If you’ve been following me on Instagram, you know that I recently started teaching knitting classes at my LYS (local yarn shop). To prepare for my first class, I started to think about what I wish I knew when I first started knitting. What came to mind? The importance of gauge! Gauge is such a key part of fiber arts and design, and yet many knitters and crocheters overlook it when they first start out. What’s more, most pattern designers expect text knitters to be able to check gauge when knitting up a sample, so knowing what you’re looking at on your gauge swatch is crucial to the test knitting process.
I’ve broken down my understanding of gauge below, in the hopes that these explanations will be simple and streamlined enough that you will respect the importance of gauge and gauge swatching in all of your projects!
What is Gauge?
If you’re new to knitting, you may have seen the term “gauge” used in patterns. Measuring gauge is an integral part of the knitting process, and it’s often key to creating a piece that matches the dimensions listed in any pattern you’re using.
Simply put, gauge is the size of the stitches and rows created by yarn when knit with a particular size of needles. It’s usually measured in either 1”, 2″, 4” or 6” segments, referred to as the gauge swatch. The size of each individual stitch dictates the width of the knitted piece, while the height of each row dictates the length of the piece. You can use these numbers to determine how long and wide to make a knitted item. Gauge is usually measured with the piece laying flat.
For example, you may see gauge listed in a pattern as “20 sts and 24 rows = 4” on US 8 needles.” This means that on the final knitted piece, a 4” segment measured horizontally is made up of 20 individual stitches. Likewise, when measured vertically, a 4” segment contains 24 individual rows. This means that in every inch, this piece has 5 stitches and 6 rows.
In this example, if I wanted a scarf that was 10” wide and 40” long, I would cast on 50 stitches and knit 240 rows.
What Can Impact Gauge?
A number of different factors can impact gauge. The way each knitter knits is unique – some tension their yarn differently than others, knitting styles (English vs. Continental) can also impact gauge. Because of these factors, some knitters will have to go up or down a needle size in order to match the gauge called for in a pattern.
Yarn is categorized by weight, but that does not mean that every yarn variety in a certain weight category is the same thickness or ply. For this reason, yarn used in a project can also impact gauge.
Sometimes, knitters will get different gauge measurements due to the material of the needles they use. Metal or highly-polished wooden needles can be more slippery, changing the way the yarn is moved from one needle to the next. Standard wooden needles may grip the yarn more, also changing the gauge achieved.
Do I Have to Swatch and Check Gauge?
YES! Checking gauge is an important first step before any project. Checking gauge ensures that when you start knitting, you’ll make a garment or accessory that gives you the final dimensions you want. It also saves you the trouble of having to restart a project when you realize it’s too short or too wide because your gauge didn’t match.
That said, gauge is more crucial with certain project types than it is with others. For example, a sweater pattern is designed to fit multiple sizes, and typically accounts for specific body measurements. Not checking your gauge when making a sweater can spell disaster, because it’s very likely that your gauge won’t match the gauge in the pattern. Don’t risk being left with a sweater that doesn’t fit! Always check your gauge when making garments like sweaters and hats that are meant to fit in specific ways.
So when is gauge not as important? Usually, flat knitted pieces are items in which gauge won’t make or break the final product. If you’re knitting a flat scarf and your row gauge is smaller than called for, you can simply knit a few more rows until you have the desired length. But this doesn’t mean you should skip it entirely!
What to Do When Your Gauge is Off
Let’s say you don’t meet gauge when you make your first swatch before a project. What should you do next? Here are a few things to check:
- Is the gauge measured after blocking? If so, block the swatch and measure again.
- Are your stitch measurements smaller than called for? If so, go up a needle size.
- Are your stitch measurements larger than called for? Try going down a needle size.
- Changing needle sizes didn’t work? Maybe try tensioning your yarn more/less, or switch to a different needle material.
- Still not meeting gauge? Maybe consider switching to a different yarn in the same weight category.
Do you always remember to check your gauge when starting a project? Have any funny stories about not meeting gauge? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.