Technique of the Week: Nail Your Gauge
Have you ever followed a pattern exactly, using the same yarn and needle size as specified in the directions, only to have your project come out a totally different size than you were expecting? Whether it’s a hat that could be used as a punch bowl cozy or a sweater that fits a handpuppet rather than a human, the problem is incorrect gauge. Gauge is the number of stitches and rows in a certain measurement; for Interweave patterns, gauge is given over 4″. It’s also key to making sure your finished project fits.
The first step for any project is a gauge swatch. Work at least a 6″ square in the stitch pattern for your project. If it’s a stockinette project, work a stockinette swatch; if it’s a lace project, work a swatch in the lace pattern. Always block your swatch as you plan to block your project. If you’re planning to wash your finished project, throw your swatch in the water with some woolwash and let it dry completely. No cheating and measuring while it’s still a little damp! This will help cut down on surprises later—there’s nothing worse than finishing a project only to have it grow two sizes when you block it.
Another thing to take into account is stretch. If you’re using a drapey yarn without a lot of memory, or using a stretchy stitch pattern like garter stitch, hang your swatch for a few days to see if it gets longer and narrower at all. You can also hang a few small weights like binder clips on the bottom to encourage stretching. Some fibers like alpaca and cotton are notorious for growing longer and longer as gravity works its magic on them. Not all swatches will stretch out, but it’s always good to check.
Once it’s blocked, measure your gauge in the center of the swatch. The gauge at the edges of the swatch can be a bit misleading, so don’t measure the entire piece. Place the swatch on a flat surface; resting it on your knee to measure can cause the piece to stretch slightly and give you incorrect gauge.
Be sure to measure over at least 4″ to get the most accurate stitch count. A slight misjudgment in stitch count makes a huge difference in a small measurement, but has less impact over a wider measurement. For example, imagine you’re measuring your swatch, and it’s hard to decide if there’s another half stitch in there. You decide to round up. If you’re measuring just 1″, you’re going to overestimate by ½ stitch per inch, which is a huge difference in gauge!
4½ sts/1″ = 4½ sts/in
16½ sts/4″ = 4 sts/in
Half a stitch per inch doesn’t sound like a lot, but it makes a big difference when you’re making a sweater. Say you’re making a 40″ sweater. If the pattern calls for 4 sts per inch, and you’re working at 4½ sts per inch, your sweater will end up being 35½” around.
4 sts/in x 40″ = 160 sts
160 sts ÷ 4½ sts/in = 35½”
That’s a lot smaller! The same principle applies to all gauge measurements: if the pattern calls for a gauge of 18 sts over 4″ and you’re getting 19 sts over 4″, don’t just shrug it off as “close enough.” Keep swatching until you match stitch gauge. Taking accurate stitch gauge measurements is the difference between making a sweater that fits and one that doesn’t. Row gauge is also important, but it’s easier to work around; most patterns call to knit the piece to a certain length rather than giving a specific number of rows.
Once you have your gauge sorted out, compare it to the gauge in the pattern. If there’s a small difference in gauge, try changing needle sizes. If you have more stitches per inch than the pattern gauge, go up a needle size; your stitches are too small, and you need a larger needle. If you have fewer stitches per inch than the pattern gauge, go down a needle size; your stitches are too big, and you need a smaller needle. In most cases, this should fix the difference in gauge. If changing needle size doesn’t achieve pattern gauge, it will take a little bit of math to adjust the pattern; we’ll discuss that approach in a later post.
Whether you’re making socks or a sweater, gauge is the most important factor in knitting a project that fits. Always take the time to check your gauge; it takes a lot less time than reknitting your entire project!