Pattern Play: Achieving Gauge

Usually when we learn to knit, someone teaches us the basic skills and tells us to practice. That’s a great start, but then we have to learn how to read a pattern. This 7-part series explains how. For this portion of our digital lesson,  Kate Atherley explains exactly how to master the essential part of any successful knitting project: achieving gauge.

Every pattern will always list the needle sizes required. Here’s a secret: The listed needle size is a recommendation. The designer used that size for the sample. That’s all. If you knit tighter, you’ll need larger needles; if you knit looser, you’ll need smaller needles.

This is what gauge is about: making sure that you use the right needle size for you. You need to match gauge so that the finished piece comes out the right size. Sometimes gauge isn’t that important—a scarf can end up wider or narrower and still function as a scarf—but gauge matters very much for a sweater. Plus if you don’t match gauge, your yarn usage changes, and you risk running out!

Make a swatch. It’s better to spend an hour swatching than spend hours and hours making a hat that’s so big it falls off, or a sweater that’s too small to wear. Swatching also gives you a sense of how the yarn looks and feels and how it will behave with washing.

The gauge information in the pattern will list a number of stitches (and rows) over four inches in a stitch pattern. Using the needle specified in the gauge information, cast on one-and-a-half to two times the stitch count (e.g., for a gauge of 20 stitches, cast on 30 to 40), and work in stockinette for about five inches.

achieving gauge

If the pattern calls for gauge measured in a pattern stitch, such as seed stitch or a lace pattern, you’ll need to work your swatch in that pattern. Bind off, then wash the swatch the way you’ll wash the finished piece. The washing is critical: many fabrics and fibers change with washing, often stretching out. You need the item to fit after it’s washed, not before.

Once your swatch is dry, measure the gauge. Count the number of stitches in four inches. If the post-washing gauge matches the pattern, you’re good to go with those needles.

If you’re getting too few stitches—for example, 19 instead of 20—try again with needles one size smaller. If you’re getting too many stitches—21 instead of 20—try again with needles one size larger.

If you’re off by more than 15% on stitch gauge (three or four stitches, practically speaking), consider a different yarn: you can’t change the gauge that much without changing the fabric.

You must match stitch gauge, but matching row gauge exactly can be difficult. If you match stitch gauge, and your row gauge is close—off by no more than a couple of rows—then you’re good to go for most patterns! Patterns that depend on set numbers of rows, such as heavily cabled projects or those with all-over lace, may require some adjustments. ❤

Read More of Kate’s Pattern Tips in knitscene


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