Swatching & The Art of Project Management

a red stockinette stitch gauge swatch with a label

You’ve got a sweater project on the needles. It has a round yoke and is knit top-down. Isn’t it great that you can try it on as you go… uh-oh… it doesn’t fit. But I did it all properly! I made a gauge swatch! Why is this happening to me? My swatch lied!

And into time-out the project goes. Thrown into a bag in the corner, abandoned as another project gone wrong.

Setback aside, I’m here to tell you a hard truth. Are you ready for it?

Your swatch can’t lie. It is just a piece of fabric, after all.

So, how do we make swatches that work for us, instead of against us?

What is a swatch?

A swatch is, by definition, a sample or collection of samples, usually of fabric.

Often, we name our swatches according to their purpose. From largest to smallest, we have:

  • a quality reference sample, usually as a reference to the hand of the fabric—how it feels, how it drapes.
  • a gauge swatch or sett sample, as a reference of how many stitches or threads are in an area of cloth, and how they are arranged.
  • a colour swatch, as a reference of cloth colour.

photo of weaving swatches on paper with handwirtten notes

How big is a swatch?

A large sample can tell us more about the fabric than a small one and will more accurately reflect the fabric in the project. A small sample may only be able to tell us about the colour of the fabric, but a larger sample can tell us about the hand, the gauge, and the colour all at once. This is why the standard advice for swatches is bigger is better.

Quality Reference Sample

If you are designing your project from scratch, or you are substituting yarn in a pattern, this is the kind of sample you need. It should be big enough to tell you that the fabric has the qualities you need in the final project.

Ideally, a quality reference sample is big. It needs to be big enough to tell you about how the fabric behaves. If you are buying fabric, oftentimes these samples are available to buy no smaller than 8 inches x 10 inches.

a woven piece of cream fabric

Gauge Swatch

If you are following a pattern with the same yarn as specified in the pattern, the designer has already made decisions about the suitability of the fabric for the project. You will need to make a gauge swatch in order to make exactly the same fabric as in the pattern, but you do not need it to be as big as a quality reference sample.

This kind of swatch needs to be big enough to allow you to accurately measure gauge or sett. For example, if you are measuring your gauge or sett over a 4-inch square, then your sample needs to be at least 6-inches square to avoid any distortions in the fabric towards the edges.

Keep in mind that the size of yarn matters here, so if the yarn is fine, you may be able to accurately measure gauge or sett over 1 inch. If you are using bulkier yarn, you may be better off measuring gauge over a bigger area than the standard 4-inch square.

Making a swatch for a project

When we knit, crochet, or weave a swatch for a project, what we are doing is making a sample of fabric that is meant to be the same as what the fabric in the final project will be. Any deviation between our sample and our project introduces error. There is often wiggle room so that being a little bit off is not a big deal, but your mileage will vary from project to project so it is helpful to know what you (and your project) can tolerate to avoid setbacks like garments that don’t fit or playing yarn chicken. If you use the same yarn, the same tools, and the same techniques to make the swatch as you would for making the project, you should be okay.

A few tips:

  • If you’re knitting or crochet project is worked flat, work the sample flat. If the project is worked in-the-round, work the sample in-the-round.
  • Hold your tools the same way when making the sample as when making the project. Tension and gauge can change with different techniques, so it is worth watching out for. This can even impact colour dominance, so pay attention to how you handle your yarn colours, too.
  • If you can, weave your sample at the same width as the final project. It requires more effort to weave a wider warp, so weaving your sample at the same width allows you to get a feel for how physically challenging it is to weave the fabric you want.

knit cable swatches in dark brown yarn

The Big Finish

We will want to finish and handle the swatch in the same way as our project, but before we wash, steam, block, press, mangle, or otherwise finish our sample, we want to take some measurements. Yes, that is right—we want to take measurements both before and after finishing.

Fabric changes in the finishing. Some fabrics change more than others. Taking measurements before finishing is like capturing a snapshot of what the fabric is like as we are working it. Taking measurements after finishing reflects how the fabric will be in the finished project. Just which measurements to take will depend on what you are making but pay close attention to your gauge or sett.

If you are working on your project and the gauge of your project is not the same as the gauge of your swatch in its unfinished state, then your swatch is not a good representation of your project. Conventions are different between knitting, crochet, and weaving, so it is also worth diving deeper into how to follow patterns. Working measurements in knitting are often referring to finished measurements so you will need to know both your working gauge and your finished gauge to figure out how many rows to work.

Facing our hang-ups about swatching

We face internal barriers to swatching. Swatching and sampling use up precious yarn, and precious time, and we just want to get to making the thing! There are lots of different tips and tricks out there to make swatches that use as little of the yarn, and your time, as possible. Learning some of these techniques, like the faux circular swatch, can get you to the full project sooner.

Accurate swatching may just save your sanity in the long run. When we swatch we are getting to know the project and are better able to predict problems that might arise. And anticipating problems is an excellent way to avoid those pesky gumption traps.

Do you have swatches and projects that just don’t match? I admit that I have a few. Each time, I made assumptions and took shortcuts in projects that needed accuracy to ensure a good fit. Perhaps, in the forums, we can figure it all out together.

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