How to Knit a Swatch, Part 1: Swatching Smarter
If you’re reading this post, I’ll assume that you know why knitters make gauge swatches. However, I will not assume that you always make them, or that you love making them. Knitters typically gnash their teeth when they hear the S-word, and all too often, we’re tempted to skip this step. (True confession: I have yielded to this temptation in the past). But instead of trying to convince you never to skip, I want to share some tips for efficient swatching. These ideas can save you some time and effort; they may even take you to the point where you enjoy swatching. (It can happen. I have learned to love swatching, as I’ll explain in “How to Knit a Swatch, Part 2: Advanced Gauge Tricks.”)
First, let’s change the conversation about swatching. Instructions for this crucial step in knitting often impose do-or-die rules: Knit a 6-8″ square. Block the square. Count the stitches over 4″. Count the rows over 4″. If these numbers don’t match the pattern’s specified gauge, change needle sizes—pick bigger needles if your stitches are too small, or smaller needles if your stitches are too big. Repeat as often as necessary. These are good rules, but they aren’t very efficient, and they make swatching tedious, if not downright frustrating. We should be talking about smart swatching—in other words, efficient swatching that helps us become better knitters. As Socrates once said, “The unexamined swatch is not worth knitting.” Okay, he didn’t, but he would have if knitting had been around back then.
FAQs for Smart Swatching
1. Do I have to swatch?
Yes, if the fabric’s drape matters for its intended use; otherwise, no. Drape, or how the fabric hangs, always matters for shawls, socks, hats, mittens, garments, and home décor projects. Imagine a shawl that doesn’t flutter gracefully in the breeze, a sweater with the stiffness of a Kevlar vest, or floppy mittens that dangle off someone’s hands like penguin flippers. In all of these instances, the finished object can’t serve its purpose well, due to the fabric’s drape.
2. Do I have to match the pattern’s stitch gauge?
Yes, for any knitted item meant to fit someone, such as garments, socks, hats, mittens (unless you want to dive deep into pattern alterations, which I’ll cover in Part 2). Yes, if you might run out of yarn (aka playing yarn chicken)—you can generally knit shawls and scarves without worrying about fit, but if you don’t match pattern gauge, the project’s required yardage will change. Toys are about the only type of project I can imagine where gauge doesn’t matter—here you just want to knit tightly enough to keep the stuffing inside the toy.
3. Do I have to match the pattern’s row gauge?
Sometimes, depending on the type of project and on its design elements. Scarves, shawls, or throws usually don’t have to reach a particular length; you can simply knit until the item reaches the length you want. Row gauge can matter for small projects with significant shaping, such as hats and mittens—if you don’t meet the pattern’s stated row gauge, your new gauge will shorten or lengthen the decrease/increase area. In garments, row gauge absolutely matters for the yoke area of raglan sweaters and for places on any sweater where you have to calculate increases or decreases along the garment’s length (waist shaping, sleeves that taper between cuff and base of armhole, sleeve caps on set-in sleeves).
4. Do I have to block my swatch?
It’s always a good idea: many yarns and fibers stretch out or bloom (poof up) with washing. If you aren’t sure how the yarn will react to washing and blocking, don’t skip this step—a sweater can grow to gargantuan size, or lace won’t block properly, or the knitted fabric’s drape will change dramatically. Use the same watching and blocking methods you’ll use on the finished project. Then recheck your stitch gauge and row gauge.
5. What do I do with all my swatches?
If you want to (and think of it in time), you can make a sweater pocket from your swatch. Sometimes you may need to reclaim the swatch yarn to win at yarn chicken. If so, ravel your swatch and freshen up the yarn: rinse it and let it air-dry to remove all the kinks. If you don’t need to reclaim that yarn, see the Yarn Leftovers posts on this site for fun ideas—Assistant Editor Sarah Rothberg loves to repurpose swatches. I hang on to swatches for fulling tests and white or cream ones for dyeing samples.
Any good knitting pattern will specify a stitch pattern for your swatch and suggest a needle size. But most patterns don’t say much more than that, and the basic rules for swatching simply tell you to knit a square. Early in my knitting life, I’d make square after square for any given project, cussing a little more loudly as each one failed to get gauge. Now I swatch efficiently as follows:
1. Cast on for a generous swatch, 6″ to 8″ wide. Knit for at least 1″ in the specified pattern stitch.
2. Stop for a ballpark test: count the stitches in 4″ and evaluate. If I’m anywhere close to gauge (pattern calls for 5 stitches to the inch, and I’m getting 4.75 or 5.25 stitches), I keep going. As my colleague Lisa Shroyer recently pointed out, you can’t accurately measure for gauge in just 1″ of knitting. However, I can tell if I’m way off! When a project calls for 5 stitches to the inch, and I’m getting 4 or 5.5 stitches, that’s way off. Either I start over with a different needle size, or I commit to a multi-part swatch.
3. When I’m working with an unfamiliar yarn, or my handspun yarn, a multi-part swatch helps me evaluate the knitted fabric in several variations at once. Here I’ll continue knitting for about 6-8″ with the “wrong” needle size—despite failing the ballpark test—just to see how the fabric drapes. Then I’ll work a separator row (on stockinette, a row of purling; on garter, a couple rows of stockinette, or whatever will stand out), then switch to smaller needles and knit another 6-8″. Sometimes I’ll knit 3 or 4 different segments in the swatch, all with different-sized needles or different stitch patterns. Then I mark each segment with its needle size to help my memory.
4. Now I’ve got a big swatch to wash and block, and that’s a good thing. You can also make a big swatch just with one needle size, of course. The point is to make a big swatch, as Amy R. Singer strongly advises in her book No Sheep for You (Interweave, 2007; out of print). If you’re committing to a major project, such as a sweater, you can’t possibly have too much information about the yarn and its behavior once it’s knitted, washed, and blocked. You can also learn about the pattern—how colors interact with each other, whether you hate knitting that particular lace motif, how much or how little drape the knitted fabric will have.
5. All this newfound wisdom helps you evaluate your choices. In knitting, you got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, and know when to run (with apologies to Kenny Rogers). Sometimes everything turns out perfectly: you love that particular combination of yarn, color, stitch pattern, and/or knitting pattern. The smart swatch told you that it’s time to hold. Or you hate that combo—fold now, before devoting any more time to the project. Hopefully you won’t have to run. Or you like your project choices, but they’ll require some tinkering to create the sweater of your dreams; I’ll explore some of these adjustments in Part 2.
6. Finally, know thyself as a knitter. (This gets easier as you gain experience.) For some weird reason, my knitting for any given project changes between swatching and actually making the project. I always loosen up on the project, whether I’m knitting flat or in the round. So if my gauge swatch turns out a hair too small, I just cast on for the project without a second thought. My colleague Kerry Bogert, a tight knitter, always produces swatches that are smaller than the pattern requires; she could automatically go up a needle size from the pattern’s suggestion to save some time in swatching.
These tips work for knitters of any skill level and presume that you’re not interested in drastically changing the pattern or using a very different yarn. If you’re ready for some math—you’re willing to resize patterns and/or choose yarns very different from those suggested in patterns—stay tuned for “How to Knit a Swatch, Part 2: Advanced Gauge Tricks.”
Featured Image: “The unexamined swatch is not worth knitting.”—Socrates + Deb Gerish
Learn more about swatching!