Before You Knit Another Swatch

As a knitter, there is a very crucial task that occurs often in my life. Unfortunately, I haven’t always given this task the attention, care, and enjoyment it deserves. Can you guess what I’m talking about? I’m talking about gauge swatching for my knitting projects. Last year, I spent some time deep diving into the details of how to knit and take measurements on a swatch as accurately as possible. Here are eleven tips I’m now applying to my swatching process.

Tip #1: Swatch with the Same Needles

In her book The Principals of Knitting, June notes that knitting with needles that are of different materials can have an affect on gauge. Occasionally, I would grab wooden double pointed needles to swatch for an item that I really intend to knit with my Chiaogoo stainless steel needles.

Also, I wonder if using a different style of needle can have an affect on gauge. Often, I’m more nervous about my stitches falling off the ends of double pointed needles than when I’m knitting on a circular needle so my tension is likely to differ on double points.

The lesson I’m learning is use the exact same needles for swatching and knitting the item.

Tip #2: Prepare Swatches as Instructed in Pattern

Most of us who have been knitting for a while know to treat our swatches as we intend to treat the final knitted item. Most of the time this involves blocking the swatch. Yarn can transform so much after it has had a bath and been introduced to water. For some patterns, it’s instructed to forgo blocking; if so, the swatch should forgo this traditional bath too.

It’s always best to prepare my swatch as the designer instructed instead of going my own way unless I’m making major modifications.

Tip #3: Don’t Switch Hands

Mostly, I knit English style, but when my hands are tired, I will sometimes work Continental style. I can hold the yarn in my right hand (English style) or my left hand (Continental style), but if I switch between the two, I’m likely to experience changes in my tension which will affect my gauge.

I’m trying to stick with one knitting style from swatching to binding off the project. If I think I may want to switch hands during a bigger project, like a sweater, I want to start switching hands during swatching.

Tip #4: Mind How Different Stitch Patterns Will Affect Gauge

A sweater with various stitch patterns will often have different stitches per inch depending on if you measure in the cable section or the stockinette section. Though crucial to understand when designing, as just a knitter of the published patterns, I didn’t give this much thought.

Gaining this simple yet influential understanding helped me understand how the stitch patterns played into knitting a garment that fits even if I wasn’t designing the pattern.

Tip #5: Mind How Projects with Multiple Yarns Will Affect Gauge

I really like colorwork knitting! Fair Isle to be more specific. I’m a happy knitter with two colors of yarn draped over my fingers as I knit.

As I’m often trying to pull yarns first from my stash sometimes I have different brands of fingering weight yarn being used. Using different yarns can really have an effect when knitting a project with larger blocks of color.

Imagine a color block sweater pattern that calls for two different colors of worsted weight yarn in similar amounts. I have two contrasting colors that are of worsted weight but are from different brands. I swatch in the color that is used for the chest portion of the sweater, but skip getting gauge from the other color that is used for knitting the cross back section and arms. If my gauge was different with the two different yarns, the cross back and arms could be wildly different in size than the designer intended.

It may be worth knitting multiple swatches for different yarns used for certain patterns.

Tip #6: Create Swatches with Unrestrained Edges

Most cast on and bind off techniques create tight edges that are quite restrained even if they can be stretched.

Learning the Right Twist Start, Stranded Cast On, and Stranded Cast Off techniques were so helpful for this process!

These methods keep the edges of the swatch unrestrained. Having swatch edges that move around more easily can help you take more accurate measurements to calculate your gauge. Let me know in the comments if you would be interested in a tutorial.

Tip #7: Test Before Gauge

When reading The Principals of Knitting, I was introduced to a very profound yet simple idea. Instead of casting on a large swatch to measure the gauge, first knit a test swatch. A test swatch is a much smaller square, maybe ten or fifteen stitches casted on, with the goal of observing the drape, thickness or thinness, appearance of the stitch pattern, and more to see if it looks pleasing. How many times have you casted on thirty stitches and knit ten rows to learn the cables are too loose and the gauge is off.

Working a small square with your selected yarn, needles, and stitch pattern, can save you much time and frustration.

Tip #8: The Bigger the Project, The Bigger the Swatch

I used to knit the smallest swatch possible to save time. This gave me little area to actually take my gauge measurements and see differences in my gauge throughout the swatch.

From now on, I try to cast on at least thirty stitches for worsted weight yarn. Do you get the idea?

Tip #9: Measure in Multiple Locations

I confess! I would slap down a swatch, lay a ruler down, quickly count the stitches and rows per inch in one spot, and say it was good enough. Since I may have been more stressed when knitting that one spot making a tighter than normal tension for me, my gauge on the main project when I’m relaxing on the sofa will be much looser.

Learn from my mistakes and measure the gauge in different spots around your swatch.

Tip #10: Knitting Flat Vs. In-the-Round

I used to knit a swatch flat when I was going to knit the hat in the round. I’ve put away that bad habit, and now, I swatch flat for projects knit flat and swatch in-the-round for projects knit in-the-round. I highly recommend it!

Tip #11: Enjoy the Process and Give Your Swatches Purpose

If you plan to knit for the rest of your life 🤚, your future may hold a lot more moments of swatch knitting. How can we make this process more enjoyable?

I encourage you to make the swatching process a treat not a chore. Likely, to transform your time spent swatching will involve intentional changes. Maybe, it’s always making a special drink, sitting in your favorite chair, listening to an audiobook, or going to your favorite place away from home. I need to intentionally reframe my mind to look at swatching as enjoyably meeting my materials and preparing for the coming project instead of an annoying roadblock and waste of time.

Look for ways to repurpose your swatches. My favorite way is to use my swatches as dish cloths. Since I mostly knit with wool yarns, these swatches felt in the wash and dryer creating fulled, or felted, dish cloths.

It would brighten my day to hear your opinions! Were any of these tips new to you? What is your favorite swatching tip?

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