After years of knitting projects that came out different sizes than I expected, I converted to swatching and most importantly, to blocking my swatches. You always need to swatch. Always. Different needles, changes in your personal gauge over time; it all impacts your knitting. Unless it's a shawl, and you truly don't care about the finished sized, the couple of hours you invest in proper swatching always pay off.
I'm getting ready to knit the new Two Track sweater pattern in The Plucky Knitter's Lodge Worsted, a yarn spun from 60% Merino, 20% Cotton, 10% Silk, 10% Linen/Flax. It's my first outing with this new yarn, so a swatch was essential. A local knitting friend loves this blend and I had purchased some on her recommendation. This meant I was lucky enough to have it on hand when this pattern came out. The body of the sweater is written for size 8 needles. I'm a loose knitter, so I swatched with 7's in the shorter area and 6's in the longer portion of the swatch you see above.
This is how I swatch: Cast on the number of stitches the pattern suggests should equal four inches, plus four additional stitches. Knit for two rows. On the next row, knit the first two stitches, purl across and then knit the last two stitches. Next row, knit all stitches. Repeat these two rows until you have at least the minimum number of rows the gauge swatch suggests will equal four inches in length, ending with a knit row. Knit all stitches for two more rows. You're done! You've created a two-stitch garter stitch border all the way around the edge of your swatch. This will keep it from rolling in and make it easier to measure. Now, measure across the stockinette portion of the swatch and see if you've got four inches.
And, predictably, I don't. I've got something between 3.25 and 3.5 inches, on the size 6 portion of the swatch. The part knit on size 7 needles is closer to 3.5 inches. So, you might think I should knit on the size 8 needles the pattern calls for. But, everything changes radically when the swatch is blocked.
This swatch was soaked in sudsy water, rolled in a towel to remove excess moisture, and then pinned. I treated it just how I'll treat the finished garment. And look at the stitches open up! With the silk, linen and cotton content in this yarn, it was fairly predictable that it would grow, and it did. The swatch is still wet, and I need to let it dry and unpin it before taking its final measurements, but I'm guessing the size 6 needles will be just right.
Note: This process works just as well when you need to swatch a lace pattern or a cable. If you want to swatch with different sized needles in the same swatch like I did, create a garter row (knit two rows back to back) to demarcate the area in between them.