All About Gauge

Part one in a series (the other parts haven’t been written, so no links yet).

Gauge is very important, yet it isn’t important at all.

Gauge determines how big your finished project will be. That’s probably what most knitters think of.

But gauge also determines the feel of the fabric: how it drapes, if at all. Projects worked very tightly will have much less drape than those worked more loosely. That means tight-gauge garments will be stiff and less body-conforming when worn. On the other hand, tightly worked projects make good tote bags.

On the other end of the scale is lace. Very thin yarns are worked on comparatively large needles, to maximize the effects of the holes.

Even if you manage to match the exact gauge specified by the pattern, you might think the fabric is too stiff–or not stiff enough. Drape is like salt: some people like more, some people like less. How do you know what you like in a particular pattern and yarn unless you swatch?

What Makes Gauge

The factors that affect gauge are

  1. the yarn
  2. the needles
  3. the stitch pattern
  4. the knitter

The Yarn

If you change the project yarn, your gauge will be different. How different? That depends, on all four factors.

If you switch from an animal fiber to a vegetable fiber to a man-made fiber, even if all the ball bands give the same “recommended” gauge, then your project may or may not work, because of the other three factors.

And many knitters don’t know that the yarn’s color can affect gauge. For example, if you have the exact same company’s exact same yarn in both white and navy, the gauge between the two yarns may not be exactly the same, even if worked on the same needles. It probably won’t matter much, but there may be a variation. (The dye particles, I assume, make a yarn ever so slightly thicker, compared to a natural-color or bleached yarn.)

Some yarns do funny things when they get wet. That’s why you need to treat your swatch the way you’ll treat the FO. If your yarn reacts unexpectedly when it gets wet, your project may be a disaster, even if you follow the directions exactly. (It’s also a good idea to measure the swatch both before and after washing.)

The Needles

Some needles are slick, while others hold on to the stitches a bit because they have inherently higher friction. The classic example is using wood or bamboo needles for silk yarn, because the microscopically rougher needle surface will keep the silk stitches in place a bit better. It takes some skill to keep a very slick yarn on very slick needles.

Some fibers might need those slick needles, because they can cling too much to a “rough” wooden/bamboo needle.

If you find yourself struggling to keep the stitches on the needles or if you have trouble moving the stitches along the needles, those difficulties will affect your gauge.

The Stitch Pattern

Some stitch patterns are inherently looser than others. Ribbing and seed stitch tend to be a bit looser because of switching the yarn back and forth between front and back. If ribbing weren’t looser, it wouldn’t stretch very much.

Your stockinette gauge  may be a bit tighter than your seed stitch, because you’re not constantly shifting the yarn between front and back. This difference might be a problem for seed-stitch borders on flat items whose main fabric is stockinette (or a stitch pattern based on stockinette).

A yarn that would be a disaster in one pattern stitch may be the very best selection for a different pattern stitch. But how do you know, unless you make a swatch?

The Knitter

There’s a great post that shows the difference that individual knitters achieve when working the same pattern with the same yarn on the same needles.

Even you are a different knitter now than you were ten years ago. You may have perfected your motions, or you may have settled on using the same needle type for every project.

You may have realized you’re a tight knitter, so you always have to use a slightly bigger needle than other knitters. Or you’ve realized you’re a loose knitter, so you automatically go at least a needle size or two smaller than what’s “recommended.”

It’s also not unusual for your gauge to change as you get further along in a project. Maybe you knit faster because you’re excited to be almost done, and knitting faster tightens up your stitches. Maybe you understand the pattern better, so you’re no longer holding the needles in a death grip, which means your tension is looser.

In the same way, it’s not unusual for your project gauge to differ from your gauge swatch. Maybe you were upset about a job, home, or life situation when you swatched. Maybe that second (third?) glass of wine was not a good idea swatch-wise.

A swatch is an excellent idea, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, and it’s definitely only part of getting a good FO.

The Bottom Line

You have to use the project yarn, the project needles (maker and material), and the project pattern to make a gauge swatch.

If your knitting buddy uses your project yarn, needles, and patterns, would you assume you’ll get the same gauge as your buddy? Of course not. Just like you have to be the one to make the swatch, the swatch also needs to be made the way the project will be made: same needles, same yarn, same pattern.

If you don’t, you’ll most likely wind up with a project that is wrong in some way. It might be salvageable, but it won’t be what you set out to make.

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