Gauge Schmage Part 2: How To Knit & Measure a Gauge Swatch

Last month, we talked about the importance of getting the correct gauge for your project. Today, I’m going to share with you how I knit and measure a gauge swatch. Please keep in mind that this is how I personally do it, others may have different opinions.

Almost all patterns state a specific gauge needed in order to get the expected results in the project. (Expected results = a sweater that fits.) Some patterns give the gauge in stitches per one inch, but a lot of them give it in inches per four inches; I’ve also seen patterns that state it in two or three inches as well. It gets sort of confusing, but I always think of it as stitches per one inch in my head, so that's how I’ll refer to gauge from here on: stitches per one inch.

How I Do A Basic Stockinette Gauge Swatch

  1. When I do a gauge swatch for a piece that is knit flat (as opposed to in-the-round), I typically cast on 20 – 25 stitches, and knit in stockinette stitch (see definitions below) for about 3 inches or so.
  2. I lay the piece flat on a table, slap a ruler on it, and count the stitches in the middle section of the swatch. I avoid counting up close to the needle or right down by the cast on. Also, I don’t count the edge stitches, because they’re usually distorted and funky. I count the number of stitches in however many full inches that fit across the middle portion of the swatch, whether it’s 2, 3, 4, or 5 inches. I don't just measure across one inch - the bigger sample I measure, the more accurate my stitches per inch will be.
  3. Then I take the total number of stitches I counted and divide it by the total inches measured, and that number tells me how many stitches per inch I’m getting, also known as my “gauge”. Don’t round up or down – the fractions of a stitch can be very important to account for, as illustrated in my previous article.

How can I count my stitches if I don’t know what I’m counting?

In stockinette stitch, on the smooth side of the fabric (what I usually think of as the right side or public side), they look like little “V”s. Each V is one stitch.

Here’s a swatch with a ruler on it. Try to count the stitches in four inches. Notice that the start of the ruler (on the left side) is lined up to the left of a stitch at its widest point (at the top of the “V”); this is so you’ll count the complete stitch. On this swatch, if you were to measure across just one or two inches, you’d come up with 4 stitches per inch; however, notice that when counting across 4 inches, you’ll count 16 ½ stitches…so a more accurate measurement would be 4.125 stitches per inch.

What if my gauge doesn’t match the pattern?

You’ve dutifully knit up your swatch, and the gauge doesn’t match the pattern…what do you do? You change your needle size and try again! Some knitters will stay on the same needle and just try to knit tighter or looser, but I never recommend that: it’s really hard to consistently change how you naturally knit throughout a whole project. You need to change needles.

Do you go up or down a needle size? This is where it gets a little bit confusing. If your gauge is too small (the stitches per inch are MORE than the pattern calls for – for example 4.5 st/inch instead of 4), you need to try a larger needle. If your gauge is too big (ex: 3 st/inch instead of 4), go down a needle size.  Try to think of it like this:  If your stitch count is too high, you're stitches are too small, so you need to use a bigger needle.  If your stitch count is too low, your stitches are too big, so you need to use a smaller needle.   Make sense? I know. It can be confusing. Sorry.

Washing & Drying Your Swatch

Some yarns and some stitch patterns will stretch or shrink when washed or blocked, so it’s a really good idea to wash & dry your swatch in the same manner you plan on caring for your finished project. Do I always go through this step? Honestly? No, usually I don’t. However, it has come back to bite me once or twice, so don’t say you weren’t warned.  (It's the old:  Do As I Say, Not As I Do.  :)

Why Not Just a Four Inch Gauge Swatch?

When the pattern states the gauge in stitches per four inches, often people will think that they should do the gauge swatch over that same number of stitches: the gauge is 18 stitches in four inches, so they cast on 18 stitches, knit for a while, and measure their swatch to see if it’s 4” wide. I prefer NOT to do my swatches this way, mainly because the edge stitches of a swatch tend to be a little bit wonky, so they really aren’t an accurate measurement.

Swatching In The Round

I’ve found that my gauge is usually very different when I knit in the round as opposed to back & forth, so if the project is knit in the round, I do my gauge swatch in the round. Elizabeth Zimmerman recommended knitting a hat as a gauge swatch for a sweater, but usually I’m chomping at the bit to get into my project; a hat would take way too long. To speed things up, I cheat a bit and do sort of a wide i-cord which simulates knitting in the round. Here’s how I do a stockinette-in-the-round gauge swatch:

  1. Cast on about 30 stitches onto a DPN or circular needle. 
  2. Knit the first row. 
  3. Then, instead of turning the piece around, put the needle with the stitches on it back into your left hand, slide the stitches to the right, drape the working yarn loosely across the back of the piece and begin knitting the second row. Repeat this for about 3 inches, always sliding the stitches over instead of turning it around. 
  4. Lay the piece flat on the table, and measure your gauge. If you drew the yarn too tightly across the back, you may need to cut the strands in the back to lay it flat.

Other Stitch Patterns

It is important to work the swatch in the stitch designated in the pattern. Commonly it’ll be stockinette stitch, but often times it’s not, and stockinette stitch will measure very differently than garter (or any other) stitch.

Definitions

Stockinette Stitch: This is the smooth fabric where the stitches look like little “V”s. on one side, and the other side is bumpy. When knitting flat, it’s formed by alternating rows of knits and purls (knit one row, purl one row, etc.). When knitting in the round, knit all rounds.

Garter Stitch: This is the bumpy fabric with ridges. Knit all rows when knitting flat. When knitting in the round, alternate rows of knits and purls.

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