Hey, Swatch It! Beginners Guide to the Knitting Gauge

April 30, 2021

The Gauge. The gauge is a necessary evil for patterns that need to ‘fit’. Sweaters, vests, skirts etc need to have a specific size to fit, so therefore they have a ‘gauge’. This is one of those elements in knitting that HAS TO BE DONE for EVERY PROJECT*, but I find it to be the most dreaded aspect of knitting (I may be talking for myself but I have seen others whine about it too). *Some scarves or potholders where size doesn’t matter might not have a gauge listed. I’m using ALL CAPS and the word ‘EVERY’ to drive home the importance of the gauge. What I’m really saying is: almost all patterns have a gauge. I don’t like to make general categorizations like that but this is one of those things that needs to be emphasized.

A quick terminology lesson before we dive in:

The gauge tells us how many stitches per inch we need to get an accurate sized garment, it is listed as a set of numbers on a knitting pattern

● The swatch is the physical knit ‘practice’ piece that we can measure to check for the correct gauge

In order for a knitting pattern to be successful for all knitters, a knitting gauge should be included. Everyone has a different tension when knitting. There are those lucky knitters who knit with perfect tension, it’s not too loose, it’s not too tight, the yarn hugs the needle just right… There are also loose knitters and tight knitters. Tension describes how tightly or loosely a stitch wraps around the needle as it is formed. Pulling the yarn too tight when creating the stitch will give you a tight stitch. Not pulling the yarn hard enough when creating the stitch will give you a loose stitch. Got it?

Definition of Knitting Gauge

The number of stitches per inch and rows per inch in a knitting pattern needed to exactly replicate the pattern as written.

me

The gauge is the ratio of stitches and rows to standardize your knitting tension to match the knitting pattern creators tension. They created the pattern to look and fit a specific way. If the gauge is not followed, the end result will not be as the pattern writer intended and you may not be happy with it. In other words, you won’t end up with what you see in the photos…

Goal of Knitting a Swatch

The goal of a creating a swatch is to match the horizontal stitch and vertical row counts listed as the gauge in a pattern. Stitches have specific sizes when they are formed on the needle, the size is affected by tension, needle size and yarn weight. We need to match our stitch size to the gauge the knitting pattern requires. When we match the gauge, the project will fit as the pattern writer intended.

In order for a swatch to be accurate, it needs to be knit in the stitch pattern named in the gauge.

Gauge is the starting point

Since everyone knits at a different tension, the gauge is a good starting point for a pattern. If a pattern did not have a gauge, how would a beginner (well, most knitters really) know what size needles and weight needles to use? Sure, you could look at the pattern and try to guess what weight the yarn is and then go from there… This kind of ‘guestimating’ will not be easy nor will it give you predictable results.

Here are a Few Examples of What Gauge Looks like When Written in a Pattern:

– 8 stitches and 11 rows = 1 in (2.5 cm) in stockinette stitch

Or

– 22 st/4” on US 6 (4mm) needles. Gauge is not critical but will affect the final size of the shawl.

Or

– 17.5 sts and 26 rows = 4” in St st or needle size needed to obtain gauge.

Do any of these statements look like plain English? Not really. To understand them, we need to learn some other important facts about knitting gauge. The gauges listed above pretty much mean the same thing, just using different reference points.

Why Not Knit Just One Inch Worth of Stitches?

Not all yarn weight/needle size/tension combinations will fall neatly into perfect inch increments. Sometimes you’ll get a half stitch included in the measurement!Or there may be an extra 1/5 of a stitch per inch, we should account for that over more than just one inch.

one inch worth of stitches
Not very useful to measure over one inch.

Just do the four inches, decision made for you. DONE!

Adjust for Tension

Suppose two knitters want to knit the same pattern. One is a tight knitter and the other a loose knitter. The first knitter knits a swatch, hoping to achieve the recommended gauge. They use the needles the pattern recommends but when they measure it, they have less stitches per inch than the gauge recommends. The tight knitter does the same, they knit a swatch using the recommended needles but their stitch count is higher per inch than the gauge. Now what?

After listing the recommended needle size, patterns will usually mention something to the effect of ‘or the needle size needed to obtain gauge’. To figure out what size needle based on the swatch that was just knit, we need to think about the relation between the needle size and the yarn.

Must Remember this for Gauge and Adjusting Tension:

If your swatch has just the right amount of stitches and rows based on the gauge, CONGRATULATIONS, you don’t need to knit another swatch. WOO HOO!!!

If your swatch has too few stitches per inch, use a smaller sized needle. Boo.

If your swatch has too many stitches per inch, use a larger sized needle. Boo.

This is why I LOVE INTERCHANGEABLE needle sets (you can see my recommendations and buy them here). Imaging grabbing the needle size listed on your new project only to figure out that you need a different size but you’ve already hopped on the airplane or are too far away from home to turn around… this is a knitters nightmare.

Yarns & Needles Need to Complement Each Other

A quick method I learned to determine what yarn to use with needle a size is to double the yarn and it should be roughly the same diameter as the knitting needle. This is a VERY ROUGH estimate, but it at least gets you in the right ball park, matching needle size to yarn weight. By matching the needle size to the proper yarn weight, you will get a fabric that does not have obvious holes or lacy look too it and the fabric will move nicely, not super stiff. I would call this a ‘balanced’ knit fabric, not too tight or too loose. This is of course my own definition & opinion.

Translating the Gauge for an Effective Swatch

The numbers listed on the gauge are what we are ideally shooting for… But, when a gauge says to knit X number of stitches by Y number of rows, we really need to make a larger swatch to account for some quirks of knitted fabric. A knitted swatch has a beginning edge, two side edges and an end edge, each of which influences the knit fabric in some way.

We want to add in an extra “inch” worth of stitches so that when we measure, we are getting a nice, unaffected area that is not influenced by the edges. For example, when a gauge calls for 5 sts per inch and 4 rows per inch, (which would normally be 20 sts and 16 rows for a typical 4” swatch) you should cast on an extra 5 stitches and knit for an extra 4 rows. So your adjusted gauge looks like this: 25 sts and 30 rows. You can make the same adjustment to your gauge, add an inch worth of stitches to the stitch count and an inch worth of rows to the recommended row count.

Here is an example I “KNIT” (in Illustrator) based on the gauge listed:

(We are pretending that the edges of the image are the real edges of the knit swatch.)

“14 sts and 14 rows over 4 in. or size needle to obtain gauge.”

What Happens if I Use the Wrong Needle Size and Yarn Weight?

If you use a needle that is too small for the yarn, the fabric will be extremely hard to knit and the resulting fabric will be very stiff.

Ask me how I know this… A long time ago I was determined to get two yarns to coordinate in a cute hat I wanted to make for my daughter. The variegated yarn I used for the trim was amazing and the inspiration for why I wanted to knit the hat. I didn’t have enough yarn to make the whole hat with the fun yarn, so I decided to use a solid color for the top of the hat. The solid color ended up being the bulk of the hat. So, I smushed that solid yarn onto the same size needles I used for the trim, ignoring all sorts of signs that this was a BAD idea and when the hat was all done, it was awful! It didn’t stretch nearly enough to fit her head, she only wore it a few times. I refused to admit that I needed to change needle size or buy a different coordinating yarn.

What about using needles that are too big for the yarn? This has a much happier ending. If you use needles that are too big for the yarn, you end up with lace! Assuming you want lace of course… If you don’t want a lacey look to the fabric, you’ll need to use smaller needles that are better suited to the yarn weight.

How to Read the Yarn label – Pattern Gauge Reference

*Most* yarn labels will have some sort of weight reference/needle reference. It can be as simple as a weight (worsted for example) or it can be more detailed, offering a needle size and number of stitches and rows to get the correct gauge. *I have observed that store bought yarn labels usually have more information and hand dyed or small batch/brand yarn labels usually have less information.

This is another reason why we need to save yarn labels!

Big box store yarn label has lots of information, including knitting gauge. That is the square the the right of the big number 4. It says how many stitches and rows using size 9 needles will create a 4 inch square swatch.
Actual weight of the skein and yardage. Nothing about needle size or gauge.
Yardage, yarn nickname (Bulky weight) and suggested needle size.
Yardage, weight, fiber content, recommended needle size. Every label is different!

Block the Swatch for the Most Accurate Measurements

Blocking a swatch means to wet it/clean it, gently press out the excess water and then carefully lay out the fabric without stretching or scrunching it. Pins are usually used to hold down edges and corners when the item is laid out on a soft surface. It is the final step to make your handknits look amazing. We will eventually cover this in another blog post. To determine what method used to block, use the laundering instructions called for on the yarn label, if there are any….

This swatch is base on the gauge: 26 sts/36 rows = 4 inches in stockinette, worked in the round. (see * below for working a swatch in the round).

Here is the swatch just after I bound it off. I did not cut the yarn, I only cut when absolutely necessary. By just binding off and pulling the ball of yarn through the last stitch, I have a temporary situation. After I’m done with the swatch, I can just pull it out and I have not lost any yarn.

This is the messy backside. All those loops are there for a reason, they allowed me to bring the yarn around to the beginning of the row so that I did not have to purl back to do the Stockinette Stitch.

Next, we soak the swatch. You can use tepid water (water that doesn’t feel warm or cold), some Eucalan or Soak (you can find more information and opportunity to purchase by clicking on the names). Euculan and Soak are fancy ‘detergents’ created specifically for hand knits!

Just get it wet all the way through. You can’t tell, but this swatch is completely soaked.

The next step in blocking is to gently remove as much water as possible. We NEVER wring out knitting.

This is a big NO NO NO NO NO!!!! Yes, this is me yellllllling…

Gently roll the knitting in a clean towel (my daughter didn’t know she was lending me her watermelon towel! I love this thing, so cute) and slowly squeeze out the water without making any rubbing motions or moving the knit fabric. Rubbing the swatch will felt yarns that are not specially made to be machine washable. This may be one of those yarns, just as a general rule, don’t rub any knit pieces together when wet if you’re not deliberately felting it.

I could have saved myself some work here. The next photo of the swatch after its time in the towel looks exactly the same as the dripping wet one. Ha.

Now we need to get this swatch into shape. The way the loops hang off the back requires some gentle tugging to tighten up the last stitch on each side. Next I start pinning the swatch. I would normally block an item with the right side facing me, but since I didn’t want the loops to be in the way, I blocked it upside down. It is still on top of the towel and pinned into that lavender mat that is below the towel. That is a blocking mat that I absolutely LOVE from KnitPicks. A blocking mat holds the pins in place so you can block more easily. You can block on just a towel, but it doesn’t work quite as well.

All the way pinned around the edges. Keep your edges straight and corners at 90 degree angles. Feel free to repin if it doesn’t look right. More pins = straighter edge.

The real reason I despise blocking is having to wait until the item air dries. No speeding it up with a hair dryer or any heat. A fan to circulate air gently would be fine. But I’m too impatient…

Another sort of silly photo. It’s dry, but you can’t tell can you? I am just documenting every step. Like a NERD!!! and proud of it!

Ahhhhhhhhhh……. So much better! The curl is temporarily gone. Now we can count!

By count, I mean tell everyone in the room to ‘zip their traps’ and let you count out loud without distraction. I think I tried counting 4-5 times. I just stink at it.

I used pins to mark 4 inches in both directions. Notice I am measuring in a little bit from the edge. It doesn’t matter if you are absolutely centered, as long as you are not using the edge stitches in your count.

Now let’s measure the rows.

This is the meaty bit that we want to measure. I know it’s not centered, as long as I’m not messing with the edges we’re fine.

BTW, my swatch is off, I have to do it AGAIN. Oh well. It calls for 26 sts by 36 rows. I achieved 23.5 sts and 32 rows. So I need to go down a size so I can fit more stitches and rows in the 4 inches.

Here is what the swatch looks like and the original yarn label. You probably can’t read it but it says, “Worsted weight, US needles 7 – 9.” I used size 4 for the first swatch! So obviously this whole process is very subjective. I personally would not have consiered this a worsted weight, I think it is a sport weight. But it is a place to start. I followed my pattern because I know that the yarn looked like it would be a good fit. This is after years of working with (and playing and sniffing yarn) that I knew this would be a good fit for the pattern. I didn’t listen to the yarn label.

You’ll get there. Go by the pattern and knitting gauge, the pattern creator knows what they used and you know that you like the pattern based on the photographs.

No worries, I just move down the yarn a little and cast on again. No Cutting of the YARN if possible!

Blocking is optional but highly recommended. I have been known to skip the blocking on a swatch. Yes, I can be very lazy. I do LOVE the results, it is the impatient side of me that HATES the process.

* Working a Swatch in the Round in Stockinette Stitch

See here if you don’t know or recall what the Stockinette Stitch is. Our knitting habits change if we are knitting flat or in the round. Knitting flat has us doing both knit and purl stitches. Each is a little different width and height even if you think you are doing it exactly the same. If you are knitting in the round, all of your stitches are knit stitches. All those little bits of length add up over hundreds of stitches, which can change your result drastically.

A trick to check you are maintaining the length/space between rows, place an item gently in the new loops you are creating at the beginning of a new row. Keep it there just until you have enough stitches to establish a good tension and the loop doesn’t change size. The loop length between rows needs to be wider than the swatch so the swatch can be laid flat for measuring.

What to Do with Leftover Swatches:

1) undo and use yarn in project (what I usually do if there is any hesitation about amount of yarn needed for a project)
2) to hold needles and other items in notions pouch (next best use I’ve found, but you only need so many of these)


3) pocket for another project
4) pieced together to make a large blanket
5) mismatched coasters

Other Considerations for Knitting the Swatch:

Do the Math: If you like the fabric the swatch creates but it is not the correct gauge, it is possible to adjust it, it’s just a more advanced skill. The number of stitches is more important than the number of rows if you need to adjust the pattern. Many patterns call for a length of knitting instead of a number of rows. If your pattern has measurements, just measure as you go until you have the correct length. Then start your next section.

Use Gauge to Substitute Other Yarns

Now that you understand how the needle size relates to the yarn weight, we can use that information to substitute other yarns in our patterns. When a pattern is published, it usually mentions a specific yarn that was used for the garment photographed and was extensively tested with the pattern. Some of the older patterns I have list yarns that are no longer being made, are too expensive for me, or I just don’t like… so what now?

Take a look at the knitting gauge listedon the pattern, then look at the label on yarns you have or yarns you want to buy. See if they can be used interchangeably. Is there a suggested needle size? If you knit up a swatch in this new yarn and it is equivalent to the gauge from the pattern, you are all set! Even if you have to adjust the needle size once or twice, it is well worth the effort.

In the End, Only Kindness Matters…

(Thank you Jewel for these inspiring words, I think you said them first) Be kind to yourself, knit the stinking swatch! You’ll be so glad you did. I swear, knitting a swatch feels like it takes longer than the project but it is so worth it. I’d rather mess up a few inches of knitting than get to the end of a long, arduous knit and be completely wrong!

Remember, ALWAYS do a TEST SWATCH before starting a pattern even though it sucks!

If you have any questions about your knitting gauge, please feel free to ask them in the comment section below or send me an email: [email protected].

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