To Swatch or Not to Swatch...

Hey there! Here it is - my very first Cast On A Few blog!

I've been wondering what to write about... and then I had the same classic question asked 4 times this week: "Do I really need to do a tension gauge swatch?"

And hey presto! Instant blog topic!

So... To Swatch or Not to Swatch?

"Oh, I don't bother... it usually comes out ok. But I do give away a lot of my jumpers because they don't look right on me..."

Nooooo! You put a lot of time and love into your work, and when you choose the jumper pattern and yarn you like for you, you don't usually think about whether it might also look good on Nana - in case it doesn't fit you! Or what might look good covering the couch...

What is a tension gauge swatch or square?

Ok, so a tension gauge swatch or square is that bit of knitting that all your patterns say you have to do before beginning your actual project, and something about so-many stitches and X rows making 10cm or 4 inches.

And yes, you MUST do a swatch if you want a fighting chance of your garment fitting you, and looking the way the designer intended!

Swatches are done using the yarn and needles recommended for the project, and made in the pattern used in the garment. Most are done in stocking stitch, but if you're making a garment with an all-over lace design for example, your tension gauge swatch will need to be made in the lace pattern.

Often the stitch count is more important than the rows. This is because in many patterns, you are instructed to knit a certain number of cms rather than rows.

Where the row count becomes important is when, for example, you are shaping a v-neck, and a certain number of stitches need to be gradually decreased on the neckline over a specific number of rows to produce the desired v-shape. You will end up with a very shallow or very deep "v" if your row tension is tighter or looser than the recommended gauge.

Why do I have to do a tension gauge swatch?

There are a few different answers to this one.

  • You've invested good money on lovely yarn for that hand-knitted beauty, so you want to make sure it'll fit you (or the lucky recipient) properly.
  • Crossing fingers and forging ahead is not a proven way to ensure your jumper will fit.
  • It's good to get a sneak-peak of what your yarn will look like knitted up into the stitch design you've chosen. You might find the effect of that gorgeous variegated possum-merino-silk blend you've spent your entire yarn allowance on (stay with me here...) is entirely lost in the fancy cable and lace pattern you've chosen. Better to discover that in a swatch than in the main event!
  • If you have a few possible yarn options (and who doesn't?), make more than one swatch. This is not only to see which one you like best in the pattern (although that's important too!), but mainly because yarns of different compositions - even if they're all the same ply and knitted on the same size needles - are likely to produce different sized gauges.
  • Sometimes you don't have to do a tension gauge swatch... WHAAAT?? I know, I just said you MUST... but if your project isn't a fitted garment, like perhaps a blanket, scarf, cowl or shawl (that starts at the bottom point and can just grow until the yarn runs out), the approximate meterage required is going to be the more pertinent detail in your pattern. But do check your pattern before making that maverick call!

Basically, everyone knits with a different tension. Your tension can actually vary depending on the type of needles you use (metal vs bamboo vs plastic vs wood, or straight vs circular), the style of knitting (English "throwing" vs Continental), or even your mood on the day!

I know, right? How are you meant to account for all that? Well, the best way to ensure your knitting tension best matches that of the designer, is - you got it - making a swatch. There's no guarantee you'll look like the model in the photo but the jumper will fit you the way the designer intended!

How do I make one?

You knit a piece that's bigger than 10cm square using the stitch specified in the pattern (often stocking stitch, but do check the pattern). Usually you will knit around 10 stitches more and 10-15 rows more than stipulated in the recommended gauge. Hint: garter stitch the first and last 3-4 rows of the swatch, and two stitches either end of every row, and your stocking-stitch square will lie flat to make it easier to measure. 

Once a piece of fabric has been knitted, we pull out the tape measure (or fixed gauge measure) and count the number of stitches across, and rows up, that fit in a 10cm square measured in the middle of your swatch, and compare it to the recommended tension on your pattern.

Now here's where confusion often arises - you will need to change the size of the needles by one size or 0.5mm if the gauge on your swatch doesn't match the recommended gauge. Here's what you need to remember:

If you have more stitches than recommended, your stitches are too small and you need to do another swatch with bigger needles.

If you have less stitches than recommended, your stitches are too big and you need to do another swatch with smaller needles.

So: More stitches = Bigger needles; Less stitches = Smaller needles.

Just one more thing about counting stitches...

Be sure to count half-stitches and rows as well.

Here's why:

Your pattern says your tension should be 15 stitches per 10cm but your swatch is 14.5 stitches per 10cm.

If your garment diameter is meant to be 100cm and you're knitting at the looser tension of 14.5 stitches per 10cm, your finished diameter will end up being an extra half-stitch per 10cm, which equates to 5 stitches.

May not sound like much, but those extra 3-4cm around means your jumper is more baggy than it's meant to be - that's the amount of ease that's already been built into your pattern, and you've just doubled it.

And one last thing about swatching...

Some patterns stipulate that you should launder and block your swatch before measuring and counting stitches and rows. I know a lot of knitters think this is a step too far, but... the designer is the expert, and they know best.

The upshot is...

If you really want your garment to fit... Do what the pattern says!!