Gauge, with or without the word swatch attached, is one of ‘those’ terms. I’ve heard knitters say the words as though they were spelled with four letters, and seen them written as ‘g*e’ or ‘s@#$%h’ more times than one. Every single knitter has an opinion about swatching, and they’ll defend those opinions with the same fervor they bring to the questions of needle material or continental vs. English vs. combined knitting styles. I’ve called swatching a necessary evil myself in my earlier days as a knitter.
But experience is a great (if painful) teacher, and the longer I knit, the more I find that much-maligned gauge swatch an incredibly useful tool. So let’s take a look at what gauge actually is, and what purposes that swatch can serve. I may even change a mind or two along the way…
Put in the simplest terms, gauge is the number of rows and stitches in any given inch of knitted fabric. That’s perhaps too general, especially given the wide variance between the number of stitches even the same knitter will have in different stitch patterns. But that’s the definition. So what use is it? Well, you can’t knit something to a specific size if you don’t know those numbers for that yarn and needle and stitch pattern.
Now, what makes a useful gauge swatch for a given project? That’s where the definition begins to narrow and the swatch itself becomes a very useful knitting tool.
A useful gauge swatch will show the number of stitches per inch in a particular pattern stitch – the stitch you plan to use for this specific project. A useful gauge swatch will also be knitted in the same fashion as you plan to knit your project.
Huh? A knitter’s gauge over a given pattern stitch (even plain old stockinette) may vary as much as 1-3 stitches per inch, depending on whether they’re knitting flat or in the round. So if you plan to knit your project in the round, knit your swatch in the round; if you’re knitting flat, knit your swatch flat. In order to keep from having to do a 24-inch around gauge swatch on a circular needle, magic loop is a life-saver. It’s a simple technique – add it to your repertoire!
Another point to consider for a useful gauge swatch: use exactly the same needles you’ll use for the project itself. If you do your swatch on bamboo DPN needles and the project on metal circular needles, your gauge may change, even with the same yarn from the same skein.
It should go without saying that you’ll use the same yarn for your swatch that you plan to use for the project – but I’ll say it, anyway. One worsted wool yarn isn’t always identical to another; yardages per pound can vary from as little as 5 to as much as 300 or more! And differences between fibers can make for even greater variation in the numbers. 50 grams of cotton will generally have fewer yards than 50 grams of wool, even though both may be worsted weight.
One more consideration: knitted fabric changes after it’s washed and dried. This is true of any fiber or combination of fibers. Some fibers bloom, some stretch, some shrink, some remain exactly the same. But you won’t know which your particular combination of yarn and needles will do until you wash and dry the swatch!
A swatch can, again, be an extremely useful tool – if you knit it thoughtfully. Start out by casting on some multiple of the pattern stitch. Work in stockinette or garter stitch for a couple of inches – whichever your pattern is based upon. Now switch to the pattern stitch itself, and work at least 2-3 repeats. That way if there’s a problem with the patterning, you’ll find it and be able to work it out before you start into the project. You’ll also get familiar with the stitch pattern - and many knitters’ tension changes after they get used to forming a stitch, thus changing their gauge over that stitch. If your first repeat is at 6 stitches per inch in pattern, but the third repeat is at 5 stitches per inch, which number do you think you should use for figuring your project gauge?
Before you cast off, are there any other stitches or patterns used in this project? If so, work a repeat or two. If one element flows directly into another (ribbing to pattern stitch, for example), try that out on your swatch. Does it look good to you? If not, tweak it here instead of on the project. You’ll rip out a lot less.
Last but far from least, are there instructions in the project pattern that aren’t clear to you? Perhaps short-row directions are different from what you’re used to doing, or directional stitches are a different type, or bind-offs at the arms or neck seem odd. Try these techniques on the swatch. It’s much easier on both knitter and yarn to do these types of tweaking on a smaller scale. Do you know exactly how you’re going to pick up arm or neckline treatment stitches on this patterning? Try it out on the swatch!
Have you tried out everything you have any question about? All right, then do another few rows of stockinette or garter and then bind off as recommended in the pattern. This is a final place to play – if the bind off on the swatch doesn’t look good, decide now on how you’ll modify the project instructions to make it look better and try it out.
Now bind off and measure your swatch. How many rows per inch? How many stitches and rows per inch in stockinette or garter; how many in each pattern? How many in the ribbing stitch? Write these numbers down and save them!
Now wash that swatch. If the yarn ball says to machine wash and dry, do that. If you plan to hand wash and lay flat to dry, do those instead. Don’t short-cut this step – you’ll negate a great deal of the usefulness you built into your swatch if you do!
One final thing before you get out your ruler or tape measure and that sheet of paper again: if your chosen yarn is cotton, silk, alpaca, mohair, hemp, superwash wool or acrylic (or any blend thereof), hang that gauge swatch up for at least 12-24 hours before you measure. Fibers other than plain old untreated wool sometimes stretch vertically as well as horizontally – and some of them stretch quite a lot! Better to know this now instead of two or three hours into the first wearing of your crew-neck tunic, after it’s become a knee-length dress with a scooped neckline!
Now measure the rows and stitches again. Make sure you measure over the stockinette/garter sections, each different stitch pattern, and any other places your swatch appears to widen or narrow. Write these numbers down. Now divide the pre-wash numbers into the after-wash numbers to get the percentages of shrinkage or stretch.
Now this is useful information! You know before you start knitting that in order to fit your 45-inch hip measurement you’ll need to cast on 250 stitches instead of 225; there was slightly over 1% shrinkage in your washed swatch. You’ll also know that you want to do 24 rows of ribbing rather than 26, and only 36 rows instead of 42 between the underarm bindoff and shoulder shaping – your washed and hung sample grew about 1% in length.
How much time will knowing this information before you start knitting save you? Think about this. Without a gauge swatch that contains all the stitches used in the project, that was then washed, dried and hung, you might knit the entire sweater, bind off and finish everything, bury all ends, then wash, block and try on before discovering that – horrors! – you have to take it all apart and start over, or find a recipient to gift with your hard work.
How long does it take to knit a sweater? The general amount of time is measured in weeks or months of spare-time knitting, isn’t it? And if you’d only taken an hour or so at the beginning to actually explore the variables, you’d have something that fits properly now instead of an expensive (both in terms of time and materials) boondoggle.
So you decide for yourself. As far as I’m concerned, especially since I pretty much design my own sweaters and other knitwear these days, I’ll continue to swatch. It’s cheap (in terms of time and materials) insurance that my precious knitting time won’t be wasted. Of course, wasted time is in the eye of the knitter – what I consider a waste of time you may not! But just for the sake of argument, next time you start a new project, take the time to do what I’ve described above as a useful gauge swatch and see if you find it helpful. Then make your final decision!