What is knitting a test swatch and why do you do it?

Knitting a test swatch is an important step in the knitting process, especially when following a specific pattern or when using an unfamiliar yarn.

A test swatch is a small sample piece of knitting, usually a square, that you create before starting your main project. You can also use it to test a pattern (for instance my purl is much looser than my knit, and it helps to know how much I have to adjust).

The primary purpose of a swatch is to determine your gauge, which is the number of stitches and rows per inch (or centimetre) that you knit with a particular yarn and needle combination.

Patterns usually specify a gauge, which indicates how many stitches and rows should fit into a 10 cm (4-inch square with the recommended yarn and needles.

Matching this gauge is crucial for your finished project to have the dimensions and fit intended by the pattern.

To knit a test swatch, cast on enough stitches to create a square that’s slightly larger than 10 cm (4 inches), usually around 12.5 to 15 cm (5 to 6 inches wide), and knit in the pattern’s recommended stitch until the piece measures 12.5 to 15 cm (5 to 6 inches in height).

After completing the swatch, you should wash and block it (if that’s what you’ll do with the finished project) to allow the yarn to settle into its final state.

Then, measure the number of stitches and rows in the middle of the swatch over a 10 cm (4-inch) area.

If your gauge matches the pattern’s recommendation, you can start your project with the needles you used for the swatch.

If your gauge is off (too many or too few stitches per inch), you’ll need to adjust by using different size needles and possibly knitting another swatch to recheck the gauge.

Without a test swatch, you risk your project being the wrong size or having an unexpected fit. This is particularly important for garments and fitted items.

What can you learn from your swatch other than gauge?

You’ll learn how to work with the yarn, how it feels and how it behaves, allowing you to work on your technique before you go into a project.

This can be especially beneficial with large projects that have intricate patterns.

You also get to see what the pattern will look like in this yarn and texture, allowing you to decide if you like it or not.

Swatches aren’t magic and they can lie to you, because once you move into making a larger project, things can change.

Swatches are still a great opportunity for you to learn the yarn, the pattern and gain some confidence.

Blocking it and treating it exactly as you’re going to treat your final project will give you the most accurate information possible.

How to knit a test swatch

Knitting a test swatch is a straightforward process, but it’s an essential step for ensuring your final knitting project turns out as expected. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to knit a test swatch:

  1. Choose yarn and needles: Use the same yarn and needles that you plan to use for your project. This ensures that your swatch accurately reflects the gauge you’ll get in your actual knitting.
  2. Review the pattern gauge: Check the knitting pattern for the recommended gauge, usually given in stitches and rows per centimetres (or inch). The gauge will often be specified over a 10 cm (4-inch) square.
  3. Cast on: Cast on enough stitches to create a swatch wider than the gauge width. For a 10 cm (4-inch) gauge, you might cast on enough stitches for a 12.5 to 15 cm (5 or 6-inch) wide swatch. This allows you to measure the stitches away from the edges, where the tension might be different.
  4. Knit the swatch:
    • Begin knitting in the pattern specified (stockinette, garter, etc.) for your project.
    • If the pattern doesn’t specify, stockinette stitch (knitting one row, purling the next) is commonly used.
    • Make sure your swatch is tall enough to measure the gauge height. Aim for a height similar to the width 12.5 to 15 cm (5-6 inches).
  5. Bind off: Once your swatch reaches the desired size, bind off all stitches loosely to avoid pulling the edge tight.
  6. Wash and block:
    • Wash the swatch the same way you will wash the finished project. This is important as yarn can behave differently after washing.
    • After washing, lay the swatch flat to dry. Pin it into shape if necessary (especially important for lace or detailed patterns).
  7. Measure gauge: Once your swatch is dry:
    • Lay it flat without stretching it.
    • Use a ruler or a knitting gauge tool to measure the number of stitches and rows over 10 cm (4 inches) in the centre of the swatch.
    • Count carefully, as even a half-stitch difference can matter, especially for larger projects.
  8. Adjust needle size if necessary:
    • If you have more stitches per inch than the pattern calls for, try a larger needle size to make fewer, larger stitches.
    • If you have fewer stitches per inch, try a smaller needle size for more, smaller stitches.
    • After changing needles, you may need to knit another swatch to check the gauge again.

Remember, the effort you put into a test swatch can save you time and yarn in the long run, ensuring that your finished project fits well and looks great.