How to Measure Your Gauge in Knitting

Posted by on May 29, 2013 in Knitting | Comments


You saw a project you wanted to make, went to your local yarn store, and picked up all the supplies you needed. Obviously, you’re itching to get started. But hold on there. Did you swatch to test your gauge before you started knitting?

guage

Swatching is right up there with finishing seams on my lazy knitter list. I hate doing it. I admit to making many projects without first swatching, but let me tell ya, those projects sometimes didn’t turn out the way they should’ve. That’s dangerous territory when it comes to knitted garments!

Not swatching can lead to sweaters that are too large, bags that are too tiny, and gloves you have to squeeze your fingers into. Ask me how I know.

 

Why swatch?

When you swatch, you’re measuring the gauge. Gauge is just how many stitches you’re getting per inch with a certain size needles and yarn.

Every knitter is different. You could hand five knitters the same ball of yarn and the same size needles, and some of them would have 6 stitches per inch while others have 9 stitches per inch. It all depends on your tension. That means that five knitters could work the same sweater, and the sweater size would turn out differently for each person.

Let’s say you’re working on a sweater pattern with a gauge of 9 stitches and 12 rows = 4 inches with size 13 needles. Knitting is your escape from your terrible day job, so you tend to knit with a lot of tension. You don’t swatch, and you knit the sweater with a gauge of 7 stitches and 10 rows per 4 inches. It may seem insignificant, but losing 2 stitches for every 4 inches will start to add up as you knit, and when you finish you’ll have a sweater that’s clinging to your body like a leotard!

Sure, you could knit tighter or looser to meet the gauge. But you wouldn’t want to change the way you naturally knit just to satisfy gauge requirements. Swatch that baby and then alter it to figure out what size needles works best for how you knit.

 

How to swatch

If you’re working from a pattern, the pattern will specify the gauge for you. For example, it could say: 18 stitches and 22 rows = 4 inches with size 8 needles. It might also specify a stitch, like: 8 stitches and 10 rows = 4 inches over the Cable Pattern.

To get started, first use the recommended size needles to knit a square. Don’t just cast on the number of stitches your gauge lists. For example, if your gauge is 9 stitches per 4 inches, don’t just cast on 9 stitches and call it a day. I like to knit extra stitches so that I can take a measurement from the center of my square and get a more accurate count — especially when I’m swatching in stockinette stitch and the edges are rolling up. The same applies to the rows. If your gauge is for 22 rows, knit a dozen extra rows.

Knit the swatch in the stitch the gauge specifies. For example, if the gauge is over stockinette stitch, knit a swatch in stockinette stitch. Sometimes it might be a little more complicated, like a cable pattern or other special stitch. Take this time to not only swatch, but also familiarize yourself with the special stitch so that when you knit the actual project, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing.

After you swatch, bind off. It’s important that your swatch be measured off the needles. Keeping it on the needles can stretch it or bunch it up in places, throwing off the measurement.

Grab a measuring tape or ruler. (I use the Lion Brand knitting gauge ruler with the neat little holes in it to determine needle sizes.) Measure somewhere in the center of the square to get the most accurate measurement possible.

I knitted this swatch with Lion Brand Wool Ease Thick & Quick using size 19 needles. The result was 6 stitches per 4 inches.

swatch

Just as you measure stitches across, you need to measure rows up and down. Both stitches and rows are part of gauge. My result was 9 rows in 4 inches.

yarn

If your measurements were perfect and met the gauge requirements, it’s time to start the project.

But what if your gauge was wrong? Let’s say you were aiming for 9 stitches per inch, but instead you knitted 6 inches per stitch. That means your knitting is a bit looser than the designer’s knitting, so knit another swatch using a smaller needle to tighten up the stitches. Bind off and measure again.

If you have the opposite problem — say you were aiming for 9 stitches per inch and instead had 13 inches per stitch — then you need to go up a needle size to try and make the knitting looser.

Keep swatching and changing your needle size until you’ve reached the correct gauge. You will use those winning needles to knit the entire project.

 

Measuring garment swatches

When I took Lily Chin’s knitting tips and tricks class at Vogue Knitting Live earlier this year, she shared a useful gauge tip. When you wear a garment, it’s going to hang vertically off your body. So why not measure your swatch based on that? Measuring flat works fine for something like a throw or gloves. But for sweaters and other garments, Lily pins the swatch to a wall or corkboard and lets gravity take hold, just as it would when you’re wearing the garment. She measures and alters her swatch based on that measurement.

And once you’ve knitted that swatch, don’t rip it out. Save it so you can test how your garment will wash up. If your yarn is washable, throw that swatch into the washing machine and see how it turns out. Did it pill? Did it fade? Better to find out on a little swatch than on your gorgeous new sweater!

Perfect gauge is only the first step to getting a great fit. Want to get even more tips on fitting your knits? See how Craftsy instructor Amy Herzog measures her swatches for sweaters, and check out the Sizing Knitwear Patterns class with Faina Goberstein.

Comments

  1. Pepper says:

    I’m always afraid that I’m going to run out of a yarn at the end of a project if I “waste” too much on a swatch up front. I wish designers would give more precise yardage calculations so I know if I have enough to knit a swatch.

    1. Susan says:

      Do designers figure in the gauge swatch in their calculations? I’d love to hear from a designer on this.

    2. Nicole says:

      I try to always do a swatch if I’m working on an important project.
      Just undo your swatch when your done measuring and then reuse the yarn!

  2. Kristin says:

    I hate swatching and before this have generally refused to do it, but then I made an oversized sweater that was way too small and so I knew I should start but didn’t really know exactly how to do it. Thanks for posting this!

  3. Jodi Labonte says:

    Lots of times my row count is right on but my stitch count is off. If I change needle size everything is effected. What then? And I also agree with Pepper, the price if yarn can be prohibitive to buying an extra skein.

    1. Hi Jodi, see my reply below to MSQUARED to answer your question about row and stitch count. Happy knitting!

  4. Carla says:

    Ashley, thank you very much for the tips!

  5. MSquared says:

    Thanks for posting.

    I never quite know what to do when my gauge is correct in one direction but not the other. Changing needle sizes seems, at best, to correct the direction that was off but at the same time to disrupt the direction that was good to start with. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi, MSQUARED! I handle this situation differently depending on what I’m knitting. If it’s something like a scarf and I achieve the stitch gauge but not the row gauge, I don’t worry about it. If your row gauge is too loose, sometimes you can make up for it by not knitting as many rows. But that only works for a very basic pattern.

      Knitty has an interesting article you should read. The author suggests that sometimes changing the way you wrap the yarn can alter the gauge, as well as what type of needles you use (bamboo, steel, etc.) as some needle types can slide yarn on and off more easily. Here’s the link:
      http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEsummer05/FEATsum05TBP.html

      Good luck!

  6. Freddi says:

    Here’s my question: I’m from Florida, love to knit, but most sweaters are just too hot, even in the winter. I signed up for the crazy cardigan craftsy class to learn how to make a raglan sweater. I was stumped right away just trying to substitute the recommended worsted weight with a dk weight. It just did not seem to equate with gauge. My raglan sweater was going to turn out like a tent due to the loose-ness of the stitch/pattern. Do you have any recommendations? The class was very informative and I loved the sweater, but worsted weight is so hot! I guess I’m silly for living at the beach and loving knitting. Thank you for this article! Its a very helpful. I’m an intermediate kbitter and no one really explains gauge that well!

    1. Hi, Freddi. As I mentioned in the article, moving to another weight category can be tricky! Here’s what I would do: instead of moving down to another weight, I’d find a worsted weight yarn that’s made of a warm-weather-friendly fiber like cotton or linen. That way you’ll get the same gauge, but the fiber will be much more comfortable for Florida. Hope that helps!