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Swatching and Gauge

Why Do We Swatch?

Or, more accurately: why don’t we swatch? The question I ask myself every time I have an exciting pattern and delicious yarn: why do I have to start with this stupid gauge swatch?

Swatch on 8s in tacklebox

Swatching can be fun! Here’s a swatch and some iced tea at Georgetown’s tacklebox – the only lobster shack in DC. Mmm, lobster.

There are several answers to that age-old question (including slight rebellion), but the one that works best for me is that it’s tempting the knitting universe not to, and personally I find the knitting universe always smacks me on the nose when I think the rules don’t apply to me.

Benched Swatch

It’s a beautiful day outside. Why not go knit yourself a swatch at the park?

Fundamentally, and I am just speaking for myself here, when I don’t swatch it’s because I think I’m smarter than the yarn. I love to pretend I am good enough not to have to walk before I run. “Gauge swatches are for sissies,” I tell myself, and then I end up with a sweater that is somehow wrong and will not fit a human being without surgical intervention. Other people don’t swatch because they don’t understand why it’s important; I no longer have that excuse.

Here are photos of the first two sweaters I knit: Trick or Treat and Weekend Warrior, both by The Yarn Girls (who were very popular back when I re-discovered knitting). They aren’t great photos, for which I apologize. Every time I see these sweaters I go into a slight fugue state and I can barely take photos before I have to hide them from myself again.

Weekend Warrior

Weekend Warrior, with a swatch problem, and some very ’90s yarn. Oh, and I’ll tell you about the dye lot issue some other time.

Trick or Treat

The Trick or Treat sweater, with a rather obvious gauge problem. But the yarn is Rowan Polar – so nice. I think I’ll frog it someday.

I assumed, when I knit these two, that the recommended needles and yarn would give the listed gauge for “most normal people.” And, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, I like to believe I am normal. So I bought the yarn and the needles and happily cast on.

You can see that the gauge is off here because the sweater is oddly boxy: it’s like a crop top for a linebacker. I’ll explain why that happens in a bit, but know that that curious result screams “gauge problem” now.

I’m sorry to say that I got results like this a few times before I decided that gauge swatches would just have to be my friends.

And now I am going to go a little boring and explain to you what gauge is and how to knit a swatch. Feel free to skim, or to go do something else.

What is Gauge?

The word “gauge” simply refers to the number of stitches (horizontally) and rows (vertically) that fit into a square inch (or, sometimes, four square inches (10cm)) of knitting, usually stockinette stitch. Different sizes of needles result in different sizes of stitch – thus leading to a different number of stitches and rows per inch.

Swatch in Progress

A swatch in progress I worked on while visiting a friend in the hospital. Swatches are portable!

When people design patterns, they knit up the item using the needle size that gives them the fabric they want for their garment. Designers will knit several big swatches of fabric on different sized needles until they get the drape that they want, the space between the stitches they want (whether loose and meshy or tight and dense), etc. Only after establishing which needles will give them what they want do they actually do the math for the garment.

After that, our friendly designer is off and running, designing and knitting happily.

But you don’t necessarily knit like the designer. You might knit more loosely or more tightly. Some designers are even known as looser or tighter knitters. You must knit a gauge swatch (or two or three) to make sure you get the kind of fabric they had in mind when they designed the garment, as well as the size and shape of the garment they designed (and you chose).

So when you are knitting a gauge swatch you are trying to find a way to compensate for the differences between your natural style of knitting and theirs.

Can I Cheat?

“But, look,” I used to think, “if I don’t quite match the gauge I’ll just have a [sweater/hat/sock] that’s a little [larger/smaller] than I expected.” Sadly, this is the case, and here’s why:

The knit stitch is not perfectly square. Therefore, your item will not [increase/decrease] the same amount lengthwise as widthwise.

Instead, if your gauge is too loose (fewer stitches and rows per inch than the designer planned), your garment will be wider and longer than it should be – but not to the same degree. The width you add will not be proportional to the length you add. Same goes for a too-tight gauge (too many stitches per inch). You know how you can stretch a digital photo accidentally if you change its size but don’t keep the proportions the same? Similar principle.

For me, not knitting a gauge swatch meant that my first two sweaters were much wider than they were tall. Thus the sexy linebacker look above. Not a strong fashion choice. Not a good use of my time. [And let’s not even talk about my yarn for that second one; it’s like a Cosby Sweater.]

Sweater Swatches

Once, I had to knit five swatches for one sweater. I’m not sure I ever finished the sweater, either. But here are two of the swatches in question.

Thus endeth the lecture. Go forth, and swatch!

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