Please read this! You’ll need to know it later.
A gauge swatch is simply a square of knitting that measures about 12.5 cm/5 inches square that allows you to check and see if your stitch and row count matches that required by the pattern.
Why do I need this?
Well, the truth is that not only does every person knit at a slightly different gauge, but different yarns and even needle materials in different combinations will create different gauges. Honestly, you may have a different gauge than yourself if you pick up your knitting after a long hiatus. So, in order to ensure proper fit, designers provide a gauge for the pattern in number of rows and stitches per a certain measurement in a given stitch pattern (usually Stockinette.)
At some point, you will need to do this, and I highly recommend you do unless the designer deems it unnecessary (which the pattern will clarify.)
You could even make a gauge swatch as your first project, just so you can get the hang of the basic stitches.
However, the Building Blocks Cowl does not require you to make a gauge swatch, so it is perfect for diving in and feeling productive all at once.
Gauge and Tension
You can create compact knits by using a smaller needle than usual for your chosen yarn weight, and airier knits by going up a needle size or three. Your personal knitting tension also makes a difference on your stitch size, which is why it is so important to make a gauge swatch for projects that require it. (Imagine completing a sweater that is completely unwearable because you didn’t want to “waste the time” required to check your gauge. Unfortunately, I don’t have to imagine. Trust me, this is not a place you want to go to.) If you have more stitches and rows than the pattern gauge, go up a needle size. If you have less, go down.
Making the Swatch
Most gauges are done in Stockinette Stitch and are often given for a measurement of 10 cm/4 inches. (When reading yarn label recommended gauges, it is for Stockinette Stitch.) Stockinette Stitch simply means knitting one direction and purling back.
Cast on what you estimate will be enough stitches to make a 12.5 cm/5 inch row (based on the pattern’s or yarn label’s gauge), do 3-5 rows of Garter Stitch (knit every row), then switch to Stockinette Stitch (knit one way, purl the other.) After you have worked about 12.5 cm/5 inches of Stockinette Stitch, work 3-5 rows of Garter Stitch and bind off. (Garter Stitch at the top and bottom helps the swatch to lay flatter for counting. I also like to do one stitch on each end that is Garter Stitch all the way up—meaning, knit the first and last stitches on your purl side.)
You do NOT need to actually break the yarn if you don’t want to waste the yarn used in your swatch. You can unravel the swatch after measuring and use that yarn in your project. However, you need to bind off before counting because you will not get an accurate count while the work is still on the needles. (If you keep the swatch you can use it for future reference if you use that yarn/needle combination again, or even stitch a bunch of swatches together to make a patchwork blanket.)
See the next section for tutorials on how to Cast On, Knit, Purl, and Bind Off.
Flatten the swatch and lay a ruler along a row or column. Count the stitches and rows in the pattern’s given measurements. Count half or quarter stitches—this is especially important on yarns that are worsted weight or larger, and for larger projects like sweaters. These partial stitches can make a big difference in fit when multiplied around an entire project.
For more information about how to count stitches and rows, see my tutorial about reading your knit and purl stitches.