Knitters are generally a pretty laid back group of folks. Until you bring up the dirtiest word in the language of knitting.
Few words will get knitter’s riled up like that simple, one syllable word. Wanna see them get even more testy?
Ask them, “Have you knitted your Gauge Swatch yet?”
I advise you to be in a place where you can take off running. Because pissing off someone who wields sharp, pointy sticks as part of their hobby is not someone you want to aggravate.
I just have one question about all of this.
Why? Why does everyone despise this oh so simple, oh so small and oh so hugely important part of knitting?
So let’s get a little bit technical here. The information I’m about to quote to you is excerpted from “The Knitter’s Companion” by Vicki Square. It’s a book I recommend in my KnitBOX Getting Started Guide. If you haven’t signed up for that one yet, then please do.
The Knitter’s Companion is the first technically oriented book I purchased, and came recommended by the woman who first taught me to knit. After my disaster of a first scarf. I guess she didn’t realize the lengths that one person can go to destroy a perfectly good scarf, and so suggested I get that book right away. It’s loaded with great information on knitting technique.
Here’s what the author has to say on the subject of gauge.
“Gauge, or tension, is the most critical factor in obtaining an accurate fit. All patterns are based on a specific number of stitches and rows per inch of knitting. If your knitting doesn’t match that specification, your garment stands little chance of fitting properly.
To determine gauge, knit a sample swatch with the yarn and needles you intend to use for the garment. Always knit a swatch at least 4″ (10 cm) wide and 4″ (10cm) long, even if the pattern you plan to follow specifies a gauge of a certain number of stitches over just 1″ (2.5 cm). Because the stitches at the edges of the knitting tend to be somewhat misshapen, you’ll want to measure at least two stitches in from the selvedge edges of the swatch.
Therefore, cast on at least four more stitches than needed to make a 4″ (10 cm) of knitting width. Work the pattern stitch specified to check the gauge; if no pattern is given, work the swatch in stockinette stitch. If the pattern is complex, such as Aran or lace, you should work a larger swatch, perhaps 8″ (20.5 cm) square.
To measure the gauge, lay the swatch flat, place a tape measure or ruler parallel to a row of stitches, and count the number of stitches (including fractions of stitches) that are in 4″ (10 cm). This is your stitch gauge per 4″ (10 cm). Compare this gauge to that specified in the pattern.”
Note: If you invest in the The Knitter’s Companion, there’s a tool in the back of the book to measure stitch gauge.
Here’s the guideline for getting stitch gauge:
- If your swatch has too few stitches, your work is too loose and you should try again with smaller needles.
- If your swatch has too many stitches, your work is too tight and you should try again with larger needles.
If I’m making a straight up gauge swatch, I follow her advice with a couple of additions. I add at least 6 rows of garter stitch to the CO and BO edges of my swatch. And I always do a 4 stitch repeat of garter stitch on both edges of my knitting. This does a couple of things.
- It lets me see what both garter and stockinette stitches will look like in the knitted fabric.
- The garter stitch border will make certain the swatch lays flat.
If you just knit a big square of stockinette, it’s going to just roll up on itself. That’s not so much fun to try and measure. That’s why I started adding the garter stitch border.
You want to wet block your swatches to see by how much the stitches relax after that. Stitches do relax after wash and wear, you know. If you’re really going to put the time and effort (and expense) into making your own sweaters or socks or even hats, don’t you want to make certain you will be able to wear them when you’re done?
I write out these tags and attach them to the swatch when it’s dried so I have a reference in case I want to use that yarn in something later on. I bought this cute sample package from Jimmy Beans wool, and made these swatch samples from all the little samples. It was cool to try stuff out I had never seen, and now I have a really good reference point if I decide I want to make something down the road from any of these fibers. I will never remember what needle I used or what the yarn is, so I attach these tags to everything. The swatches are stored in a dresser drawer I have in my office. I pulled them all out for this photo shoot, and had forgotten how much I liked some of this. I can definitely see designing with some of this lovely yarn!
People ask me all the time, “Why can’t they just use the yarn weight and needle size in the pattern, and jump right into the project sans gauge swatch?” Oh my! There are so many variables! Here are just a few:
- Needle brand and material affect the tightness or looseness of the stitch.
- Your mood affects how tightly you knit. Don’t believe me? Try knitting a swatch right after a fight with your spouse and then another with the same stuff right after having your nails done. I think you’re going to see a big difference!
- Yarn substitutions will always affect the gauge! Yarn within size classifications widely vary. Especially in the size 6 Super Bulky Weight Category. If you don’t swatch bulky weight yarns, your stuff will NEVER fit.
- Everybody is different and so is our knitting. Like no two people have the same handwriting or singing voice, neither do we have identical knitting styles.
I have a couple of beginner patterns that don’t require getting gauge. You can start knitting the pattern right away. These are scarf patterns. If you get 12 or 14 inches into the pattern and decide it’s too skinny or too wide for your taste, it’s a simple matter of ripping back and then adding or decreasing your CO stitches by 2 or 4.
I do believe that getting and understanding gauge from the very beginning is difficult for knitters, so I don’t push the necessity of “getting gauge,” but I do believe it’s very important to understand the concept. This is why I start everybody out on what I call The Essential Scarf. Beyond that first scarf exercise:
I think it’s important to develop the habit of first knitting the swatch and labeling it whether or not you fully understand the information before diving head long into a project. Eventually, it will click and you’ll be glad for that labeled swatch.
In the next post, we are going to talk about the special gauge swatch I like to knit every time I get a new yarn or want to try a familiar yarn with a different needle size. I believe it’s very important to always knit this particular swatch every time you want to try out a new yarn. Even from the the very beginning.
If you ever want to make hats that fit properly, you do need to work with and understand gauge. Otherwise you are going to crank out projects that look like a mess, when what you want is the perfect fit.
Can you guess which hat I knit from the pattern without first checking gauge?