Sunday Lexicon – Swatch, Gauge, and Tension

Note: A day late, but for a very good reason! I got to spend a rare date day with my husband and totally forgot to post 🙂

We bitch, we moan, we cry, beg, rant, rave, plead, and promise. I don’t know a single person who enjoys swatching, but if you want your sweater, socks, or hat to fit you or the person you are making it for, it’s a necessity.

Swatch: A test square used to determine if your yarn, your needles or hook, and your stitching match up to that of the pattern designer. Although a swatch is usually 4″ by 4″, it’s often a good idea to make your square bigger so when it is washed and blocked, it will still be at least 4″. While you can make or use a tension square (a square with a 4″ x 4″ hole in the center), you can also measure 4″ with a ruler and place a pin to mark. Do this for each side, then start counting.

An Addi tension square. The holes are for checking the size of your needles. Vintage needles don't always have the size on them.

An Addi tension square. The holes are for checking the size of your needles. Vintage needles don’t always have the size on them.

Gauge: How many rows per inch and stitches per inch. Yarn weight, needle or hook size, and tension will all effect your gauge, which is why you should always swatch before beginning a fitted project.

Tension: How tight (or loose) a particular crafter’s stitches are.

Tension is most often affected by mood, especially with new yarn crafters. If you are anxious, angry, or worried, your stitches may be tighter than if you are relaxed. If you find that your hands are cramping after a short period, you may just be holding your yarn and hook/needles too tightly. Put your project down, take a few deep breaths, fix a cup of tea, and come back with a clearer mind. Of course, we all have those moments when we are knitting for sanity; that’s when you want to work on a project where gauge doesn’t matter so much, like a scarf or afghan.

What to do if your gauge doesn’t match the pattern gauge? If you have too many stitches and rows per inch, use a bigger hook or needle. Too few stitches and rows per inch, use a smaller hook or needle. If your stitches match up but your rows don’t, side with the stitch count. It’s easier to add a few rows here and there than it is to mess with stitch count.

If you are using a lighter weight yarn (such as DK when the pattern calls for worsted), you will likely need a larger hook/needles to compensate for the thinner yarn. A tight stitcher can also compensate with larger hook/needles. Likewise, if you are using worsted when a project calls for DK, or you are a loose stitcher, then using a smaller size should make up for it.

Always wash and block your swatch before checking the gauge. The yarn may shrink, the stitches may tighten or loosen, or you may find that the yarn you’ve chosen just doesn’t drape as well as you’d like after it is washed. Just because the pattern designer chose a particular yarn doesn’t mean you will like it too. You may prefer something softer, or perhaps something with a little more body. This is YOUR project, so it helps if you love your yarn. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with that skein, so make sure you want to be its friend before you invest all that time and effort.

And here is my cautionary tale regarding swatching: Friday On The Needles. The hilarious thing is that I wrote this post several days before I washed the hat. Yeah, following my own advice might be kinda klever.

Follow me over at Knit.Purl.Tink, my new home for my knitting adventures, tales of yarn woe, and reviews! As of August 1, all new content will be on the new blog, so I hope to see you there!