn. What should you do?
Try again with different sized needles. Compare the yarn you are using with what is recommended. Find the label information and see if the yarns are even compatible by comparing the gauge information provided. And there is always Ravelry, that beautiful social network for crazy folks like us. See what other knitter has already been through the trial and tribulation of swatching and see what they used. But please. Do me proud, folks. Still knit your own swatch. You never know if that knitter washed their swatch before knitting—today it fits like a glove; tomorrow it fits like a latex glove.
You have been warned. Tarry forth!
© 2012 Christen Roberts