The perfect gauge swatch

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If you look on any knitting forum, there are always a lot of questions oriented towards swatching and gauge. There are even knitters who refuse to swatch, claiming that they don’t work and that it’s not worth their time.  In a certain way, this is true. After all, how can a teeny tiny swatch represent an entire garment, and be accurate? From my limited statistics experience, the number of complicated dependencies involved: needle (size, material, point(s), weight), yarn (breed of animal or type of material, weight, loft, halo), time (speed of knitting, time left sitting or hanging, amount of knitting experience), knitting technique (continental or english style, tension, mood of the knitter), pattern (stitch, comfort with pattern and when the knitter becomes such), washing, blocking make it darn near impossible!

But we do them anyway. In this post, I am going to start with the most basic of gauge swatches: swatching to match your ball band and then the more complicated pattern gauge swatch using a different yarn and different than the pattern calls for.

Before that though, let’s lay down a few Gauge Swatch Rules:

  1. For an accurate swatch, be consistent. Everything you do differently in your gauge swatch, from your garment, will be reflected and magnified in the actual piece.  I cannot stress this enough.
  2. Change your needles and/or yarn, not yourself. Do not tell yourself that you should just knit a little looser or a little tighter for the project.  You will naturally go back to your old way of knitting and render your swatch useless.
  3. Choose a needle point/type/brand/weight/material and stick with it through your entire project.  If you are going to swatch for knitting in the round, swatch in the round. If you are going to knit in the round on dpns, stick with them, don’t switch to circs halfway through.  If you are going to knit on bamboo, swatch on bamboo.  Don’t even change between two brands of needles that are the same material. Everything that changes about the needle, changes the way you hold them and thus the way you knit.  For an accurate gauge swatch, keep it as consistent as possible.
  4. Keep your technique the same. Knit as consistently as possible through the swatch and garment for your swatch to be accurate.  This can’t be stressed enough.
  5. Treat your swatch as you would treat your garment. If you are going to wash and block your garment, wash and block your swatch exactly the way you would if you were washing your garment.  Remember that laying flat to dry stops the garment from stretching from its own weight (something you can’t replicate in a gauge swatch)
  6. The best gauge swatch is your garment. The more like your garment your swatch is, the better your swatch accuracy.  Make your swatch at least 5×5 inches, that way you have 4×4 inches to measure and stitches on either end to reorient yourself with your needles and yarn.  You will become more comfortable and relaxed with your knitting (which changes the gauge swatch) the longer you knit, so the bigger the better.
  7. Swatch for every project, even if you have knitted with the yarn before. Unless of course you are knitting exactly the same gauge, on exactly the same needles, with the same care instructions for the garment.

BALL BAND GAUGE SWATCH

On the ball band, there are two things: the recommended needle size and the gauge.

Hoody Vest

  1. Needle size: first of all, this is an average needle size.  Take it as a starting point if you don’t have very much experience knitting.  When you get to know how you knit, you will know generally how much tighter or looser you usually knit.  I tend to knit at least one full needle size looser than the recommended needle size, so in this case, they recommend a size 10 (american) or 6 mm needle.  I would start with a 5 mm needle.
  2. Gauge: Often, the yarn producer will put the row and stitch gauge on the ballband, but in this case we just have the stitch gauge.  This means that if I am knitting this yarn how it wants to be knitted (according to the yarn manufacturer) then I will be getting 3.5 stitches per inch.

Garter Yoke Cardi
Ball band with row and stitch gauge (see the little graph there?)

Now for the swatch:

STEP 1: Start with the recommended needle size and cast on enough stitches to make one or two inches  more than you need for your swatch.  Knit about an inch or so.

Garter Yoke Cardi

STEP 2: Slide the work to the thinnest part of the needle and pin it down without stretching it.  Measure and see if you are close to the stitch gauge you need (we’ll worry about row gauge later).  Remember, knitting often stretches width wise, so if you have ever so slightly less stitches than you need, you can make up for it with blocking. If you are on gauge, go to step three, if not, rip back and try another needle size.

Garter Yoke Cardi

STEP 3: Knit up three inches to do a preliminary check for row gauge using 2 of the inches.  Slide the work to the thinnest part of the needle and pin it down without stretching. Measure row gauge.  If you are off, then rip back and try a different needle size.  If you absolutely cannot get row gauge, it is easy to do some calculations for lengthening the garment. If you are on gauge, move on to step 4.

STEP 4: Knit up the rest of your gauge swatch. Bind off loosely. Write down exactly what your gauge, needles and yarn are on a piece of paper and put aside.  Wash/block/dry the swatch as you would the garment.

STEP 5: Measure the gauge again. Sometimes the gauge will change due to the shrinking and fulling of the swatch. Check, does it match with your piece of paper?  yes? Wahoo!  Begin your garment. No? Repeat the above steps until you are spot on.  Its worth it: if you are off by a quarter of a stitch every four inches in a 40 inch sweater, your garment could be INCHES bigger or larger than intended!

Garter Yoke Cardi

PATTERN GAUGE SWATCH

When knitting from a pattern that you didn’t design yourself, you have to match the gauge of the knitter who designed the pattern. In the materials list, the author will tell you what weight of yarn to use and which needle. The recommended gauge is listed and it is by achieving this gauge that you will end up with a similar product at the end of your labours.

The pattern that I am using is Vogue’s #22 Garter Yoke Cardigan by Melissa LaBarre.  The yarn weight recommended is Aran, and the needles, 4.5mm.  All I had was some DK Weight Borroco Ultra Alpaca Light, so I decided to try it anyway.  Since I was going down a yarn weight, I decided also to stick with the recommended needle size.

I followed the process outlined above, and found that my gauge was much looser than LaBarre’s, so I took the needle size down (a whole size in the end) and ended up with a fabric that reflected perfectly the recommended gauge.

This is why it is really important to swatch.  All of the materials listed in the instructions of the pattern, whether it says so or not, are recommended.  Use them as a starting point for your gauge and move toward a yarn and needle that allows you to achieve perfect gauge.  I ended up with a yarn weight less and a whole needle size less than the pattern recommended and achieved gauge along with a beautiful fabric.

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