Reading patterns, choosing yarn, and making a gauge swatch
Practice reading patterns
Pick five fairly complicated patterns from magazines or books, and translate the directions into regular English. Here’s an example:
*K 7, P 2; rep from * twice, K 10.
Translates to: Knit the first 7 stitches, purl the next two stitches. Knit 7 and purl 2 twice more. Knit the last 10 stitches.
Seeing what difference yarn and needle size make
Make four separate swatches, each with 20 stitches and 20 rows:
Two with the same yarn, but different needle sizes
Two with the same needle size, but yarn of different weights
Choose yarn and make a gauge swatch for a pattern
Look at a pattern you like. See what yarn and needles are recommended, and examine the “gauge” you are expected to obtain to complete the pattern. For example, the gauge may be 8 stitches and 8 rows per inch with number 9 needles, or 10 stitches and 12 rows per inch with number 6 needles, etc.
Using the Patternworks catalog, determine what weight of yarn the pattern is calling for (eg. worsted, DK, sport, bulky) by seeing what gauge is expected from each type of yarn. Purchase a ball of yarn that should give you approximately the gauge called for in the pattern.
Pick the needle size that is recommended, and cast on 20 stitches. Using stockinette stitch (knit one row, purl one row), make 20 rows. (Exception: if the directions call for the gauge swatch to be done in the “pattern stitch,” do what they say).
Measure the number of stitches and rows you get per inch. How did you do? If your piece is too large, do the same thing again, but with smaller needles. If it’s too small, use larger needles. Put knots in the tail of the yarn for each size of needle, so you don’t lose track.
Once you have reached the desired gauge, look at the fabric. Feel it. Do you like it? Does it drape enough? Too much? If you're dissatisfied, even after switching needle sizes, maybe you should try another weight of yarn. For example, if you are going up in needle size, and when you have your gauge, everything seems too loose and floppy, maybe you should try a heaver yarn, say a bulky, instead of a worster, or a worsted instead of a DK weight. On the other hand, if you are going down in needle size and you get something that is too stiff, the solution might be found in switching to a thinner yarn.
To really do this right, you should take the measurements of your swatch, then wash -- and block -- it and do it again. Did it shrink? Did it stretch? If so, you should use the new, after-wash, gauge.
Sounds time-consuming, but it will pay off in the long run. Imagine how long it would take you to make a sweater -- and then have be too small or too large. This time will be well spent.