Stitch Patterns: It’s All About The Gauge

William Street Socks

Many of you have mentioned your frustrations in trying to incorporate stitch patterns into your knitting, only to run up against the issue of gauge. If you are "painting" with stitches against a stockinette stitch "canvas," for example, adding a few eyelets can also add to the size of your finished piece; inserting a cable can draw in your fabric more than you might imagine. So once again, gauge rears its difficult, persnickety little head, and demands that we pay attention to it, when all we really want to do is blissfully knit away in peace. (How rude!)

How do you account for the changes a stitch pattern will cause in your knitting?

Sing it along with me, 'cuz you know this tune as well as I do: Swatch it, baby.

I feel like a broken record on the whole swatch thing, but really, there is no magic formula, no other reliable way to tell how a stitch pattern is going to affect your favorite basic sock pattern. (It's kind of ironic how much I have to say "Swatch it!" considering that I personally hate, detest, and despise swatching. Hello, I am Sandi the Reluctant Swatch Pusher: I know it is sensible, good, and right to swatch, but I still do not enjoy doing it myself!)

One thing that will help you decide what to swatch is to think about how you want to use the stitch pattern in your basic "recipe." Do you want to work just a little stitch spice into your piece, or do you want to go whole-hog and go for an all-over effect? If you want an all-over effect, then things are a bit easier: swatch the pattern, measure the gauge, and adjust the total stitch count accordingly. But what if you want to mix it up a little?


Using just a repeat (or a few repeats) in the midst of a field of plain knitting is called an insertion. If you look at Lisa Shroyer's William Street Socks, you can see that she did not work the cables all the way around the cuff of her socks—she did just a few repeats of the pattern at the front of the leg, where it will show the most, and kept the back of the cuff in stockinette. This clever design has several happy results: The cuff is more stretchy than if it were all-cables; the cuff can be easily sized up or down for a custom fit; the smoother back makes the sock more flattering to thicker ankles…oh, and the knitting goes faster!

To use an insertion successfully, you need to know the stockinette gauge and the pattern stitch gauge, as well as how one affects the other (this last is actually the most important!). In other words: You have to swatch both. It helps to work both in the same swatch: knit a few inches of stockinette, then work the repeats of the pattern insertion (either horizontal or vertical), then finish up with a few more inches of plain knitting. Compare the gauge of the pattern section with the gauge of the plain section to see if the pattern expands or contracts your knitting. Consider decreasing or increasing a stitch or two on either side of the insertion—in the patterned section only, of course!—to compensate.

Remember: There is no shame in ripping out.

There is, of course, frustration in ripping out; but that's a different thing entirely! Ripping out and starting over is part of every designer's process—those lovely designs you see in the pages of Interweave Knits are often the result of hours of experimentation and swatching.

Give yourself encouragement if you find yourself reluctant to rip. I tell myself that ripping out just means I get to do more knitting!

Sandi Wiseheart
Editor, Knitting Daily

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