So you can’t be bothered to knit a tension swatch?!

Big mistake!  Huge!  But a lesson that can be learned.  And hopefully not the hard way.

Last year I was knitting a cardigan all in one piece for the first time.  It was a test knit and so the pattern wasn’t necessarily going to be correct from beginning to end.  It was also knitted in lace weight which I hadn’t used before.  So plenty of room for errors to creep in.  And yet I boldly dived straight in without so much as a tension swatch behind me.  Oh dear, oh dear.

Weeks later I was coming towards the end of the pattern and it became obvious that I wasn’t going to have enough yarn to finish.  So I forked out another £12 (yes, very expensive yarn) for an additional skein and plodded on through to the end.  And here it is, hours and hours of work but it looks gorgeous, right?


What you can’t quite see is that the reason my arm is behind my back is to hold in all the extra material that I didn’t need.  Yep, I knitted the cardigan way too big.  I was in despair at the thought of all those hours knitting to end up paying unnecessarily for extra yarn and then never to wear the cardigan because it was just too big.  So I resorted to something I would NEVER recommend – I washed my hand wash only jumper in the machine and then put it in the tumble dryer!  I was extremely lucky that the gamble paid off.  I now wear my cardigan with pride knowing how much blood, sweat and tears went into it.  But it could have all turned out so disastrously wrong.  And the reason?  Needle size.

If I had knitted a correct tension swatch to begin with I would have known to adjust my needle size, I wouldn’t have wasted money on extra yarn and I certainly wouldn’t have waited, sick to my stomach with worry, whilst my tumble drier did its worst to my very expensive piece of work.

Now, I always thought knitting a tension swatch involved just knitting a 10cm by 10cm square of stockinette stitch in the yarn that you are going to use, with the needles you will be casting on with and Bob’s your Uncle.  Wrong again.  During my recent module of my City and Guilds I finally learnt the correct way to knit a tension square.  And here is one I made earlier in the best Blue Peter style!


So now let me explain.  On each ball of yarn you buy there will be tension information.  It usually gives you general information about how many stitches and rows you will need for a 10cm by 10 cm square when knitting in stocking stitch.  Like this:


For this yarn I could expect to knit a 10x10cm square on 4mm needles, 22 stitches and 30 rows.  But what if I am a particularly loose or tight knitter?  What if I am using a different stitch pattern?

To test this you should cast on at least 30 stitches and knit around 8-10 rows.  Then swap your yarn for a contrast, knit two rows in that and then switch back to the original yarn.  This will create a contrast band such as in the above swatch.  Knit for 15 rows in this main colour yarn.  On row 16, knit 3 stitches, use the contrast colour to knit the 4th stitch.  Continue the row as normal until the 4th stitch from the end, use the contrast colour to knit this stitch and then knit the final 3 stitches in the main colour.  Continue to knit only in the main colour until you have completed 30 rows, switch back to the contrast colour for two rows and finish off with 8-10 rows in the main colour again and cast off.  You should now have a swatch that looks something like the one above.

Now you know exactly how many stitches and rows you have between the contrast colour.  You can measure this area to see if it really is 10x10cm.  If it isn’t you are now in a position to adjust your needle size accordingly.  Too small an area and you will need to use a larger needle size, too big an area and you will need to use a smaller needle size.

The yarn you are using will make a difference too.  This swatch was knitted in mohair which I found really challenging!


Remember, if you are using a stitch pattern in the item you are going to knit then your tension square must be knitted using the same stitch.  It really can make a huge difference.  This swatch was knitted in garter stitch instead of stocking stitch.  I needed another 8 rows to reach the 10cm!  If you are using more than one stitch pattern you will need to do a tension swatch for each.


Since making my cardigan I always swatch, but I was doing it wrong.  I would knit a 10x10cm square and if I was out I wouldn’t know how many rows I had knitted or by how many stitches I was out.  This way I know exactly.  Have you been convince to try it next time you are casting on a new project?


2 thoughts on “So you can’t be bothered to knit a tension swatch?!

  1. jillyrosie says:

    As a beginner knitter, I found this really useful information and I will give it a try. Love your cardigan. (Jilly from Fabrilushus)

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