Getting Gauge Part 2 - Swatch Like You Mean It

Welcome to Part 2 of the Getting Gauge series! Part 1 of the series went over the basics of gauge - what it is, when it’s important, and how it affects the size of a finished object. This post will delve into swatching, the process of determining your gauge and how it will affect your finished object.

Preparation Quote

For any project that has to fit, you should take the time to knit a full gauge swatch. Sometimes the urge to skip swatching is strong, but the information that you can glean from this little piece of fabric can help inform your whole project and ensure that your finished object is beloved and treasured. The time you take to swatch may save you more time, confusion, and heartbreak down the road. 

Anatomy of a Swatch

Anatomy of a Swatch


Border Stitches:

Your swatch should include a border of 3-5 stitches garter stitch on all sides. This will help prevent a stockinette stitch from rolling in on itself and is generally helpful to keep your swatch nice and neat.

Buffer Stitches:

A good swatch includes more stitches than the gauge indicates. For example, if a pattern indicates 24 stitches and 35 rows to 4"/10cm, a good swatch would be at least 30 stitches and 41 rows of the stitch pattern inside the border stitches. These extra "buffer" stitches allow you to be able to measure your swatch in the middle of the fabric, whereas if you were to attempt to measure it at an edge or near the border, the stitches would be warped and your gauge measurement wouldn't be quite accurate. Always knit your buffer stitches in the same pattern as the gauge swatch.

Needle Size Indicator:

Indicating your needle size on your swatch is always a good idea, but it becomes essential if you end up making more than one swatch. You want to be able to tell which swatch was made with which needles! The neatest way to do this is with eyelets in the corner of the swatch. Simply do as many eyelets (yo, k2tog) as your needle size, e.g., US4 = 4 eyelets.  If, in a frenzy of swatching, you forget to add the eyelets, you can simply tie knots in the tail of your swatch to indicate your needle size.

Swatching in Pattern

Your pattern should indicate what stitch the gauge is measured in - this is the stitch you should knit your swatch in. Often, gauge will be indicated in whatever stitch pattern is the most prominent on a pattern, so be sure to check your pattern before starting a plain stockinette swatch. Sometimes, gauge is given in more than one stitch pattern.  Take time to swatch both!

Patterned SwatchFollow the same guidelines for a patterned swatch as a plain one - include border stitches and buffer stitches. Your buffer stitches should be knit in the same stitch as the main swatch. Sometimes, this will mean adding entire pattern repeats to the width and height of your swatch. It is always better to have a bigger swatch than one that is too small.

For some lace and colorwork patterns, the designer may list gauge as a certain number of repeats of a pattern or motif, rather than a number of stitches. In this case, simply knit your swatch including border stitches and buffer stitches as above.

Swatching in the Round

If the majority of your project will be knit in the round, you should consider swatching in the round. Most people knit and purl with different tensions, and when knitting in the round the ratio of knit to purl changes. Knitting stockinette in the round, where there is no purling at all, versus knitting it flat, where half the stitches are purled, may result in a different tension and gauge.

Swatching in the round is easy! And fun!

Using a circular needle, knit a row (including border and buffer stitches), then slide it back to the other side of the needle, loosely draping the yarn to the back of the swatch, and begin knitting on the right side again. When you're finished, you can cut the loose strands on the back and lay your swatch flat.

Swatched in the Round

A Note About Row Gauge

Many knitters only swatch to determine their stitch gauge. Row gauge can be easily altered by knitting more or fewer rows. However, row gauge that differs significantly from a pattern will affect how shaping is spaced in a pattern. It will also affect the depth of any short row shaping. A full swatch is always best to determine your fabric’s characteristics and to get a sense for your row gauge, even if it’s not essential for your pattern.

Prepping your Swatch

Now that you've knit a masterpiece swatch, it's time to see how you measure up! Cast off your swatch - measuring a swatch that’s still on the needles won’t yield accurate numbers! Measure your swatch before and after washing it. It's important to determine how much your knitting changes after washing. This can be incredibly valuable when you're knitting. For example, if it doesn't look like your item will fit, you can refer to your gauge swatch to see how much the fabric will grow to determine if it will actually fit.

When you do wash your swatch, wash it as you intend to wash the finished object. If you will hand wash your item with wool wash and block it with wires and pins, do that with your swatch. If you're going to machine-wash and dry your item, do that. Often, pattern designers will provide blocking instructions, so refer to those if they’re present.

Measuring Your Swatch

When your swatch has dried, it’s time for the moment of truth: measuring and counting your stitches. Using locking stitch markers or scrap yarn, mark a 4”/10cm square in the middle of your swatch. Now, count how many stitches wide the square is. Then, how many rows tall your square is. That’s your gauge.

A gauge checker if a very handy tool to have for measuring swatches! Just lay out your swatch (no stretching!) and put the checker on top. Count how many stitches wide and tall appear through the windows, and that's your gauge!

Now What?

So you’ve determined your gauge - great! Now is the tricky part - determining if your gauge is a good fit for the pattern.

First, before even looking at the pattern - do you like the fabric of your swatch? Does it have the appropriate structure or drape for your pattern? Is the stitch definition where you want it to be? These are important questions to ask of your swatch, particularly if you are substituting yarns. You can match the pattern’s gauge exactly, but if the fabric characteristics don’t match, the finished item won’t match the pattern photos.

Then, compare your gauge to the pattern gauge. Does it match exactly? Remember, a swatch off by even one stitch could make a difference of inches on a full garment.

If your gauge matches exactly, congrats! Cast on your project!

If your swatch doesn’t match the pattern gauge at all (if you’re off by more than one stitch), you should swatch again. If you have more stitches than you should, go up a needle size. If you have fewer stitches than you should, go down. Knitting more than one swatch at once is a good idea, especially if you want to compare the fabric you make on different needles.

But what if…

your swatch isn’t off by that much, or

you did get gauge but you don’t like the fabric?

Then, you’ll have to do some simple calculations to determine which pattern size will give you a FO that fits. In Part 3 of the Getting Gauge series, we’ll go over those simple calculations and the reasoning behind them so you can knit any garment to fit, no matter your gauge.

Did you learn anything new here about swatching? Do you have any tips or tricks for swatching? Please, leave a comment to share!