How to Knit a Swatch, Part 2: Advanced Gauge Tricks
Recently I wrote about smart swatching, or swatching with a larger purpose in mind, as a way to make better and more thoughtful knitting decisions. My suggestions for that post assumed that most knitters don’t want to drastically alter patterns. Sometimes, however, we do want to make major changes. What if you want to substitute a yarn with very different fiber content? Or you created a wonderful knitted fabric that perfectly suits a chosen pattern, but it doesn’t match the pattern’s gauge? Or you fall in love with a kid’s sweater pattern and have to make it for yourself in a not-kid size? In all of these scenarios, a few advanced gauge tricks can prove useful. These tips involve some simple math and lots of swatching, so they take you a step closer to the world of knitting design as opposed to knitting other people’s patterns.
Learn to Love the Swatch
First, and most importantly, embrace the swatching process. Love it, live it, wallow in it like a happy pig in a mud pool. It took me years to reach this point, and it really only happened because I began spinning.
Not every project requires all the steps described in Part 1—yes, smart swatching means you also choose your steps wisely! But when I’m working with my handspun yarn or significantly altering a pattern, I’ll complete more of the steps. Think of smart swatching as a matchmaking adventure between design and yarn. Give each party time to get to know each other now and you can prevent an ugly breakup later.
So once you’ve converted to smart swatching, when and how can you apply advanced gauge tricks to it?
Substituting Different Fibers
This trick doesn’t involve math, just some time and effort. Yarn substitution requires forethought and planning, but it’s manageable if we choose a substitute of similar weight and fiber content. We’re most likely to come to grief if the new yarn has a very different fiber content. A cabled sweater pattern that calls for a wool yarn will turn out very differently when made in cotton or very smooth silk, even when you match the pattern’s gauge. Whenever your knitting life requires dramatic fiber substitutions, make a big swatch and test it thoroughly. The best advice I’ve ever seen on such tests comes from Amy R. Singer’s No Sheep for You (although it’s out of print, you can find used copies without much trouble). Amy literally wrote the book on choosing non-wool substitute yarns, and she devoted an entire chapter to efficient swatching. In fact, her advice changed my own approach to swatching.
Lazy Resizing, Part 1
This trick does involve some math (or an app called Knittrick for iOS devices). It’s based on the relationships between needle size, stitch size, stitches per inch, and stitch count. Unfortunately, I can never remember these relationships without thinking them through every single time; maybe I should bookmark my own blog post.
bigger needles = bigger stitches / smaller needles = smaller stitches
bigger stitches = FEWER stitches per inch / smaller stitches = MORE stitches per inch
If I want to make a sweater to fit my 34″ bust, and I want to use smaller stitches (resulting in more stitches per inch), the sweater will need more stitches (a higher stitch count) to fit around my body. Conversely, if I want to use larger stitches (i.e., fewer stitches per inch), the garment will require fewer stitches to fit. For most patterns, bigger sizes have higher stitch counts; smaller sizes have lower stitch count. I plan to work the pattern as written, but choose a different garment size so that I end up with a garment of the correct finished measurements.
Why put myself through this exercise? Often, I want to work a particular pattern at a different gauge, especially—but not only—with my handspun. If I hit upon the perfect combo of design, yarn, and needle size but can’t match the pattern’s gauge, a quick set of calculations helps me choose a sweater size that will fit in my preferred gauge.
For instance, I fell in love with an open-front cardigan in 2013—Meghan Jackson’s Silversmith perfectly suited a batch of my handspun yarn. Her pattern called for 20 stitches and 32 rows over 4″ of stockinette, recommending US size 5 needles (3.75 mm). When I completed a big multi-swatch with needles of different sizes, the fabric made on size 5 needles had the best drape. However, these stitches were too wide, coming in at 19 stitches and 32 rows. How much difference would this make?
I chose my garment size based on my body measurements, my desired stitch gauge, and stitch counts at bust and hip (it’s crucial to have an accurate set of body measurements or this trick won’t work):
- I wanted a finished cross-back measurement between 17.5″ and 19″, so the cardigan would have no more than 3″ of positive ease on my 34″ bust. (For an open-front cardigan with a scarf collar, the total bust circumference matters less than the cross-back width. I’ve got a broad back.)
- My desired gauge gave me 4.75 stitches to the inch (19 / 4 = 4.75).
- On this top-down raglan, I evaluated the back’s stitch count right after dividing body and sleeves. At 84 stitches for the back, my sweater would fit snugly: 84 / 4.75 = 17.68″. At 90 stitches, the back would have more ease: 90 / 4.75 = 18.95″.
- The pattern’s waist shaping decreased back and fronts by 20 total stitches, then increased them by 28 total stitches. The sweater would end up 5.9″ wider at the hips than at the bust (28 / 4.75 = 5.89″). I wanted enough fabric at the waist so that I could cross one front over the other and pin them with a shawl pin; then the garment could flare out over my hips.
- Given all these considerations, I opted to make this sweater in size 36″, knowing that it would actually turn out rather bigger based on the above calculations.
- I got lucky with row gauge. If my desired gauge had not matched the pattern’s gauge, I would have needed to recalculate the waist shaping placement.
My Knittrick app actually did all the math for me. I plugged in the pattern’s gauge, my desired gauge, and the stitch count at various points, and it provided finished measurements.
This process also works when stitches are too small to match a pattern’s gauge! My next sweater project, Emma Welford’s Cables ‘n Cats, specifies 20 stitches and 28 rows over 4″ of stockinette, recommending US size 5 needles (3.75 mm). I like that needle size for my chosen yarn, but my gauge comes out to 23 stitches and 28 rows—5.75 stitches per inch instead of 5 stitches per inch. If I try to match the pattern’s gauge with this yarn, the resulting fabric will feel more like cheesecloth than a sproingy cabled fabric. So to achieve fabric I like in a sweater that won’t be too small, I’ll apply my desired stitch-per-inch number (which gives me more stitches to the inch) to larger sizes of the sweater (with higher stitch counts) until I can achieve a suitable bust circumference.
Lazy Resizing, Part 2
I also resize garments by tinkering with gauge and/or switching yarn sizes. Often I see a kids’ sweater that I want to make for myself but its biggest size will fit a 32″ chest/bust, or the sizing for a man’s sweater starts at 40″ chest circumference, which will be too big on my petite frame. Two simple tricks use the calculations above; the third trick requires more work.
- Swatch with the same yarn weight but at a smaller or bigger gauge. Then evaluate the pattern’s stitch counts at strategic locations (bust, waist, hip) in light of this desired stitch gauge. Even a seemingly small adjustment in gauge might do the trick.
- Swatch with a fatter yarn and bigger needles, or skinnier yarn and smaller needles, then choose a size by applying your desired stitch gauge to the pattern’s stitch counts at strategic locations.
- It’s also possible to enlarge or ensmall a pattern by calculating new stitch counts based on the desired stitch gauge. Here, however, you’re basically rewriting the pattern. Practice on some very basic designs before moving on to complicated stitch motifs.
- For any of these options, don’t forget about row gauge! Sometimes row gauge won’t matter for the garment’s fit or stitch patterns; it’s easy enough to make a kid’s sweater longer or a man’s sweater shorter wherever needed simply by knitting to a specific measurement. If row gauge will matter, simply recalculate the rate of increases or decreases needed for sleeve length, armhole depth, waist shaping, and so on.
If you want to be more thorough when resizing patterns, invest in Ann Budd’s superlative “Handy” books. Each book contains basic patterns calculated at different gauges. Say you want to make a pullover with set-in sleeves for a 50″ bust/chest circumference. Make a swatch in your preferred yarn, measure your gauge, and find the appropriate pages for that silhouette, size, and gauge in the book. Ann has already done all the math for you! She provides 6 garment silhouettes in The Knitter’s Handy Book of Sweater Patterns, 5 top-down sweater silhouettes in The Knitter’s Handy Book of Top-Down Sweaters, and a veritable cornucopia of garments and accessories in The Knitter’s Handy Book of Patterns, all in adult and children’s sizes. Ann’s stitch counts and basic instructions could help you resize any pattern in the world, if you’re willing to put in the effort.
Finally, I highly recommend Ysolda Teague’s sizing chart, whether you want to adapt just a few women’s patterns or want to make a career out of designing. She bases her chart off standard CYC garment sizing but adds every measurement you can imagine, in inches and centimeters.
Start swatching today!