by Laura Chau May 20, 2021 4 min read

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.

On a white flat surface lie a pile of knitted hats, a pale blue ball of yarn, straight and circular knitting needles, small scissors, a wooden square measuring tool and brightly coloured stitch markers.

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).

A pale blue stocking stitch swatch lies flat with a measuring tape extended across the centre. At the top of the image is a pair of small scissors and some brightly coloured stitch markers.

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

Three pale blue swatches lie next to each other, the first is in stocking stitch, the middle is in a cable pattern and the third shows a lace pattern. Above the swatches are a pair of straight wooden knitting needles, a square wooden measuring tool and a small pair of scissors.

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.

Two pale blue swatches lie on a flat surface. The left swatch is bigger and knit at a looser tension, the right swatch is smaller and a denser fabric. Above the swatches are a pot of brightly coloured stitch markers, a small pair of scissors and a wooden square measuring tool.

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.

Two dark teal swatches in stocking stitch lie on a flat pale surface. The swatch in the bottom left of the image is smaller and more tightly knit, and the swatch in the top right of the image is larger and more loosely knit. Alongside the swatches lie a curled up circular needle, a pair of straight wooden needles, a lime green measuring tape and a wooden square measuring tool.

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?

Pages from knitting magazines showing the gauge directions for different patterns.

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!

How do I figure out my gauge?

A woman knits on a pale blue swatch, her hands are visible from the bottom of the image and she has the yarn wrapped around her right finger as she knits. Above her on a flat surface lie a square wooden measuring tool and a brightly coloured stitch markers spilling out of a pot.

Knit a swatch!

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.

Three natural coloured lace swatches like overlapping each other, with a pile of swatches above in the top right of the image. Also arranged next to the swatches in a pair straight wooden knitting needles, a square wooden measuring tool, t-pins, brightly coloured stitch markers and a small pair of scissors.

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:

How to knit a swatch
How to read knitting charts
How to work yarn overs

Laura Chau
Laura Chau



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