Knitting A Tension Square – Do You?

Swatches After Blocking

I did something truly incredible for my latest knitting project. I actually made full tension squares!

For those of you who don’t know, at the start of any knitting project, you should knit a 10x10cm swatch, using the recommended needle size and following the number of stitches and rows suggested by the pattern. (A good knitting pattern will always have directions for a tension square.) The square is to make sure that you’re using the right size needles to achieve your desired size of make – an exercise that could and should save you months of wasted work.

Ever spent half a year knitting a jumper, only to pull it over your head and realise it’s way too big? I have. You only make that expensive mistake once. (Or twice. Okay, maybe three times…)

Some of us knit tight; some of us knit loosely. I tend to knit loosely and often need smaller needles. Still, it’s rare for me to complete a full tension square. Who has the patience? I often knit half a tension square, take a few measurements, do some maths, work out whether or not I need to change needles, prostrate myself before the God of Knitting, hold a wet finger up to test the wind, cross my fingers and toes, set up a wool shrine, then launch in. Hey, what’s six wasted months between friends?

But on behalf of my readers and my own curiosity, this time I decided to do things the right way. What impact would different needles make? I went for two that were only 0.5mm different in circumference – 2.5mm and 3mm. Would 0.5mm really turn out such different results?

Knitting needlesFirst things first, my tension squares needed blocking. Below, you see them pre-block. Not exactly helpful.

Pre blockingI simply soak and wring out a clean tea towel to use as a damp pressing cloth with an iron on the wool setting. Nothing sophisticated going on here.

Blocking CollageOnce blocked, I pinned out my tension squares. Time for the tape measure. And… Wow, what a difference!

Small Swatch

Large SwatchThat’s 40mm variance in width. Though interestingly, my depth on the larger swatch remained close to the required 10cm:

Large Swatch DepthFor me, depth of knitting is less of a deal breaker than width. I can’t change the width my needles give me – how wide a jumper will be, for example – but I have more control over the depth of a jumper. I’ll just knit more or less rows!

So, I think this proves that it is definitely worth knitting a tension square. Can you imagine these differences over hundreds of stitches and transferred to a final make? Can you?! Of course, that’s not the question I really want you to answer. This is the question I really want you to answer:

Honestly. How often do you knit tension squares?

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72 Responses to Knitting A Tension Square – Do You?

  1. mepellymelly says:

    Never ever ever. I just cross my fingers!!

  2. Wow that is amazing! I have only knitted 3 full garments, and am on my 4th now. I did do a full square for a cardigan because I wasn’t using the recommended yarn, and TBH the rest I have only done half ones! Do you do different squares if you knit in the round, with all the crazy loops in the back?

    • LinB says:

      For a knit in the round, don’t do a square swatch. Do an in-the-round swatch for accuracy.

    • Catia says:

      I do the crazy loops in the back when swatching for knitting in the round. But it’s really annoying. Sometimes I just knit a swatch in the round.

  3. Miriana says:

    For adult clothes, yes. And I wash it and hang it with weights on. It’s a pain I the arse, but nowhere near as a garment that doesn’t fit.

  4. Miriana says:

    Oh, and if you knit them with a garter stitch border, they won’t curl

  5. Stephanie says:

    I have learnt the hard way, and so I always do a tension square. What I don’t do is block it. Never thought to, until I read something the other day that you should..

    But yes I always do one.

    • I didn’t either, till I knit a cable pattern that specified blocking the swatch. What an amazing difference! I’m glad I read the “fine print” because the sweater came out almost perfectly and it wouldn’t have otherwise. Now I block, just to play it safe.

  6. zilredloh says:

    Also… I should add… It’s not just your needle size but your needle type:

    Knitting with bamboo will make your tension square larger (yarn depending of course) vs. a metal or plastic knitting needle. There is more friction with the wool yarn going across a wood or bamboo knitting needle essentially making the fabric grow vs. a slick needle like a metal Addi.

    You have a two-fold tension square growth happening! The difference is astounding, no?!

  7. iribeiro says:

    I knit tension squares every time I knit a adult sized garment. I mean EVERY TIME!!! I keep chastising everyone in my knitting group that doen’t do it, and then complains the sweater is too small or too big. I never work with the yarn from the pattern, and usually completely change the yarn weight, so swatching is essential.TAnd even though the pattern says the number of stitches to get 4 inches, you should knit 6, you should be able to measure 4 inches in the middle, without rolling or wonky stitches. To keep your swatches flat work 3 rows in garter st, and keep a 3st garter edge at the sides, finish with another 3 rows of garter. Still, I have a confession to make, I knit the supposed st to get 6 inch, but only knit enought rows to get 3 inches.

    • Geo P says:

      I knit an L shaped swatch. After enough rows for 2-3 inches, I bind off half the stitches and knit the other half to 5-6 inches.

    • CAtia says:

      That’s how I do it! And still sometimes I get nasty surprises (my tension varies with time, probalby related to where I’m knitting: in the public transports on the way to work versus at home). Or it’s just that I relax as the works progresses. So it’s always a good idea to make a larger swatch. Also: I test 2-3 different needles sizes in the same swatch. That means I end up with a quite large swatch (I use garter stitch to separate the sections between different needle sizes).

  8. I’m one of those people who had not just one but two sweater knitting disasters due to no/poor tension prep. So I always always make sure to do one first now! As per your photos, the slightest variation in needle size can really make quite a big difference – and totally alter the fit.

  9. rillafree says:

    Oh, I never do tension squares! Bad, bad, bad, but I like to live on the edge 😉

  10. Alice says:

    I do swatch, but never a full one when knitting. Usually do about 5 cm high, but always do more stitches across so when you measure the tension, it doesn’t use the edge stitches so is more accurate apparently.

    In crochet I usually do the full size swatch, especially of a new stitch pattern, as it doesn’t take long and lets me practice.

    I have never blocked a swatch, or done the weighted hanging thing, because I just want to get making!

  11. del says:

    I do try to do enough of a square to find out if my stitches are going to be somewhere close to where they should be. And sometimes I’ll adjust something, like the number of stitches in either direction (if I don’t want to go with smaller or larger needles). Am amazed that I’m not the only one to do this! (Am feeling more justified & less guilty!) Most of what I do is crochet, so when I do knit, I have to pay close attention, or I goof up hugely. Your level of knitting is far above mine, and I enjoy seeing your lovely creations!

  12. Every time since I proudly handed over a cardigan made from £120 worth of silk yarn with ribbed sleeves that had taken me HOURS to my very slim mother and it was clearly two sizes too big…

  13. Ros says:

    Honestly, NEVER. But I only knit for myself and I’m pretty good at being able to tell whether something is going to fit me before I’ve got too far in.

  14. I always swatch but never the full thing. I just work an inch or two and then measure width. I’m with you in that I can adjust depth by adding or removing rows. Being short I always have to remove rows anyway. It is worth noting that when I swatch flat then work my garment in the round I have major tension diferences. It seems when I work round I knit far more loosely as there is usually no purling involved. I’ve recently started swatching in the round if I plan to work the garment round.

  15. i crochet but i never bother. it is only after 20+ years of sewing that i started basting and fitting as opposed to sewing and ripping. just this afternoon, i unraveled 6 hours of a crocheted blanket because i decided i didn’t like how it was coming. but that’s okay, i have 17 hours of lectures to sit through this week!

  16. Sara says:

    The first swatch is easy. It’s having to knit a second or third swatch that I try to get out of.

    • Catia says:

      I use at least 2 different needle sizes in the same swatch (usually 3). I just separate the different sections with garter stich rows.

  17. Kat says:

    Very rarely….but you know what? I will now!! 🙂

  18. Bella says:

    It’s so annoying when something you’re supposed to be doing (but don’t) turns out to be essential! Sigh! I’m like you and usually only knit a few rows, count up my stitches, and unravel again before merrily going my way. Often I feel a bit too low on yardage to waste it on a swatch, especially a blocked one! Looks like I’ll be swatching religiously from now on. Thanks for doing the research for me!

  19. Ruth D says:

    Always when I’m making clothing or something that needs to fit exactly like a pillow form or curtains but rarely when I’m making a blanket or a rug where I have a little more leeway.

  20. Hila says:

    Almost never. I calculate the stitches per inch then just start off with recommended needles and change needles as I go along if it has more or less. I do that until I get the right stitch per inch. Somehow I get there in the end.:).

  21. spikeabell says:

    ‘prostrate myself before the God of Knitting’…haha you do make me giggle. Like Ruth D, I do a swatch if it’s for a garment with a pattern. If for a scarf or such, no…but then I wouldn’t follow a pattern for a scarf. I don’t think I could cope with a too small cardigan. I’m such a slow knitter I would crumple from disspointment.

  22. Wendy says:

    Always, but never a proper, full sized and blocked swatch. I probably cast on about 30 stitches and knit a couple of inches, hoping the middle stitches will give me a ‘good enough’ idea of gauge.

  23. Sigrid says:

    The uncertainty of the fit of knitted garments makes me knit shawls instead (only started knitting again this year after a hiatus of 20 years). Never done tension squares but know I should when fit is required.

  24. Catia Mendes says:

    I always swatch. With more than one needle size. Until I get the tension right. I measure before and after washing, so I know what will happen to the garment after it’s washed for the first time.

  25. Carly says:

    I rarely knit a swatch as I usually use the same brand and yarn weight, but if I use a different one I (sometimes) knit a swatch. A good tip to prevent your swatches from rolling on themselves like crazy is knitting the edges in garter stitch, so the swatch lays flat and it’s easier to count rows and stitches! 🙂

    • LinB says:

      Yep-a-doodle. Also, if you are knitting in a patterned stitch, knit your swatch (with garter stitch edges) in at least one full repeat of the patterned stitch, to accurately calculate your gauge. Boring but needful, much as are hemming and marking fabric are for sewing.

  26. it depends what I’m knitting. If it’s a large item, such as a cardigan or jumper, then yes. If it’s a hat or gloves or anything like that where size is perhaps a touch less critical, I pretend that, because I’m using tried and true yarns on needles that are nearly as old as I am, I can just accept that my finished object will fit. I occasionally get nasty surprises 🙂

  27. Miss J says:

    Yes your’re doing the right thing and good on you! Yes, I do a tension swatch, but I so begrudge doing it! Also by the time the garment is finished, I’m peeved at having to sew it together. Perhaps knitting isnt my thing….

  28. joellestlaurent says:

    well. that proved a point… actually, i do usually knit a gauge swatch. but most definitely not my favorite part of knitting 😉

  29. Mairead says:

    I generally only swatch when I’m knitting a garment, and then I subscribe to the Yarn Harlot’s method of swatching. If the garment has sleeves, I will start with the sleeve and when its big enough measure for my tension. If I’m out, then I only have to frog a small bit of sleeve. If my tension is correct, then I’ve got the garment on to a good start. I know my tension is tight, and generally have to go up a needle size anyway, so that is what I always start with. For socks, scarves, hats etc, I don’t bother!

  30. Katherine says:

    I can _never_ be arsed to do one. (Probably the same as how I can never get the will do a muslin when I sew.) I’m almost always right on gauge no matter what, so it hasn’t been a problem in the 20 years I’ve been knitting. Only one sweater I’ve knit turned out stupid large, and I blame the wool I was using. . .

  31. LinB says:

    For socks, where I know my gauge in various yarns on various needles, I don’t bother. Finished item will fit someone, somewhere. (I average 30 pairs of socks a year.) Otherwise, I take a page from the book of Elizabeth Zimmerman and knit a cap in the pattern stitch I’ll be using — I almost always knit garments in-the-round, so a swatch-in-the-round makes sense. It’s easier to calculate gauge accurately from a larger sample. If I need the yarn I used in the cap I can ravel it later; if I don’t need the yarn later, I have a matching cap.

  32. symondezyn says:

    I’m kinda good cause I usually knit enough of a sample that I can measure easily, but I confess, I do not cast off or block because I live in fear that I’ll need the yarn I used for that swatch! LOL!

    That said, I’ve sometimes knit three or four samples trying to get gauge; I too knit loosely, however I purl tightly so if I’m knitting in the round, I have to actually knit in the round to check my gauge which can take forever! ^__^

  33. Colleen says:

    For small projects like hats and scarves I don’t bother–it’s just as easy to rip out and start again.

    For larger projects like sweaters and fiddly projects like mittens and gloves, especially if there’s colour work (the last learned the hard way) I swatch to save myself a lot of ripping back and a lot of frustration.

  34. Lucy says:

    I never do any tension squares! I haven’t knit that many garments, so through sheer luck I haven’t had a big disaster yet! I think if I was knitting something very labour intensive I would make myself do one…or at least part of one 😉

  35. ipires says:

    I’ve done so a few times, but even then things can go awry! I did one for the jumper currently on my needles so lets keeps all fingers crossed I got the maths right! 🙂

  36. pastryelf says:

    To me, it’s like asking if I make muslins…. I don’t like it, but it makes for a much improved chance of a successful outcome. I have found that it is ALWAYS worth it to make a muslin or a gauge swatch.

  37. Emily says:

    I knit half a swatch. The minimum possible to do the maths to see if I’m on track. Then I rip it out, I’ve never been good enough to test wash swatches. The only fitting disasters I’ve had have been due to not taking proper measurements/failing to look at the finished garment measurements in the pattern, not tension issues. So my ‘knit a few rows, see how it goes’ works ok for me!

  38. Claire says:

    I never used to swatch but do now, for jumpers and cardi’s. I don’t knit a whole square though. I knit 2 or 3 inches but more than the stiches stated so I can measure in the middle of the line. I then usually pin the swatch onto a cushion or my sofa (horror!) and measure it. If the tension isn’t correct I just continue on the same swatch with different size needles. I always unravel my work to then start my project. Maybe I’m just tight? I don’t want to waste my yarn….or I may need it to finish my project?

    • R says:

      I only recently found out that you’re supposed to knit more stitches than the square to make it more accurate – eg if the square is supposed to be 16 stitches wide, cast on 20 and measure from 2 in each side, not sure if this gets you out of blocking though.

  39. barbara says:

    I always knit swatches. But then I often don’t know what to do: either the width is correct or the depth, but which is more important?

    • R says:

      ha, I have that too (in my very limited experience), someone advised me to go for width rather than depth, as often instructions are less for rows and more “knit until it’s 20cm long” etc, so it will be more accurate that way.

  40. susew says:

    I always knit a swatch, usually more than 4 inches square and have learned that swatches lie, sometimes. My tension changes once I’m knitting a much larger piece. I’ve done that too, knitting the sleeve first, since it means less ripping if it doesn’t work out.

  41. susew says:

    Oh I’ve learned that row gauge matters when knitting a raglan sleeve or top-down cardigan. My Miette cardigan was turned into a bottom up, set-in sleeve version when my row gauge was off.

  42. Eileen says:

    I’ve never knit a tension square! Part of that is likely because I’ve never knit anything for myself more complicated than a pair of mittens. I’ve knit baby sweaters but, you know, it’s a baby. Does fit really matter that much? I think part of the reason I’ve never done it before is because I’ve never been sure what exactly I’m supposed to do about it if my tension is off, but with our 0.5 mm difference needle demonstration, I guess I could just size up or size down….

  43. Loredana says:

    I have never made a tension square and suffered the consequences. After reading your blog post, i hope that i have learnt my lesson!

  44. Julia says:

    Never! But I measure obsessively while I’m making my garment, try it on if poss, measure more and generally ignore row count if it fits.

  45. accordion3 says:

    I do not knit, crotchet, tatt, or quilt. My mother knits, I sew.

  46. Catherine says:

    Always 🙂 I am SUCh a slow knitter it would be too too too depressing for the garment not to fit at the end of it all! I put the tension squares in a box with some leftover yarn, all attached to a card with notes about the garment…. ready for later darning….

  47. triggsey says:

    Yes I do…I’m not that confident a knitter so I want to do everything I can to not screw it up!

  48. Kim Morrison says:

    I have never knitted a tension square for a project. Like most people I just could not be bothered! But up until now I’ve never knitted something I’m actually going to wear and it would matter (most things before have been toys/scarfs). I’m currently making a cotton jumper kit with chunky cotton yarn and after reading this post I totally got the fear and measured it up. Turns out I’m bang on (thank you knitting gods for that luck), but one of my next project is a full sleeved jumper from Mollie Makes, and as it’s the most important/hard thing I’ve ever knitted, it will definitely be getting a tension square! My current jumper is going to be blocked which is a first too!

  49. Jenna says:

    Never ever, and neither does my Mum or my Gran who both taught me to knit so I never really thought about it much until I started reading more blogs. I know I ought to but I don’t, I have only had a couple of disasters though so maybe that makes me more complacent. Perhaps I will from now on!

  50. Trixie Lixie says:

    I never knit a tension square and almost always my knitting projects are tooooo big!

  51. Karen, i didn’t think I should knit a tension square when I made a cardi because… I was using the suggested yarn… How wrong! My sweater is now too big!

  52. Twilight says:

    I have never knitted a tension square until my recent 3 makes. I actually only then realized how important they are. And I’ve been knitting for a long time…With the last (still unfinished) one, I didn’t have the recommended size circular needles and know from experience that I won’t find a larger size in one of our local shops. So I used the smaller size needles, but sized up one size in the pattern. Eeek. Hope that works…

  53. surfjewels says:

    I’m not sure I ever have knitted a tension square, it’s one of those things I should do, as like you I start knitting and pray and hope it turns out ok and never really know until I have spend months on it. A bit like making muslins, I know I should really, and would if I was using a really expensive fabric or something I really didn’t want to ruin, but normally I must admit I just go for it with the actual fabric…I think it’s just because I’m not a fan of spending all that time making something that won’t become anything, but no doubt does pay off in the long run.

  54. Michelle says:

    I’m currently learning (re-learning) how to knit. I’ve never done tension squares in the past but I am now in the process of making a throw the the aid of Art of Knitting magazines. I did 3 swatches without doing tension squares so this time I am trying to do them before proceeding. My question when doing a tension square which has two different stitches i.e. garter and stocking stitches, should I knit the whole pattern including the top and bottom edges which is garter stitch. My width seems to be fine but my lengths are all over the place

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