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Mastering the gauge swatch

May 23, 2012

I just watched Mathew Gnagy's new Knitting Daily Workshop, One Knit Design, Many Versions, and there are so many take-aways that I don't know where to start, so I think I'll start at the beginning: The gauge swatch. When you're knitting garments, you have to know how to knit and work with a gauge swatch.

So many knitters whip out a few rows of stockinette, keep it on the needles, and measure the swatch to get row and stitch gauge. I used to do that, too, and I always wondered why my sweaters didn't fit well.

Mathew Gnagy works with his gauge swatches in his new Knitting Daily Workshop, One Knit Design, Many Versions.

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Many other knitters don't knit a gauge swatch at all, and they wonder why their sweaters don't fit, too.

Gauge is what all knitting patterns are based on, and it's absolutely crucial to do a gauge swatch when you knit almost any pattern, but most especially when you're knitting a garment.

I know people who don't knit swatches because they don't want to take the time; they want to get right to knitting the sweater. What a mistake, because the evening you spend knitting your gauge swatch can make or break the finished object, which will take many, many more hours to knit.

Swatching is not only crucial to getting a sweater to fit correctly, it also shows you how your fabric will look and feel. If you're knitting a pattern in a yarn that's different from what's recommended, which is the most common modification knitters make, you definitely want to swatch to see what the fabric will look like at the gauge recommended in the pattern.

I've had so many ah-ha moments that come from gauging when I substitute yarns. Sometimes I like the fabric just fine, but many times the fabric is too dense or loose at the pattern's gauge. Sometimes I choose to change the pattern a little bit to accommodate the yarn, and sometimes I choose to change the yarn to accommodate the gauge.

Here are some tips for mastering the gauge swatch:

  • Knit a large swatch. Mathew Gnagy recommends knitting a 30-stitch by 30-row swatch. (Add stitches and rows if you're working with a small-gauge yarn; it really does need to be at least 4 X 4 inches to get an accurate gauge reading.)
  • Before you do any work with your swatch, including measuring it, take it off the needles or bind off.
  • "Brutalize" your swatch. When Mathew mentioned this step it cracked me up. But once he explained his process, it totally makes sense. Mathew recommends stretching, twisting, rubbing, and folding your swatch, which simulates the knitting and wearing process. When you think about it, the knitting of a garment is pretty hard on the fabric. I pull my sweaters out of a knitting bag every evening and then stuff them back in before I go to bed. I pull them into shape for measuring, and I've even had the occasional dog drama with my knitting, wherein my puppy grabs my knitting and runs out the dog door with it!
  • After the brutalization, steam or wet block your swatch and let it dry.
  • Finally, measure the swatch to get row and stitch gauge. Mathew recommends leaving the first and last two stitches out of the measurement of the stitch gauge, because those stitches are usually not the same gauge as the rest of the stitches across a row.

Sounds like a lot of steps, but after years of knitting I wouldn't do it any other way. I've given away too many sweaters that represent too many hours of work, and I'll be you've been in that boat, too.

This swatching bit is just a small part of the goodness of One Knit Design, Many Versions. Mathew goes through each step of modifying a sweater pattern into a shrug pattern, sharing amazing knowledge with each alteration, and his lessons on creating a paper pattern for a modified sweater are fascinating.

Get your copy of One Knit Design, Many Versions today. It's available now as a download and soon on DVD.


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nurse123 wrote
on May 26, 2012 11:02 AM

your notes don't mention washing and drying the swatch before you 'brutalize' it.  I thought that would be first on the list???

nurse123 wrote
on May 26, 2012 11:02 AM

your notes don't mention washing and drying the swatch before you 'brutalize' it.  I thought that would be first on the list???

ZassZ wrote
on May 24, 2012 11:41 PM

Hi Kathleen,  

The "guage" in your title doesn't match the "gauge" in the body of your article.  Someone may not have noticed before posting your article.  In case you want to correct.  

on May 24, 2012 10:32 PM

What I don't understand is how to swatch for a stranded color-knit sweater (fair isle)

on May 24, 2012 1:41 PM

Dear Kathleen, I am a passionate knitter just as yourself and I really enjoy all the helpful hints taht I constantly receive from you. I live in Guadalajara, Mexico, and have a group of knitters with whom I share everything I learn from you.

Congratulations and thank you for everything!

on May 24, 2012 12:00 PM

Am I the only one..I love the procrastinating on major projects by doing a gauge swatch? Really I could spend days and weeks just on the swatch alone. It's hard to fail at knitting a swatch. In fact, I would go so far as to say it's fail-proof!

on May 23, 2012 3:21 PM

Swatching, swatching, swatching.  Done them, got what was needed until...

Ever swatched only to find out that once you well into the garment that the swatch doesn't match your acutal piece?  I do frequently.  what I learned to do was to do half the initial piece of the garmet from about 6 inches or so to see what I really do. I recommend this for garmet especially done in-the-round.  Flat swatches seldom or don't match in-the-round knitting.

HollyS@6 wrote
on May 23, 2012 1:02 PM

I saw Lily Chin also recommend hanging the watch on a bulletin board for a bit to see what effect gravity has on the gauge over time.

MarciaK@6 wrote
on May 23, 2012 11:13 AM

a tip I learned from guild: save your swatch and treat it ass you do the knitted garment, eg: wash the swatch as often and the same way that you wash the garment, etc. later on, if you need to use the swatch (or its yarn) for repairs, it will have worn in a similar manner, making the color and texture match easier.

on May 23, 2012 10:25 AM

My primary 'excuse' for not swatching is that I don't want to waste one inch of yarn that might be needed for the item I'm making.  But, as a result, I've only been totally happy with the final result a few times in my many years of knitting and the reason is that, in the end, things just don't "measure up" to what they should be!  DUH!!!  Swatch it, Baby!!!

17Q17 wrote
on May 23, 2012 10:08 AM

I'd like to add that there will usually be a difference in gauge when knitting flat versus in the round. If a project will be knitted in the round, I swatch by knitting until the end of the row on double pointed needles, leave a long string of yarn in back and begin knitting again in the same direction. It looks pretty messy, but I get a far more accurate gauge that way.

ClaudiaC wrote
on May 23, 2012 8:01 AM

I, too, always knit a swatch when planning a garment. However I haven't seen much information about measuring a "pattern"'s always stockinette stitch. How do you measure moss stitch? Or moss stitch and a cable? Sometimes the pattern designer gives the gauge in the pattern stitch, and it's not always helpful.

RowingB wrote
on May 23, 2012 7:39 AM

I, too, am always concerned whether I'll have enough yarn for a project.  Should  the gauge swatch taken into consideration  when calculating yardage?  

delariva wrote
on May 23, 2012 7:38 AM

I am able to obtain a perfect gauge, even after switching needles.  My horizontal and vertical stitch count rarely match the gauge.   Is it'moremimportantmto have the recommended horizontal gauge or is it better to match the vertical gauge?  

Is it possible to ever match gauge without changing the yarn itself?

vickest wrote
on May 23, 2012 7:37 AM

I'm not as "bad" as other knitters with a long que of projects waiting in the wings, but I do nearly always know what my next knitting project will be, and usually have the yarn and pattern ready before I finish my current project. I find I often have odd bits of time where I have to wait for someone or something, or an evening where I don't get to work on my current project. I use those odd bits of time to make my swatches, and although I usually knit to gauge, I, too, have been surprised by the result. Once I finish one project, I am ready to move on to the next because my swatch has already been done. There was much information in this blog regarding ways to test the swatch for performance that I will take into consideration in the future. Thanks.

LesleyAnn wrote
on May 23, 2012 7:19 AM

I don't have a comment on what to do, but I would like to ask this question - When there are beads in your pattern, should your guage swatch include the beads?  Thanks.

AmandaG@2 wrote
on May 23, 2012 7:17 AM

One step that I didn't see mentioned here, and that I always recommend to my knitting students: measure the swatch before and after washing/blocking. Some yarns cause the swatch to grow substantially while others stay the same or even get smaller. You *need* to know this before you begin knitting a garment. After all, when a pattern says, "Knit around for 10 inches," you aren't going to wash and block your work in progress every time you check to see if you've reached that 10 inches. :)

sammybeardog wrote
on May 23, 2012 7:08 AM

More question than comment.  Do you need to add yardage to your yarn total in consideration of working a swatch?  Hate to run out of yarn on any project, big or small.