Learn all about how to knit a swatch and why you should always swatch before you start a knitting project!
If you’re new to knitting, you may have heard swatches mentioned but you don’t really know how to knit a swatch or why you even should. Don’t worry, that’s totally normal and I think swatches have kind of a bad rap.
We all know the feeling of starting a new knitting project. You’re excited. You have all the supplies. You’re dreaming of enjoying the finished work. You just want to start NOW. So it can be kind of a downer to have slow down and do prep work before you begin. No one wants to spend an hour knitting a swatch that won’t even be part of the final project. I get it.
But there are several reasons that knitting swatches is important.
Why do I need to knit a swatch?
- To make sure your knitting project will turn out the right size
- To make sure you like the yarn you are using
- To practice any tricky stitches or techniques in the pattern
- To see how your knitting will react to being blocked
If you haven’t yet read my guide to knitting gauge, that is a very thorough article that explains that knitting gauge is the way to measure how large your knitting stitches are and to calculate how large your finished project will be.
You need your finished project size to be the same as the knitting pattern designer’s finished project size so that it fits you. There is nothing worse than knitting a whole big project only to find out it’s the wrong size at the end. There’s not much you can do at that point besides start over. Ugh.
The solution to sizing problems? Swatching!
Can I skip knitting a swatch?
You can skip knitting a swatch when:
- you don’t care what size the finished knitting project will be.
- that’s it.
I’m kind of being facetious, but honestly there are some kinds of knitting projects where the finished project size is not that important. For example, my heart shaped handwarmers or knit Christmas trees. It won’t be the end of the world if your finished size doesn’t match mine. So you can skip swatching if you want to live dangerously.
What supplies do you need to knit a swatch?
- The same yarn you will make your project with
- The same knitting needles you will make your project with
- The knitting pattern you will be using with the specified knitting gauge on it
- A ruler or gauge measure tool
- Blocking supplies if you will be blocking your swatch (most swatches)
What variables affect the size of my swatch?
These things can affect the size of your swatch and thus your gauge measurements:
- The knitting needle size
- The yarn weight/thickness
- Number of stitches
- The stitch pattern (ex. garter vs. stockinette)
- Whether you’re knitting flat or in the round
- Your knitting tension
You usually cannot control the last four because they are either specified by the pattern (number of stitches, flat/round and stitch pattern) or constant (your tension). So when you are swatching the things to pay attention to and adjust are knitting needle size and yarn weight.
How do I choose a needle size and yarn weight for my swatch?
Start with whatever needles and yarn the pattern recommends. The only exception is, for example. if you KNOW you are always a very tight or loose knitter and always need to use larger or smaller needles, then you can start there.
Knitting needle size is the biggest and easiest way to change the size of your stitches and thus the size of your swatch. Look at these two swatches below. They are the same number of stitches and rows but I knit the top one with US 7 (4.5 mm) needles and the bottom with US 8 (5.0 mm) needles. That’s a pretty big size difference!
Keep in mind that yarn weight is also really important and can change not only the size of your knitting but the drape and feel etc. Don’t believe me? Here are two identical swatches I knit. Everything is the same, the number or stitches, the number of rows and the needle size. The only thing different is the yarn weight. The top swatch is knit with worsted weight yarn and the bottom swatch is knit with DK weight yarn. Worsted and DK don’t really seem that different when you look at them but they really made a difference here. The worsted swatch has my normal gauge of 20 stitches and 24 rows per 4 inches while the DK swatch has a gauge of 21 stitches and 27 rows per 4 inches!
So please make sure you choose a yarn as similar to the yarn used in the pattern as possible. Don’t substitute yarn of a different yarn weight!
How to Knit a Swatch
Again, when you are knitting a swatch, the goal is to replicate the finished knitting project as closely as possible. As covered in depth in my gauge article, gauge is usually measured over a length of 4 inches or 10 centimeter. You want to make your swatch bigger than that to avoid any distorted stitches near the edges and make sure your measurements are accurate.
Because of this you should knit your swatch to be at least 6″ x 6″.
Use the same knitting needles and yarn and the same stitch pattern as the project. For example, if your sweater will be knit mostly in seed stitch. Knit your swatch in seed stitch.
The other important variable is to pay attention to whether the pattern is knit flat or in the round and knit your swatch the same way. Believe it or not, that can affect your tension.
(Many people who swatch in the round, don’t actually knit their swatch on circular needles, just slide their work back to the left and carry the yarn around back. Then they cut the floats at the end. The key is that instead of knitting back and forth, you are only knitting in one direction. Here’s what a I mean. )
Do I need to block my swatch?
You should block your swatch if you will block your knitting project. For example, if you are knitting a hat and won’t block the hat, then don’t block your swatch. But if you are knitting a sweater or a lace shawl and will block it, you should block the swatch. It really does make a difference. Take a look at this comparison of two identical swatches where the top one is not blocked and the bottom one is! See how the blocked swatch is a little bigger?
How do I measure my swatch?
You can get a fancy gauge measuring ruler or you can use a regular ruler like I do. You can check out my gauge guide for more details but basically, measure in the middle of your swatch (not along any edges) set the ruler on top (as shown in the image above) and count the number of stitches (horizontal) or rows (vertical) that fit in 4 inches.
What should I do if my swatch gauge doesn’t match my pattern gauge?
If you measure the gauge of your blocked swatch and it matches your pattern, then you’re good to go, you can get started!
If your swatch gauge does not match the pattern gauge then you need to change something. Most of the time the easiest and most effective thing to change is your knitting needle size.
If your measured swatch knitting gauge has FEWER stitches per 4 inches or 10 cm than the gauge in the pattern, your stitches are too big. That means you need to try smaller needles to make your stitches smaller.
If your measured swatch knitting gauge has MORE stitches per 4 inches or 10 cm than the gauge in the pattern, your stitches are too small. That means you need to try larger needles to make your stitches larger.
Make the change and knit a new swatch (I know, that’s not very fun) and then measure again. Repeat until your gauge is correct.
Hopefully this got you on the swatching bandwagon and now you know how to knit a swatch and why knitting gauge is so important. Let me know if you have any more swatch knitting tips and tricks!
If you liked this, you may also like some of my other posts…
- Santa Trees Set Knitting Pattern - November 28, 2023
- Avoid These 2 Types of Craft Supplies At the Dollar Store! - November 9, 2023
- Really Reversible Hat Knitting Pattern - November 7, 2023