You probably know that we’re big fans of swatching here at Berroco, but maybe you don’t understand why. What’s the big deal? “Swatches always lie,” right? Who has time to swatch, just get to the fun part! But believe it or not, swatching is an integral part to knitting and crochet projects that have to fit a body part. You can 100% skip a swatch for a scarf or a shawl (although I would argue that swatches can still impart valuable, time-saving information even for accessories), but if you want a garment to fit, swatching is crucial. Not convinced? Maybe this post will help.
This summer, I asked for volunteers from our Ravelry group to help me out with an experiment. The deal was, I would send them a ball of Berroco Ultra Wool, and they would in turn send me back a swatch knit with size 8 (5mm) needles, to my specifications. Everyone knitted a swatch that was 24 stitches across, with 5 rows of garter, followed by 25 rows of stockinette with 3 garter stitches on each side, followed by 5 more rows of garter. The result was 24 swatches made with identical yarn on the same needle size by 23 different knitters.* As I expected, the results were illuminating!
I ran a similar experiment with crocheted swatches. But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the knitted ones, because I have a larger sample size and the results were fairly similar in both cases.
As I expected, there was quite a wide range of sizes across all the swatches that I received. The largest swatch was over an inch larger in each direction over the smallest one.
For the purposes of the data, I measured only the stockinette portion of the swatches, not the garter stitch border. Also, while the garter stitch border does distort the stockinette stitch portion a little bit, I’m not very worried about that in this case, as I would expect that to be more or less consistent across all swatches. I measured across the middle of the swatches.
After carefully measuring each swatch to the nearest 1/8 inch, I put all the data into a spreadsheet and crunched some numbers.
I have highlighted the ball band gauge in the results, which I’ve sorted by stitch gauge. The knitters at the top of the list have the loosest gauge, while those at the bottom are the tightest. This provides a good reminder that your width and your stitches per inch are inversely proportional; that is, the smaller your swatch, the more stitches you can fit into each inch, and if you were trying to reach a specific gauge, and have too many stitches per inch, you would likely want to go up a needle size or two.
Predictably, the ball band gauge is right in the middle. You may wonder how we determine the recommended gauge for Berroco’s yarn labels. As the yarns are swatched by the design team, we try out different tensions to find a nice even tension for the yarns. Sometimes there is a range of gauges that we choose to list on the label, when a yarn looks and feels nice at multiple gauges. The final determination of the official gauge is made by our design director Amy Christoffers. However, the needle size we list on the label, and the “official gauge swatch” that we keep in our files, is from our technical writer Brenda York, whose tension tends to be right in the middle, not very loose or very tight.
In the last two columns, I’ve listed the percentage difference for each swatch over or under the ball band gauge. If we look at the stitch gauge column, we have six knitters who got the ball band gauge with the recommended needle. But the majority—18 out of 24—did not. I am in the group who did not; my swatch was 7% tighter than the ball band gauge. That may not seem like a lot—I was only off by about a quarter of a stitch per inch! But, if I were making a size 45″ sweater for myself, it would wind up being about 3″ smaller than the intended size.
Another interesting statistic to look at is the variation in row gauges. As you see in the table above which is sorted by stitch gauge, the row gauges column does not follow exactly the same pattern as the stitch gauge column. That means that different knitters had a different ratio of stitches to rows, and I added a column for that ratio. This is another area where knitters often fudge their gauge results; we’ll make sure we’re getting the correct stitch gauge, but if the row gauge is off we might not worry too much about it. And that is okay for the most part—most patterns are written with the lengths listed for sections rather than the rows. But you can run into trouble if your ratio is very different from the pattern’s when it comes to things like raglans and sleeve caps, and even picking up stitches for a button band or collar.
Surprisingly, while we had six knitters match the stitch gauge, not a single one matched the row gauge in our sample! In an ideal world, our official Berroco swatcher Brenda would be exactly in the middle of all knitters, a perfect average, but this just goes to show that we really all do knit differently.
In conclusion, ladies and jellyspoons, SWATCH! At least when you are making something that you want to fit. And then keep measuring your gauge throughout the knitting process, because I bet if I asked these same 24 knitters to make me another identical swatch on a different day we’d get 24 new sets of numbers. Swatch, but always remember that swatches lie.
* Our friend Gabi, ever the over-achiever, sent in two knitted swatches made using different brands of needles. I want to do a whole other experiment where knitters make 2 or 3 swatches using the same yarn, same needle size, but different needle brands/materials, to see how that can affect gauge. But that is for another time.