Skip to content
September 6, 2011 / KristenMakes

To Swatch or Not to Swatch

KAL button

Well it is September and that means our Newbie & The Knitter KAL has officially begun!  I am so excited to see people popping up from all over to participate!  I love seeing our badge on other people’s blogs, and to see your yarn choices appearing in our Flickr group.  Please join and add your pictures if you haven’t already!

Now that we have already talked about yarn, perhaps you have chosen yours and are ready to get cracking!  But first, as we are making a sweater which must fit your body we must talk about the dreaded words swatching and gauge.

Yarn for Cadence

My yarn is itching to become a jumper but I must swatch first!

If you are a newbie, you might be wondering what those words mean and why they are so dreaded.  Swatching is basically casting on a small amount of stitches and knitting in the stitch pattern suggested by the designer for a vague length before binding/casting off.  The swatch usually (depending on the fibre content) should be washed, dried, and measured for gauge.  Gauge is the number of stitches and rows that your swatch should yield in order to result in a properly-fitting garment within the designer’s pattern specifications.  But why do knitters hate to swatch?  Because most of us (myself included) are impulsive and want to start immediately!  We want to cast on that sweater and get going!

But why is it so important:  Because each knitter has a slightly different tension.  If you don’t check your gauge and start on a project in which your gauge is completely off (or even just a little off) from the pattern’s gauge, you could easily have a finished garment that is too big or too small.  Additionally, if you don’t continue to check your gauge throughout the knitting process, your tension may loosen or tighten unbeknownst to you, resulting in a sleeve that does not fit an armhole.  Let’s do some maths for an example:

Let’s say that pattern X’s gauge is 20 stitches per 4 inches (or 10 cm).  Knitter Y’s gauge is actually 21 stitches per 10 cm.  This seems negligible, but it isn’t!  Let’s also say pattern X calls for casting on 180 stitches for a circular body hem that should measure 36”.

When using the proper gauge (20 st per 4”) this adds up to the intended size.  When you double check it with Knitter Y’s actual gauge you get:

If Knitter Y continues with this gauge (21 st per 4”) she will get a sweater that is 2” too small at the hem, not to mention smaller and tight-fitting everywhere else.  When you put the time and money into knitting an entire sweater/jumper, you want to make sure it fits, perfectly.  The reason why swatching is so important is because a seemingly negligible difference in gauge can actually yield a huge difference in fit.

Of course, this covers only horizontal fit but vertical (e.g. how many rows equal how many inches) is to me, less important.  Sometimes matching a pattern’s horizontal AND vertical gauge can be tricky so I mainly focus on the horizontal.  Most patterns state to knit for X amount of inches before the next step, so in that case, whether that is 30 or 34 rows doesn’t really matter, so long as it fits.  If it specifies however to knit 30 rows before beginning the waist decreases, you can check that with the pattern’s gauge to find out how many inches that is, and just knit until your work is that long.

Now is gauge and swatching important in EVERY project?  No, in fact.  At least not in my opinon.  If I am knitting something for myself that is perhaps an accessory like a scarf, shawl or purse where it doesn’t need to fit a body specifically, then I just cast on and continue in my merry knitting ways.  I’m not going to be bothered if a scarf that is really supposed to 10” wide is really 9” wide.  If it would bother you, then by all means swatch it up.  But for me personally, I’ll just start knitting that scarf.


Scarves may not necessarily need swatching.

Let’s move on to my swatching for Cadence.  I did two swatches.  The first is for plain stocking (or stockinette) stitch to check gauge.  This is the stitch pattern for the body and sleeves in which you K on the RS (knit on the right side of the fabric) and P on the WS (purl on the wrong side).  Of course, Cadence is knitted in the round, meaning that in the actual knitting of the garment, you will never need to turn the work and P on the WS.  But for a wee swatch you will.  The pattern’s gauge specifies 15 sts per 4” in stockinette. Wanting a swatch that was wider than 4 inches plus a garter border to lay flat (making it easier to measure) I cast on 24 sts using the needle size recommended (US size 10, or 6mm), and began by knitting back and forth for a few rows garter stitch (knit on the RS and WS).  Then I continued as such:

Row 1 (RS): K all stitches

Row 2 (WS): K2, P20, K2

Repeat rows 1-2 for about 5 inches or so, then work a few more rows in garter stitch and loosely BO (bind off).  The K2 at the beginning and end of the WS rows give a garter border which will not curl like a plain stockinette swatch would.


My nice little swatch.

Next you should gently wash and block your swatch before getting the ruler out and measuring.  This may not be so important for some fibres, but certain fibres shrink or stretch when washed and this must be accounted for when calculating your gauge.  For instance my yarn is 100% wool, which softens nicely when washed as the fibres slightly fluff up and the piece may experience a wee bit of shrinkage.

  1. Get a bit of lukewarm-to-warm (not hot!) water running, wet the swatch, add a bit of gentle soap (handsoap, conditioner, fabric softener, shampoo – I’ve used it all) to get is sudsy and gently rinse the swatch.
  2. Make sure you are not rubbing it or else it will definitely shrink more than the normal amount.  Gently squeeze out the excess water, and lay flat on a towel to dry.  You can also pin it in place to help it dry to the correct shape.
  3. Once dry, add a bit of heat and/or steam from the iron (if the yarn label suggests); this will set the piece to make it look smoother and finished.

You may not see the difference so much in the picture below, but in person the visual and tactile difference is quite noticeable.

Now that the swatch is prepared, you can get the ruler out and measure.  Try measuring in a few different spots just to make sure that your gauge is consistent throughout.
Post-block swatch

To understand the shape you are trying to spot and count you will need to recognise the knit stitch and count them as single units:

The blue line measures across 4 stitches.

If you find that your swatch yields more stitches than the pattern (e.g. 16 stitches per 4” instead of 15) your gauge is too tight and you should try going up a needle size in your next swatch.  If you count less stitches than you need (e.g. 14 stitches per 4” instead of 15) your gauge is too loose and you should try going down a needle size in your next swatch.  The degree to which your gauge is off determines the size needle you should up/downgrade to: the larger the variance the bigger the jump in needle size.  This can be a hassle, esp. if you do not have loads of needles at hand.  See what your LYS’ return policy is on needles, check the charity shops or borrow from friends, mums, and grannies.

Most likely you’ll find the right gauge on your first or second go, or you can also try teaching your hands to loosen/tighten up a bit.  That is the free method of changing your gauge, but a lot of knitters don’t like it.  I’ve tried it and it does work for me but you do need to keep checking to make sure the gauge is still right.

The other possible reason to swatch is for practise, esp. when you have a tricky lace pattern/chart as we do!  To familiarise myself with a lace pattern before actually knitting it helps my fingers to know what they are doing without my brain overthinking it.  When we knit the lace chart in Cadence we are also simultaneously going to be increasing to accommodate the growing yoke so it is best to learn the chart first than to attempt it all on the one go.

This pattern is charted.  A chart can be easier to read as you can learn the symbols and grasp the instructions more quickly than a long list of words could explain.   Cadence has 2 charts, a body and a sleeve chart.  The body looked more intense so I practised with that one.  Please read through the entire section before beginning, just to familiarise yourself with the steps.  The charts are written for knitting in the round, which although you will be doing for the actual garment, but for swatching we will knit back and forth.  Row 1 and all odd right side rows read right to left; row 2 and all even wrong side rows read left to right.  So on the even or wrong side rows, when following the chart be sure to P the which squares and K the grey squares – this will keep the pattern correct.

I cast on enough to do 3 lace repeats, but 2 would be plenty for learning, as my knitting group considered my 3-repeat practise swatch a bit excessive!

Cast on 24 sts (or 18 if you want to do 2-repeats), and work a few rows garter (like before).  The first and last 2 stitches of every row will be the knitted garter edges, just like we did in the first swatch.  Proceed as follows:

Row 1 (RS): K4, P2 [K4, P2], K4  ...the bit in the brackets is repeated until the last 2 st.

Row 2 (WS): K2, P2, K2 [P4, K2], P2, K2  …on this row you are basically knitting the K sts (which look like the smooth “V” as in the above diagram) & purling the P sts (which look bumpier than the knit stitches).

After these 2 rows I began to follow the body chart provided in the pattern.  The chart has a portion outlined in red, which signifies the pattern repeat.  Simply repeat the portion within the red border until you have the number of stitches on your needle as are remaining outside the border.  Additionally you are working back and forth so remember to P the P sts and K the K sts when working back on every WS row.

Now even I got confused and had to rip out a few rows and try again (which is what happens when you try some new knitting while on the bus or chatting at your knitting group, I should know better!) so don’t be upset if you have to try again.  This is the time to work out the kinks and understand the chart.  When finished with the last row of the body chart, do a few more rows garter, and loosely BO.  Now, you actually don’t need to wash/block this sample if you don’t want to.  It is merely for finger-practise than for sizing figures.  However I wanted to see how pretty it would look after washing so I gave it a go:

So pretty!

Well that is my all-inclusive, way to be over-prepared post on swatching and gauge.  For more reading (if you can stomach more!) on these, head over to for great articles on Gauge and Swatching.  Lion Brand also has a helpful article.

Give yourself a week or two to get this sorted out, take your time, measure carefully and come to me or to Sarah if you have any questions!  Happy Swatching!  We’ll be back in a few weeks with our CAST-ON!!!  Whoop!



Leave a Comment
  1. Becky / Sep 7 2011 7:55 pm

    Since I’m coming at this with more of a sewing perspective– does hand-knitted fabric have a tendency to shrink up like regular t-shirt type knit fabric once it’s washed? I started my gauge swatch tonight and am about halfway through. I checked it out of curiosity while it’s still on the needle, and so far, I’m ending up with a gauge of about 19 stitches per 4″. I do know I have a tendency to knit pretty tightly, so I’m wondering if it would be better for me to go ahead and try again on a larger needle, or to finish/wash it up first and take it from there?

  2. KristenMakes / Sep 9 2011 4:06 am

    @Becky: Sorry for the delay!!!!

    That was good of you to check part-way through – I do that too! At this point I would start your swatch over with larger needles. Even if you were to knit the jumper at this gauge, it would be too small even without shrinking. If your gauge were perhaps 13 st per 4″ THEN it would be too big and need shrinking. Knitting my swatch I learned that the fabric’s stitches are fairly loose and open, so larger needles would do the trick, esp. if you are a tight knitter.

    Good luck!

    xx KO

  3. Suzy / Sep 12 2011 8:22 am

    I had the same experience as Becky – I was getting about 19 stitches per 4″ before washing/blocking, so I went up to US 11 needles and I am now at gauge, with swatch washed and blocked. I’m not sure how much I like the fabric results though – the stitches are pretty open.

  4. KristenMakes / Sep 13 2011 3:44 am

    @Suzy, I am glad you found gauge but sorry you are unsure of the fabric. Mine too is slightly loose but the wool fluffed up enough after washing to make it look smoother and more even. Since you also have washed yours, I’m assuming the fibres maybe don’t fluff up as much. Sometimes when I knit a tiny swatch I over-scrutinise it, but when the entire garment is knitted the tiny things that bothered me no longer bother me. However, we need to decide if it is something that bothers you enough to alter your yarn choice (if so, can you exchange the unused balls?) or if it is something you may not mind after all. It is a big and difficult decision. Looking closer on other yarn choices that Ravelers have used for Cadence, some have used chunky weight yarn. Perhaps that is an option for you if you are wanting something a little more tightly knitted. The final option is a little more of intermediate skill: keep your yarn but recalculate your stitch count on the sweater to account for your preferred gauge (if you want to stick with the 19 st per 4″ gauge). If this is something you are interested (in which case you may need more yarn than originally planned) then we can definitely work together to figure it out when I return from London next week. Let me know what you think!

  5. Suzy / Sep 13 2011 8:32 am

    Thanks Kristen! I’m actually going to check my gauge working in the round, as I know it can be different. I want to see how that fabric appears before making any final decisions. I was starting to make some calculations yesterday, but got a bit overwhelmed and then distracted, so I decided to wait until I knit it in the round to see how it would look. I’m going to upload my swatch photos to the flickr group and you can see them there. Have fun in London – sounds like you are getting some great opportunities!

  6. Elizabeth @ Coppertop Kitchen / Sep 21 2011 4:24 pm

    When you’re doing the body chart repeats, do you repeat until you have 2 stitches left, no matter where you are in the pattern? Or should it be multiples of that exact pattern? I tried it last night, and it didn’t seem to be working out… I really want to get the lace right before we cast on for real.

  7. KristenMakes / Sep 22 2011 10:28 am

    Hi there! Sorry, you repeat the pattern in the brackets until you have 2 stitches left in the row, so you are doing multiples of the pattern within the box. For example, after completing Row 1 of the body chart, you should have multiples of 7 stitches PLUS 6 (that is you may have 2 or 3 repeats of the 7-stitch pattern, plus 4 stitches before the repeat starts and 2 stitches after the repeat finishes). Does that help? I applaud your goal to get the lace right before beginning, that is definitely essential! Try again, and count the stitches after every row to make sure you are spot on, and let me know how it goes!

  8. Rue / Sep 25 2011 11:38 am

    If this were a bottom-up sweater instead of top-down, you could always start a sleeve first and use that for a swatch. You get the double benefit of working in the round so you know your tension will be the same as for the actual sweater and you get a head start on the garment.

    Kristen, I have a quick tech question for you: what program are you using for your illustrations?

  9. Kristin / Oct 2 2011 6:26 pm

    I know I’m a little behind, but I’ve been attempting the lace swatch all afternoon and I’ve gotten really frustrated. 🙂 I think my question is similar to Elizabeth’s above, but I still don’t understand. This is my first time ever using a chart (and I’ve only been knitting for less than two months).

    So after doing a few rows of garter stitch and the two rows you mention, I have 18 stitches. When I start the first row on the chart, there are seven stitches inside the repeat lines, which means they take up fourteen of the eighteen stitches. What do you do with the other four? I tried everything, including using them to work the two stitches on either side of the repeat box. Like for row one, I did P2, K2, YO, K2, P2, K2, YO, K2, P2, K2. But then when you get to row two, you have to do the entire row, including all six stitches on the outside of the repeat box. I did this until about row 7 or 8, but it still wasn’t looking correct.

    Also, just to clarify I’m actually doing this part correctly, on row one you read the chart from right to left, right? And on row two, you read it left to right, but you do the opposite of what’s written on the chart?

    Thanks so much! I just want to get this cleared up so I can actually cast on. 🙂

  10. KristenMakes / Oct 7 2011 1:41 pm

    This comment mentions a few things that I forgot to explain in the post. I have since gone back to update the post as such:

    1) the lace swatch has 4 more additional stitches so as to maintain the 2-st garter border on both edges of the swatch.
    2) you are right, the chart is read right to left on the odd (RS) rows and left to right on the even (WS) rows.
    3) also the chart is written for working in the round, while we are doing our swatch flat, back and forth. As such, on the WS rows, make sure to invert the key/legend so that you are Knitting the grey squares and Purling the white squares.

    I am so sorry for forgetting to mention these points! Thank you so much for asking these really good questions, I hope I have cleared it up!

What say you?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: