Knitting a gauge swatch is one of the most important steps before starting a knitting project. For most knitters, it’s also one of the most dreaded steps next to weaving in knitting ends.
However, there’s no need to feel this way. In this Guide to Knitting Gauge, I’ll explain several things to make you feel more confident about knitting gauge and knitting a gauge swatch.
First, I’ll begin by discussing what a knit swatch is. Second, we’ll talk about what gauge in knitting means and what it has to do with a knitting a gauge swatch. Next, I’ll explain why it’s so important to swatch for your knit project.
We’ll go through each step in detail and answer all your questions so you’re able to go forth and knit confidently. Let’s begin by discussing and defining what a knit swatch is.
Table of contents
- What is a Knit Swatch?
- What Does a Knit Swatch Have to Do with Knitting Gauge?
- Why Should I Knit a Swatch?
- What Does a Knit Swatch Do?
- Choosing the Right Tools for Knitting a Gauge Swatch
- What is Knitting Gauge?
- Why is Stitch Gauge Important?
- Is Row Gauge Important?
- Why is Knitting Gauge Important?
- Knitting a Gauge Swatch
- What Factors Affect My Knitting Gauge?
- Do I Have to Knit a Gauge Swatch?
- Knitting Gauge FAQs
- My knitting pattern doesn’t tell me how to knit my gauge swatch. What do I do?
- What do I do with my finished swatch?
- What if the pattern lists different stitch pattern gauges?
- My knitting pattern lists two knitting needle sizes. Do I have to knit a swatch with both?
- What does it mean to knit a swatch in pattern?
- Will my yarn fiber change my knitting gauge?
What is a Knit Swatch?
You’ve probably heard other knitters talk about knit swatches, usually with dread or annoyance. Annoyance because we are impatient creatures and just want to start knitting. Dread because many knitters don’t know what a knit swatch is or what it has to do with knitting gauge.
I can’t help you with overcoming annoyance, but I can certainly help you with knit swatches and gauge.
In simplest terms, a knit swatch is a small knitted sample of a stitch pattern. This could be a pattern from a knitting book, a knitting blog, or from a pattern website. It could also come from a designer’s knitted accessory pattern, for example, like one found on Ravelry.com.
In other words, the beginning of a knit you want to design, or a finished design from another knitter. Here's an example of some test swatches I knit for my Lazy River mosaic cowl pattern.
When you knit a swatch, you’ll use the exact knitting needles, yarn, and (stitch) pattern you intend to use for your knitting project. I’ll go into why these knitting tools are so important later on in this post.
What Does a Knit Swatch Have to Do with Knitting Gauge?
Now, you might be asking yourself, why is she talking about a knit swatch? I thought this was about knitting gauge.
I am still talking about gauge. See, you can’t figure out knitting gauge unless you have a knit swatch to measure against.
As you’ll learn in this post, there are multiple steps that go into figuring out knitting gauge. Knitting a swatch is just the main one.
So bear with me as I unpack this post on knitting gauge, as it’s quite a detailed one. Let’s start with why you should knit a swatch.
Why Should I Knit a Swatch?
There are a variety of reasons why you should knit a swatch. You'd knit a swatch to try out a new yarn or different knitting needles. Perhaps you want to practice a new knitting technique. Like, for example, maybe you want to learn how to cast on in the middle of a row.
Or maybe you found a cool pattern that you want to experiment with. You’d definitely want to make a knitting pattern swatch to see how the design works up.
If you want to learn how to design your own knitting patterns, you should knit a swatch to determine look, feel, shape, and size. Along this line, knitting a swatch will help you to determine the fabric’s drape.
Drape is the way your finished knit looks and hangs. Incorrect gauge can be the difference between fluttery shawls or stiff ones, for example.
Still, the most important reason why you should knit a swatch is if size and fit are critical to your finished knit.
What Does a Knit Swatch Do?
Some knitters think a knit swatch is something they can just skip over, like an introduction to a book. This would be a mistake though. A swatch gives you so much information about a knitting pattern.
Here’s what a knit swatch does and what you can learn from it.
Knitting a swatch:
- Gives you a chance to play with yarn, yarn fiber, and yarn color(s).
- Tells you if the yarn weight is ideal for your knitting project.
- Helps you experiment with yarn colors or color combinations.
- Shows you if the yarn hides or reveals the stitch pattern or colorwork design.
- Tells you if the yarn fiber is easy or difficult to work with.
- Determines how the knitting needle sizes work with the yarn you’ve chosen.
- Reveals your knitting tension and tells you if adjustments are needed.
- Tells you if you need more practice on a new knitting technique or stitch.
- Allows you to wash and dry your swatch to see how the yarn behaves.
- Tells you if you’ll need to block your knitting.
- Gives you a snapshot of what your finished knitted piece will look like.
- Helps you decide if you’re happy with the outcome and want to continue.
As you can see, a knit swatch is a detailed collaboration of so many things. It can provide so much information BEFORE you start knitting your project.
Choosing the Right Tools for Knitting a Gauge Swatch
By now you’re beginning to realize how important it is to choose the right knitting tools for your project. They play a huge part when you first knit a swatch and on your finished knit.
As I mentioned earlier, when you’re ready to knit a gauge swatch, you’ll use the exact knitting needles, yarn, and (stitch) pattern you intend to use for your knitting project.
What Should I Know about Choosing Yarn for My Gauge Swatch?
It’s important to use the same color and dye lot for your swatch as for your knitting project. This is because yarn density, how thick or thin your yarn is, may vary from color to color.
It can also vary within the same brand, line, and color of yarn. This is a result of the color treatment, chemical treatment (ex. superwash yarn), or hand dye process the yarn goes through.
You should also purchase an extra yarn hank or ball of yarn for your project. It’s good insurance in case there’s a just in case, and won't cut into your pattern's required yarn.
What Should I Know about Choosing Knitting Needles for My Gauge Swatch?
When I wrote this post on knitting needles, I talked about how they go through different manufacturing processes. This can cause some inconsistencies from one brand to another. Knitting needles will also vary depending on the type of material they’re made from, which can affect your knitting gauge.
For example, if you were to knit a swatch with bamboo knitting needles, and then switch to metal knitting needles on your project, you’d run the risk of having your project size change.
So, choose your knitting tools carefully and stick with them for the best results.
Now, let’s talk about knitting gauge.
What is Knitting Gauge?
If your goal is to design a knit pattern, you’ll need to look at the yarn label for recommended gauge for that particular yarn. You can learn more about reading a yarn label here.
If you’re reading a knitting pattern from a designer, look for the knitting needle size, the yarn name and yarn colorway used in the construction of the knit piece. More importantly, though, look for the stitch gauge and row gauge the pattern calls for.
This means how many knit stitches per inch (spi) and how many rows per inch. Let’s elaborate on this.
How is Knitting Gauge Written?
Let’s look at this yarn label (below) of Lion Brand’s Wool Ease DK weight (discontinued) yarn. I’ve bracketed the important details in pink.
Their recommended gauge calls for size 5 knitting needles, which produced a knitting gauge of 22 stitches and 30 rows in 4 inches.
In knitting patterns, you should find knitting gauge written like this:
Gauge: 22 sts X 30 rows = 4 inches / 10 centimeters
The recommended gauge may include inches and/or centimeters, but not always both. Just simply convert it if you need to.
Also, you may find the recommended gauge written in 1”, 2” or 4” increments. Again, adjust as needed.
How is Knitting Gauge Determined?
You may be wondering, how did they come to this recommended gauge? This is how they measured gauge.
They knit a large swatch in stockinette stitch using the size 5 knitting needles. Then, they measured a four inch (10 cm) section and found that their knitting produced 22 stitches (width) by 30 rows (height). This is how they determined their knitting gauge.
Let me break it down even further. The 22 stitches shows your stitches per four inches, or your stitch gauge. The 30 stitches are your row gauge measurements over four inches.
For your knit swatch, you’ll want to know your stitch gauge, or how many stitches per inch (spi), as well as your row gauge and how many rows per inch.
Your goal is to match the stitch gauge AND the row gauge
the designer lists on the knitting pattern.
Why are these measurements so important? Let’s discuss.
Why is Stitch Gauge Important?
Stitch gauge and row gauge measurements are what determine the size of your finished knit. You’ll calculate knitting gauge from your gauge swatch, which will tell you if your finished project will fit correctly.
Also, proper knitting gauge will save you from playing yarn chicken with the quantity of yarn you bought for your project. For example, if you’re a tight knitter, you’ll use more yarn because you’ll create a denser fabric. If you’re a loose knitter, you’ll use less yarn and have a looser fabric.
Is Row Gauge Important?
However, there are some knitting patterns where row gauge IS critical. Here are some examples where row gauge matters:
- When knitting gloves, mittens, and knitted hats.
- Knitting Fair Isle or other colorwork knitting patterns.
- With knitted garments that require waist shaping, adjusting sleeve lengths, sleeve tapering, etc.
- When knitting sweaters, especially Raglan or Yoke sweaters, where you have to calculate increases and decreases over length.
Why is Knitting Gauge Important?
If you don’t know your knitting gauge, then you won’t know what size your finished knit will be. Without correct knitting gauge, it can be the difference between “fit” and “fail”.
Let’s use the example of knitting a sweater and assume that the pattern’s gauge is 8 stitches per inch (or 32 stitches per four inches). The sweater size you want to knit has a circumference of 40 inches around.
Then, if you acquired the exact gauge for this pattern, you’d cast on a total of 320 stitches. Let me show you how I came to this number.
8 stitches per inch multiplied by 40 inches circumference = 320 stitches OR
8 sts per in. X 40 in. = 320 sts (cast on)
Now, let’s say that your swatch measured 7.4 stitches per inch. Maybe you thought, eh, close enough and you went ahead and started knitting. Here’s how that would play out:
320 sts (cast on) divided by 7.4 sts per in. = 43.24 inches (larger)
Or say your knitting gauge was more than 8 stitches per inch. Let’s use 8.4 spi for our example.
320 sts (cast on) divided by 8.4 sts per in. = 38.09 inches (smaller)
As you can see, even a fraction of a number can affect your outcome. This is why knitting gauge is important.
Helpful Tips About Knitting Gauge
Here are some helpful tips to remember about knitting gauge:
- Smaller size knitting needles = smaller knit stitches.
- Smaller knit stitches = more stitches per inch.
- Thinner yarn = more stitches per inch.
- Larger knitting needles = bigger stitches.
- Larger knit stitches = fewer stitches per inch.
- Thicker yarn = fewer stitches per inch.
Knitting a Gauge Swatch
Let’s now talk about knitting a gauge swatch for a finished knitting pattern and a stitch pattern, respectively. I’ll also go into what to do when no recommended information is given.
How Do I Swatch for a Knitting Pattern?
Say you purchased a knitting pattern online that you want to knit a swatch for. I’ll use my Eenie Meenie Baby Blanket pattern as an example. Here’s what you need to do.
First, look at the knitting pattern for the gauge measurements and the knitting needle sizes. In the image above you can see that the gauge is 19 sts X 27 rows in 4 in. using size 7 knitting needles.
The recommended gauge and size 7 knitting needles are your starting point. Would you cast on 19 stitches for your knit swatch? No, you’d need to cast on more than the recommended number. I’ll explain why shortly. For now, let’s cover how to swatch for a stitch pattern.
How Do I Knit a Stitch Pattern Gauge Swatch?
If you’re knitting a swatch from a stitch pattern book, you'll notice that it doesn’t give you a starting point. It’s only the stitch pattern with no yarn weight or needle size recommendations.
So, here’s what you do to knit a stitch pattern gauge swatch.
First, choose your yarn. Second, look to the yarn label for their recommendations on where to begin.
Say you wanted to use the Lion Brand’s Wool Ease DK weight yarn we talked about earlier. Their yarn label recommends size 5 knitting needles to produce a knitting gauge of 22 stitches X 30 rows in 4”.
Would you cast on 22 stitches and start knitting? Again, no. You’d need to cast on more than the recommended number. Plus, you’d have to factor in the stitch pattern’s required multiple of stitches.
What if My Yarn Label Doesn’t List Knitting Gauge?
In this case, a yarn weight chart comes in handy since stitch patterns often don’t provide any design instructions. So if your yarn label doesn’t list knitting gauge, there’s a workaround for that.
Take a look at these Yarn Weight Cheat Sheets I created for you, one for US sizes, one for UK sizes. In each you can see four categories.
The Weight Category lists 8 different yarn weights from 0 to 7. The Types Category lists the different types of yarn found in each yarn weight. The Needle Size Category shows the recommended needle sizes for each yarn weight. The Stitches per Inch Category tells you how many stitches per four inches using the recommended needle size.
To knit a gauge swatch for a stitch pattern, use this cheat sheet to find your cast on starting point. For example, for a bulky or chunky yarn, it shows recommended needle sizes of 9 to 11 with an estimated 12 to 15 stitches per 4 inches.
Again, do you just cast on 15 stitches? No, for a knit swatch using bulky yarn, you’ll need to cast on more than 15 stitches.
Now, let me explain why you’d want to cast on more stitches than the gauge’s measurements.
How Many Stitches Should I Cast On for My Swatch?
One of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to knitting a gauge swatch is how many stitches should I cast on? Here’s what you should do.
If you’re working from a knitting pattern, first look for their gauge measurements. Using the baby blanket example from before, it shows 19 sts X 27 rows = 4” using worsted weight yarn.
Again, you wouldn’t cast on 19 stitches for your swatch because this is the gauge measurement. Here’s why you should cast on more stitches for your knit swatch.
When you measure your gauge swatch, you don’t want to include the knit selvedges or the cast on / bind off borders in your measurements. You want a large knit sample to determine your best gauge. If you only cast on and knit 19 stitches, you’ll be contending with the selvedges and knit borders.
A good rule of thumb is to cast on at least 6 – 10 more stitches than the gauge indicates. Using the above example of 19 sts, you’d cast on 25 – 29 stitches.
But what about adding a knit border?
Should I Add a Garter Stitch Border to My Gauge Swatch?
Some knitters prefer to add a garter stitch border and several knit selvedge stitches to each side of their swatch. The reason they do this is to help the swatch lay flat for easy measurement, especially if the center is stockinette stitch.
It’s not required but you may find that you prefer to do it. This is entirely up to you.
Following the rule of thumb from earlier, you’d then cast on additional stitches. Still using the Eenie Meenie blanket gauge as an example, it'd look like this:
Pattern Gauge Measurement: 19 sts
Recommended Cast On Stitches (no border): 25 to 29 stitches
With Border Stitches: (+3) 25 to 29 stitches (+3) = 31 to 35 stitches.
These are just recommendations and based on a worsted weight yarn. You’ll need to adjust according to yarn weight, needle sizes, etc.
As for the garter stitch border, you’ll just knit a couple of rows before and after the stitch pattern before you bind off.
Okay, so now that we’ve covered how many stitches to cast on, selvedges and knit borders, let’s talk about the size of the swatch.
What Size Swatch Do I Need to Knit?
You’ve already seen that gauge is usually measured in four inches. However, you’ll want to knit a swatch that’s larger than this, at least 5 or 6 inches, for better accuracy.
Again, the reason you’d knit a larger swatch is to be able to measure the middle without being encumbered by the edges and cast on/bind off.
Now, up to this point, we’ve talked in a roundabout way about how to knit a gauge swatch but haven’t put it all together. Let’s do that now.
How to Knit a Gauge Swatch
These are the steps you’ll need to take to knit a gauge swatch.
First, gather your knitting needles and yarn.
Second, cast on the necessary number of stitches for your swatch. Include any selvedge knit stitches if you prefer.
Third, knit in the stitch pattern specified for your project. Knit until your swatch measures four inches, or until you’ve completed the pattern repeats for four inches or greater.
Fourth, bind off loosely.
Fifth, wash and block your swatch in the manner you intend to use for your finished project.
Finally, measure your knit swatch once completely dry.
What Factors Affect My Knitting Gauge?
As humans, we all knit differently and can be affected by a variety of things, which can affect our knitting.
Here are some factors that can affect your knitting gauge:
- Your mood.
- Your knitting tension.
- Knitting needle size and material.
- Yarn weight and type of yarn fiber.
- The type of stitch pattern (cable knits, seed stitch, etc.).
- Your style of knitting (Portuguese, Continental, English, etc.)
The most important thing to pay attention to when knitting a gauge swatch is your knitting tension.
What is Knitting Tension?
Knitting tension is how tight or how loosely you knit. Like your heart rate, your knitting tension will often change from day to day. It can change if you’re stressed or distracted. It can even change when you’re using different knitting needle materials.
Here's an excellent post on the mysteries of gauge and knitting tension.
You might even knit differently from row to row, or round to round, which can cause irregularities in the knit fabric. These are all things you want to pay attention to.
What you’re looking for is consistency in your knitting. You should knit your swatch as you would when you’re not knitting under pressure. Stress knitting is definitely a no-no.
The more stressed you are, the less likely you’ll get an accurate gauge. Plus, you want to knit the gauge swatch as if you’re knitting the pattern. You want to be able to keep gauge throughout because the measuring doesn’t end with the swatch.
If the process requires numerous attempts until you meet the pattern’s knitting gauge, that’s okay. Take your time. Relax. Enjoy the process.
Do I Have to Knit a Gauge Swatch?
Ah, the ultimate question. It’s true, there are certain knitting projects where gauge is not an absolute requirement. Knitting patterns that don’t require your knit to fit, you can generally forego knitting a swatch. Some examples are:
However, if you’re knitting a hat, knit socks, a sweater, etc., your finished project will require a gauge swatch. Plus, it's not a bad idea to get in the habit of knitting gauge swatches. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get with the process.
As you practice more and gain more experience, you may learn to not dread swatches.
Knitting Gauge FAQs
Here's a list of frequently asked questions I get about gauge. I'll continue to update this section as needed.
My knitting pattern doesn’t tell me how to knit my gauge swatch. What do I do?
Unless your knitting pattern tells you to knit in garter stitch or some other stitch pattern, assume that they mean stockinette stitch.
What do I do with my finished swatch?
Keep your knit swatch so you can compare your work in progress (WIP) to your finished gauge measurements. This will help you stay on track.
You can also keep it to test out cleaning methods. If you happen to stain your finished knit,. it's a good idea to test the method beforehand.
What if the pattern lists different stitch pattern gauges?
You’ll need to knit a swatch in each pattern to determine each pattern’s gauge.
My knitting pattern lists two knitting needle sizes. Do I have to knit a swatch with both?
Look at your knitting pattern carefully and determine which size was used for the main body of fabric. You’ll knit your swatch in this needle size.
When two or more needle sizes are listed, the smaller sizes are usually for borders or edges, not for fit.
What does it mean to knit a swatch in pattern?
Just like when a pattern asks you to bind off in pattern, the same rules apply. This means that you’ll need to knit a swatch in the stitch that your knitting pattern uses.
If you’re making a seed stitch pattern, for example, your gauge instructions may say to knit your swatch in pattern. In this case, you’d knit a swatch in seed stitch.
Will my yarn fiber change my knitting gauge?
Alright, so we’ve discussed what a knit swatch is, what gauge means in knitting, why gauge is so important, and how to knit a gauge swatch. We’ve even covered factors which could affect your knitting.
The next step is to start knitting a gauge swatch. So pick a pattern, choose your yarn, and grab your knitting needles! Next time, we’ll talk about knitting gauge tools and how to measure gauge in knitting (coming soon!).
In the meantime, continue to send me your questions if they weren’t addressed here. I’m happy to help.