Oh, the thrill of starting a new project! You have a new skein of yarn and have picked out a pattern that will be perfect. You are ready to cast on, right?
Then you hear the little voice: “Did you get gauge?”
What is gauge? Simply put, it is a measure of the number of stitches per 4 inches (10 cm) of width in knitted fabric. In many patterns, a row gauge is also stated, this is the number of rows in 4 inches (10 cm) of length.
Many knitters do not knit a gauge swatch before casting on for their project. This can be okay if the size of the finished project is not critical, like a blanket or (in some cases) a shawl. But if you want the finished garment to fit or the finished piece to be a specific size, knitting a gauge swatch can prevent disappointment and frustration.
If your gauge is off, even by half a stitch, the size of your finished piece can be off by an inch or several inches. Instead of a medium size, you have just knit a small or a large size.
There are several great tutorials available on how to knit and measure a swatch. Here are two I found most helpful:
Knit a large square. Even though the gauge is, technically, a 4 inch square, a larger swatch will allow you to obtain more information about the yarn and project.
What can you learn from your gauge swatch:
- Do you like the fabric created? The fabric may not be to your liking, too thick or too loose. Or it may not be right for the intended project. After knitting these three gauge swatches for a particular project, when I did get gauge, I decided the fabric was not going to work for the project. Although I decided to use the yarn for a different project, another option would be to rework the math in the pattern for the gauge of the fabric I did like.
2. What is the yarn like to work with? Too rough, too stiff, too slippery, too soft, or too fuzzy. Does it split so you need to pay more attention as you knit? Should you use a different type of needle? Needles made of metal, bamboo, wood or plastic can affect your tension and therefore your gauge.
3. If the yarn is hand dyed, did it bleed color when you soaked it? Even some commercially dyed yarns can bleed color. This is especially important if you are using both light and dark colors.
4. Do you like how the color(s) in the beautiful skein of yarn look when knitted? If you are knitting with two strands of yarn (such as with marling), how do the colors harmonize together? Work some colorwork into your swatch to see if the colors have enough contrast so each will stand out.
5. Knitting a gauge swatch gives you a chance to try a new cast on or bind off called for in the pattern.
6. When there are cables or lace in a pattern, you can become familiar with the instructions and abbreviations used by the designer.
7. Since your gauge knitting in the round may be different than when knitting flat, it is recommended you knit the swatch in the round if you are going to be knitting the garment in the round. You can do this by starting every row at the same end (do not turn your piece) and carrying the yarn across the back, or you can use magic loop (and maybe learn a new skill). I once knit a hat as my gauge swatch for a sweater.
One last tip: indicate your needle size in the swatch itself (because, no, you will not remember). This can be done by the number of knots in the tail of yarn, or you can add purl bumps or yarn overs within the swatch itself.
Now, get out there and swatch.
“Do one thing every day that scares you” Eleanor Roosevelt