Ask Patty: We Need to Talk About Gauge

January 11, 2019

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61 Comments
  • First of all, I love your column! I’ve already learned a ton from it and am gobsmacked about this row gauge business changing so much with different needle materials. Who knew!

    I was reading and imagining you answering the questions the whole time 🙂 I love where this is going!

  • What is the best way to join yarn when adding a new skein

    • A great question. Email it in so I can address it in a new column. There are soooo many ways!

    • That is dependent on the fiber that you are using. With wool, I love the spit-splice method but there are a ton of different methods on line

    • MDK had a great article about this recently: https://www.masondixonknitting.com/techniques-in-depth-tie-or-die/

  • I guess I’m a little confused about the adding weights. If you are hanging the garment no matter what size the gravity effect is related to mass. So…your swatch has less gravity than a full sweater…true but it’s a relational issue. Adding extra weight to your swatch is throwing that relationship out the window and the swatch row count will have no real correlation to the row count of your non weight added sweater. If you leave the swatch without weight added I would think you would have a better idea of the effect of gravity on the sweater. You could do the math on this one measuring the swatch before and after wetting, hanging to dry….note the size increase as a percentage of growth or shrinking and your sweater will have the same percentage of row growth. Or am I totally out of it and have no idea what I’m doing..lol. I hate ..hate..hate swatching! So maybe I hate it because I don’t understand it that well. Sad but true….I have always wanted a lopi cardigan for myself but because I am terrified of knitting something this nice and pricey for myself only to have it fit lousy because the guage I counted was incorrect. Half stitches? What do I actually count? My eyes get out if focus and I think …did I miss one, did I count the wrong part of a few here and there. I would love to know an easy way to do all this and ensure a great fit. Thanks!

    Sincerely,
    Kevin

    • I think you’re on to something with measuring before and after hanging the washed/dried swatch up. I was wondering, how would one know how much weight to use to simulate the effect of gravity and time, since the sweater will be much bigger than the swatch? It would be a more critical issue with a heavier yarn, I suppose.

      That said, I think you should go for it with the lopi–it is very warm and very light in weight. I have found the fabric doesn’t stretch much at all after washing. Though I mostly use the plutolopi these days at a fine gauge, years ago I made sweaters with the outdoor weight lopi and they still are the same dimensions, as far as I can tell.

      As to counting stitch fractions, that’s a problem, so don’t do it! I mark off a big area of a swatch with sewing thread in a contrasting color , avoiding those wobbly edges (kind of how Patty has done above with the lace) so that I have a whole number of stitches and rows to count. Then I measure the gauge with a ruler. Seems to work pretty well, most of the time.

      Good luck!

      • I think this is similar, but here goes: After I wash and dry a swatch, I put in two pins, one at each outside edge of a knit stitch with a bunch of stitches in between. I count the stitches (and they are only whole stitches, because I put the pins in carefully). Then I measure the distance between the pins with a clear ruler that shows sixteenths of an inch. Then I divide the number of stitches by the number of inches (to the third figure after the decimal). I do this three times, moving the pins so I have a different number of stitches each time. Then I average the three results to get a pretty true picture of my gauge. I never bother with row gauge; that’s what measureng tapes are for. Also (this is an old trick which everyone probably knows) I do YO/K2tog on one row as many times as the size of my needle, so I can tell later what size needles I was using. 5 holes = size 5 needles.

        • Love your idea for keeping track of needle size. I put knots to demonstrate needle size in the yarn ends on the start or finish of the swatch.

    • The weights are to simulate the TOTAL weight of your sweater when you are wearing it. The issue is a 27″ long sweater weights a lot more then a 6″ long swatch. So, if I were to base my row gauge on a small swatch, but then knit a long cable sweater, the stitch and row gauge of the large sweater will have very little to do with my bitty swatch. As for how to count. I did write a column on that and you can find it on my website from Jan 2018.

      • This is interesting. So, do you weigh your swatch and determine its surface area, calculate the surface area of the sweater and its projected weight, then affix that weight to the swatch? How long would you leave the weighted swatch hanging up before remeasuring? Thank you!

        • You could . . . I don’t. I just add some weight that I think would be basically enough to simulate (think a pinch of salt vs measuring). I leave it overnight.

        • I hang a skein of yarn from my swatch (usually the rest of the skein that I used to knit the swatch). If I’m gonna use at least 1 skein to complete the front or back of the sweater (almost a certainty!), then I know that one segment of the finished piece will have to weigh at least that much. Knitting often feels magical, but it’s not capable of destroying yarn mass!

      • Thank you! Can you tell me how you know how much your sweater or section of your sweater will weigh to add the weights? Wouldn’t I just take length before and after as well as row count before and after and use the change in size percentage on both to knit my sweater. I’m so confused about this! Sorry a little slow on the uptake here!

    • Two ideas for non-swatch swatching: Start with a sleeve for your cardigan, or start with a hat a la Tin Can Knits (they suggest doing hats before colorwork sweaters to test not just gauge, but pattern motifs, color choices, yarn, etc.).

      • Meant to add: Feel free to disregard; I have a resistance to swatching to in the round, so I’m going to try them myself.

      • Gotta be honest, I never understood the start with a sleeve thing. Then if you’re not happy with your gauge or your fabric you just have a sleeve that doesn’t fit or a sleeve in a fabric you hate. Swatching is for SOOOO much more then gauge. It’s to make a bit of fabric to see if you like it. Imagine going into a fabric store and picking out fabric for a dress, but not touching it or looking at it. Right? Then there’s math . . . there is a reason sweaters are written back, front, then sleeves. On of the best reasons to do your sleeve last is if your gauge does change while knitting (which happens sometimes when you make a too tiny swatch, or you TRY to achieve gauge when swatching, and then your relax into the project), then you have your actual sweater back to block and remeasure to get the REAL row gauge before knitting your sleeve. Then you can make easy adjustments to your sleeve cap before knitting it.

        • Easy adjustment!? Sounds like another column idea. I have a terrible time trying to adjust sleeve caps on patterns to fit my row gauge. They come out too tall, or too short, or too wide, or too skinny before I get them right. Saw an article once about it which used calculus to make adjustments! There must be an easier method than that….

        • THIS IS FOR MARTHA – for some reason I can’t reply to a reply, so I’ll say there’s a trick that is sooooo much easier. Write me an email and ask the question so I can answer it 🙂

        • My understanding of the sleeve-starters’ argument is that they are planning to rip back the sleeve-swatch if they don’t like the fabric (or the gauge is off), and ripping back a sleeve feels like less of a loss than ripping back part of a sweater front or back. It seems to be kind of like gambling: if your sleeve-swatch turns out ok, then wooo you won a partial sleeve! If it turns out bad, then you “only” have to rip and re-knit a partial sleeve.

          I believe people when they say that this reassures them, because who am I to question other people’s feelings. And if people need to tell themselves they’re knitting a sleeve in order to properly swatch then ‍♀️. But speaking personally, the times I knit the sleeves first are when I’m making a bid to harness my new project energy against second-sleeve syndrome .

        • I’ve never worn a dress in my life…offend…hahaha, sorry I had to do that it’s the meds for treatment makes me think I should be funny enough to have a Vegas show..I’m putting this down now as I can tell the meds are kicking my brain….and sadly…to be honest I have worn a dress…Halloween, helping my nursing school roomates with hems…I had the white skirt on so she could pin it lol. Those were fun days!! Patty thanks for the help

    • Someone (Clara Parkes, maybe?) had written about using the swatching process to also get comfortable with the yarn itself – how if feels as it’s being knitted up, how it feels in your hands, how it works with the needles you’re using, etc. . I like that mindset & that’s the approach I use to get myself to swatch. That & the fact that I also don’t want to spend a ton of time & money on yarn working a project that won’t fit when I’m done. It trade-off in time is worth it to me.

      I don’t swatch for things I know I’ll get gauge on or are small enough that the project is the swatch – like socks.

      • YEEEEES. I always say you are dating the yarn before you marry it. You are also playing match maker . . . yarn, meet pattern, pattern, meet yarn . . . is it a match! You might love the yarn, you might love the pattern, but you might not love them together. I remember I once wrote a whole blog on why we swatch and none of the reasons I listed had anything to do with gauge.

    • Hi Kevin, I think of it as the top of the sweater has the weight of the rest of the sweater hanging off of it.
      What I wanted to mention though, is knitting a whole sweater to gauge. In addition to a swatch you can check your gauge while knitting on the sweater. Most of us knit with a different gauge after knitting for a while, so a sweater will be a bit different than a swatch. Finally, a wise person once pointed out to me that you can always undo knitting, so take a chance and knit it.

      • Thank you!

  • I made 2 sweaters last year, both 100%wool. The sweater made with superwash merino grew in length even though I went down a needle size. The minimally processed Jacob wool was true to swatch. I think the superwash process makes it difficult to get gauge.

    • yep. Superwash process seals down the scales of the wool so there’s nothing to grip between columns. A superwash wool will act more like a silk or nylon or rayon or bamboo. One cheat for anticipating if a yarn is going to be a grower, does it have a sheen?

    • That has been my experience also with superwash, such that I will never again trust it! And I should add that I’m a committed swatcher.

  • Thanks! I read somewhere that row gauge is affected by how tight you knit, which is probably why needle material changes it. So if you knit more loosely your rows will be taller. I need to find the actual article, though.

    • Yep, row gauge is the height of your stitch, which is why I mentioned that many knitters use a smaller needle for their purl row if they are seeing rowing out.

      • Wonderful tip. I have been knitting for @45years but always appreciate help and suggestions on my knitting. Thanks for all the good information. It only adds more to my satisfaction and happier knitting results.

  • kudos!

  • Illuminating article! I only knit on bamboo needles, and never get the right gauge exactly. I primarily knit with 2 ply fingering doing stranded knitting… how does one compensate? Changing needle size alone?

    Love your fabulous website.

    • Knitters own many needles for the same reason a chef owns many knives. Our tool and EVERYTHING about it (not just the size, that’s just the girth of the needle) can affect our gauge. That means everything, your needle material, tip length, circular or straight . . . so, like the article says if you have the stitch gauge you want, but not the row gauge, don’t change needle size, change needle material.

  • Brilliant! I have been staggering my way to this conclusion about needle materials, and this confirms it. Also, I have a “different “ body shape, so I always do the math and largely ignore the row gauge.
    Also, I had the tank top experience with a fisherman knit sweater for husband, in cotton. So, gravity. Cotton. Needle size. Gauge. Frogging. Swatching. Lots of lessons learned.
    Now am attempting combination knitting rather than a friend’s solution of differing needle size for purl rows (thank you, interchangeable needle tips).
    So thank you. Cannot wait to reread your other posts and hope for future.

  • I care about this topic – gauge – as mistakes are so painful, and wishful thinking, to which I am easily prone, equals project failure.

    Loved your photo! I have been making Laura Nelkin’s Novus sweaters (Hot Flash and La Jefa), and row gauge determines fit as these cardigans are knitted side-to-side (sleeve edge to centre). Laura Nelkin recommends and demonstrates the method shown in your photo to determine row gauge. She asks knitters to make a few repeats of the lace pattern in the sleeve, wash or wet, then dry, weighted with wonder clips or similar, hanging from an ironing board, then measure row gauge.

  • Thank you for this topic! I always struggle with row gauge and found this very helpful. It’s a keeper! Thank you.

  • Love this!! I’m digging out earrings that hurt my ears as I type! My second sweater out of the same yarn WILL NOT grow unexpectedly and need to be slightly felted just to continue wearing it! Thank you, thank you!

  • I love the lady who has been knitting for 50+ years and doesn’t need to swatch. I, too, have been knitting for well over 50 years and, the more I learn, the less I know. I had no idea that different needles would make such a difference in gauge, let alone appearance in a lace pattern! I might need to invest in another set or two of interchangeables!

    Thank you for the great article! Please keep the articles coming!

    • I LOVE all my different needles. I could no sooner answer what is my favorite needle then a chef could answer what is their favorite knife. It depends on what I’m doing!

  • And check your ruler/measuring tool! While this seems so sensible it shouldn’t need to be mentioned, I routinely find a difference between the white plastic ruler from one set of interchangeable versus the black plastic gauge thingy from another set. Maybe mine is weird or a one-off, but now I only use that German brand. I think there is one in the MDK shop that looks awesome, too.

  • A suggestion to RMEIA,
    She could print out your article and just slip it very innocently in her knitting bag. 🙂
    What??? How did that get in there? Can I read it? What great information!
    Great article.

    • AHHH HAAAA! Just did a spit take with my coffee!!!

  • Confession: I don’t swatch. 🙁 But – not because ‘I’ve been knitting for 50 yrs…’ really quite the opposite. After a few years of knitting, I allowed never getting or understanding gauge make me think I just simply couldn’t knit sweaters. But I kept knitting other things and got a pretty good sense of my own gauge with different weight yarns (I am an incredibly loose knitter, I’ve learned). And then I finally approached a top down sweater – I knew I could at least get the neck right as I’ve made plenty of cowls and hats. Once I got the beginning of the neck essentially fitting the way I want, I just keep trying it on as I go and adjust the number of stitches. I’ve successfully knit a few top down sweaters that fit me well! It is limiting as far as sweater patterns – I can only do top down with my non-swatching technique – but honestly, I have so many top down sweaters in my queue that I love, I will never run out of sweaters to knit. And I usually do knit and wash a swatch – not to determine gauge, but to see if/how much the yarn stretches after washing.

    Another lesson I’ve learned: don’t trust what the manufacturer says about the size of your needle. I’ve bought ‘US size 4’ needles that are exactly the same as a size 3 needle by a different manufacturer. Get a needle size gauge and measure your various needles against each other. I bet those who want to do good swatching will be surprised to find their needle size isn’t what the manufacturer states, as compared to other needles they use, which makes swatching to get gauge even more frustrating.

    • So much to un pack here, but I’ll just say this, anyone who’s taken my gauge class or done any of my video sweater classes knows swatching is not about MATCHING gauge, it’s about being able to predict YOUR gauge. Truly the math is simple.

      • This is the best articulation of this concept! I’m constantly trying to say this but it takes me 20 minutes!

      • I should have started with ‘I don’t swatch to try to match gauge’. 🙂 In early knitting years, I thought that was all it was for, I could never ‘meet gauge’ and got discouraged from trying to knit sweaters. But swatching is for all kinds of things – I do it to figure out how the yarn is going to act and feel and look. Guess I should also be weighting it, as I have had a couple sweaters stretch terribly!

    • My husband bought me a digital caliper gauge to measure my knitting needles! A bit more precise than I need, but what can I say? He’s an Engineer.
      And yes, needle brands are all different, but Addi’s are pretty accurate.

      • The mm size is fixed, it’s what US size the company names that mm is not fixed.

      • I think I want a digital caliper gauge!

  • If you can make horizontal gauge but not vertical, wouldn’t it make a knitter’s life easier if the designer gave vertical directions in inches and not rows? Or am I missing something here?

    • Inches are used in straight knitting as it “now work even until armhole measures 8”, but with shaping that’s not really possible. Instructions to shape a sleeve cap, waist shaping, moving a stitch pattern are about entire shaping zones. So that’s all row gauge. That’s the math we designers do to figure out how to remove or add x number of stitches over x number of inches. As it “dec one st each side every 4th row 6 times, then every 6th row 2 times”. You can’t write a pattern telling a knitter to make a dec every 12/16″.

      But what about that “now work straight”, then can I measure, not really. For those that have taken ANY of my classes, you’ve heard me say, “your tape measure touches your knitting twice, once when you measure your gauge swatch, once when you block your piece.” When you read in a pattern “now work straight until your armhole measures 8”, I want you to think “now work straight for 8″ worth of your finished row gauge.”

      Not only can blocking change your gauge, but measuring your knitting all bunched up on your needle will give you a big fat lie. Better to cross out all those inch instructions with how many rows you need to work based on your blocked gauge swatch.

  • I’m such a nerd that I’m fascinated by gauge and the twist of a fiber and other things that only a knitter of 30+ years might find of interest.
    Thanks for the information ❤️

    • I was interested in that from my very first year of knitting (my fellow fiber nerd!)

  • After reading 49 comments, I’m completely committed to actually swatching in the round when I’m going to be knitting my project in the round. Seems like a no-brainer but I haven’t been swatching that way. And I’m aware that purling is going to affect my gauge, just been too lazy to do the “work”!

  • Best tips ever! Patty, I hope you know how much you help we knitters everywhere, no matter how long we’ve been knitting. I thank you for that and look forward to the next column.

  • I’m reading The Ravell’d Sleeve by Catherine Lowe about “couture” hand knitting. She recommends knitting a 12″ x 12″ swatch to make sure you are accurately getting all the info you can about gauge, drape, stretch, etc before starting to knit. Intensive to be sure, but she makes a good point about it all adding up to a garment you actually can/want to wear.

    • I think this is a good idea; may need more yarn! I’m going to be knitting my first sweater and I think it deserves a longer “dating” time before actually committing to the “marriage” of chosen yarn, pattern, and needle selection

  • I have been knitting for more then 50 years. And I swatch every time. Didn’t know that different needle material could make such a difference. This is the first time I read your column. Learned a lot. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the guage swatching info. I ran into a yarn recently where my row count was an inch off. It was only a hat. I improvised. However, it would have been really helpful if the hat designer had given finished length measurements.

  • This is a fabulous explanation, thank you!

    I am a long-time knitter but an even longer-time sewer and I find, with knitting as with sewing, there are SO MANY variables that nothing replaces just assuming that you will have to try on and adjust as you go along. Say – the issue of relaxing as I get into knitting the sweater – or – being more relaxed during car knitting than watching TV knitting – or whatever dang random thing – will affect my sweater in ways I can’t predict. (It’s also true that I am FUSSY about fit, since making my own clothes lets me be!) I totally agree that a swatch is worthwhile, okay, necessary for getting to know the fabric. But I don’t think that a swatch can replace trying it on, fixing if necessary, repeat, repeat, repeat.