Gauge Swatch 101: Ensuring You Have Enough Yarn for Your Knitting Project

Knitting Patterns

If you are working on a special project and are concerned that you might run out of yarn there are a few things you can to do safe guard against it. The first thing you can do is buy extra yarn. Many places have a friendly return policy or will hold a skein aside for you in the event that you need it. If you have a deadline and very special knitting to do like a wedding or baptism knitting project it’s best to buy extra yarn and sell it or trade it if you don’t end up using it. Always ensure that you have set aside enough yarn for your project. It will save you a lot of heartache, frustration, time and money to plan ahead.

Recently I have added a disclaimer that I’ve added to my patterns on ravelry. It states:

Yarn substitution may result in a change in estimated yardage, gauge and finished size of your individual project.

Why did I add that? Because we’re all human, no one is perfect and no two people are exactly alike. Each and every person knits a different way. I even discovered that two people, using the same pattern, yarn, and knitting needles can create a knitted sample where one uses 80 yards more than the other!

Gauge is fluid. It’s like reading mile markers on the highway. It helps guide you in the right direction toward completing a knitting project favorably but there are a number of factors that can change your gauge, and specifically how much yardage is used in your project.

The first thing you can do to avoid running out of yarn is use the yarn specified in the pattern. If you don’t want to do that or it’s not practical to do so, it is perfectly fine to substitute yarn in your knitting project. However, you should educate yourself on HOW to substitute a yarn.

For example, an inelastic yarn will take up much more yardage than an elastic yarn. And this includes yarns that have only a percentage of inelastic yarn mixed with elastic fiber! If the yarn specified in the pattern calls for 100% wool and you use 90% wool and 10% alpaca, and your gauge is perfect, you will still need more yarn! Why? Inelastic yarns do not stretch like wool. And if the yarn does not stretch, you will not be able to block it to the same size as a project made with wool.

This is not a comprehensive list, but some examples of inelastic fibers include all the cellulose fibers such as Silk, Linen, and Hemp. Alpaca falls into the category as well as tencel, bamboo, cotton and rayon. Basically any fiber that does not have “give” or stretch will fall into the heading of an inelastic fiber.

An elastic fiber is going to be something that has memory, drape, and can stretch when you wet it other wise known as blocking. Different breeds of wool are going to have varying amounts of memory and stretch, which is closely related to the crimp of the fiber.

To give you an idea of how commercial yarn is generated, Colonial wool is made when mills buy up lots (like an auction) of wool fiber from various farmers and mix it all together to make yarn. The quality of the wool (which can affect yarn memory) will vary by season according to the animal’s health, age, and even the elements. So the generic wool you buy one year may have different stretching qualities than the next!

Even with elastic fibers, there is no guarantee that you will use the same amount of yardage using the same starting conditions! Why? Gauge is certainly one issue, but so is twist. The yarn on the left has a tight twist, which makes it harder wearing. The amount of twist compared to the yarn on the right is quite firm and tight, with more twists per inch. The yarn on the right has a looser twist, which means it’s going to drape more, be softer, and sometimes a looser twisted yarn will pill when shorter fibers work themselves out of the yarn.

You’ve probably seen this with cashmere (a very short fiber) and you definitely see pilling in a single ply yarn that undergoes friction where twist isn’t locking the fibers into place. A tighter twisted yarn is denser, so by weight you will require more of it to complete a project than you will a loosely twisted yarn. Hand spun yarns are also denser than commercial spun because they are made by human hands, not a machine. Hand spun yarns also usually require more yardage by weight than a commercial spun yarn to complete a project.

So what now? Well, measuring gauge is a good place to start. Specifically if you are knitting to fit. If you are using 2000 yards to knit a sweater, it’d be a good idea to measure your gauge first so that you don’t have a rude awakening after your sweater has hit the water and is too large or too small after approximately 10,000 hours of knitting time.

To measure gauge, you need to knit a generously sized swatch. Wash it the way you intend on washing the finished project, and allow it to dry before measuring. I really like the way Faina Goberstein addresses gauge swatches in her Craftsy Class on Sizing Knitwear Patterns.

Also I’ve written an article about how to knit a gauge swatch which you can read here.

Gauge Swatch 101

What do you do if your gauge swatch is too small?
Rework your gauge swatch a second time on a larger needle. Repeat as necessary.

What do you do if your gauge swatch is too large?
Rework your gauge swatch a second time on a smaller needle. Repeat as necessary.

What do you do if your Row gauge has too many rows?
Your yarn is too skinny, consider working the project with a different yarn or accept that the project will use up more yardage.

What do you do if your Row gauge has too few rows?
Your yarn is too fat (I know, I know), consider working the project with a different yarn or accept that the project could use up more yardage.

What if your gauge changes mid project?
Elizabeth Zimmermann addressed it best in Knitting without Tears. To summarize, she had a special project set aside for when she was angry and needed to knit. You see even, emotional outlook can change your gauge! And if gauge switching can happen to Elizabeth, it can happen to any of us! So stay aware of your needles and be present in the moment to stay “in gauge.”

I really like what Robin Hunter says about Row gauge in her post on How to Become a Professional Knitter called Beware of Sound Bites. In fact, have a look through all of Robin’s informational posts, I think you’ll learn a lot about yarn, knitting, and the yarn industry in general.

Well now that you’ve been educated on Swatching and Yarn content while substituting yarns I’ll give you some hope on what you can do when the worst happens and you have run out of yarn! There are some great tips in my article What to do when you think you might run out of yarn and I’d like to add one more. If you’re down to the last few stitches on a knit on edge and you run out of yarn there are two additional options, you can simply finish up with a closely matching yarn you have in your stash, or if you are an advanced knitter, you may consider simply grafting the edge stitches with the live main body stitches.

I have found that the most beautiful projects come about when something unexpected happens and I have to shift gears mid stream to come up with a new plan for finishing. Some of my absolutely favorite shawls knit from my patterns have a knit on edge knit using a different, contrasting yarn. It really makes that bold edge “pop” in a new and eye catching way.

What it boils down to is we knit for different reasons. To give something hand made with love to a dear friend, to clothe a new baby, to adorn a bride, to find the perfect fitting sweater, to enjoy color, to enjoy the process, and to actively create something wonderful in our lives. I hope you enjoy the process and embrace the humanness of the act. We aren’t perfect and don’t produce or create the same way that machines do, and that’s part of beauty of knitting.

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