Does Your Gauge Change, Or Do Swatches Lie?

June 24, 2020

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71 Comments
  • My pantheon, Mary Thomas, Elizabeth Zimmerman, Barbara Walker, Montse Stanley AND Patty Lyons. Masters of generous content and clear communication.

  • Wow, no garter stitch edge! Who knew?

  • Patty, thank you for this. I’ve been knitting for years but now I’ll finally knit a useful swatch.

  • I always play chicken w my swatches. Do most designers add in length of the required yarn to swatch?

    • I always assume the need to buy an extra ball for swatching

      • Thank you so much for this. I’m embarrassed to say I checked off too many of the “lies” on the list although I have gotten better about swatching over time. I also appreciate the tip to add a skein for swatching. I just had to purchase an emergency skein of yarn so I could finish a project. My 8” swatch was the culprit.

  • I am really ducking sick and tired of this pretense that there are not knitters who have inconsistent gauge, only knitters who have incorrectly prepared their swatches. The knitter who asked this question specifically stated that her gauge changed WITHIN a project. Please have the courtesy to answer her question, not do this crazy “swatch shaming” that seems to be the only answer offered these days.

    I worked in a yarn shop before the internet took over and there the answer to inconsistent gauge was to measure your knitting constantly, across the entirety of the piece that you are working on, If you find that you are off at any point, rip back and either consciously try to knit tighter or looser OR go up or down a needle size to see if that helps. No pretending that this is not a problem that exists.

    I currently have a sweater where the body pieces are all the same gauge as my swatch. The first sleeve is not. Did my swatch lie? Am currently deciding whether to try to reknit on different needles or rewrite the sleeve instructions redoing the math so that I can use the “new” gauge for the sleeve cap.

    I hate to pull out the A word, but ableism may well be involved here. I have ADHD and if you look through my journals (please don’t!), you would find that my handwriting is different sizes across time. There is no reason to expect that my knitting would not be the same. Just going by my old guild, there are a lot of non-neurotypical knitters out here. I don’t know if this is why my gauge is inconsistent, but it is my working assumption.

    With the move from blogging to social media, the knitting discourse has shifted almost entirely from “just” knitters to designers. Dana Williams-Johnson here is a glad exception. I can’t help but think this is part of the reason for ignoring this issue, problematizing individual knitters, and blaming incorrectly prepared swatches for the problem. A true knitter focused answer would believe a knitter when she said her gauge was not the same within a project, rather than assuming that her swatch was one gauge and her project another and answering that question.

    Patty, I took your Fix Your Stockinette class at Webs, and it really did help with my random gauge problems. You are a fantastic teacher, and I’ve even been working on this project while watching your livestreams. But now it is Quarantine Times, and here I am again. I do realize that the issue is probably with the swatch a majority of the time, but there is a set of knitters where inconsistent gauge IS the problem, and it would be incredibly helpful if that were acknowledged, rather than be treated as a lie. I don’t blame you as I haven’t read any answer to an army of knitters saying their swatches lie other than a sneering assumption that they just haven’t swatched correctly.

    Commenters – I knit gauge swatches, large, no garter stitch around the edges, wash them like I would the finished project, even hang it for a while. I knit the back and two fronts of a 54″ cardigan at a gauge that matches that swatch. I knit a sleeve at a different gauge. I decided to go for a second sleeve and try to focus more, to see if I could get back on track. It is the same gauge as the first sleeve. Am now trying to decide how to proceed. Any replies that do not take this situation into account are a major part of the problem.

    • I have the same issue with sleeves. I now knit them with needles one size smaller than the sweater. One short circles instead of magic loop.

    • Sorry I wasn’t more clear in the column intro. You are absolutely right, there are TWO issues at play, and that’s why it’s a two part column. In the interest of space, I couldn’t fit it all in to one column.

      The first issue is the swatching process (that was part 1) and the next issue is knitting technique (that is part 2). So stay tuned to part 2 which is going to address my top tips for creating consistent fabric, part of what I teach live in the Perfect Your Knitting class – the one you took at WEBS.

    • I forgot to ask in my last comment, Mary, are your sleeves knit flat or in the round?

    • Mary, one other thing I teach in class (again, interest of space for a quick column) is to measure in three different spots and take an average. This takes into consideration natural differences in our stitching.

      But in the case of this knitter, the letter writer mentioned “relaxing into the project”, that’s what I was addressing. For many knitters, they “relax” to their natural knitting style when knitting a project. This points to swatching and knitting “carefully” and not knitting the way we knit. We are often more focused on “matching” gauge, which forces us to try to change how we knit, rather than focusing on knitting the way we knit to predict our fabric.

    • I appreciate you mentioning this, Mary. My gauge changes, sometimes related to stress or mood. I also knit on DPNs way tighter so I just use the magic loop. It all seems so difficult to predict.
      I’m looking forward to your other column, Party!

      • Totally feel you! I’ve been religiously swatching since I took a great class with Sarah Solomon and learned some fantastic tips, most of which Patty addressed above. I feel pretty confident that my swatches are generally done “well” now, but still my gauge changes dramatically within a sweater. For example in my most recent FO, I had to rush to meet a deadline and my gauge in the speedknit parts is way different than the rest. Changed in both stitch and row gauge.

        I try not to let it bother me. It rarely alters the fabric feel, doesn’t usually change the way a garment wears, and I don’t mind futzing with my numbers if it gets too bad 😀

        • Yes! Exactly. If I’m relaxed on a long car trip, my gauge will be looser. I just have to pay attention (at least on and off) the whole time.

    • I sometimes have a different gauge when I use Magic Loop for a sleeve after doing the larger circumference in the round. I always have a different gauge if I switch to short tips. It’s about how I knit with the different physical aspects of the cables or the needles themselves.

    • Yeah, I’m with Mary on this one.

    • I too find my knitting changes over the project. I cast on tight and knit tight but as I relax into the project i and my knitting relax and the body of the project is almost always bigger ie wider than a the cast on edge. It is a problem for sure. I now cast on with bigger needles, try very hard not to be tight, and switch to the correct needle size when knitting the first row. I do not knit garments, only blankets, shawls, scarves, etc where gauge is not an issue but I did want to comment that I too notice a change in my knitting as the project progresses.

      • I learned to wrap the working yarn around my ring finger and hold it against the back of the needle until I came to the next stitch, then release the hold against the needle, make the stitch and finally go back to holding the working yarn against the needle. As a result, my stitches are consistent.
        Hope that helps you, too.

  • Hmmm..found Mary’s comment very interesting and may be my issue too. Dunno right now. Have, however been experimenting with the notion/technique/wrong-headed idea that I would change needles until I got the fabric I liked and then measuring that. Currently working on a project with a slippery ribbon yarn (of all stupid things to experiment with) and we’ll see how That turns out. (In my defence tried many other swatching techniques first).

    • Swatching until you get the fabric you like is EVERYTHING!! I will be addressing tips for more consistent knitting in part 2. Part 1 was addressing the issue of not predicting your actual fabric. Dawn mentioned that she relaxes up as she knits. That can often point to knitting “carefully” when swatching, and then once the project starts, knitting the way you knit. That’s why we need to take enough time to get used to our yarn and spend quality time with our fabric.

  • Amen!

  • Thanks Patty. I had a few amens in there! I will change the ‘whole stitch’ count issue – I’m very guilty of that.
    My gauge does also shift mid project but not so significantly that I notice in the final result. I have occasionally resorted to a crochet hook to tighten particularly loose rows or sections after the fact. I’ve even had to cut yarn and weave in ends when this was a biggie!!

  • Well shoot, that explains it all. I’ve done 20 years of swatches with that wide garter border, and 20 years of sweaters that always fit somebody, but not necessarily me. The next 20 years of knitting will be such an improvement!

    • I loved everything about this comment. The humor. The hopefulness. The Knit On -ness. Thanks for making me smile this morning, Barbara!

      • Awww thanks Anne Marie, you’re making me smile, too!

  • Patty, I had the idea that you absolutely need a garter border around a swatch drummed into my head repeatedly by various teachers. I never questioned that idea so thank you for doing the questioning!
    Mary, I empathize with you and hope you consider Jamietricoter’s suggestion. I will switch needle sizes for fair isle and ribbed sections within a project and also know that my gauge is different for projects with short circulars, dpns and longer circulars, even when I use the same yarn. I hate to suggest this and do not actually do it myself but you might want to consider swatching twice if you will be using two types of needles for a project. I am thinking it may be less frustrating than ripping back entire sleeves. I also agree that my gauge can change partway through a project. In my case, this has only ever been an issue when I put a project aside for too long or drastically change locations (living room versus super long car ride). I can easily avoid the problem since I know what causes it; I do not have a solution for your gauge shifts within a section but do hear your frustration and hope that wiser knitters than I can offer suggestions.

    • Sorry I wasn’t more clear in the column intro. Knitting inconsistency is a problem, there are TWO issues at play, and that’s why it’s a two part column. In the interest of space, I couldn’t fit it all in to one column.

      The first issue is the swatching process (that was part 1) and the next issue is knitting technique (that is part 2). So stay tuned to part 2 which is going to address my top tips for creating consistent fabric, part of what I teach live in the Perfect Your Knitting class.

  • Great idea about hiring attendants to hold my sweater apart! All this baking I will need them!

  • Great tips, and thanks for eliminating the garter border from my swatching regime. I’m anxiously awaiting Part 2!

  • As a sometimes machine knitter, I learned (which was reinforced by a Shirley Paden class) that the larger the swatch, the more accurate it will be. I do use a 2 stitch/row garter border, but never include those when measuring for gauge. I also stopped pinning my swatches and just let them dry (I won’t be pinning my sweaters after washing, after all). I’ve always wished that designers would say “before blocking” or “after blocking” in the instructions. Am I to assume, then, that they always mean “after blocking?” (PS Old swatches make great coasters!!)

    • Pattern gauge is always after blocking.

  • I work in a yarn shop which is frequented by travelers/tourists, especially in the summer months. We occasionally need to help a customer decide on gauge/choose needles while she is in the shop (as she will be on the road with the project for a long time afterward). Obviously it isn’t perfect, but what are your thoughts on steam blocking (and allowing to dry) a swatch that’s been knit in the shop? Is it better than not blocking at all? Utterly delusional?

    • I spent 7 years working in 2 different yarn stores, so this probably influences the way I teach my gauge class. In the class I talk about the “yarn store swatch”, the quick swatch we do to see if the gauge is in the ballpark enough that I want to buy it, and your “home swatch” the larger swatch that you wash and block to get your dead accurate gauge. I my yarn store days we used to help knitters to measure to see if their gauge was “in the ballpark” enough for them to feel confident about buying the yarn. Then we told them to finish the larger swatch, wash it the way they would care for the garment (remember, there might be a swatch in lace, cables, or a yarn that would be machine washed etc) and remeasure. If they lived here we’d tell them they were welcome to come back if they had questions. If they were tourists we’d send them home with a small tip sheet that advised them to wash and block, let dry and remeasure. The tip sheet also included the math formula for them to plug in the pattern st count at chest / by their gauge to show them what the finished object would be. For many many many times, not matching gauge is perfect 🙂

  • Yes, yes, yes! I have forwarded your article to my entire knitting circle.

  • I bought some really lovely yarn for a sweater and swatched. Normally I’m a tight knitter and have to go up a needle size but this time I had to go down three sides and was still over gaugewgauge seemed absurd so I put it away for a while. Working on the heel turn and gusset of another project the difference in gauge between working back and forth and working in the round was huge. I realized I couldn’t cheat by working my gauge swatch back and forth and that I needed to swatch in the round. (I also did a garter border). Thank you for the wonderful information on swatching, I’m ready to try again with much more confidence.

  • Patty, thank you for this article. I’ve been knitting for over 30 years (and swatching), and I now know why my sweaters don’t quite fit correctly. I’m constantly tugging at them. I am guilty of a few of those no-nos.

  • Liar swatch – a new entry for the knitters dictionary. Very informative. Thank you.

  • I seem to do okay width wise, but I have problems with length. I’ve had two recent projects where my swatch was okay, I’d lay the project out on the table and measure it till I had the right length. When I finished and put it on, the weight of the project made my garment 3” longer. The width was just fine.

  • I did find that my gauge changed dramatically when I gave up coffee. So don’t give up coffee between swatching and knitting!

    • For SURE! One of the things I say in class is to swatch how you knit. So if you always knit in the evening with a glass of wine . . . that’s how you swatch. If you get a few rows done in the morning after pouring 2 cups of coffee down your throat and fighting with your kids, put on a pot of coffee, pick a fight and cast on for your swatch.

      • This has me chuckling, thanks Patty

      • Wow, so many great tips. Thank you. Looking forward to part 2!

      • As an East Coast gal who had to dial back my sarcasm when transferred to other parts, I love your articles, videos, lessons. Thx Patty for being real.

  • One of the things that I never hear knitters discuss is how the yarn is wound on the ball. Yarn on the outside of a ball of yarn is more open and fluffy since it has not been under pressure, yarn at the heart of the ball is smaller and condensed since it has been under pressure. So if you knit your swatch with outside yarn, then start the garment with inside pull yarn, big difference. I find this apply immensely to knitting from a skein more so than knitting from a hand-wound ball.

    • Yep. That’s why we swatch exactly as we would knit. Same needle, same chair, same yarn bag, same glass of wine . . . everything

  • Amen and thank you Patty. I have been frustrated with swatching and getting gauge. Looking forward to part 2.

  • Loved your column Patty. You taught me that washing and blocking was a requirement and the usefulness of gauge has improved considerably. I recently knitted a tank in fine linen. If I had knitted and then blocked an eight inch rather than a four inch swatch I would perhaps have noticed that the yarn stretched, something that completely surprised me in the finished garment.

  • So grateful for your expertise Patty! One thing I have always wondered about is designers who say swatch in stockinette and some who say swatch in pattern. Could you explain this?

    • Most professional patterns tell you the gauge in the dominant stitch pattern, but there are a few exceptions. You might have a cable pattern with multiple cables or one giant wide cable pattern and some or seed stitch stockinette on the side. Those patterns will often have you swatch in seed or stockinette since swatching the giant cable will be like knitting the sweater.

  • Haha, amen to so many of those swatch NO NO’s. Thank you so much for this tips, Patty you’re hints are so helpful!

  • Amen to all your swatch points, and thank you to all the great knitter comments to this post. I am a born estimator, so I came to swatching with the idea that, unless I want to knit something very fitted, it didn’t matter that my 4” gauge is really up to 10% off stitchwise. I was so busy feeling smug about actually swatching that I didn’’’t realize all the ways I was sabotaging myself. “As the Proverb says, “He who hates reproof is stupid.” So starting today, I intend to check all the boxes on the list. Thank you for making me do it right.

  • It’s true, I’m guilty of some of these swatching habits…..but,
    I also can’t knit baby booties because the second is invariably bigger than the first. Isn’t that my gauge changing?

    I think of my swatch one piece of feedback and I continue to measure and consider the fabric and maintain a willingness to rip back.

    • Next column will address the knitting technique issues that cause us to have inconsistent stitching (spoiler alert – totally avoidable)

  • Having learned these lessons the hard way my sleeves are my swatches. I know you’re probably squirming but I wash and block them as I would the whole sweater and then I measure the real gauge and fiddle the stitch count on the body if I need to. Since I’m ok at maths this works for me

  • Wondering your position on hanging a swatch to mi ic a sweater hanging off one’s shoulders?

  • I got an ‘amen’ to give, and a ‘hallelujah’ on understanding now what I have been supposed to do with that wet swatch!

  • Hi Patty, I’ve been making 4 inch swatches with garter stitch borders for years and now I know why my gauge is off! Augh! Thank you for the clear explanation as to why my swatch isn’t accurate. When I knit sleeves in the round I change to a larger needle because my knitting is tighter. This method has worked for me but I am so looking forward to Part 2 and learning a new knitting technique.

  • Hi Patty – is there a formula according to which one can reassess & work out how many stitches one needs according to the newly washed & dried swatch if it doesn’t tally with the pattern instructions please?

    • Stitches or Rows / Inches = Gauge. Gauge x Inches = Stitches and Rows, and Stitches and Rows / Gauge = Inches. So . . . One thing you can do is see it there’s another size you can follow to get you the size you want. Sometimes NOT matching gauge is just what you want. This blog might help – https://pattylyons.com/2018/10/math-of-gauge/

  • After taking your gauge class, I’m looking at life in a whole new way. I’m swatching with no garter edge, making bigger swatches, and even using my needles differently! I used to go WAY down low on the left-hand needle but now I work on the tip. It’s CRAZY.

  • So I was having trouble with uneven, difficult-to-count stitches in my swatch. Not usual for me. Then I watched you with MDK live and you mentioned trying a different needle if you had trouble getting gauge. I couldn’t think why this would make a difference but redid my swatch with my Addi needles instead of Chiaogoo needles. What sorcery is this?!? Got perfect gauge and lovely stitches

  • The way I deal with this is:

    1. I knit a reasonably generous swatch (say 6×6”), I soak it for a couple of hours, wrap it in a towel, then leave it to dry. I do not pin it, because I am never in a million years going to want to pin any sweater after washing it, so why would I pin the swatch? I want to see what the yarn will do after being soaked and left to dry naturally. I don’t measure it until after a couple of days of drying, when I’m sure it is good and dry. And it has been sitting on my kitchen counter all the while, so I’ve handled it several times by then, with a bit of tugging and manipulation (as I imagine the sweater it might become.) Also, I always knit a flat swatch and almost always knit the final product in the round on 40” circulars using magic loop when necessary. I do not find my gauge is all that different between the swatch and the finished product… no idea why this would be since so many say their gauges are so different between the two methods.

    2. I never knit form-fitting sweaters. They are just not my style. So this also aids in the final determination of what size I should make or what size needles I ought to use, because I really don’t mind at all if a sweater is 1” off in circumference, or even up to 2”. This gives me wiggle room to allow for a certain amount of imprecision (eg, if I’m off by 1/2 stitch per 4”, then it’s not such a big deal.) I recently counted more than twenty hand knit sweaters in my closet, most of which I still love, and this method has always been satisfactory.

    3. I never do a row gauge. I always measure in inches and, if there is pattern that is particularly sensitive to rows/inch, then I do the math to see if my pattern will be significantly affected by my row gauge. So often I find that it’s impossible to get the stitch/inch gauge and the row gauge to coincide, so I just wing it with the rows.

    I realize this isn’t for everyone, because some people DO want to make close-fitting garments that will end up matching very precise measurements. But given the style of so very many contemporary designs, I believe this method works quite well indeed.

  • This – above – is why I don’t knit sweaters. Apart from hating to seam – yes I have watched your videos on how to seam and it looks so easy but it isn’t – knitting garments with all the fiddling that’s required – swatching, changing needles sizes, remembering to decrease in from the actual edge to you can seam the darn thing easier, fitting issues, etc, etc etc – I just don’t have it in me to do all this. Give me a shawl or blanket any day! I do however appreciate all the work that Ms. Lyons et al do to help us knitters. Some of us just can’t be helped. [shrug]

  • Just about to finish my husband’s sweater. Can’t wait to see what it does. I stretched to square, didn’t wet block and, in general, missed every guideline given.
    This also my first bottom up sweater for a very large man. It’s either going to fit or become a throw blanket. I’ll be better on the next one!

  • I’ve been meaning to look out my old straight needles. I have a funny feeling that when I use circular needles to knit larger flat pieces, the lack of support for the stitches can make a difference to my knitting, especially when holding my work in my lap (as opposed to resting it on a table).

  • Hi I redescover your website, which I find realky helpfull to improve my knitting technics. First thanks for the job.
    When reading fully your article i felf very less guily with my swatching technics. I’ve been told many times, when asking about swatch, to knit garter stitch border and pin it when blocking. I admit, that I found it a waste of time and less easy knitting that border. I had read on a vintage booklet just to knit more stitches and was doing so.
    For pinning, At first I used to it but then skipped that part just laying flat. And never had problems. So your article comes to confort me in my way of swatching. Thanks again