The Thing With Gauge

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If you have followed a knitting pattern before or attempted to, you probably came across the term gauge, usually followed by a couple of numbers. You might not necessarily remember – gauge is one of the most overlooked pattern parts – and I don’t blame you if you don’t. The fine print isn’t necessarily what catches my eye at first sight, either. But here’s the thing with gauge: if you ignore it, there might be a tiny chance that you’re lucky and everything works out just fine, but far more often than not, what you’re knitting won’t fit or turn out the way you want it to in the end.

In the knitting classes I teach, the first thing we’ll talk about is always the pattern notes, a knitting pattern’s fact sheet, if you will. We take a close look at all the information you can find there, and discuss how you can use it to ensure you’ll end up with something you’ll actually love and wear. Undeniably, a wave of disappointment, even if only small, washes over the group when I tell them that we won’t cast on or actually knit until our second meeting. But to date, I also haven’t met a single participant who didn’t feel that the wait and the thought we put into the decisions we carefully made was worth it at the end of the class.

As tempting as beginning a new project without wasting another second of your precious knitting time may be, I would love to invite you to not shy away from what might look like a negligible accumulation of letters and numbers at first. Stick with me as we learn what you should know about gauge before casting on, and find out just how dramatically it can affect your knits – you won’t regret having taken a closer look at this gauge thing, promise!

Here’s what the pattern notes page, where you’ll find the gauge information, looks like in our Sustainablist patterns (this is from our Tígull):

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All about that gauge

Gauge is typically indicated over 10 x 10 cm or 4 x 4“, and specifies how many stitches and how many rows (for pieces worked flat) or rounds (for pieces worked in the round) are in a knitted square of 10 x 10 cm or 4 x 4”. Like with any rule, there are of course exceptions, like designs with cables for instance that often specify gauge for the number of stitches and rows a cable repeat is being worked over and indicate its measurements instead of a traditional 10 x 10 cm / 4 x 4” gauge, but to keep things a little easier, we’ll stick to a 10 x 10 cm gauge for now. The number of stitches over the specified width is referred to as stitch gauge, while the number of rows or rounds over the specified height is called row gauge. A well written pattern’s gauge section also comes with plenty of additional information: you’ll learn what stitch pattern the gauge is measured over, if the piece is worked flat or in the round, what needles have been used and if the gauge refers to the piece before or after blocking.

So let’s say a pattern states the following gauge:

20 sts x 28 rows = 10 x 10 cm (worked flat in Stockinette Stitch, on larger needles, after blocking)

What we can learn about the design from the line above is that 1) a 10 x 10 cm square of the finished piece has 20 stitches and 28 rows; 2) the parts of it that the gauge is measured over are worked flat and 3) in Stockinette Stitch; 4) it uses more than one needle size, the larger one of which is being used for the parts that the gauge is measured over; 5) the gauge is indicated after blocking.

By the way, I say “the parts that the gauge is measured over” since not all parts of a knitted piece are always worked the exact same way – some might be worked flat and others in the round, for instance – and with that, a gauge indication doesn’t always refer to all parts of a project.

The math behind a knitting pattern

Now what does this actually mean? From a designer’s perspective, gauge is the base the entire math behind a knitting pattern is built upon. Whenever we design something, we’ll usually have certain measurements in mind we want for the finished piece, e.g. a scarf’s width and length, and the gauge is our conversion rate, if you will. Let’s say I want to design a scarf with a finished width of 28 cm and a finished length of 225 cm. How do I know how many stitches and rows I need? You might have guessed it: this is where gauge comes into play. I’ll use our gauge of 20 sts x 28 rows = 10 x 10 cm for this example, and will break it down to 1 x 1 cm, which is a lot easier to work with. If 10 cm = 20 sts, then 1 cm = 2 sts. And same goes for the rows, if 10 cm = 28 rows, then 1 cm = 2.8 rows. And with that, I know that in order to have a width of 28 cm, I’ll need 28 x 2 = 56 stitches, and for a length of 225 cm, I’ll need 225 x 2.8 = 630 rows. This is where I would also need to take stitch patterns I’m planning to use and many other factors into account to determine final stitch and row counts when actually designing a new piece, but I’m gonna stop talking about the designer’s perspective now and we’ll just keep assuming that our scarf has 56 stitches and 630 rows. After all, this isn’t about designing knitwear, it’s about helping you use the gauge information to your advantage!

A knitter’s perspective

From a knitter’s perspective, you can see gauge as an if-statement. To go back to our original example: If you have 20 stitches and 28 rows over 10 x 10 cm, then, and only then, your finished piece will measure what the pattern tells you it’ll measure. For our scarf, that means it’ll be 28 cm wide and 225 cm long if you knit it at a gauge of 20 stitches and 28 rows per 10 cm, and it’ll be larger or smaller if your gauge is different. Let’s say you ignore the gauge section and knit at a gauge of 22 stitches and 30 rows per 10 cm: broken down into 1 cm units that gives you 2.2 stitches and 3 rows. Our scarf has 56 stitches and 630 rows, and at your gauge of 22 stitches and 30 rows, it’ll be 56 / 2.2 = approximately 25.5 cm wide and 630 / 3 = 210 cm long.

What might seem like a relatively small difference for our scarf can be quite dramatic when you look at sweaters or other projects where fit matters more than it does for scarves. Over a pullover’s bust or hip circumference for instance, a difference of as little as 1 or 2 stitches per 10 cm can add up quickly and cause your sweater to measure several cm more or less than the measurements of the size you were aiming for. Our Tígull pullover for instance, the one you met a little earlier, is worked at a gauge of 24 stitches x 36 rounds. Let’s say size 4 had 258 stitches around the bust, which at a stitch gauge of 2.4 stitches per cm gives you a bust circumference of 107.5 cm. If you were working at a stitch gauge of 2.3 instead, your finished sweater would measure 112.25 cm around the bust, and at a stitch gauge of 2.2, the bust circumference would be 117.25 cm. That’s a difference of almost 10 cm for the finished sweater with as little as 2 stitches over 10 cm. To put it into perspective: The difference between our sizes is usually smaller than 10 cm, so with a difference of 2 stitches in gauge, you involuntarily would have gone up more than one size.

Measuring gauge

Now that you know why not ignoring gauge is so important, especially for pieces that are supposed to fit a certain way, let’s look at how we can determine (and change) our gauge to begin with. Another knitting related word that’s probably even less popular than “gauge” is “swatch”, a piece of knitting created as a trial or preview, be it to see what a specific yarn or stitch pattern looks like knit up, or to determine your gauge. To be able to comfortably measure your gauge over 10 by 10 cm later, I recommend casting on a number of stitches that you assume will give you a width of about 12-14 cm (consult the gauge listed on the ball band for a first guidance if you’re not sure) and to continue knitting until your swatch measures approximately 12-14 in height, too.

Speaking of ball bands: Yarn companies will almost always specify a gauge for their yarns. However, this by no means guarantees that you’ll actually meet the gauge they indicate, so don’t use this as an excuse to skip swatching! The way you hold and tension your yarn, the style you knit, the needle size and material you use and many other factors all affect your gauge to a point where knitters will often get a different gauge than other knitters when using the same yarn, and often even the same needle size. A good place to start when you’re not certain what needle size to use is going back to the pattern notes page and try the one the pattern specifies, but, again, keep in mind that the needle size you’ll need to get gauge might be different!

The most important rule of thumb for swatching is to knit your swatch the way the part of your project the gauge is indicated over will be knit. So if the gauge is stated as being worked in the round in Stockinette Stitch, on larger needles, and measured after blocking, make sure to work your swatch in the round, too (here’s a tutorial), using the yarn and exact needles you’re planning to use for the actual project, and in this example the larger needles out of the different options you’ll be needing, and block it before measuring how many stitches and rows there are in 10 x 10 cm.

Getting gauge

As we learned before, meeting the exact pattern gauge is required to ensure your finished piece is true to the sizes and measurements the pattern states, and working at a different gauge means you’ll end up with different measurements. So obviously, the goal here is to get the pattern gauge when swatching! But what if that doesn’t happen? The first thing I’d recommend doing when your initial swatch doesn’t meet the gauge you’re looking to get is experimenting with different needle sizes, and if that doesn’t help, different needle materials, such as wood instead of metal. If you still can’t seem to get gauge and are an adventurous knitter, you could also consider using a new-to-you style, such as English instead of Continental.

If that still doesn’t do the trick or if you’re not really up for experimenting with a different knitting style, don’t despair – customising a pattern based on a different gauge is very doable in many cases, but that’s a topic for another day.

I do hope you enjoyed this little guide to gauge, and if you have any additional questions on the issue or for our upcoming series on how to read and work from a knitting pattern, please feel free to leave them in the comment