Must I really knit a swatch?

“Must I really knit a swatch?” is probably the most commonly asked knitting question. The short answer is YES! Many of you won’t like that response. A lot of us are eager to dive in and get started on a new project. Knitting a tension square feels like a distraction from the main event, and a bit of a waste of time.

It really isn’t!

So let’s get started with a bit of background to what is gauge, why do you need a swatch to measure it, how to get the right gauge, and why (and when) it’s REALLY worth knitting that swatch!

Cowgirlblues Merino DK knit swatch with vertical and horizontal rulers

What is gauge?

A knitting pattern is a set of instructions, wrapped in a promise, that if you follow them step by step you’ll end up with a project that looks, and fits, like the designer’s finished piece. The instructions are typically written in permutations and combinations of stitches and rows. From cast on to cast off, everything references the number of stitches you need to have on your needles, and how many rows (sometimes cm or inches) to work. Since the stitch is the basic building block of knitting this makes sense. But not all stitches are created equal. And there’s a pretty good chance that yours and mine are in fact a little bit different.

Designers need a translation tool, a yardstick of sorts, that allows them to communicate more detail about the size of their stitches and rows. And knitters need a frame of reference to be able to adjust their baseline to that of the designer. If you’re casting on 75st, but my 75st are different from yours, it stands to reason that your end result is not going to turn out the way I intended.

This translation tool, yardstick or frame of reference is called gauge. Gauge, or tension, is the number of stitches and rows that you comfortably knit in a standard size square of 10x10cm / 4x4inches.

Why do I need a swatch?

Since gauge is measured over 10x10cm/4×4 inches you need to have the square in order to measure it. And knitting a swatch is how you create the square. A knitting pattern tells you the stitch in which to knit your tension square (often stocking stitch/stockinette). And whether it should be measured unblocked or blocked. And your starting point is always the recommended needle size and yarn for the pattern. The designer then tells you how many stitches and rows you should have in your swatch.

If you’re a beginner or intermediate knitter I recommend starting with about 6 more stitches than the designer recommended. If my swatch is in stocking stitch I knit the first and last 2 or 4 rows, and the first and last 2 stitches of every row in garter stitch. This helps to keep the swatch flat, which makes it easier to measure and count when you’re done. Once you’ve knitted a square and cast-off you can measure. This is where things get interesting.

Most people find that either the stitch or the row count will match the designer’s gauge, but often not both.

Stitch count is more important.

Why, you ask?
Well the knitted length is often referred to in cm/inch e.g. work in stocking stitch for 15cm, etc, etc.. Using length instead of rows means the row count isn’t a big deal. So if your row count is different it doesn’t matter as you’re going to knit 15cm, however many rows that takes you.

Getting the correct gauge

“Do I really need to knit ANOTHER swatch?” is also a very common question among knitters. And again the answer is often YES!

Let’s pretend you’ve knitted your first swatch using the recommended needles and yarn. (See last week’s blog post on yarn weights if you’re planning to substitute yarns.). If you’re lucky, when you count the stitches and rows in your 10x10cm square you’ll have exactly the stitch count required by the pattern.

What happens if your stitch count doesn’t match?

  • If you have more stitches than required switch to a bigger needle and knit another swatch
  • If you have fewer stitches than required change to a smaller needle and knit another swatch
  • Repeat this process until you have the correct stitch count.

Think about it in terms of tension … if you have used the same yarn and needles but you have more stitches than the designer then you knit more tightly. So to achieve the same gauge you need a bigger needle. If you have fewer stitches you knit more loosely hence needing a smaller needle to get the gauge.

Is the gauge that important?

You’ll be happy to hear that the answer here is “it depends”.
Some of the things it might depend on are:

  • Is the exact size of the finished project important? Will it affect the fit?
    • For a scarf, throw or a “flat” piece if the exact size isn’t important to you then neither is the gauge
    • For a jersey or sweater the fit is highly dependent on having the correct gauge
  • Can you easily get more yarn if your tension results in using more than the pattern requires?
    • Say you’re knitting a scarf and you’re knitting 30st in much looser tension than the pattern. Your finished piece will be a lot bigger, and might require more yarn than you purchased if you followed the pattern requirements
  • Will the tension/gauge affect the fabric look and feel?
    • Cables knitted at the wrong tension can lose their definition if loosely knitted or pull and compress if knit too tight
    • Lace patterns will be impacted by incorrect gauge
    • The drape of a fabric changes when it is knit looser or more tightly, so even if the size is correct it might not look the way you had hoped

I notice my own instinct to discount the importance of correct gauge, and maybe you do that too.
Let’s put it in perspective with an example.
Someone asked me recently if it mattered that her required stitch count only measured 9.2cm instead of 10cm.
Using simple arithmetic this is an 8% difference.
On a chest circumference of 110cm this translates to ~9cm.
It’s more than enough to make the difference between a comfortable fit and a jersey that’s too tight which might sit in your cupboard and never be worn.

So if you’re not going to knit a swatch, at least make that a conscious choice based on. the particulars of the project you are starting.
You may be eager to get going but few things dampen enthusiasm like having to unravel and start over when you’re halfway through.
One of the only things that does for me is a finished project that doesn’t fit!

Happy swatching!