All About Gauge
August 10, 2010 7:41 AM   Subscribe

[Knitting Filter] I got the knit. Got the purl. Got the reading of patterns. Now let's talk about gauge.

I don't fully understand gauge and all that gauge entails.

I knitted up some baby hats for some babies. I did a gauge swatch, followed the pressing instructions, and then measured it. I understand that x stitches for z rows = axb inches. In the case of my hats, the x stitches = a, but the z rows were slightly longer than b. I went ahead and knitted the hats with the recommended needle sizes and they came out almost right on. One is slightly longer than the other (I think maybe some looser knitting in some parts because I was more confident in the pattern the second time around), but the other measurements are just right and equal in both hats. And they should indeed fit little baby heads.

So if I encountered this again for a pattern in which length does matter, how do I adjust for the length? Add in all sorts of other questions about adjusting for gauge beyond changing needle size because if you can think of it, I have it!

I've also seen it recommended that people knit gauge swatches for longer than recommended, but I'm not sure why. I'm also not sure I quite understand the differences between "row gauge" and "stitch gauge."

I also know that every knitter has a different gauge and the type of needles (metal, plastic, different woods) as well as the type of yarn (cotton, wool, chunky, worsted) used can also create differences in gauge for the same knitter. What I want to know, is how much I should be concerned with gauge? What do I do when my gauge doesn't match the pattern's gauge? And how much does it matter for which types of patterns (I imagine gauge is extremely important for sweaters and far less important for blankets and shawls).

In other words, tell me everything about gauge!
posted by zizzle to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
In patterns where row gauge matters you see the instruction to do some increasing and/or decreasing every x rows.

So if your row gauge is supposed to be 28 rows in 4 inches, and they want you to increase once every 7 rows that means increase every inch. So if you've got 8 rows in an inch instead of 7, you can account for that and have your piece come out the right depth (I'm thinking of armholes and waist shaping specifically).

Good for you for realizing that the row gauge matters.

(also, for things like scarves where gauge isn't critical, you can still end up with a woefully short scarf if your row gauge is truly borked, but it's unlikely.)

Finally, please allow me to evangelize for It's awesome.
posted by bilabial at 8:02 AM on August 10, 2010

You're on the right track!

Stitch gauge is stitches per inch, measured horizontally. Row gauge is rows per inch, measured vertically. Your hats are X stitches wide and Y rows tall.

In circular knitting, the word "rounds" is frequently used instead of "rows." It means the same thing.

Row gauge rarely matters, as long as your pattern gives you a measurement for length, rather than row count. In the case of a hat, for example, "continue until work measures 6"," rather than "continue for 25 rounds." If the pattern is given in rows instead of inches, you can easily adjust with the same kind of algebra you mentioned. Okay, my row gauge is 6 rows/in, the given row gauge is 5 rows per inch. It says to knit for 10 rows. That means it really wants me to knit for two inches, or 6 rows * 2 inches = 12 rows.

That said, I've been knitting for many years, and I make a lot of gauge-critical stuff. I hardly ever care about row gauge. Although maybe I"m lucky -- as long as my stitch gauge is on, my row gauge is usually pretty damn close.

For everything else you could possibly want to know about knitting, see -- and look up the Metafilter group!
posted by liet at 8:06 AM on August 10, 2010

"How much should I be concerned with gauge?" Like you said, extremely important for sweaters (or any wearable) and less important for blankets and shawls. To a point. Here's why.

A blanket or shawl knitted with a smaller than recommended gauge (stitch or row, I'll get to that in a moment) will likely be much denser and stiffer than when knitted at the recommended gauge. Likewise, one knitted at a larger than recommended gauge may be looser or have less "body" than you might like.

It's the same for wearables, only size comes into play here, too. So you need to adjust needle sizes to get as close as possible to the stitch and row gauge as possible, using the recommended type of yarn. But there will be times -- perhaps a lot of them, based on the description of your attempts already -- when either the stitch (the length/number of stitches across the row) or the row (the number of rows down the piece) gauges will be slightly longer or shorter. So what to do?

When in doubt, I use the needle size that yields the slightly smaller measurement -- for either stitches across or rows down. This is based on the logic that you can easily stretch something a little larger when you block. It's a lot tougher to shrink something in blocking. (Though you can always felt with wool yarn, but you're getting into some almost alchemical territory here that I don't recommend with something you've spent many hours and dollars on.)

If you're really short on rows, it's easy to add a few more to make the measurement you need.

Again, this all depends on using the type of yarn recommended for the item you're knitting. Big, bulky yarns yield fewer stitches per inch -- and rows per inch -- than thinner yarns. Needle size affects the number of stitches and rows to a degree, too, as well as how "dense" or tightly knitted something is. So does how tightly you hold the yarn. More tension = tighter, denser stitches, and vice versa.

This is a long answer, and I imagine I've only addressed some of your questions and probably raised a few more. The folks at your local yarn shop should be able to help, as well as Knitty and Ravelry. Good luck and make something cool!
posted by Work to Live at 8:10 AM on August 10, 2010

Row gauge: the height of your stitch
Stitch gauge: the width of your stitch

Row gauge affects length, stitch gauge width if you're knitting an object from top to bottom and not side to side (in which case, reverse that). For a hat, if your stitch width is bigger than the patter, the hat will have a bigger circumference. If the stitch height is bigger, it will be longer. Obviously changing needle sizes changes your gauge. If your row gauge is off, you may need to add or subtract rows in the pattern (i.e. do more or less rows before decreasing for the top of a hat). If your stitch gauge is off, you may need to add or subtract stitches (i.e. if your gauge is 3 st/in and the hat needs to be 18" in circumference, cast on 54 sts).

Gauge changes when you knit in the round versus when you knit flat and it can also change when you use DPNs versus circular needles (in the round). Swatch with the technique you need for the final project. Many knitters have a looser purl gauge than knit gauge, which can affect your row height and is part of why gauge in the round (when stitches are all knit) is different from flat. One way around that is to use a smaller needle in your right hand when you're on a purl row. This is really only going to work if you're just doing flat stockinette (knit one row, purl one row).

It's also a good idea to wash and try your swatch like you would the finished garment. If the swatch shrinks or grows a lot when washing, you can either change the size you knit it at or might want to pick a different yarn depending on the project.

FWIW, I almost never gauge swatch, but I also knit a lot of shawls and socks. For socks, I find just starting the sock getting either a few inches of cuff or the toe and a little bit of the foot is enough to see if things are off and would take just as much time to knit a swatch. You'll get the hang of how your gauge normally works out and what projects are important to swatch for. If you swatch for everything, that's totally cool.

I'll also pimp It's totally awesome.
posted by radioaction at 8:14 AM on August 10, 2010

I concur with the excellent answers so far!

What do I do when my gauge doesn't match the pattern's gauge?

You can change what size of needles you're using to tweak your gauge—if you have too many stitches per inch, go up a size or two; too few stitches per inch, go down a size. The drapeyness and texture of the knitted fabric will change as the gauge changes, too. Occasionally you might encounter a pattern with a listed gauge that you can't attain without making fabric that's see-through or bulletproof. In that case substituting yarn might be the best way forward. (Thicker yarn for fewer stitches per inch, thinner yarn for more.)

Advanced solution: knit a swatch that you like, measure its gauge in stitches and rows per inch, and use that to make up your own numbers to fit the shapes in the pattern's schematic. This is easier if the shapes are very simple, like rectangles that fit together to make a sweater. Multiply stitches per inch by the number of inches across that the finished piece is to get the number of stitches you'll need.

(I swatch ALL THE TIME. It is like the fun experimental part of knitting!)
posted by bewilderbeast at 8:31 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh. And I have a method for swatching that makes measuring your gauge easier.

Let's say your pattern says '20 stitches and 23 rows in 4 inches on a US size 7, stockinette' with a light worsted yarn.

Cast on 30 stitches. Knit 5 rows (garter stitch)

Row 6: knit 5, purl 20, knit 5
Row 7: knit all

Repeat rows 6 and 7 12 times in total.

Knit 5 rows.

Now, because of the garter border, your piece will lay pretty flat. And the square in the center should be 4 inches wide and 4 inches tall.

If it's 5 inches wide you either need a smaller needle or different yarn. If it's 3 inches wide, go for a bigger needle or thinner yarn.

(I teach knitting. Lots of my students come in with a swatch in all stockinette, and because that curls they're trying to measure knitting while holding, smooshing, and stretching the piece flat. I tell them knitting is like people, if you torture it, you'll get some answer, bit it's likely to be useless at best, and outright lies at worst. Be nice to it, take your time, and you'll get a more helpful response.)
posted by bilabial at 8:33 AM on August 10, 2010 [7 favorites]

As bilabial and list have already given you good answers about stitch & row gauge, I won't cover the same ground. Why knit a larger swatch? A few reasons: 1)The larger the area you're measuring, the more accurate a measurement you'll get, including fractions of a stitch per inch. 2) Cast on rows, bind off rows, and edge stitches can affect the gauge of the stitches next to them, so it's good to have a margin around them and measure across the centre. 3) A larger swatch gives you a better idea of the type of fabric you're going to get--how it drapes, how much it stretches, how open it is, how it changes when washed. Which brings me to a point I get a bit soapboxy about: Always. Wash. Your. Swatch. Unless your finished object will never be washed, you want to know how it's going to react to a bath, so wash the swatch the way the finished object will be washed. You'd be surprised how dramatically some yarns change with washing: some grow, some shrink, some grow in width but shrink in length. Measure the gauge before and after so you know how the fabric will change once it's off the needles and use the post-washing gauge. A day of waiting will save you a lot of wasted time and effort, not to mention disappointment.

Here's how I do my gauge swatches: Using a needle about 1mm larger (more for thicker yarns, less for fine yarns), I cast on 34-40 stitches (maybe a bit more if it's in the round). Changing to the needle size I want to use, I do 2 rows of garter stitch, then switch to stockinette (or the stitch the gauge is measured in) with a 2-stitch garter border on each side (if it's a flat swatch). Work about 6", then 2-3 rows garter stitch, then bind off with a larger needle. Measure the gauge and the overall swatch size before and after washing, and adjust accordingly (e.g., if the pattern says to work until piece is 6" long but I know the fabric grows in length by 10%, I work for 6.6".) This sounds really fussy, but it comes from years of not doing that and having sweaters that were miles too big (1/4 stitch per inch makes a huge difference over 100 stitches), mittens that flopped around, etc. So there's my preachy bit, culled from bitter experience.

That said, you're absolutely right about gauge not nattering much for things that don't have to fit, like blankets, scarves, and shawls. Using a different gauge will affect the size and yarn required, but if it's not a big deal to you, don't sweat it. Another reason not to worry about row gauge too much is that in larger pieces, the row gauge will change when you wear the garment, as the weight of all that yarn will lengthen the piece, so it's difficult to get an accurate row gauge for a big piece, anyway.

Finally, thirding the raves about Ravelry. There are so many smart, experienced, helpful people on there, plus access to a ridiculous number of free patterns, the ability to see what others have done and how it turned out...I could go on forever. Ravelry. It rocks, hard. It's free. You won't regret it. Gabba gabba hey.
posted by elizard at 8:40 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

(e.g., if the pattern says to work until piece is 6" long but I know the fabric grows in length by 10%, I work for 6.6".)

Ugh. I meant if it shrinks, I make it bigger. If it grows I make it smaller. Sorry.
posted by elizard at 8:46 AM on August 10, 2010

Good advice upthread, but just wanted to add that you must wash and dry your swatch the same way you'd wash and dry the finished item before you take your measurement. Some yarns shrink (hello, cotton, I'm looking at you), and some combinations of yarn + stitch pattern will "bias" or slant diagonally after washing, so your square swatch turns into a parallelogram. Better to learn that before your sweater spirals like a barber pole! If it's a known "shrinky" yarn, wash and dry the swatch several times.

Also, most swatches are too small to take accurate measurements. I know we all want to get on with the project already, but a larger swatch will give much more reliable results. If your gauge is supposed to be 8 stitches to the inch and your swatch is 4 inches wide, that's only 32 stitches. If you are off by one stitch, you'll probably say "Fine, whatever". But if your sweater is supposed to be 26 inches wide, your gauge error of a single stitch will turn into 6 stitches , which is about 3/4" too wide or narrow for your sweater. Repeat this on both front and back pieces and you're off by about 1.5" - possibly a fashion disaster just waiting to happen.

(Plus, it's really hard to measure floppy stretchy things - if you measure the same swatch several times, you're likely to get different numbers depending on how hard you flatten it out and how much you stretch it each time. Drives this analytical-chemistry-type geek crazy!)

If your project really needs accurate dimensions, grit your teeth and make a bigger swatch, say 10 x 10 inches. Wash and dry it, measure the gauge 3 times and take the average. That's probably the most accurate gauge you'll ever get in your whole life!
posted by Quietgal at 9:01 AM on August 10, 2010

Might I also bring up that there's a MeFi group on Rav?

c'mon over! Also, something worried me when you said "I did a gauge swatch, followed the pressing instructions"

Pressing as in 'ironing'? Or pressing as in blocking? i.e. getting it wet and putting it somewhere flat to dry, possibly with pins... Depending on the yarn and the stitch pattern, you can get very different results with your blocking. (Think lace pre-blocking and lace post-blocking!)
posted by at 9:50 AM on August 10, 2010

Response by poster: I'm on Ravelry, but it's been....not so thrilling for me for some reason. I mean. I poke around. I have some stuff in a queue. I half-heartedly put in my yarn stash because I only have like....10 balls of yarn. The pattern searches are cool, except for all the ones where the pattern isn't posted (not that it's not free, just that it's not posted). I'll hang around because I think it has potential. It just hasn't been all that people say it is for me so far.

bitter-girl, I don't have the pattern book in front of me, but the pattern book called for "pressing," which involves an iron, but the iron not touching the yarn at all. This was a month ago, and I don't remember all that I did, but it involved putting a towel over the knitting, and then steaming --- again not touching the knitting with the iron at all. And then pinning it to dry as for blocking. I took the measurements before pinning the swatch, and being careful not to stretch it, pinned it, and the after it was dry the next morning I took the measurements again. They were the same.

I was a little surprised that this book called for "pressing" instead of blocking, but so it did. And so I did as well. In the end, it didn't seem much different from blocking as the yarn was damp and left to dry as it would.
posted by zizzle at 10:15 AM on August 10, 2010

I just remembered that if your gauge is off on a project, it will affect how much yarn you use in the finished product. If your gauge is too big (i.e. getting 10 sts/inch rather than 15), then you're using more yarn per stitch and will use more yarn overall. This can be an issue with something like a shawl where the finished size doesn't need to be exact but sometimes yardage runs close to the yardage of the skein of yarn used. If the pattern calls for 495 yards of yarn and you have a skein that's 500 yards and your gauge is off, you may very well run out of yarn. It's not a big deal if you have extra yardage above what's called for, but if it will be close, a gauge swatch could come in handy.
posted by radioaction at 10:51 AM on August 10, 2010

Ah! good, zizzle! steaming-but-not-touching with iron is totally fine, but given some of the halfassed instructions floating around out there, I would not be terribly surprised to see that someone had recommended actually IRONING something (aaaaagh). I write knitting books etc etc for a living, and I've run into some really badly-written directions over the years... :)
posted by at 11:47 AM on August 10, 2010

Holy crap, I finally figured out who is. I'm not worthy!

For me, Ravelry's real value is in the data. Sure, I post lots of pictures and meticulous notes about my projects, and I have all of my stash listed, and I participate in forum knitalongs, but that's not what I really love about the site. (Although I admit I really enjoy fishing for hearts on my projects.)

What I really love is searching for patterns and project ideas. I have two skeins of Malabrigo and I have no idea what I want to make -- what are some popular patterns made with ~400 yards of worsted-weight wool? I want to make a sport-weight colorwork hat for my camping trip this fall -- what are my options? I just finished spinning 150 yards of bulky two-ply yarn -- what can I do with that? I want a cardigan for work -- what's popular this year? Ooh, which ones come with instructions for zippers?

With pattern and yarn searches, I can get fantastic answers to all of those questions, and they're reinforced with pictures and personal stories. "I made this hooded scarf with that 400 yards of worsted-weight wool, but the pattern had these errors ..." "Here's a Youtube video that really helped with that zipper installation."

Honestly, I find the forums less useful. I'm a member of, like, 90 groups, but I participate in very few of them. The reason I joined is because they're so specific, it's easy to find answers to questions. Sock question? Look at the sock groups. Spinning question? Look at the spinning groups. Just need inspiration? Browse the finished object threads in the popular forums for the subject of choice.

Ask MeFi is pretty awesome, but it's my professional opinion (heh) that Ravelry is pretty much the greatest website to have ever existed. And that's why I rabidly promote it to pretty much everyone, everywhere. Even the men at work when they ask what my "Disagree (1)" t-shirt means.
posted by liet at 2:07 PM on August 10, 2010

I just came in to say that is the best thing to ever happen to knitting. I don't understand gauge either and Ravelry has been a godsend.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 7:50 PM on August 10, 2010

An interesting thing about row gauge. 98% of the time, it won't matter a bit. The other 2% of the time, it will matter a LOT.

Typically I find that row gauge matters most in the matching. You can knit two sock legs to 6" each, but then after the knitting settles, having been worn for a little while, magically they turn out slightly different lengths.

I know not why this is, but I have learned to always convert row gauge to actual rows.

Say you're knitting a sweater, and it tells you to start the decreases on the arm after knitting 8". I'll knit until it measures 8" then count the number of rows. For the other sleeve, I begin the decreases after knitting that number of rows instead of measuring 8" again.
posted by ErikaB at 6:43 PM on August 18, 2010

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