You can get a lot more out of your gauge swatch than just your stitch and row count.
Knitting a gauge swatch can be an annoying part of knitting. I get it, you get it. You just want to knit the project — and often, we’re not knitting something where the size has to be absolutely perfect. A lot of accessories like cowls, shawls, scarves, and some hats don’t have to come out perfectly true to the pattern size and they’ll still be a gorgeous knit so why bother.
The main reason I wanted to write this post and share why I think swatching is such an important and underappreciated part of knitting is because knitting garments and accessories that are tailored to you and look great is incredibly powerful and satisfying. And knowing that the yarn you’ve chosen is going to work for the pattern and create a garment or accessory that is comfortable is a real benefit of swatching.
You can find a ton of information on websites, blogs, and in pattern books that talk about the importance of knowing your stitch and row count. And while that is super important, knowing that your yarn and stitch pattern work together is also important.
When knitting a new stitch pattern or with an unfamiliar yarn, you may find out from your swatch that the combination of stitches and yarn is not one that’s going to knit the scarf, sweater or hat you’re going to want to actually wear. And that’s okay! You want to know that you’re not going to like the yarn, stitch, and pattern combination before you invest a lot of time knitting a pattern that you just won’t like the way it looks.
If you want to knit things that are going to fit as well as be comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, gauge swatches are a really great tool.
There are three main things I recommend you do with gauge swatches so that you can get the most useful information out of them:
1. Knit a big swatch that matches the pattern.
What not to do: Knit a tiny swatch. Or just knit stockinette, when the designer recommends a stitch pattern.
It can be so tempting to knit a tiny 2” square swatch, use your ruler or gauge tool, and get a good enough idea of your gauge. This swatch will both be too small to give you a good idea of whether you’re getting gauge, but it also won’t give you a good of what your finished knit will look like. This is especially true if the pattern has cabling, lace, or ribbed stitch patterns.
What to do: Knit a swatch big enough to measure at least a 5” square.
Knit a big swatch using the same knitting techniques you’ll use to knit the pattern. I generally aim for a 5” to 6” square, using the pattern’s main stitch pattern (or the stitch pattern recommended by the designer), and I’ll work it in the same method as the pattern. That means I’ll knit it either back and forth in rows or in the round. If you’re not sure how to knit a gauge swatch in the round, there are some great time-saving resources (you do not have to knit a 16” circular gauge swatch!). I first learned how to knit a quick gauge swatch in the round from the Purl Soho blog but there have been some really great youtube videos on this too. Check out Franklin Habit’s video here as one example.
2. Treat the gauge swatch the same way you’re going to treat your project
What not to do: Knit a gauge swatch and measure it immediately after you bind off.
If the pattern is lace or if this is a garment you’re going to wear, the project will have both very different measurements and a very different look and feel right off needles compared to after being wet-blocked, steamed, or washed.
What to do: Treat the gauge swatch the same way you’re going to treat the finished the project.
If you’re knitting lace and are going to wet block the finished project pretty aggressively, do that to your swatch. If it’s going to be washed and laid flat to dry, do that. Treat the swatch the way you are likely to treat the finished knit. Don’t worry about wasting the yarn – 99% of the time, you’ll be able to reclaim this yarn if you want it for the knitting pattern or to save in your stash for future projects (unless you’re felting it!). Washing and blocking will not make it impossible to pull out and reclaim your yarn. It may be harder if you used a yarn like a mohair, but it won’t be impossible.
3. Measure your gauge swatch and look at it as a sample of the larger project.
What not to do: Measure your swatch, realize it’s off or that you don’t like the stitch pattern, and decide to just cast-on anyway.
If you look at your swatch and don’t like what you see, don’t immediately cast-on. I know it’s tempting, but we’re spending our hard-earned craft dollars on yarns and patterns then using our limited free time to knit a project that will take hours. Don’t rush this part!
What to do: Look at your gauge swatch with fresh eyes!
Really look at your gauge swatch. Possibly even let it sit for a day after you’ve finished blocking it and then come back to it. Double-check your stitch and row counts as well as the look and feel of the stitch pattern and yarn – and don’t be afraid to knit another swatch with different needle size or yarn.
And remember, at the end of the day, swatching is basically practice knitting. It’s time and space you can take to experiment with a new yarn, pattern, design, or technique. When you swatch, you get to see how knitting is built row by row (or round by round!) into your project. Plus if you make enough swatches you can sew them together into a small blanket or hang them on a wall as knitting inspiration/ wall art. Take your time and give yourself the space to experiment with swatching as you prepare to jump into your next project.