Learning to check and understand your gauge is crucial for the success of your knitting project! Gauge or tension is the number of stitches and rows in a certain area, and if you’ve ever knit something that came out way too big, or way too small, you’ve tangled with gauge! Everyone knits differently, and this means that sometimes you need to make adjustments to have your project come out the way you want. We're here to de-mystify gauge and help your knitting be the best it can be.
What is gauge?
Simply put, gauge (also known as tension) in hand knitting is the number of stitches and rows in a defined area. In modern knitting patterns, the gauge is usually presented per inch (2.5cm) or over four inches (10cm). Some vintage patterns give gauge over 2 inches (5cm).
Here’s an example of a common knitting gauge (these all represent the same gauge):
5 sts and 7 rows = 1” / 2.5cm square in stockinette stitch 10 sts and 14 rows = 2” / 5cm square in stockinette stitch 20 sts and 28 rows = 4” / 10cm square in stockinette stitch
In this example, for every 5 stitches on your needles, you will get 1” of width. Or said another way, for every 20 stitches on your needles, you will get 4” of width. So 40 stitches would equal 8”, and 80 stitches would equal 16”.
When knitting stockinette stitch, the stitches are wider than they are tall. So although it takes 5 stitches to make 1” widthwise, you need 7 rows to equal 1” tall. Different stitch patterns may have different relationships between the number of stitches and rows in an inch, depending on how the stitches are manipulated.
Gauge and Fabric
One of the main goals in defining gauge is to create a fabric that you like the feel of, and that suits the intended purpose of the project. Since everyone knits differently, some people knit more tightly, and some more loosely. The same yarn used on the same needles by 3 different knitters will most likely come out 3 different sizes. Conversely, 3 knitters might need 3 different needle sizes to arrive at the same gauge.
Generally, yarns knit at a tighter gauge than the ball band (smaller needles, more stitches per inch) will be more dense and firm, less stretchy, and more durable than the same yarn knit at a looser gauge. This firm fabric is perfect for decor items and structured garments.
Example: A worsted weight yarn calls for 5mm (US8) needles. If you decided to knit it on 3.25mm (US3) needles, the resulting fabric will be very stiff and tight.
On the other hand, if you use larger needles than recommended or knit quite loosely, the fabric will drape and stretch, and have a more open look with more light coming through. Looser gauges work best with thinner yarns, and lend themselves well to lighter garments and flowy accessories.
Example: A fingering weight yarn calls for 2.25mm (US1) needles for socks, to create a firm fabric that isn’t see-through. The same yarn knit on 4mm (US6) needles for a shawl would create a lacy, light fabric that drapes well.
How does gauge affect my finished project?
Gauge affects the finished size (and sometimes shape) of your knitting project. When reading a knitting pattern, there will be a gauge given along with a suggested needle size. Using the same needle size called for is less important than matching the gauge - you might need to use a different needle size to obtain the pattern gauge.
The numbers and yardage in the pattern have been calculated using this gauge, so that if your own knitting gauge matches it, you can be reasonably confident that the project will come out the intended size. Matching pattern gauge is less important for items that don’t need to fit body parts, such as shawls, wraps, blankets, and other decor items. However, a different gauge can also affect your yardage requirements: if your gauge is significantly different from the pattern, you’ll likely need more or less yards than the pattern calls for.
Example: A hat calls for a cast on of 100 stitches. At 5 stitches per inch (100 divided by 5), the hat will be 20” around. If your gauge is different, however, then the finished measurement will also be different. If you get 4 stitches per inch (100 divided by 4), then the hat would be 25” around - probably too big. If you get 6 stitches per inch (100 divided by 6), the hat would be approximately 16.6” around - probably too small!
If you haven’t used the yarn before and are uncertain as to whether you knit tightly, loosely, or somewhere in between, the suggested needle size is a good place to start. Note that even if you’ve worked with the same yarn and needles before, your gauge can change over time, and with different stitch patterns.
If the fabric is too tight, difficult to work, or has more stitches per inch than you need, try a larger needle size. If the fabric is too loose, overly stretchy, or has fewer stitches per inch than you need, try a smaller needle size.
As with all skills in knitting, learning to work with gauge and your personal knitting style takes practice and persistence. Luckily, yarn can be knit and re-knit until you’re happy!
Our website is full of free tutorials and resources to help with all aspects of your knitting. If you're new or just need a refresher, check out the other posts in our Learn to Knit series:
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