Gauge and Yarn Substitution

This shows what happens when you knit thinner and thicker yarns on the same size needles. Both yarns produce the same number of stitches per inch, or nearly so. The thin yarn makes slightly more rows per inch. In this swatch, knitted on size 7 needles, the orange (top) yarn, a handspun 3-ply, measures about 16 wraps per inch (which is lace weight). The teal (bottom) yarn is a 2-ply that measures about 8 wraps per inch (Aran weight). Both yarns knit up at a gauge of 4 1/2 stitches per inch. The section knitted from the thicker teal yarn has 6 rows per inch, while the orange section has 7 rows per inch.    

I've been reading a lot about gauge lately because I want to knit something on my knitting machine, and gauge is different on the machine than it is on the needles. I came upon this great information in an unexpected resource: one of our new spinning eBooks. Rita Buchanan is a master spinner and teacher, so it's no surprise she has some good hints about gauge.

Here's part of her gauge article. To see the entire piece, check out A Closer Look, the new eBook by Rita Buchanan.

Handling a Knitted Fabric and Responding to How it Feels
by Rita Buchanan

We're continually reminded of the importance of gauge. Virtually every published pattern specifies a required number of stitches per inch (some patterns also note rows per inch) and the directions always emphasize that you must match the specified gauge or your project will turn out too big or too small.

Although gauge certainly matters a lot, it's not the whole story. Here is a fundamental issue in knitting that is rarely acknowledged or discussed: Two knitted fabrics can have the same or similar gauge yet feel very different.

Pattern writers rarely talk about how a fabric should feel, because they don't have to. Instead, they tell you what yarn to use. If you knit with the particular yarn that they recommend and match the specified gauge, the fabric will feel right for the project.

However, when you vary from the directions by substituting another yarn, the matter of feel becomes important. You must apply some judgment—and some swatching—to make sure the substitute yarn yields appropriate results.

With a substitute yarn, it's not enough to match the specified gauge. You must also produce a fabric that feels right for the kind of project you're making. A dressy sweater, for instance, must feel different from work socks, even though both can be worked at a gauge of 5 stitches per inch. Fabric that feels substantial enough for work socks is too bulky and unyielding for a sweater, while a supple, drapey fabric you'd love in a dressy sweater won't hold up for work socks.

Knitting the Swatch
Using the needle size recommended in the pattern, knit a swatch at least 4 by 4 inches. Then count the stitches per inch and compare to the specified gauge. If you don't match the gauge, you can unravel the swatch and reuse the same yarn to knit further swatches on larger or smaller needles. Changing needle size usually allows you to get close to, if not match, the right number of stitches per inch. So far, so good, but you're not done yet.

The pattern may or may not specify a row gauge, or number of rows per inch. If so, you have to match that also. Figure the rows per inch in your sample swatch(es); also figure stitches per inch. Again, changing needle sizes can help you reach the goal, although a yarn that is much thinner or thicker than the recommended yarn will cause problems; you won't be able to match either the stitch or the row gauge, no matter what size needles you use.

In the most basic terms, if you can get the right number of stitches per inch but have too many rows per inch, your yarn is too thin. If you can get the right number of stitches per inch but have too few rows per inch, your yarn is too thick.

Feeling two yarns in one swatch reveals differences that are meaningful but hard to measure. The thicker teal yarn makes fabric that is bulkier, denser, more stable, and less stretchy than the thinner orange yarn.

Evaluating Your Swatch
When you have the gauge right, now comes the judgment hour. Stroke, squeeze, and tug your swatch. There are many qualities to react to while swatching. Here are some things to consider:

Thickness. Rub the swatch between your thumb and fingers. Is it thin as a bed sheet, thick as a blanket, or in between?

Density. Hold the swatch up to a light. Is it see-through, like netting or lace; nearly opaque, like felt; or in between?

Pinch and squeeze the swatch. Does it feel firm, like pinching a magazine; squishy, like squeezing a pillow or a stack of tissues; or in between?

Weight. This is hard to detect in a swatch, but very noticeable in a finished project such as a vest or sweater. A thick, dense fabric weighs more than a thin, open fabric worked at the same gauge.

Shape retention.
Hold the swatch by one edge or corner and tug at it, pulling in all directions. A thin, open fabric is stretchy and usually drapes gracefully but may droop or sag out of shape. A thick, dense fabric resists stretching and holds its shape resolutely; it can almost stand up by itself and may bend but doesn't drape.

Is your fabric suitable for the project you have in mind? If so, hooray! You've found your yarn.

If you're getting gauge and you're not satisfied with your swatch, you might need to try a different yarn, perhaps one with a different fiber content that gives you the drape or firmness that you want. For example, you might get more drape if you use a yarn with some bamboo content, and more firmness if you use a cotton-blend yarn.

I hope you get as much value out of this information as I did!


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