on swatching: size matters

[Repost from a new thread over in my Ravelry group]

(Fountain pen for scale.)

Every once in a while, a newbie knitter would bring to my teaching table a swatch made up of just a few stiches - a wee, postage-stamp-sized slip of a thing. “The pattern said I needed a gauge of 6 stitches to the inch, so I cast on 6 stitches!” Fair enough - that’s an easy assumption to make as a brand-new knitter. Knit up 6 stitches, and if it’s not 1 inch, you’re off… Right?

Welllll, no. And what I’m about to say applies to just-slightly-larger-but-still-not-big-enough swatches as well: if you aren’t working long enough rows, you aren’t really creating the kind of fabric you’ll make in a larger garment. PLUS, you won’t be able to count accurately.

A sweater-sized project will likely have a hundred or more stitches across a row - long enough for you to get into a good rhythm, get moving at a good clip, maybe even space out a little bit. That different rhythm can impact how loosely or tightly you knit! So the longer you can make your rows in your swatch, the more accurately it will reflect how you’ll knit in a sweater.

A slightly more experienced knitter might cast on the # of sts in 4”/10cm called out on the pattern. So, 24 stitches in 4” for the same gauge as the newbie above. That’s better, but still no cigar, and here’s why: your edge stitches always curl in just a little bit, which sucks away a bit of the measurement… And you don’t have a larger bit of fabric within which to measure, which means you might lose that half-a-stitch that would otherwise creep into your 4”/10cm measurement across - and a half a stitch in 4” means 5 stitches in 40” around a sweater, which could be an inch or more off. Might not sound like much, but believe me - it’s the difference between your sweater fitting beautifully or not. Between your fabric being just the right density, or being too stiff or too loose. Those half stitches matter! And the way you’re going to be able to see that is by knitting a swatch that is larger than 4”/10cm across.

So if your gauge says 24 sts = 4”/10cm, CAST ON MORE THAN THAT. Doesn’t really matter how many more, as long as it’s materially more. In this case, 4 more stitches would be a bare minimum. I’d be more likely to cast on 32 or 36 or 40 for a swatch at this gauge. Be generous with yourself - those longer rows are more pleasurable to knit, anyway.

And while you’re at it, make sure your swatch is also tall enough - row gauge matters too! Sometimes different needle sizes will generate a bigger difference in row gauge than stitch gauge. And a too-tight row gauge means you’re eating up yarn faster than the pattern calls for, so you might run out before you’re done…! Or it might mean your fabric is too dense. So check your row gauge as well; at the very least, it’s a good indicator that you’re on the right track, fabric-wise. I try to go until my swatch is nearly square, or until I’ve done about 10 rows more than the row gauge on the pattern over 4”/10cm.

This is the first in a series of posts in praise of swatching, and how to make it really work for you. More in the coming weeks!