The knitting world is wonderfully varied. Knitters are as different as can be, but one common thread binds us all together: our love of complaining about gauge.
So once again I offer you, my beloved readers, a two-part gauge extravaganza.
Part 1: Does Our Gauge Change, or Do Swatches Lie?
I have a problem. I swatch religiously if it’s something other than baby knitting, but find that my gauge changes over the course of the project.
I think as I relax into the project my tension becomes more relaxed! Any advice would be appreciated.
I teach a class called Make Your Gauge Work, in which I talk about all the ways we let our gauge swatch lie to us. What? Let it lie to us?
We swatch for two goals and two goals only:
- To get a fabric that’s right for our project.
- To accurately predict what our finished fabric will be.
But the way we swatch often doesn’t serve these goals. We gotta name it to claim it, so let me hear (or read in the comments) an amen every time I say one that applies to your own swatching practice:
- We leave it on the needle to measure.
- We don’t cast on enough stitches.
- We add a garter border.
- We knit only a few inches.
- We stretch it or squish it to get the gauge we need.
- We don’t block our swatch.
- We knit carefully—i.e., not the way we usually knit—to try to achieve a specific gauge.
- We handle the swatch gently, instead of abusing it as we might in real life.
These are a few of the ones we address in class, but today I’ll discuss the top three no-nos, since they plague the most knitters.
1. We leave the swatch on the needle to measure.
Remember, the point of a swatch is to predict your fabric. Most likely you’re not wearing that sweater with a needle stuck through it.
Your finished—yes, that means blocked—fabric will have little to do with your knitting in progress on the needles.
2. We don’t cast on enough stitches.
A swatch that is too small will make you think your gauge changed while knitting.
First, we knit differently when we’re working back and forth on a 4″ section of knitting, and second, our eye can’t perceive a partial stitch when we measure only 4″.
In other words, if your swatch is too small, your gauge didn’t change when you knit your sweater; you just didn’t swatch in a way to predict your fabric.
Therefore, we need to have enough stitches on our needle so we can knit the way we really knit, and so we can measure until we hit a whole stitch on a whole inch. A bigger swatch is the secret sauce.
Note that at the 4″ point, the swatch has 20.5 stitches, at the 5″ point, it has 25.75 stitches. At the 6″ point, it has a 31 whole stitches.
Say a pattern gauge calls for 5 stitches per inch, and the 40″ size has 100 stitches across the chest.
I might do a bitty swatch and measure 4″, see that I got 20 stitches + a little bit, and yank at it enough until it’s 20 and feel like “yeah I got gauge, I’ll get a 40″ chest.”
But your real gauge is found when you keep counting on your blocked, relaxed swatch—the real fabric you are going to achieve—until you get to a whole stitch on a whole inch. In this case, I count 31 stitches in 6″, for a gauge of 5.167 stitches per inch.
This means that if I follow the pattern’s instructions for a 40″ chest, I’ll actually get a chest measurement of 38.75″, because 100 stitches divided by 5.167 = 19.35″ for the front, which would make the full chest circumference approximately 38.75″.
For a perfect storm of lies . . .
In the MDK Shop
3. We add a big old garter edge.
I once got an email from a knitter complaining about her gauge. She detailed exactly how she swatched, which I recreated.
She cast on 5″ of stitches and knit 5 rows of garter, added 5 stitches of garter on each side, and then ended with 5 rows of garter. She said she pinned it to block it to a perfect square and she measured the stockinette section from purl bump to purl bump of the garter edges, and divided. But then she added “But my knitting always changes.”
Does it change, though?
Let’s go to the replay.
As soon as you add a large garter border to a small stockinette swatch and stretch to pin it out, we have a perfect storm of lies.
First, garter (knitting every row) gives you a tighter row gauge than stockinette, so it distorts the fabric. Don’t get me started on the mess this does to row gauge.
Second, the stockinette stitch next to the garter edge is a different size (because of the transition between knit and purl), so measuring from purl bump to purl bump will get a gauge that is a lie.
19 stitches from garter edge to garter edge measures 4.75″ for a gauge of 16 stitches over 4″.
Now, from little lie to BIG lie . . . pinning out your blocked swatch. Because the garter edge distorts, knitters “correct” the distortion by pinning out the swatch into a square. Here I have a perfect 5″ x 5″ square inside the garter edge.
Once dry, I remove the blocking pins and the fabric might stay put. For a few minutes.
Experiment: Wet block a stockinette swatch, then stretch it and pin it out. Let it dry and remove the pins. Measure. Check back after a few hours. Odds are your stitches are going to go back where they were. Unless you’re going to hire two attendants to walk on either side of you stretching out your sweater, this swatch is still a lie.
Now I count my liar swatch and ballpark my gauge at 15.5 stitches = 4″, or 3.875 stitches per inch.
Here I knit the same yarn, same needle, but I didn’t add a garter edge, and I knit 8″.
To block a swatch, I just soak it, squeeze out the water, and lay it flat to dry. Once the swatch is dry, I give it a shake and a stretch (think about what a sweater does when you pull it over your head and wear it), and let it chill out for a while before I measure it.
Now I can get my 8″ ruler and measure until I get to a whole stitch on a whole inch. When I hit 6″, I’m at 25 stitches. This means my real, relaxed, knit the way I knit, not distorted, not stretched out, non-lying gauge is (drum roll please) 4.16 stitches per inch, not the 3.875 stitches per inch the liar swatch told me.
Say I was knitting that pattern with the 100 stitches at the chest and I thought I’d be getting a 51.5″ chest with my (fake) gauge, so maybe I change needle sizes and swatch again, or knit a smaller size to adjust for my gauge, but I’m adjusting for a lie. I would be getting a 48″ chest with my non-liar gauge.
That’s a 3.5″ difference in the chest because we let our swatch lie to us.
Long story short? When you swatch, do these things:
- Knit the way you knit.
- Knit only the stitches that are in your garment.
- Block the swatch as you would wash the sweater.
The result? Your swatch will predict your fabric so well that it looks like you cut it right out of your sweater.
Next up: perfect your knitting technique for consistent sizing.