What Exactly Is Knitting Gauge and Is Swatching Really That Important?
Gauge. No matter how many times I type it, it’s still a word I continue to spell incorrectly. But despite it’s tricky lettering, acknowledging it and actually checking your own is arguably one of the most important lessons you will learn as a knitter (or crocheter).
So what is knitting gauge, exactly?
Gauge is simply a measurement of how big your stitches are, or more specifically many rows and stitches you knit (or crochet) in a 10x10cm square. It can depend on the weight of the yarn and the size of the needles, but mostly it’s affected by your tension, or how tightly (or loosely) you knit. Not all stitchers stitch alike. So, if you are a tight knitter then you will need more stitches to fill 10cm than if you were a loose knitter.
And that is why it’s oh so important to get in the habit of checking your gauge .
Surely checking gauge is not that important?
You might think, but let me give you an example. Let’s say for example you were knitting a scarf. The scarf is designed to measure 30cm wide and however many cms long. The gauge provided by the designer in the knitting pattern was 8 stitches and 10 rows to make a 10x10cm square which means, in theory, you’ll need to cast on 24 stitches as the pattern would state to create a scarf that measures 30cm in width. (30cm/10cm = 3, 3 x 8stitches = 24 stitches)
However, let’s say you’re a tight knitter, so rather than fitting 8 stitches into 10cm, you knit 10. This will mean that rather than measuring 30cm, those 24 stitches that you cast on will only reach 24cm.
Not necessarily a problem when knitting a scarf where size isn’t crucial, but if you think you were knitting a jumper instead and suddenly those 6cm that you’re short for each 30cm is going to make a noticeable difference to how that hand knitted jumper turns out! And no one wants to spend hours and hours knitting up something beautiful only to have to frog it because it’s miles too small, or to run out of yarn before you’ve reached the end.
Okay, but how do I check my knitting gauge?
In order to check your tension, or gauge, it’s important to do something called a swatch before you start knitting. As defined by Oxford languages a swatch is “a small sample of fabric intended to demonstrate the look of a larger piece” so you’re essentially knitting what would be a teeny section of your finished project. This means if you’re knitting a jumper with a recommended needle size of 12mm in stocking stitch; you’ll knit a swatch on 12mm knitting needles in stocking stitch to check your gauge.
Take a look at the desired knitting gauge for your chosen project. Let’s say for the purposes of this, it’s 6.5 stitches and 10 rows for a 10x10cm square in stocking stitch. Take these figures and then add on a few stitches and rows either side to give a more accurate result before measuring. In this instance, for example, I would cast on at least 13 stitches and knit at least 16 rows before I get the tape measure out.
It’s good practise to block your swatch before measuring, but for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to skip straight to the numbers; it’s time to count our stitches.
Lay your swatch on a flat surface and count how many stitches and rows make up 10cm as illustrated in the picture. Stocking stitch is easy to count as you just count the number of ‘v’s across for the number of stitches and the number of ‘v’s going up for the number of rows. As you can see in this example, our gauge is correct at 6.5 stitches and 10 rows.
If you meet the required number of stitches too, that’s great! You can knit with the recommended needles with no problem at all.
If you’re a tight knitter so you have more than 6.5 stitches per 10cm then you might need to go up a needle size. Similarly, if you’re a loose knitter, so you have less than 6.5 stitches per 10cm, then you might need to go down a needle size. It is also possible to train yourself to knit with different tension. I usually find that when I am teaching beginners, their knitting starts off suuuuper tight and then starts to loosen up as they become more relaxed and confident with it.
Remember to always swatch with the different needle sizes again until you know your tension is correct.
But, I know I’m a loose knitter so is swatching reeeeeally necessary for me?
Short answer: YES!
Swatching is a contentious issue in the knitting and crochet worlds with many (even experienced) crafters choosing to omit that stage. I get the eagerness to start a new project when you have something you are super excited to make, but if I’m being honest, it baffles me.
As I said before, the main benefit of swatching is to check your tension matches that required of your knitting pattern and in relation to the pattern designer too. It’s not as simple as ‘I’m a loose knitter so I know I usually go down a needle size’ because what if the designer is a loose knitter too?
Yardage shown in a knitting pattern is also determined by the designer’s own knitting gauge. So, if you do not ensure you are in the right ball park, you may not have enough yarn to finish your project.
Not only that, swatching helps you to understand and get to know the yarn you’ll be working with. It gives you an idea of what the finished fabric will look and feel like once you bind off and the process also helps you to understand the consequences of not meeting the required knitting gauge. For example, if you knit tightly, your knitted fabric may be stiffer than the desired result whereas if you are on the looser side, your fabric will have more drape. When you compare this with a swatch knit to the correct gauge you can foresee the impact ignoring this simple step can have.
Knitting a swatch may feel tedious at the time, but the benefits far outweigh the extra 20 minutes you spend on knitting up that little square. Trust me, you and your hand knit jumper will thank yourself in the long run.