Kay wrote to me a few weeks ago and asked a simple question about a deep yarn mystery: why can you knit some yarns at multiple gauges and get good fabric, and some other yarns don’t work that way?
You can knit any yarn at any gauge. Really. The ballband gauge is just a suggestion. The result with most yarns, however, is a fabric that you may not like. If you knit most yarns to a looser gauge (fewer stitches per inch) than specified on the ballband, the fabric can be droopy and listless—not great for a garment.
But some yarns are magical gauge chameleons. (Cue Boy George, and dance around your living room.)
I’m not talking about knitting a lace shawl with fingering yarn on size 6 needles—anybody can do that, it’s easy. I’m talking about knitting a sweater at a worsted weight gauge when the ball band says the yarn is a DK.
Gauge-shifter yarns can be knit at a much looser gauge than the ballband implies, and still retain real structure. Your knitting stays a sweater, not a schmatta.
Why do some yarns shift gauge easily and some don’t?
For demonstration purposes, I swatched two yarns by Jill Draper: Valkill and Mohonk. They are both great at gauge shifting.
Here are the facts for each, from the yarns I have. Jill does small batch yarns, so the facts can change slightly from season to season, depending on the sheep.
252 yds/230 m
4 oz/113 g
100% NYS Cheviot wool
Suggested gauge: 4.5-5.5 sts/inch
Recommended needle: US 5-7 (3.75-4.5mm)
370 yds/338 m
4 oz/113 g
100% Cormo wool
Suggested gauge: 5.5-6 sts/inches
Recommended needle: US 3-5 (3.25-3.75mm)
I could tell by feel that both yarns would be able to shift gauge. Both yarns felt substantial rather than drapey. This is the opposite of most superwash Merino yarns. Valkill’s ability to gauge shift is due mostly to the fiber used, while Mohonk’s gauge shiftiness is due to the fiber and the construction of the yarn.
I knit each yarn to the gauge suggested on the ballband, and they made fine fabric for a stockinette sweater.
They passed the poke test (trying to poke my finger through the fabric). I knit Valkill at 5 stitches per inch gauge and Mohonk at 6 stitches/inch gauge.
Then I started cranking up the needle sizes and knitting the yarns at bigger and bigger gauges.
I knit both yarns at four different gauges in stockinette swatches and a Staghorn cable swatch (because I thought that would be fun) (#iluvtexture).
With Valkill, I went from 5 stitches per inch to 4.5, 4, and 3.5 stitches per inch.
With Mohonk, I went from 6 stitches per inch to 5, 4.5, and 4 stitches per inch.
This is so exciting to me! They both work at the bigger gauges. The fabric gets looser, lighter, more open, but it is structurally sound and would hold up to being a sweater.
The cable swatches have the benefit of the cable adding more structure. I could go up to a looser gauge if I were knitting a cable sweater or a stranded colorwork sweater. (Remember Mary Jane Mucklestone’s Stopover? That’s the OG gauge-shifting sweater.)
This is all due to the magic (and thinking) that went behind how the yarns were created.
Yarn Construction Details: Let’s Dig In
Grab your favorite caffeinated beverage and gather round. Here’s the info on why these yarns work at looser gauges.
Earlier I said these two yarns felt substantial. What that means in the gauge-shifting world is that they stand up for themselves. In knitted fabric, they don’t have to rely as much on their sister stitches. They take up space because of their construction, and retain stitch shape without relying on being knit tightly.
Valkill is spun from Cheviot wool. Cheviot is a strong wool (not fine and not crazy soft) that has a lot of crimp. (The crinkle cut french fry make up of each fiber that contributes to elasticity.) Most crimp is organized, all the zigs and zags line up and nest, but in Cheviot the crimp is disorganized. This disorganized crimp makes the yarn open and super springy. Trying to make a Cheviot yarn drape would be like trying to put a cat in a pet carrier or a toddler in a car seat.
Mohonk is spun from Cormo, a fine and incredibly crimpy wool. Cormo is very fine wool, close to Merino and almost as soft. Cormo’s crimp is organized, but because each fiber is fine, there is a fierce amount of crimp packed into the yarn, coiled like a spring.
Both Valkill and Mohonk are woolen spun. Spinning a fiber woolen puts air into a yarn. For a fiber that is crimpy, spinning with air lets the crimp unleash in the yarn. It lets the crimp spread and stand tall, kind of like how I feel after yoga.
The crazy crimp and airy spin of Valkill make it unnecessary to ply the yarn. The style is similar to Lopi yarns, but with even more tooth.
The 2-ply construction of Mohonk lends durability to the fine fibers of Cormo. To help with gauge-shifting, the ply adds more air, and a 2-ply yarn pushes outward in knit stitches. A plied yarn is lighter than a single-ply yarn of the same size because there is air between those plies.
Grist: The Unbearable Lightness of Gauge Shifting
The grist of any yarn always stays the same, of course.
The grist of Valkill is 756 yards per pound, and the grist of Mohonk is 1,110 yards per pound. What is gorgeous about gauge-shifting yarns is that as your gauge gets bigger, you make fewer stitches to cover the same area, and use less yarn.
Shift your gauge and make lighter sweaters!
I want to make a drop shoulder, 40-inch pullover. In Valkill, knitting my sweater at a gauge of 5 stitches to the inch requires 1,280 yards, and 3.5 stitches to the inch needs 870 yards. Doing magic grist calculations, the 5 stitches-per-inch inch sweater would weigh 1.7 pounds, and the 3.5 stitches-per-inch sweater would weigh 1.2 pounds.
With Mohonk, it’s similar. My sweater at 6 stitches to the inch is 1,810 yards, and at 4 stitches to the inch is 1,020 yards. The 6 stitches-per-inch sweater would weigh 1.6 pounds, and the 4 stitches-per-inch sweater would weigh just under 1 pound.
Knitting at a bigger gauge makes an amazing difference in the yardage required and the lightness of the garment.
A lighter, looser-gauged sweater also has better drape. If knit tightly, gauge-shifting yarns can get stiff pretty quickly; it’s that crimp and air fighting to get free. You can see in the photos that when both yarns are knit in stockinette, and especially when they are knit in the cable pattern, they have a lot of body. Comparing the tightest to the loosest gauge I knit, the looser gauge has plenty of substance to hold its shape, while the tightest gauges are, to say the least, stiff.
How to Tell If a Yarn Is Suitable for Gauge Shifting
It springs back when you squeeze it. It has substance.
It won’t be butter soft. It won’t be Merino, but there are plenty of wool breeds that, like Cormo, are next-to-skin soft.
Look for air. Air is good. Ask if it’s woolen spun.
Swatch it, and don’t be afraid to go up 3 or 4 needle sizes.