“Be sure to check your gauge.”
For some reason, unbeknownst to even the most logical of knitters, these words shred all of the fun from knitting for an hour or two. They make knitting feel like a horrible chore, a job, or basically any task that yarn crafters use as an argument to procrastinate and engage in that very craft instead.
Sad, but true: checking gauge can be one of the most crucial points in a knitting project, as well as the most useful. A knitter can make the most beautiful six pieces of fabric in the history of the world, but if the size or behavior of it is not as desired, those wasted hours bore a notch into the perfect shield of happiness that knitting generally creates for people. We grow to resent the entire project, when the real problem is that we should have taken the time to check gauge in the first place.
The term “gauge,” and it’s accessory term, “gauge swatch,” relate to making something the same size as the designer of a piece you are making usually over a square of about four inches on each side. If you are knitting a garment made by a tight knitter, and you, the knitter following a pattern, knit more loosely, then you must adjust your needle size or tension to ensure you get the same number of stitches in a set-sized square as the designer. Otherwise, you will inevitably be disappointed. Here are the top eight reasons to make a gauge swatch before starting any project, even if the item does not have to fit perfectly:
Measuring becomes easier – Making a proper gauge swatch involves seemingly easy steps: Knit, measure, and knit again if necessary. The steps should look something more like these steps: Knit larger than you will measure, wash as you will wash the finished garment, block, throw in your purse or coat pocket for a week, measure again, and follow previous steps if the swatch is the wrong size. A half-stitch does not sound like much, but look at it this way: The gauge is 18 stitches over four inches, and your swatch has 19 stitches. If your sweater is forty inches around, then yours will be about two inches smaller, or a full size smaller than you tried to knit. If your gauge falls somewhere in between two needle sizes, use the larger one on the right side, and the smaller one on the purl side. Also, measure at the top, middle, and bottom of the swatch to see if your gauge changes measurably. The more you do it, the better at it you become.
Swatching is practice – Swatching on its own is something which requires practice, for both knitting, and for making sure the swatch does what it is supposed to do. Checking gauge involves making a small piece of fabric, blocking and washing it like you would the finished piece, and making an adjusted swatch if the first one does not measure perfectly. In one swatch, you can practice knitting, casting on, binding off, blocking, hand- or machine-washing and drying, and even weaving in an end or two.
You get to know the yarn – If the yarn is new for you, checking gauge involves seeing how the yarn feels on the hands, how the stitch definition affects a project, and most importantly, determining how the yarn handles the elements. There is almost no point in making a garment that can only be worn once, and if the knitter is abusive to his or her garments, then the swatch will help to determine this. Gauge swatches can also help the knitter determine if a yarn substitute is appropriate for a pattern originally knitted in a different yarn.
You get to know the designer – Some designers have a “look.” Others are just prolific designers, and still others are just one-hit wonders where the knitter happened to fall in love with a particular design. In any of these cases, the gauge swatch will help the knitter be prepared for any design by the same person in the future. A knitter’s gauge can change over time, and it can change slightly from one garment to the next, but every swatch made for the same designer has the potential to make you feel like you know the designer slightly better than the last time. It can be like making a new virtual knitting friend.
You become a behavior expert – Does the yarn pill when the swatch is in your backpack? Does it stretch when it spends the day in your pocket, next to body heat for eight hours? Does it become fuzzy after sitting on the dashboard of your car all afternoon? Think about where the item will be worn, and try to give the swatch of week of walking around town before commiting to the yarn with the project. This is actually a very clever way of working on more than one project at a time without feeling guilty about it, if you are that knitter (editor’s note: I average six projects on the needles at a time, and carry zero guilt for it. Some knitters, for whatever reasons unbeknownst to me, can only work on one project at a time.)
You become a pattern expert – Read the instructions for the gauge swatch. If it says “xx stitches and xx rows over four-inch square in pattern,” then this means the gauge swatch should be done in the most prominent pattern of the project. It may be a cable sequence, or seed stitch, or ribbing, or even just plain old stocking stitch. Either way, it gives you an excuse to study the pattern, and it gives you a low-commitment trial run on what you will be doing later.
Your project will be a success – If you get gauge after swatching, blocking, washing, wearing, and re-measuring, your project will be the size and feel you want it to be when it is done. If this does not happen, it is possible that the design or designer had a step that did not execute or translate somewhere. You can, if necessary, reach out to another knitter or yarn shop owner, or even the designer in some cases, to determine if you truly did everything right and your project did not turn out how you wanted. Rest assured, however, that if the first question from your second set of eyes and ears is not, “Did you swatch?” then you need to seek a third opinion.
Hey! Swatching is still knitting! – Groan. Swatching feels like such a burden sometimes. But why? Swatching is knitting, and knitters love to knit. Just grab a a comfy chair in a well-lit area with a glass of wine or tea, and swatch away. When you are done, grab the project you have in the bottom of your bag so you can re-center with “real” knitting, if you need it. Enjoy the process. Obligatory knitting is still fun when you call it “knitting” instead of “swatching.”