Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gauge is everything - and how it works in Knits Men Want

I hear it all the time from students.
"But I hate knitting a gauge swatch!"
And they hear this back...
"If you want to be surprised at the fit, if you want to have wasted 30 or 40 hours knitting a sweater that the recipient can never wear, then don't knit a gauge swatch.
Sure, we see this little icon on every ball and skein of yarn we buy.

It means that the manufacturer only suggests using a certain needle size to achieve a certain number of stitches per inch knitting in Stockinette Stitch. In this case size US 8 (5mm) needles might give you 5 stitches per inch.

Might? Well, sure. I knit loosely and would probably test out size US 6 (4m) needles first. Then I'd go up to 7s (4.5mm), 8s (5mm), or maybe even down to 5s (3.75mm) all the while looking to achieve the number of stitches per inch called for in my pattern. And if you don't think there's a big difference between 3.75 stitches per inch and 4 stitches per inch, just do the math. One quarter of a stitch per inch adds up to 10 stitches in a 40" sweater. And that can turn your 40" sweater into a 42.5" sweater, yikes!

But is there really that much difference in the way different people knit the same yarn? I mean, if the manufacturer says 5 stitches per inch on US 8s (5mm), didn't they test that? Isn't that what most of us would get?

This is from Jacqueline Fee's The Sweater Workshop. The image on the right shows three different gauge swatches knitted by three different knitters. All knitted with the exact same yarn and needle sizes. It this doesn't show you that you need to test your gauge I don't know what will.

But what's the gauge swatch on the left? Jacqueline tested her yarn with 11 different size needles to get a gauge she liked. Wait a second cowboy, a gauge she liked? I though we were talking about looking for a specific gauge that a pattern might require? Well most of the time that is what we're looking for in knitting our gauge swatch. But sometimes we are just looking to be creative. To find a knitted fabric that we love and create something from that.

This is from my book Knits Men Want. Every pattern starts like this, with size across the top and gauge along the side. Sure, you can use the yarn I picked for the project and go with the gauge I liked and knitted the sample with (not always what the manufacturer had in mind). Or, you can choose any yarn, knit samples on all sorts of different needles, choose the knitted fabric you like best and measure your gauge (that is, stitches per inch). Go across the top for your size, down list to find your gauge of choice, and voila, you get what you need - be it yarn requirements or the number of stitches

And remember, you've made the commitment and bought the yarn and you're going to commit weeks to the project. So, even if you spend the entire first evening on a new project knitting gauge swatches, know that it is time well spent.


  1. Bruce, thanks so much for taking the time to write this up. It's just what I needed to know! :-)

  2. Great article Bruce, and well worth taking the time to check gauge/tension :-) Thanks for sharing this with us

  3. I would also like to thank you for this post! As a (k)newbie knitter, I don't have a lot of guidance other than books on what I am doing. I have found that, when knitting, things are often different than I think that they should be, and I have started knitting gauge swatches just to try to figure the project out before wasting hours (just like you said). That being said, this is truly great information, because it explains why things are different. I will never again begin a knitting project without completing a gauge swatch, first.

  4. That was a fantastic post, Bruce! Thanks so much for hammering home how important gauge is. I love your book! I have some other projects to finish, but hope to make the basic cardigan soon.
    I also gave you a little plug on a fiber arts blog recently and then fellow blogger Aaron was inspired to write a post about you.
    Keep up the great work!

  5. I love your book and I will swatch carefully. Your instructions look nice and clear. Just bought soft and cushy Shepherd's Wool from a small mill in Michigan to make a pullover vest for my husband.. Can't wait.

  6. I appreciate all of your feedback. Most people overlook gauge. I love doing a gauge swatch. You get to create new fabric with each needle size. You get to pick and choose and be creative.

  7. What I still don't understand (mind you, I haven't bothered looking it up either) is why, if you knit loosely, you will probably need less wool than recommended in the pattern. I've only knit one jumper so far (and two years later still haven't blocked it so I can sew it all up. Oops.) and that was during a five week class. I spent two weeks knitting gauges because I couldn't believe I would need to go down so far in needle size (iirc the pattern suggested 12mm and I had to use 7mm). The instructor comforted me by telling me that at least I wouldn't need to use so much wool and the more experienced knitters agreed with her.

    But what I don't get is, although I was using far smaller needles, I was doing that so that I would have the same number of stiches per inch as anyone else knitting say with bigger needles and tighter knitting. Essentially, the reason you test for gauge is so that even if five people are making the same pattern using different needles, they would each have the same amount of stiches per inch. Which means each stitch should use up the same amount of wool, doesn't it? So how come some who knits loosely ends up using less wool?

  8. moonwaves.... you are not alone in knitting loosely. the best of us do it. I knit on needles at least 2 sizes smaller than most yarn manufacturers suggest to get their suggested gauge. and mind you, i also purl looser than i knit, so sometimes to get it really even, i use a needle one size smaller for the purl rows than i do for the knit rows.

    and as far as i can tell, you will use the same amount of yarn as someone else if you are getting the same gauge as someone else. knitting loosely uses only less yarn if you use the same needles and change the pattern to fit your looser gauge. so take comfort in the fact that your instincts are right!

    now sew up that sweater all ready.

  9. This was so helpful. I am making your watch cap for my husband. He has a small head and very few stores offer hats in his size. I loved that you offered different sizes. I wanted to get the gauge just right and I wasn't sure I was reading your pattern correctly, until I found your post. Thank you!


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