Gauge Swatch Strategies & Options

Note from Sandi: Welcome to my little corner of Knitting Daily! Every Thursday, I'll be sharing stories of my knitting adventures, as well as some tips and tricks I've learned along the way. Thanks for coming by!

Today continues my story of the sweet little Bolero from Interweave's book Feminine Knits.

I always feel like it's a conversation-killer, that word "gauge." It's in every pattern, but it still feels like no one really wants to talk about it, as if it were one of those dicey topics best left unmentioned in polite company. I mean, we all get gauge, right? No problems with gauge here. And if we don't get gauge, well, we just meant that sweater to be a bit loose, really we did. (I believe you.)

Do you know that nearly everyone struggles with gauge at one time or another? (OK, maybe a few of you have the gauge thing permanently whupped. The rest of us admire you—and we're jealous.) It's certainly true that even experienced knitters at times struggle with gauge, especially with unfamiliar yarns or needles; so if you're having trouble with getting gauge: Welcome. You're in good company. 

Ever heard the phrase "Gauge Swatches Lie"? I think sometimes they do. Why? Well, perhaps because swatches aren't much like the actual garment pieces: They're squares with no shaping, we knit them usually in one sitting, they aren't surrounded by ribbing or what-have-you, and perhaps we even forget (ahem) to block them. Or, it could be our mood: Who loves to swatch? Maybe our Grumpy Swatch Knitting Mood is reflected in our stitch tension and that's why the pesky swatches sometimes lie.

Rather than risk a lying, cheating gauge swatch, I sometimes choose a small part of the garment to start with, and use that as my gauge swatch. For example: I started with the Bolero's left sleeve, because the sleeves are pretty tiny, I can knit one quickly, I can easily block it to size…and I can even baste the underarm seam and try it on to see how it fit. However: The sleeves start out with 1.25" of ribbing. No gauge is given for the ribbing, just for the lace pattern. The ribbing is on a much smaller needle than the lacy bits…so if I start with the ribbing, how do I know I'm in the right gauge ballpark?

Knitting patterns often give the gauge only for the fancy stitch patterns, omitting the gauge for ribbing and stockinette stitch. The reason? The gauge is clearly specified for the stitch pattern where knitters are likely to have the most variance—where a variance in gauge will make the biggest difference in the finished fabric. Most of this bolero is lace; if the lace gauge is off, the bolero won't fit properly.

However, it is still helpful to know the ribbing gauge. You can figure out almost any gauge within the garment, as long as you have the schematic (or finished measurements) and the stitch count. Example: I want to know the gauge of the ribbing for the sleeve cuff. On the schematic, I see that for the size I am making, the next-to-last, the finished measurement is 15.5 inches. I look at the instructions, and the cuff is knit on 86 sts. To get the gauge, I divide the number of stitches by the number of inches to get stitches per inch. 86 divided by 15.5 equals 5.5 sts per inch. That's my ribbing gauge. Whoo!

You can use this same method to figure out any gauge for any stitch used in the garment, as long as you have the stitch count and a finished measurement for the section using that stitch. And the best place to look for finished measurements? The schematic–it's really your best knitting friend in every pattern. (More gauge swatching tips are here.)

I had so much fun knitting the left sleeve, that after it was blocked and I knew I had the right gauge, I went right ahead and knitted up the left front. 

And the yarn? The owner of one my local yarn shops, Linda's Craftique, introduced me to Elsebeth Lavold's Hempathy, a wonderful blend of hemp, cotton, and modal that has a crisp, flowing drape, a bit like well-washed linen. It's now one of my new favorite yarns…but there are so many yarns that would work for this bolero. What yarn would you choose?

Next week: I took the Star Light, Star Bright blanket with me to Alabama so the baby's family could take a peek at it in progress. Somewhere along the way, I made a mistake in the second row of stars and had to decide to rip it out or come up with a creative fix. Rip or fix?

Knit with joy,
– Sandi

P.S. Let me know what you think! You can leave a comment below or even email me at

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