I am not sure if I have stressed enough on the importance of a Gauge Swatch. If I haven’t, I’m doing it now. People, its really really important! Underline that, twice!! Its the one thing that has saved me a lot of heart ache and anxiety and I hope that it will do the same for you.
The easiest way to explain what a gauge swatch is would be way of an example, so let’s use the pattern from our Project Cowl. I know we have started working on the cowl without checking the gauge but that is only because a cowl is a free size garment and a little bit of difference from the intended size will not matter much.
You already know that to get a cowl of the same size and look, you’ll have to use the same yarn (brand, weight and type) and the same needle size. But you will find it difficult to get the same yarns especially those used by designers abroad. The next best thing you can do is to try and find a yarn which is closest in weight to the pattern yarn.
Now I’m going to make it a little more technical by telling you that when we talk about yarn weight, there is a standardized table of yarn types corresponding with their weights. Have a look
Not so much in India, but overseas yarns usually come with a label indicating a number such as the one mentioned on the top axis of the table. Based on the number, you can get details of the yarn type, gauge and recommended needle size. Just to give you an example, this is the yarn I am using for Project Cowl
As per the table above, the number “4” that is mentioned on the label tells me that this is a worsted weight/aran weight yarn for which the recommended needle size is 4.5-5.5 mm and Gauge is 16-20 stitches over 4 inches. Fortunately for me, the yarn recommended in the pattern for our Project Cowl is also a number “4” yarn. These were the details given about the yarn size and gauge in the pattern
The fact that I have a yarn which matches the pattern yarn weight exactly makes my life easier and maybe (depending on the type of project), I can choose to completely skip Gauge Swatching. I can also rely on the fact that the gauge recommended in the pattern and the gauge mentioned for number “4” yarn in the table are close, so if I follow the pattern to a T, I’m likely to get a cowl similar in size to the one in the pattern.
However, what do you do when the yarn you have/buy does not mention a yarn weight. In such cases, look for the recommended needle size. In India, yarn manufacturers often provide a recommended needle size on the label, for example in this Vardhman yarn
If you check the table, needle size 3.75 mm is recommended for the number “2” and “3” yarn weights, which have a gauge of 21 to 26 stitches per 4 inches between them. The question is what would happen if I use the Vardhman yarn for my cowl. It is quite simple – when you use a thinner yarn, the same number of stitches take lesser space than when you use a thicker yarn (if the needle size remains the same). This means that if I cast-on the same number of stitches, as prescribed in the pattern i.e. 210 stitches, using the Vardhman yarn and knit the cowl, it would end up having a smaller circumference than the pattern cowl.
As I had mentioned earlier, such size variations may not matter so much in case of a cowl or shawl or scarf, but for anything fitted like a cap, sweater or gloves, even a minor difference of 1 or 2 inches can ruin all your hard work (especially if it ends up being too tight).
So what do you do when the gauge of the yarn you have doesn’t match with the gauge of the pattern yarn or when you are completely clueless about the weight, or the recommended needle size, or gauge, or any other detail about the yarn. Well this is where Gauge Swatching comes in handy.
Let’s see how it’s done. I have cast-on 40 stitches on a 3.75 mm needle using the Vardhaman Yarn and knit a small square of roughly 6 X 6 inches in stockinette stitch (alternate rows knit and purl). Since stockinette tends to curl at the edges making it difficult to lay it flat, I have left a 3-stitch garter edge on all 4 sides. Once I was done knitting, I took it off the needles and lay it flat on a table. Using a measuring tape, I counted the stitches and rows per 4 inches in the swatch.
If you look at the right side of your swatch, you will find that upside down Vs have formed. Each upside down V constitutes one stitch. You count these horizontally within 4 inches to get the number of stitches and then count them vertically within 4 inches to get the number of rows. This is the gauge of your swatch. I got 28 stitches and 32 rows per 4 inches in the swatch above. Clearly, if I continue using this needle size, my completed cowl will be much smaller in size than the pattern cowl.
To fix this problem, there are two options available to the knitter. One is to increase the number of stitches you cast on. So when the gauge was 14 stitches you were casting on 210 stitches (as given in the pattern), now that it is 28 stitches, you will have to cast-on twice the number of stitches (i.e. 420 stitches) to get the same size. This method can work when you have a simple pattern with no repeats and variations. For example, if you were knitting the pattern cowl without the lace sections.
However, if there are variations or repeats in the pattern, the designer has done precise calculations about the required number of cast-on stitches and randomly increasing their number may completely ruin your project. In such cases, we will use a different method. Once again you will need to make a gauge swatch but this time with a bigger needle size. I have decided to use a needle size of 4.5 mm in my second gauge swatch.
This time when I measure my swatch, I get 16 stitches and 28 rows per 4 inches, which is a gauge quite close to the pattern gauge. This means that if I use a size 4.5 mm needle to knit my cowl, I should get a size similar to the one in the pattern. This is why Gauge Swatching is important – to make sure you get a knitted piece of the right size.
Before I finish, I need you to know three very important things. One, while you can decrease or increase the number of stitches per unit length by using a bigger or smaller needle, it may not be a good idea always. I say this because sometimes varying the needle size too much may leave your knitting looking very distorted. Have a look at the two gauge swatches I had knit, one with needle size 3.75 mm and the other with 4.5 mm
In both these swatches, the stitches still come across as neat. But had I tried to use the same yarn with a 6 mm needle size, I would have got a knitted fabric with big holes in it. What I’m trying to say is that there is a range of needle sizes within which you can move in order to change your gauge. If you find yourself going out of that range, then it would be a better idea to change the number of cast-on stitches or to use a different yarn.
Second, in this example I haven’t paid a lot of attention to row gauge (i.e. number of rows per unit length) because it does not matter much for this particular cowl. But imagine knitting a hat without paying attention to the row gauge and having it reach your nose or falling short of covering your head. So depending on the project, consider paying attention to row gauge as well.
Third, the pattern in Project Cowl gives gauge for a lace section swatch. I have used the same gauge over a swatch of stockinette stitch only as an example. If you ever find a pattern which specifically provides on what sort of stitches the gauge is to be calculated, then I recommend that you strictly follow that. Only where the pattern is silent, is it assumed that the gauge is to be calculated on a swatch of stockinette stitch.
Now I know this was one long, slightly boring and a very technical post, but as your fellow knitter it is my solemn duty (wink!) to pass on all the knitting knowledge I have acquired. I also know that it is very tedious to knit swatch after swatch until you reach the right needle size. I used to find it very tempting to skip this part. But I have learnt this lesson the hard way – A Stitch in Time saves Nine. So learn from my mistakes, knit that gauge swatch and save yourself future heartache!