Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ways to Improve Your Knitting: Pre-Emptive Gauge Swatches

I just read on another blog about a knitter getting the whole back of a sweater done and realizing that it's too large, that she didn't get gauge.  Haven't we all done this at least once, if not several times?  I have also knitted the entire back of a sweater only to realize that I don't like the yarn in that pattern stitch.
Knitting swatches prevents a lot of this kind of suffering.

I'm a moody knitter.  Some days I want to swatch, doodle and try out patterns and ideas, and I have no ambition for a complicated project.  Other days, locked and loaded, I'm ready to knock out my project and not much can stop me from diving in.  On those days, fiddling around with a swatch feels impossible.  I want to start already! 
On the day that the massive urge to make something hits, wouldn't it be wonderful if you had your gauge swatch ready to go?  And I mean ready - knitted, marked, laundered, 100% ready to go. 
Here's a handy trick:  When you first acquire yarn, or working with stash yarn, knit a gauge swatch and attach it to the yarn (rolling it inside the cone or tucking it inside the bag).  Then when lightning strikes and you have to knit right now, you can work from that swatch.
You will often have to knit an exploratory swatch first, just to get a tension that feels and looks good with the yarn.  Once you find that tension, use that for the swatch.  If you feel certain that you want to use a particular fair isle, tuck, or lace pattern, then use that for the swatch.  If you can't decide between two different ones, make them both.  On a new day with a fresh perspective, you'll look at the two swatches and decide what you like best. 

You don't need to make a lot of notes, since the notes are on the swatch; that is, the tension dial setting is knitted into the swatch and you know the stitches and rows because you make a 40x60 swatch unless you're working on the bulky machine. 

I've taken my swatches to club before and had experienced knitters ask how I do them, since they're marked so nicely.  If you'd like to see my swatch routine, here's the video.
Laundering changes yarn - a lot!  It changes the texture, feel, and size of the stitches, so the job isn't done until you launder your swatch the same way you'll launder the sweater.  Sometimes, since I'm swatching ahead, I'll launder several at once or run them with laundry if I'm certain the yarn is washable and won't bleed color, but usually I wash them by themselves.  Yes, I handwash fibers when appropriate and dry them flat.  (A while back, I saw a yarn I loved at a yarn shop, but the label said "dry clean only."  Another yarn had no washing instructions at all.  I am not sure I want to work with something that fragile!  Have any of you worked with a dry-clean-only yarn?)

Tuck the finished swatch, the yarn wrapper, if there is one, and a note with the stitch pattern, into the cone of yarn or the yarn bag, and when you're ready to knit, you're ready to knit!  (Note:  I purchased the smallest nearly-clear trash bags in a big box store, and I put them over my cones of yarn to keep them clean.)
Don't be surprised if having a swatch to look at motivates you to get that yarn knitted.  When the tension and stitch pattern are terrific, it's a great feeling, and such an inspiration to knit.
A few more about gauge swatches:
  • Changing the color of the same brand of yarn often changes the gauge
  • Fair isle will give a different gauge from stockinette
  • Tuck stitch will be wider and shorter than stockinette
  • Lace will usually be wider and shorter than stockinette, as well.
  • If a garment has more than one stitch pattern, two swatches are a good idea. 
  • I typically do a small swatch of the ribbing so I can figure out the tension and rows for ribbing.


  1. Oh what EXCELLENT advice! I have been there not doing the things we should with a swatch. There has been the occasion(s) when my finished item was a mess in sizing even after the swatching was done. I determined that my weighting of the knitted swatch also had to be recorded on my swatch. Lighter/heavier weights on the knitting will change my gauge too.

  2. Hi Diana! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this post. I think that I need this more than anyone!

  3. LOL!! In my defense, I will say that at least I was using the recommended yarn for the pattern, which I had previously knit on that same machine and matched the gauge of a different pattern with no mods :)

    I usually am quite good about knitting swatches, and often the swatch changes my mind about the project. I do agree with Tom; sometimes the garment ends up different than the swatch for a few reasons. It's hard to control everything. But, I have no one to blame but myself :) The sweater back was washed and is still waiting for me to measure it and decide what to do. Now, if only I had done that with the swatch....I might actually have a new top by now! LOL!

  4. I agree, Tracy, once in a while, it just happens. I guess we're not safe until we have a garment part knit to measure.

    But aside from those unusual situations, I'm trying to encourage our newbies to make some swatches ahead of time.