How to Make (or Break) Your Free & Easy Knitting Pattern

basket of colorful yarnEveryone loves “free” right? And free knitting patterns are everywhere on the internet. But for those of us who are beginning knitting again, or beginning for the first time, well, “easy” is a process.

It’s tempting to be pulled into starting a project that is a) too complicated or b) too big because the picture makes it look irresistible. That’s the photo’s job.  We have to hold onto our common sense, otherwise our “free” pattern will end up costing us a lot in time and wasted yarn.

Making your free & easy knitting pattern a success requires more than just a pattern that says it’s easy. It’s like beginning any new skill or subject. At first, you don’t even know what questions you should ask.

From gauge to texture and weight to the all important swatch, here are some important things to consider before diving in.

Is it actually “easy”?

A lot of things go into making a project “easy.”

  • Yarn. Does the pattern call for a smooth, not too small, not too slippery, yarn?  Nubby and fuzzy yarns can be soo tempting, but they’re rarely easy to work with.
  • Stitches. Does the pattern require you to read a chart or have a long series of row directions? Does it require any stitch techniques beyond simple knitting or purling? Look for the Stitch Pattern listed in the Gauge section. Stick to “Garter stitch” or “Stockinette Stitch” until you’re ready for a challenge.
  • Color. One color is easiest, two could be ok, more than that, not so much.
  • Supplies. If you’re using supplies you already have, instead of buying the yarn, needles etc, that’s recommended in the pattern, you’ll have to make sure they’re a good substitute. Even small changes in the sizes of the needles or yarn can make a huge difference in your result!  And not having the stitch markers, cable needles or other notions required will make your project much more difficult.
  • Read your pattern directions. If they’re hard to understand, the pattern may not be well written or it may be beyond your level of expertise. Pattern writers are only humans, sometimes an error sneaks past, but check to make sure it’s not your error first.

These are the basic ingredients for knitting success, but as any cook can tell you, prep work is essential.

Prep for success! Swatch!

You’ve got your beautiful pattern, your luscious yarn, & your needles. You can’t wait to cast on.


“What?? No! What do you mean I have to swatch first???”

Speaking as someone who’s ruined many a project & wasted a lot of time & yarn, yes, you have to swatch.

Swatching is generally not the most popular knitting activity, but if you don’t make the swatch, it probably won’t matter how “free” or “easy” the pattern is. You will probably end up with a misshapen or mis-sized project or never finish at all.

Instead, you will be frustrated because you invested a lot of time, and some money, into something that looks nothing like the picture at the top of your pattern.

Even if you have the exact same yarn, needles, etc. that are recommended by the pattern, you need to swatch.


Knitted Swatch

Appreciate the Swatch

As an experienced beginner, I have found that it’s very helpful to familiarize myself with the stitch pattern before beginning the actual project. The swatch is perfect for this.

Many times a stitch pattern that looks simple on the page doesn’t work out that way on the needles. Working out the kinks on a swatch is great for preventing frayed & fuzzy yarn in your final project.

One other thing, if you’re knitting your project in the round, make sure you swatch in the round, too. Ditto for knitting flat.

Remember, you can make your swatch any size you want, as long as it’s at least 4 inches wide.  Maybe your knitted tube swatch can become a sock or a Christmas stocking. A bunch of flat swatches can become a patchwork blanket.

No, swatches aren’t a waste of yarn, but do make sure you buy a little extra yarn. Running out just before the end of the project is heart-breaking!

Simple & Easy Swatching

Keeping with the easy theme, here’s my approach:

Let’s look at an actual pattern gauge: “26 sts & 38 rows = 4″ in St st on US 3 needles”

  1. Take the number of stitches listed in the gauge. 26 sts
  2. Add between 12 and 20 edge stitches – 20 in this example, because the number of stitches listed in the gauge is greater than 20. If the gauge listed 20 or fewer stitches, fewer edge stitches would be needed.
  3. Cast on your total number of stitches. In this case, since it’s over 20, I’m going to add 20 sts plus 26 sts = 46 sts to cast on.
  4. Knit in garter st (knit every row) for the first 4 or 5 rows, your choice.
  5. Set up rows, 4 or 5, Knit in St st.
  6. Row 1: knit 5 sts, knit 5 sts, pm, knit 26 sts in St st*, pm, knit 5 sts, knit 5 sts
  7. Row 2: knit 5 sts, purl 5 sts, knit 26 sts in St st*, purl 5 sts, knit 5 sts
  8. Repeat until you’ve reached the row # listed in the gauge – 38 in this example.
  9. Repeat set up rows. Knit in St st for 4 or 5 rows.
  10. Knit in garter st for 4 or 5 rows.
  11. Cast off, get your ruler & start counting the area that was between the markers. Remember to count stitches AND rows!

If your swatch is too small, use a larger needle. If it’s too big, switch to smaller needles. Make sure to make another swatch to check.

*When the gauge calls for Stockinette stitch, you could knit the even rows & purl the odd rows to make them stand out from the 20 edge stitches.

The Gauge Makes the Pattern

Take a look at your pattern “gauge” section. It will tell you how many stitches & rows per 4 inches, usually. It will also tell you which stitch pattern to use in your swatch.

If your knitting doesn’t exactly match the gauge, your project won’t match the pattern.

For example, you make your swatch & you’re off by maybe a third of a stitch. That means that by the time you’ve knitted 12 inches, your project has increased in size by one stitch.

If you’re knitting a blanket, maybe that won’t matter, just don’t expect the final dimensions to match the ones in the pattern.

If you’re knitting a hat, it could make the difference between a hat that fits snugly and one that keeps slipping down into your eyes.

(Easiest choice: Make a scarf & don’t worry about the gauge!)

Substitutions Happen

If you substitute a different yarn for the one called for in the pattern, it will look different. Yarn weight refers to the thickness of the yarn, not the ounces in the ball, hank, or skein that it comes in. A quick way to see if the weight matches is to check the gauge listed on the label of the yarn. If it matches, you’ve got a good weight match.

But weight isn’t everything. The fiber content of the yarn will affect the drape of the final fabric, which could make a BIG difference in how your project turns out. Your best bet is to match the fiber content between your substitute yarn and the one listed in the pattern as closely as possible.

Here’s the real kicker. Some yarn labels don’t provide the information you’re looking for. Try looking up the yarn on, a sort of yarn database, or going to the manufacturer’s website, or try looking it up on a yarn seller’s website. One of these, or a combination, will probably give you the information you need.

The best & easiest way to make or double check your substitutions is to go to your local yarn store (LYS) and ask. They’re experts on reading patterns, choosing yarn and needles. There might be a class or knit along (KAL) you could join that would help answer your questions. Knitting doesn’t have to a solitary hobby!

Finally, make sure you have enough yarn. Buy one or two extra balls/hanks/skeins. Make sure all the dye lot numbers on the yarn labels match.


Congratulations! You’ve read your yarn label, and your pattern’s gauge, stitch pattern and yarn sections. You made your swatch and got some practice in on your stitch pattern and working with your yarn.

If you’re still feeling anxious, you could ask someone at your local yarn store (LYS), to check your yarn, needles, & pattern. Helping knitters is what they do all day. They’re usually glad to help.

Remember, the true purpose of knitting is to relax and indulge your senses. Nice, warm clothing or blankets is the side benefit.

It’s time. Cast on!

Leave a Comment