Design Workshop: Part 4 – The Dreaded Gauge Swatch

One of the most dreaded aspects of knitting is the gauge swatch. I found that many customers avoid knitting up a swatch to check gauge; they would rather wait to see what happens. The gauge swatch is key to the design process – it determines the number of stitches to cast on, and the measurements of your project. The fun part for me is experimenting with the yarn and chosen stitch pattern, knitting up a large swatch to see if the combination of these two elements works.

As a starting point, look at the yarn ball band for the suggested needle size and use this information to knit up your first swatch. Then if you want to change the needle size, move up or down in size to get your desired result. For my project, I chose 4.5 mm needles (common for worsted weight yarn), as I wanted a close knit scarf. The stitch pattern was found in Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns called “eccentric cable”. This cable is a multiple of 10 stitches. I divided each cable by 3 stitches worked as rib (k1,p1,k1). For my swatch, I casted on 28 stitches. My swatch pattern consisted of two cables. I knitted the pattern stitch for a little more the 4 inches. I liked how it looked, so I blocked my swatch to prepare for measuring. Remember that pattern stitches like cables and ribs are stretchy.

gauge swatch for red scarf
gauge swatch for red scarf

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming handbook on gauge and gauge swatch, as it applies to reading pattern instructions. Follow the same steps, except that you are determining your own gauge, rather than comparing it to pattern instructions.

“Gauge and Gauge Swatch

Obtaining an accurate gauge ensures achieving the correct measurements and proper fit as stated in the pattern instructions. Gauge is simply the number of stitches and rows per inch of knitted fabric, and determines the size of the project. The stitch gauge determines the width of the piece, and the row gauge determines the length. Well written pattern instructions give the gauge over a 4”(10cm) square of knitted fabric when using the yarn and needles specified.

Before beginning any project it is strongly recommended that you make a test or gauge swatch at least 4”(10cm) square using the yarn and needle size indicated in the pattern. As a general rule, the bigger the swatch, the more accurate the gauge. Striving for accuracy is well worth your time, and will avoid disappointments after many hours of knitting.

Using the specified needles and yarn, cast on the required number of stitches to obtain the 4”(10cm) swatch. For a more accurate measurement add a few stitches at either end, and work these in garter stitch. Let’s say the instructions read 18 stitches and 24 rows equals 4” in stockinette stitch. In this example, cast on 20 stitches; knit the first and last stitch in garter stitch, and work the center 18 stitches in stockinette stitch. It is difficult to count stitches when working with mohair or other highly textured yarns; cast on the exact number of stitches given for the gauge and measure the entire swatch, or use stitch markers to mark off the required number of stitches for the gauge.

Knit the swatch in the specific pattern stitch used, or as indicated in the instructions. Often the gauge is given in stockinette stitch. Knit the swatch till it measures 4 inches or desired length. In our previous example, check the length at 24 rows to see if it measures 4”, then add an extra row or two. Instead of binding off the swatch, cut the yarn and run it through the loops with a tapestry needle. This allows for easy measuring, as binding off may leave the top of the swatch tight. Except for synthetic yarn, I recommend blocking the swatch so that it lies flat making it easier to count the stitches and rows.

Here’s a few other tips to keep in mind. Whatever you plan to do to your final project should be done to the gauge swatch. For example, working with more than one color can affect the tightness of the knitting and will change the gauge. The swatch should be knit by the person making the project because all knitters have a personal gauge.

Measuring the Swatch

After blocking the swatch, pin it on a flat surface, such as a blocking board or ironing board. Do not stretch the swatch. With some ribbed patterns, the instructions may say to stretch slightly when measuring.

Measure the gauge using a tape measure or stitch gauge. I prefer a tape measure. Count the stitches across, inside the garter stitch border over 4 inches closer to the middle of the swatch, or measure the full width of the swatch or between markers, depending on how you knitted it. Count carefully, as half a stitch can make a difference to the finished size of the piece. Some instruction gauges will read half a stitch as in 17.5 stitches to 4”.

Row gauge is often not as essential as stitch gauge; it is easier to make length adjustments. However, row gauge is important for complex stitch patterns, and shaping pieces. For example, if the row gauge is off, altering the sleeve length it may be necessary to change the number of rows between increase rows. With the test swatch, count the rows vertically in a 4 inch area towards the middle.

If your stitch and row count are the same as in the instructions, you can begin knitting.  Measure your project after you have worked about 6 inches to be sure the gauge is accurate. Also, all the pieces of a garment should match row for row before seaming. To make sure this happens, keep track of the number of rows required to make the ribbing, the number of rows from the top of the ribbing to the armhole, and from the armhole to the beginning of the shoulder shaping.”

My Red Scarf Gauge Swatch Measurements

My blocked swatch of 28 stitches and 26 rows measures 4 inches square in pattern stitch. The stitch gauge is 7 stitches per inch. Row gauge is not critical for this scarf,  but it is 6.5 rows per inch.

Next time I will discuss writing up your pattern.

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