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Knitting a gauge swatch can be the difference between a successful knitted garment that will be worn and cherished for years and a garment hanging at the back of your closet, never to be worn. Almost all your knitting questions can be answered from knitting swatches – and there is much more to knitting swatches than simply checking if you are on gauge for the pattern…
Reason No. 1: Say hello to your yarn
Knitting a swatch is a way to get to know your new yarn. A newly acquired ball of yarn will be calling out to you and knitting a swatch will allow you to dive right in, even if you don’t have a plan yet for the yarn. The swatch will help you understand the yarn better. Is it slippery, or does it have some drag? Does it look great in garter stitch, stockinette or was it always intended for cable work? How could you possibly know, when you’ve only seen it in a ball, hank, skein, or cake? Knit a swatch and say hello to you new yarn.
Reason No. 2: Decide if wood, metal, or bamboo needles are the perfect choice for the yarn
Maybe you have a preference for knitting needles made from a particular material: bamboo, rosewood, plastic, aluminum, brass, birch, resin, glass – to each their own. However, even if you normally adore the speed of your nickel-plated Addi’s you may find that for your new beautiful silk-blend yarn they are just not a good match because the yarn is too slippery. And even if you love the warm feel of your trusted bamboo Clover’s you may find that for your new Icelandic wool yarn they are just too slow because of the drag. By knitting a swatch or two, you can find a perfect match between knitting needles and yarn, and as a result you will have a much more pleasant knitting experience.
Reason No. 3: Practice a new stitch
A swatch is a great opportunity to practice a new stitch. If you have seen a really cool new stitch, then knit a small swatch just for fun! Check if you like knitting the stitch, and maybe you will be inspired to knit something where you can use it. And of course, if your new knitting pattern has a stitch you are not familiar with, knit a swatch to practice it before you begin the pattern. Check how the stitch pattern looks with your yarn of choice and if they are a good match.
Reason No. 4: Settle your tension
When you begin knitting with a new yarn and needle combination it takes a little while and a few rows of knitting for your tension to settle. This is particularly true if you have been knitting with a much larger or smaller needle size in recent weeks, or if the type of yarn is unfamiliar to you. If you skip knitting a swatch and start out with your project right away, you may experience that your tension changes from the first few rows to the rest of the garment as you settle in and relax. If you knit a swatch you will not have this problem.
Reason No. 5: Measure your gauge
The main reason most knitters knit swatches is to measure their gauge. The gauge is a measure of how many stitches and rows of knitting fit within an inch or a cm. Typically you knit a swatch of about 4 by 4 inches (10 by 10 cm) and you measure the gauge from that. The gauge will depend on the size of the knitting needles and the weight classification of the yarn, but also your personal tension, the fiber of the yarn, the material of the needles, whether you are knitting flat or in the round, and how much coffee (or red wine) you’ve had to drink.
If you are following a knitting pattern it is important to match the gauge of the pattern designer, so you pick a yarn similar to what they used and you knit a swatch and adjust your needle size until you achieve the same gauge as the pattern. That way you can make sure that the finished knitted piece will have the same size as the designer intended.
If you are knitting without a pattern, but you know what size you would like to knit (say a baby blanket), then you can calculate how many stitches to cast on, based on your gauge.
Reason No. 6: Measure your yarn gauge – length of yarn per stitch
Do you have enough yarn for your next project? It can be difficult to guess exactly how much yarn you will need. Even when you follow a pattern that clearly lists yardage, you might have chosen to knit with a lighter weight yarn held double, or maybe you are knitting with a heavier yarn but you are matching the stitch gauge. Does that mean you have to buy one more ball of yarn? Can you get away with one less?
It is very possible to estimate how much yarn your project requires, and the measurement you will need is your yarn gauge – the length of yarn you use per stitch (cm/stitch or inches/stitch). The good news is that you can measure this while knitting your gauge swatch!
There are two approaches:
- Measure out a length of yarn and mark it at both ends. A permanent marker works well on many yarns, but you can also tie knots. Knit and count the number of stitches between the marks.
- Unravel the last 20 stitches and measure the length of yarn.
In both cases, you divide the length measurement with the number of stitches to get to your yarn gauge. From here you will need to do a little more math to get to the number of stitches in the pattern, and from there how much yarn you need in total. Don’t forget to add some length for tail ends whenever you switch to a new ball of yarn.
Reason No. 7: Decide between needles with sharp or soft points
Knitting needles can be so sharp they can pierce your skin or they can have a soft, rounded tip. The best choice for your project depends on the type of yarn you are using and the type of stitches. Knitting a gauge swatch will help you decide if you should use knitting needles with a sharp or a soft point for your next project.
Super sharp knitting needles such as Hiya Hiya are great for speed and fine-point accuracy. Sharp needles shine when working with very fine yarns, like laceweight or fingering, or fuzzy yarns such as mohair or alpaca. They are also great for lacework stitches for example when you have to knit or purl several stitches together.
Blunt needles are typically either wood or bamboo, but there are also metal needles such as Lana Grossa’s Vario Soft Tips. Soft tipped needles are the better choice when you are working with thick yarns, loosely plied yarns, and splitty yarns, but also if you are knitting with two or more strands of yarn held together. A sharp point will split the yarns apart and cause you to make more mistakes. You may also prefer blunt needles if you have a tendency to push the yarn of the needle with the tip of your finger (learn how to stop doing that in my blog post “How to knit and not hurt your fingertip“).
Reason No. 8: Check that you like the fabric you are creating
A really good reason to knit a swatch before you begin a big project, is to make sure that you even like the fabric you will be creating. It might seem trivial, but many of us have knitted almost an entire sweater without realizing, we just don’t like it! Something about the combination of the stitch pattern and the yarn is not working. Maybe it’s just that the color looks different once you knit with the yarn, or maybe the pattern and the yarn are some how not right for each other.
That’s why it is a really good habit to knit your gauge swatch and then take a moment to really look at it, and feel it. Is it right for the sweater/scarf/baby blanket/placemat/dress you had in mind? Do you like the drape of it? Is it dense or airy, just how you imagined it? How does it feel on naked skin? How about after you wash it? Does it still feel good?
If touching the swatch makes you all excited to get started on the project, then you are probably good to go, but if something feels a little off, it’s not going to get any better after spending 20+ hours knitting with the yarn. You can probably find another project for the yarn, or maybe you can return it and buy the perfect yarn instead.
Reason No. 9: Decide what selvedge to use for a flat knitted project
If you are knitting a couple of swatches while getting your tension right, why not try out a different selvedge on each swatch to decide on the perfect one for the project? Selvedges (or selvages) are the left and right edges of a flat knitted piece. Adding the right selvedge to a project can prevent curling, add beauty, and prepare an edge for picking up stitches later. You can learn about different selvedges in my blog post “Selvedges – Edge stitches in knitting“. The swatch is the perfect opportunity to decide on a selvedge for a flat knitted piece, and there’s no rule that you have to pick the one that is in the pattern.
Reason No. 10: Test if you can machine wash the fabric
The general rule for washing your knitted garments is to follow the care instructions on the yarn label. That’s good advice, but just like for your off-the-rack clothes, the care label is overly cautious and doesn’t have nearly enough information.
If the label says to handwash, you may still be fine to put it in the machine on a gentle cycle. And if your 100% cotton dishcloth yarn says to wash on warm, you are probably fine to do it on hot – whatever else is the point of a dishcloth yarn? Generally, you can wash wool on the wool cycle, but while some people will dry all their wool sweaters flat (the safe way!) some people like to use a spin cycle in the washing machine to take most of the water out of the fabric (I’ve heard a big salad spinner works great as well).
So, what are you supposed to do, when you are terrified to ruin your new knitted sweater, your 4 knitting friends all have different advice, and the internet is only confusing you? You knit a swatch! Hopefully, you already knitted one or more swatches before you started the sweater, but if you didn’t, now is the time.
- Knit a swatch and measure it
- Wash (and perhaps block) the swatch the way you intend to wash the garment
- Evaluate and remeasure the swatch
Washing a swatch is the only way to know for sure how washing will affect the fabric. Will it shrink, stretch, or maybe the colors will run? Once you have seen a swatch completely ruined by your attempts to wash it, you will never doubt the power of swatching again.
Reason No. 11: Practice a new technique
It’s really fun to learn new knitting techniques and knitting a swatch is the best way to get to know a new technique. So, what haven’t you tried yet? Maybe you are always using the same increases, and it’s time you learn a new one. For example, have you tried replacing a “make one” with a lifted increase? Or maybe you have been dreaming about learning some advanced colorwork, such as intarsia, double knitting, or fair isle, but you have not yet dared to choose a pattern that uses one of these techniques. Well, you don’t have to commit to an entire fair isle sweater – knit a swatch! Does steeking scare you (e.g. knitting a cardigan in the round and then cutting it up down the front)? Watch a ton of youtube videos, knit a swatch, and cut it, and you will feel much more confident about cutting up your knitting project.
Most of us tend to stick with what we know. We knit the same type of sweater with the same type of yarn that we always use. If you feel you’re in a rut, playing around with swatches can really help advance your knitting.
Reason No. 12: Determine the drop of the fabric – measure the weighted gauge
Have you ever experienced that a knitted garment seemed to grow when wearing it? Gravity is to blame. The phenomenon is called the “drop” of the fabric, and the drop of a garment will vary depending on the stitch pattern, the fiber of the yarn, the density of the fabric, and the size and weight of the garment.
To make a garment that will fit properly, not only when it’s lying flat on a shelf, but also when you wear it, you should take the drop of the fabric into account. To do this, you measure the weighted gauge, in addition to the normal “flat” gauge. This is done by adding weight to the swatch while measuring it to simulate the conditions of wearing the garment.
Reason No. 13: Decide between two different sizes in a pattern
Some knitters are always on gauge – one swatch and they can cast on for the project. Others have a tendency to knit more tightly or loosely than the average knitting designer, and getting gauge is not always a simple matter of going up or down one needle size. What if you have gauge with a needle that is 2 sizes larger than the suggested needle, but you liked the fabric better with one of the smaller needles? Or if you don’t have the needle size you need?
Well, there’s an alternative to changing the needle size. You can also knit a different size from the pattern! Most knitting patterns for garments will have instructions for several sizes. Use the information from your gauge swatch (stitches/inch and rows/inch) and the information in the pattern of how many stitches and rows are needed for a given size, and calculate the size of the garment that you will achieve with your gauge. See if you can find a good fit!
Reason No. 14: Measure both the raw gauge and the blocked gauge
It is a really good idea to measure the gauge both before (the raw gauge) and after you wash and block (the blocked gauge). Write both of them down. You will need the raw gauge to measure the length and width of the fabric as you are making it, and you need the blocked gauge to compare to the pattern gauge and make sure the garment will still fit after you clean it for the first time.
The gauge listed in a knitting pattern is usually the gauge after washing and blocking. You should therefore always wash and block your swatch before comparing it to the pattern gauge. Treat the swatch exactly the same way you will be treating the finished garment. However, it is also helpful to know the raw gauge, i.e. the gauge of the fabric when it is fresh off the needles. That will allow you to test your gauge accuracy when you have knitted a small part of the garment.
Say you are knitting a sweater. Once you have knitted a few inches, check that
No. of stitches / raw gauge = width of fabric
If it does, then you are all good, and you can trust that
No. of stitches / blocked gauge = blocked width of fabric
If the measurements are not what they should be then you need to decide if the difference is acceptable or if you need to rip out and start over.
Reason No. 15: Try different cast-on and bind-off techniques
The gauge swatch is the perfect opportunity to try out a different cast-on and/or bind-off technique and find the perfect solution for your knitting project. Most of us have a tendency to always cast-on and bind-off the same way, without giving it much thought. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to what you know, but the perfect edge can really bring your project to the next level.
Each cast-on and bind-off method has its own unique look, feel, and characteristics. Some are extra stretchy, some have no stretch at all, some work really well as a pair, and some even have multiple colors. Use the time swatching to experiment. Have fun with it!
Reason No. 16: Determine the best blocking method
Blocking is the finishing touch to your knitted piece – it evens out the stitches, opens up lacework and it just makes everything look prettier. But, which method of blocking is right for your next project? Wet blocking, spray blocking, or steam blocking? And if you steam block, how close should you keep the iron?
Your gauge swatch will help you answer all of these questions and more. You should always treat your gauge swatch exactly the way you intend to treat the knitted garment. Wash and dry it the same way, and block it the same way. Take a look at Reason No. 14 for why you need to block your gauge swatch in the first place.
If you have more than one gauge swatch, you can block them with different methods to see which one ends up with the nicer fabric. If you only have one gauge swatch start with a light blocking, and then gradually increase the intensity (e.g. go from spray blocking to wet blocking to steam blocking, experiment with stretching the fabric more) documenting the effects along the way till you find exactly how you prefer the fabric to be. If you are new to blocking, and wondering what it is all about, check out my “Guide to blocking your knitting“.
Reason No. 17: Estimate the negative or positive ease
Ease is the difference between the measurements of the body parts and the measurements of the finished knitted garment. Positive ease means the finished garment measures larger than the body in a specific area. Negative ease means the finished garment measures smaller than the body in a specific area. Zero ease means the finished garment measures exactly the same as the body in a specific area.
When you are designing your own knitted garments or modifying existing knitting patterns, it is crucial that you decide how you want the garment to fit and that means determining hos much ease to add in certain areas. There are some general rules that you can follow (positive ease around armholes and bust, negative ease in the brim of hats), but what will work best will ultimately depend on your choice of yarn, needles, and stitch pattern.
Knitting a swatch will allow you to measure the stretch and get a feel for the drape of the knitted fabric, and that will allow you to make an informed decision about how much ease to include in your pattern. You will also want to think about this if you are following a knitting pattern that includes negative or positive ease, but you have swapped the yarn to a different fiber or type.
Okay, but do I really need to knit a gauge swatch…
No, you do not always need to knit a gauge swatch :-). You can skip it if
- You are knitting something square or rectangular and you don’t care too much about the exact size of the finished piece.
- You have years of experience and you are familiar with the yarn and the needles, and the stitch pattern.
- You don’t mind wasting your time.
I know that knitting a swatch can feel like a waste of time when you are eager to get started on a new project, but when you consider all that you can learn from your swatch, it really is worth it. For me, swatch knitting became enjoyable once I started to consider it part of the process – that’s why “Say hello to your yarn” is reason No. 1. It’s all the reason I need.
Happy swatch knitting– Henni