I needed to make a test gauge swatch for my next project. I’ll be working from a pattern of a fitted garment so I have to match the pattern’s gauge.
A test gauge swatch is the 4″ (10 cm) x 4″ (10 cm) square that most all patterns urge the knitter to knit before beginning the pattern. It is considered so imperative that the words TAKE TIME TO CHECK GAUGE are often put in caps on patterns for both knitting and crochet.
Exactly What Is Gauge?
Gauge is the number of stitches per inch that the designer of the pattern used to make their garment, and the amount of stitches that a knitter knits. This amount of stitches is often expressed as a total number of stitches over a length and width of 4″. Gauge is determined by 2 factors: the weight of the yarn, and the size of the needle used. The thickness of the yarn corresponds with the most reasonable size of needle to match that thickness, so a worsted weight yarn will usually have a size 8 (5 mm) or 9 (5.5 mm) needle as the recommended size to knit with. A fine weight yarn is matched by default to size 2 (2.75 mm) or 3 (3.25 mm). This can be varied though, and knitwear designers will sometimes change it up a bit. This is where the importance of gauge comes into play. In order to reproduce a pattern’s garment the way it looks in the picture, you must be knitting or crocheting the same number of stitches per inch as the designer of the pattern did when creating it.
Making a Swatch
Matching the yarn’s weight to it’s default needle makes for the gauge that’s stated on the label of the skein. The label on my new skein of Ella Rae yarn states a gauge of 5 Sts/inch(2.5 cm) on #7 needle (4.5 mm). Here’s a pic of the label:
This works out to 20 Sts/4 inches (10 cm). The pattern I’m making requires a gauge of 20 Sts/4 in, so I started out making a swatch using their recommendation of a #7 needle. I cast on 30 sts for this swatch. I’m really glad that I took time to check the gauge because my #7 swatch turned out to be 18 Sts over 4 inches. It didn’t knit up for me as stated on the label. Here’s my #7 swatch:
I went back to the drawing board, as well as down 2 needle sizes to a #5 (3.75 mm) and began again. Along the way I became a tad impatient, and decided to measure it at 2 inches, thinking that if the gauge was correct then I could just stop there and not have to finish knitting the 4 inch swatch! I was surprised to find that the gauge was the same as the #7 swatch – 18 Sts. How could that be when I was using a #5 needle now?
The answer seems to be that the full 4 inches of fabric really does need to be knitted. Perplexed by these results, I decided to keep knitting the swatch, hoping to get a more accurate reading of gauge as the piece gets bigger. I knitted it to 3.75inches (9 cm), and measured it again. The reading was 19.25 stitches:
At this point I took a break and did a bit of research on how other people make their swatches. I was hoping to glean some valuable tips, and I did! This article at Knitty has a great idea of starting the swatch with a few rows of garter stitch in order to control the curling of the swatch when the knitting of stockinette stitch begins. I ripped back and started a new swatch, this time with 28 sts and garter stitch borders on the top and bottom. I found this to be very helpful with keeping the swatch straight, and I’ll be making my swatches this way from now on. I knitted the entire 4 inches, and finally achieved the 5 sts per inch!
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
The other factor in calculating gauge is rows. Stitches are the horizontal measure of gauge, and rows are the vertical. It’s a secondary consideration of gauge by some standards, and what I mean by this is that it isn’t always mentioned, as you can see in the above pic of my yarn’s label. They only mention stitches, not rows. Although only stitches were considered as part of the gauge on that one, many patterns and yarn labels will state a gauge of stitches and rows. The gauge for the pattern I’m going to knit is 20 Sts. by 28 rows, meaning that over a span of 4 inches vertically there should be 28 rows. My swatch isn’t measuring up as far as matching the row gauge is concerned. I’m not getting 28 rows, I’m getting 26.5 to 27 with the swatch unblocked, which reminds me of another consideration of swatch preparation:
Blocking Your Swatch
I’ve repeatedly read about the need to do this to the test swatch. Many knitters say that blocking the swatch and even hanging it with a weight attached to it is essential when planning on making a sweater out of the proposed yarn. They claim that by imitating some of the conditions that the finished garment will endure, (steaming /washing and hanging), the test swatch will give valuable insight into how the yarn will behave once knitted into a sweater. I have personally never bothered to do so much preparation with the swatches I’ve knitted in the past. The last sweater I made was self designed, so I set my own gauge. I’ve since machine washed that sweater and it’s fit is the same, although I should also mention that the fiber content is 75%acrylic, 25% alpaca. The man made fiber probably makes a difference here. I also don’t hang my sweaters. I don’t think it’s a good idea, especially if they’re heavy. I store them in a drawer or box. That being said, I will block the swatch while I’m at it though, because it’s 100% wool (it was once someone’s hair, a sheep specifically) and it’s condition may change after being washed, I’m also curious to see if it changes the row gauge at all. All the articles I’ve read say that it can make a big difference, so I need to see with my own eyes if it’s true!
Ok, it does appear to be true:
The swatch did change after being washed and blocked. Am I correct to call what happened to it shrinkage? It lost 1.25 stitches on the horizontal. It doesn’t seem to have lost any stitches in the rows, if anything it may have gained half a stitch.
At this point I figured that I needed to use a needle one size smaller. I went to a size 4 (3.5 mm) and began a new swatch, this time knitting 5″ (12.7 cm). I didn’t measure it after knitting (although in hindsight I should’ve), since I learned that the results can change after washing and blocking. Instead I went straight to washing and blocking, and measured it after that. Here’s the results:
The results are again surprising, I have a stitch and a half extra on the stitch gauge, but I’ve finally made the row gauge. I now have a decision to make: do I use a #5 or #4 needle?
Number 5 gave me correct stitch gauge before washing and blocking, but was a stitch short on both stitch and row gauge after blocking.
Number 4 was over my needed gauge in stitches, but the row gauge was correct after blocking.
Row gauge is considered important in row repeats on sleeve construction, especially raglan. My chosen design has set in sleeves, so this may not be a problem.
Since this post is a work in progress due to it’s experimental nature, I’ve been writing it over a period of weeks. Just yesterday, Feb. 22nd, I read an excellent post by Karen at Fringe Association which helped clear up my confusion about whether or not the swatch actually shrinks when the stitch count lowers after blocking. It turns out that it did the opposite. The fact that there were less stitches over 4 inches means that the stitches grew larger after blocking, so shrinkage was the wrong term. I thought if there were less stitches then the piece shrank, when in fact what happened was that the fibers relaxed and spread out, making the stitches larger. Alright, I’ve gained an understanding of what’s happening, now I have to figure out what to do, which means it’s time to do some…
Karen’s post gave some valuable insight on how to calculate what size to knit when you’re not making the exact gauge stated in your pattern. Here’s the formula:
Divide the amount of stitches needed in gauge by the amount of stitches you’re getting on your swatch,
take that number and multiply it by your size on your pattern. The size you multiply it by depends on whether your gauge is higher or lower than your pattern’s gauge.
My pattern gauge is 20 stitches per 4 inches (10.16 cm),
I’m getting 21.5 stitches on #4 (3.5 mm) needle, which means that the stitches are smaller than what the pattern gauge requires,
so I divide 20 by 21.5, which gives me .930.
Then I multiply .930 by the size I wish to knit. I would normally knit a size 40 (101.6 cm), but since the gauge I’m working with is smaller, I’ll multiply by one size up: 44 in (111.75).
.930 x 44 = 40.9 in. (103.8 cm). This might work for me.
If I used my other gauge, the one where I’m getting 18.75 stitches on #5 (3.75 mm), then it works out like this:
20 divided by 18.75 = 1.06
1.06 x 36 (the next size down because this gauge is larger) = 38.16 (96.2 cm). This is still a bit small, but knitwear stretches so it might work, and I have to remember that the row gauge isn’t correct at this setting. If I knit a size 40 at this gauge then in theory I’ll end up with a sweater which is 42.4″ (107.7 cm). This is good, and would work well, but the row gauge could be an issue, at 1 stitch less every 4 inches. (10.16). I could be messing with shoulder and sleeve height here, which will effect the fit of the sweater.
Making a Decision
After pondering the two options, I decided to go with the #4 needle gauge. It’s a stitch and a half more, but the row gauge is correct, and if I knit the next size up (44) from my normal size in this sweater (40), then I’ll get a sweater that’s nearly 41 inches (103.9 cm), which should work for me. I checked my size by measuring a sweater that I wear during the winter as on over layer over a long sleeved shirt. The sweater I’m knitting is an outerwear garment, so it too will always be worn over another shirt and not as a standalone piece. I like the way this sweater fits, so it makes a good sampler for sizing. Here’s a pic of it:
The black sweater’s chest size is a total of 43″ (109 cm). I’ll be knitting a sweater that has a finished chest size of 40.9 ” (103.9 cm). The sweater has a good fit, so should I worry about the 2″ difference? This is a design question that I must ask myself. I have to take into consideration how I want the sweater to fit. Ease is one such consideration. How much ease will I need? The black sweater has an almost relaxed fit, and it’s 43″, so I can surmise that 41″ could work. It will be a snugger fit, but it probably won’t be too small, since we’re thinking of fabric which stretches to begin with. The design itself is somewhat form fitting. I’m going to take a chance on knitting the size 44″ (111.75) on a #4 needle and see what happens.
Thanks for reading 🙂