Boss Knitting: The Gauge Swatch Never Lies

I have a pet peeve. (Shocking, I know) It hurts my soul when I hear people say, “The swatch lied to me!”  

I understand why knitters say this. I used to say, “the gauge lied to me again.” I was terrible at gauge swatching. I would consistently end up with inaccurate swatches. This resulted in projects that were either too big or too small.

 But, the fact is the swatches did not fail me; I failed the swatches. It wasn’t all my fault, either. I just didn’t know any better. No one had ever taught me how to knit a proper swatch. 

Youtube Thumbnail for Knit Tea Live Let's Talk Swating

This weeks Knit Tea Live! We talk all about swatching, why to swatch and how to swatch.
When learning to knit we are told to “knit a gauge swatch” That’s it. But, knitting a fabulous gauge swatch is more involved than just doing it. And when we seek help from other knitters we often get bad advice and incomplete information.

But, I have good news, we do not have to keep living this way. We can get better results from our swatches by following some easy steps. Yes, some of this is about paying attention to details. But, paying attention to details is the difference between handmade and homemade. 

To find my top 10 tips for getting an accurate gauge swatch click below to keep reading


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TIP 1: DO THE SWATCH

First, let’s address the jumbo needles in the room: is swatching even necessary. There are a lot of questions in knitting where the answer boils down to personal preference. Should you swatch is not one of them.  
The answer is yes, swatching is essential. It just may not always be necessary. (Even in knitting there are exceptions to the rules.”
Two caucasian hands knitting

Working a gauge is essential for projects when fit and/or finished size matters, e.g. garment. There is no way around it. A pattern may recommend a needle size to achieve gauge. But, your personal knitting tension is your personal knitting tension. If you are a looser or tighter knitter than the designer, you will need a different needle to achieve the same gauge. The best way to assure you are knitting to gauge is to do a swatch.

Can you dive in and just knit a cardigan hoping for the best? Sure. But, you are far more likely to end up using a lot of yarn to end up with a garment too big or too small than just knitting a small swatch. (Although not too small. More on that below). 

There are the knitters who knit sweaters and tell themselves they will find a friend or family member that will fit into their finished object. But, if you want that cardigan for yourself, or have an eye to give it to someone special, you really ought to get the gauge correct.

Also, if you are knitting a colorwork pattern, the motif being properly proportioned will depend on knitting to the recommended gauge.   

There are accessories like hats and gloves that are small enough that to knit a proper swatch you would use more yarn than just knitting the object. In that case, and if you have a good idea of what your general tension is, it may be worth treating the first glove or the hat like a test knit and check gauge as you go. 

Some items knitted items a finished size is not crucial. If a blanket, scarf, cowl, or shawl is a little big, or a little small, whatever. In these cases, I often throw caution to the wind and just cast on. Have I been burned? Yes. But, I place my bet and I get when I get. Sometimes it is fun to knit dangerously.

Beginning of center out hat knitted with green yarn and a skein of yarn

This is the start of what I call my gauge less hat.  I knit this from the center out, increasing the crown until it measures the size I want and then I knit the brim. 
But, there is a lot of useful information besides your tension to glean from a gauge swatch.  

  •  The gauge swatch allows you to see if you like how the needles and the yarn work together
  • You can discover if you like the cast on for the project
  • You can decide if the Bind Off you typically choose suits the yarn
  • You will see if the drape of the fabric is to your liking
  • If the gauge swatch is done in a stitch pattern other than stockingnette, you can see if you like working it.
  • You will be able to test if the washing and blocking process suits the yarn and project

Knitting a gauge swatch is worth it. And if you choose to skip the step, it should at least be an informed choice

Tip 2: Knit a Bigger Swatch

There are many reasons people avoid swatching. Some feel it is a waste of yarn. (It is not. See above.) To save the fiber, Knitters will try to knit the smallest swatch possible. Other knitters labor under the misconception that if the gauge is given as 20 stitches = 4 in/10 cm then they only need to cast on 20 stitches. These are errors that lead to inaccurate results. 

The goal of the gauge swatch is to assess the average size of your stitches. Humans are not machines. Not every single stitch will be knit with equal tension. But, we have an average stitch size. A fundamental law of averages is the bigger the sample size the more accurate the average is.

To get an accurate measure of my tension, I aim is to knit a gauge swatch that is 5-6 inches square.

Tip 3: Measure in the Middle

There is another reason to knit a 5-6 inch swatch. You want at least 4 inches of knitting to measure. BUT, many times the two or three stitches at the edge of a swatch are tighter or looser than you average stitches. You do not want to include these when counting your stitches. 
The same is true for the cast on and bind off rows. When measuring row gauges you want to exclude the first 2 or 3 rows and the last 2 or 3 rows.

Tip 4: Work Your Swatch as You Work Your Project

As a younger knitter, the biggest swatching mistake I made was working all my swatches flat. I love knitting in the round. Hats, gloves, socks are some of my favorite projects. It was frustrating that I would end up with hats that were too big and gloves that were too small.  

My big mistake was knitting my gauge swatch flat. I was a knitter for 10 years before learning when you knit in the round, you should swatch in the round. 

If you are a Western Style Knitter you wrap your yarn counterclockwise around the needle. When you purl, the yarn takes a longer path around the needle than when you knit. This slight difference means a knitter’s purl stitches might be a squidge bigger than their knit stitches. (Sometimes, they are more than a squidge bigger which leads to rowing out. But, that is another discussion) 

When we knit stockingnette flat, we knit alternating rows of knits and purls. But, when we knit in the round, every round is a knit round. This means your stockingnette gauge in the round can be different than flat. 

Youtube Thumbnail for video Knitting Secrets Revelead: Western Knitting vs Eastern Knitting

To learn more about Western Knitting vs Eastern Knitting Check Out My Knitting Secrets Revealed: Western vs Eastern Knitting

If you think that knitting a gauge swatch in the round, you might as well go ahead and knit the glove or knit the hat. You are not wrong. Knitting a swatch in the round that will be large enough can be about the size of a small beanie. Also, measuring gauge swatches knit in the round is a pain in the touchas.
But, you don’t have to knit your in the round swatch, in the round. You can knit a simulated in the round swatch. How do this well is a longer conversation than we have time for today.  To learn more about knitting swatches in the round check out Knitfarious.com article which covers several approaches

TIP 6: WASH AND BLOCK YOUR SWATCHES!

I know some of you in the name of saving your yarn and avoiding yarn chicken, knit your swatches, measure the gauge, and immediately unravel it so you can use the yarn in the project. I used to be a knitter just like you. I was making a mistake. 

Fun fact and one I wished someone told me sooner is gauge swatches in patterns are for a washed and blocked swatch. Washing and blocking your swatch can affect the finished gauge. Not always, but oftentimes my gauge changes up to a full stitch per inch after washing and blocking the work.

Pin Blocke Gauge swatch on purple blocking matt

Although I know it is essential to wash and block my gauge swatch, I still emotionally worry I am wasting yarn. To help alleviate this feeling I now buy a ball of yarn I intend to use just for swatching. I do not think I have ever used the entire ball for this purpose, but I worry far less I will lose at yarn chicken.

Also, unless you are working on a felted project, you can always unravel a swatch after washing and blocking it. Think of your swatch as a little savings account in case of an emergency. 

One last thing about washing and blocking your gauge swatch: you may not need to pin block your project. If you are not going to pin block your project do not pin block the swatch. Remember the swatch represents a portion of your finished object. You need to handle it as you are planning to handle your FO.

Washing, blocking and measuring your swatches requires some basic tools.  Knit Picks has a full range of tools every knitter needs including their blocking start tool kit which has everything you need!

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TIP 7: MAKE SURE TO LET YOUR GAUGE SWATCH DRY, COMPLETELY

What I am about to share was a complete game changer for me. If you pin block your swatch, after unpinning it, do NOT measure the swatch. Let the swatch sit another day so the fibers can relax.

I know this seems like an unnecessary step. But, even a gentle pin blocking, puts your stitches under stress. They need a day to relax. When I began waiting to measure my gauge swatch I started getting more accurate swatches.

TIP 8: HANG IT UP

We have all had that cotton sweater that started out as a sweater and later became a knee-length dress. Over time gravity pulls at our garments. Most animal fibers are elastic and will bounce back into shape. However, many fibers like cotton, linen, and alpaca stretch and stay stretched. BUT, you can account for the stretching before you start knitting your project with a hang test.

It is a simple process. Take your swatch and hang it up. I usually use a hanger with pant clips. To add weight I place 2 or 3 nylon spring clamps to the bottom.  I let the swatch hang for 1 or 2 days.

Do I always do a hang test? No. I reserve it for those projects made with slippery yarns. And, I will say I have never regretted doing this test. I am currently working on this tunic. The yarn is a viscose, linen, silk blend. After the hang test, my gauge changed a half stitch.

TIP 9: NO BORDERS

People are advised to add a garter border to keep a gauge swatch from curling. Do not do this. It can create an inaccurate gauge swatch. 

Again, the gauge swatch is meant to represent a small portion of your fabric. Adding a border, especially for a project that does not call for one, can give a misleading impression of what the project will be like. Also, you need a solid four inches in the middle of the swatch to measure. Those three of four stitches inside the border are not going to reflect your true tension and need to be excluded from any measurement.

If the goal is to knit a 5-6 gauge swatch and you are adding a 1 inch border all around, you now will need to knit an 8-10 inch swatch. Now you are wasting yarn. 

TIP 10: RELAX AND SLOW DOWN

Swatches can feel like the speed bump on the road to getting our project started. So, we rush to finish the gauge swatch and try to knit faster. But, this will likely throw off your tension. Working your swatch at the speed you typically knit and in the environment you typically knit is one of the easiest things you can do to get accurate results. 

And the truth is when you are knitting a gauge swatch, you are starting your project. Knitting has three phases: prep, knitting, and finishing. Each step is key to having a project that looks handmade.

UH, THIS ALL SOUNDS LIKE A LOT OF WORK?

If you are thinking, "Carrie, getting an accurate gauge swatch is going to take me 2-3 days!" You are correct. A reliable gauge swatch takes time. 

Trust me, I still struggle with taking the time to do the gauge swatch. At least for me, it is not the fun part of a project. I rank it right up there with weaving ends. But, what I always love is having a project at the end that looks handmade. Paying attention to the details while working my project - and knitting the gauge swatch is part of working the project - gets me results I am proud to show off with no apologies.

I do not always get the results I want. I still make mistakes with gauge swatches. I laugh about the hat that ended up being a small purse because I did a bad job with the swatch. But, my gauge swatches have never lied to me. I made a mistake. I learned from that mistake. And I did better next time.

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