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Gauge in Knitting

August 17, 2013

swatchesGauge describes the size of knitted stitches.  It is a measure of how large the stitches are, and is defined by how many stitches and rows there are in one inch (or 4 inches) of knitted fabric.

::: EVERY KNITTER IS UNIQUE (when it comes to gauge):::

Every knitter is different – we hold our needles and yarn slightly differently, we are more tense or relaxed as we work.  This means is that if I knit a square using aran weight yarn and 5mm needles, and Alexa knits a square using exactly the same yarn and needles, the two squares of fabric will be different sizes because Alexa and I have different tensions.

gauge-pattern

An example of how yarn weight, gauge, and suggested needles are listed in a knitting pattern. Needle sizes given are just a SUGGESTION – you need to swatch, and change needles until you achieve the gauge stated in the pattern!

The gauge stated on knitting patterns acts as a universal equalizer – it allows different knitters to follow the same pattern and achieve the desired size.

If a sweater pattern was simply written for worsted weight yarn and 5mm needles, then everyone’s sweater would come out differently – there would be no way to predict finished size.

So instead of simply casting on with the needle size suggested in the pattern, when knitting garments you must make a ‘gauge swatch’, and determine the gauge that you achieve with the yarn and needles.

::: What is a swatch? :::

A swatch is a little piece of knitted fabric, usually about 6″ square-ish. Making a gauge swatch gives you a bit of an insight into what your finished garment will look like. It shows you how dense will the fabric be, what gauge you achieve with a given needle size, and what the fabric will look like close up.

To make a gauge swatch I typically cast on about 6″ worth of stitches using the needle size suggested by the pattern. If the pattern gauge is 5 sts / inch (5 sts x 6″ = 30) then cast on approximately 30 stitches.  Knit a little square, starting with a few rows of garter stitch, then working a section of stockinette stitch with little garter borders, then finishing with a bit more garter stitch (the garter edging makes the square lie flat, because stockinette stitch on its own curls).

tightandloose

After completing the square, measure how many stitches and rows there are per inch.  I use my handy gauge checking tool, but if you don’t have one you can just use a ruler.  Take note of this number – it is your unblocked gauge. While you are working on the garment you can check to make sure your gauge matches this un-blocked gauge.

checkgauge

Measuring the swatch gauge before blocking.

Next wash the swatch, dry it, and lay it out (this is called ‘blocking’… more on that here).  Once dry, measure the stitches and rows per inch once more, and take note of the number again – this is the BLOCKED gauge.  Many yarns change gauge quite drastically with blocking, and since you are going to block and wash your finished garment, the gauge after blocking is the really important one to know.

Wet your swatches

Wet your swatches

Lay them out flat on a towl

Lay them out flat on a towel

Roll 'em up

Roll ’em up

Give 'em a stomp to get out all excess water

Give ’em a stomp to squeeze out all excess water

Pin them out to dry

Pin them out to dry (don’t stretch them, just pin them square)

Now is the time to re-measure!

::: WHAT NOW? :::

If the gauge of your blocked swatch is exactly the same as the gauge required by the pattern, you are lucky!  You can proceed to start the pattern using the needles you used to make your swatch.

labeledswatch

If the gauge of your blocked swatch is different than the gauge required by the pattern, you need to make another swatch (I know I know, but it really must be done).  If the pattern gauge is 5 sts / inch, and you got 5.5 stitches / inch, your stitches are TOO SMALL.  You need to swatch again using a larger needle size.  If the pattern gauge is 5 sts / inch and you got 4.5 sts / inch, your stitches are TOO BIG.  You need to swatch again using a smaller needle size.  Make sense?

Once you have finished your swatch you may want to label it. This can save you time later if you are using the same yarn and needles!

::: WHY BOTHER CHECKING GAUGE? :::

Say you want to knit a sweater… to fit your 40″ bust.  The pattern gauge is 20 sts / 4″ (or 5 sts per inch), and the suggested needles are 4.5mm (US 7).  You choose a worsted weight yarn and cast on 200 stitches with the suggested needles.  But you are a slightly looser knitter, and you get a gauge of 4.5 stitches / inch.

200 sts / 5 sts per inch = 40 inches (the sweater fits)

200 sts / 4.5 sts per inch = 44.5 inches (the sweater is 4.5″ too big at your bust… and probably WAY too big everywhere else.  This is especially tragic because you spent 40 to 50 hours knitting it, plus spent significant money on beautiful yarn).

What seems like a very small difference in gauge has very significant ramifications in the finished size of a garment.  Taking an hour to knit a gauge swatch can save you hours and prevent disappointing results.

sadfirstsweater

wah wah :(

::: SOMETIMES… gauge just doesn’t matter :::

There are, of course, projects in which gauge is not very important, because fit is less crucial.  If you are working a cowl, or a scarf, a shawl, a blanket, or even a hat, slight differences in finished size will be less important or evident.  For the blanket, cowl, and scarf, the finished size isn’t too critical. For the hat, there are really only so many stitches so you can only be off by so much. It’s also just a hat so a few hours of knitting to find out it’s too big or small isn’t as killer as a sweater (personal experience). So in these cases it is up to you whether making a gauge swatch is worthwhile!

40 Comments leave one →
  1. Catherine Gagnon permalink
    December 30, 2016 6:51 pm

    I am embarking in this great journey of knitting my first sweater for me. reading the flaxlight gauge in pattern says: 24 sts & 32 rounds / 4″ stockinette on larger needles.

    I will make this with the 3.75 mm (that is the larger needle recommended)
    not sure how many sts I should cast on?
    I will be making it in the round

    then I am not sure I understand how to check the gauge?

    take a section of 4″x 4″ and measure stitches, should be at 24sts, where does the 32 rounds come in the picture?

    • January 1, 2017 10:00 pm

      Hi Catherine – for all the info on gauge you can check out our gauge tutorial here: https://blog.tincanknits.com/2013/08/17/gauge/

      • Catherine Gagnon permalink
        January 4, 2017 7:40 pm

        I read that tutorial, and then posted my question here! I guess I was not clear in my question ?

      • January 5, 2017 10:13 am

        Hi Catherine – To make a gauge swatch I typically cast on about 6″ worth of stitches using the needle size suggested by the pattern. If the pattern gauge is 5 sts / inch (5 sts x 6″ = 30) then cast on approximately 30 stitches. (that info is in the tutorial)

        For the 32 that is number of rounds you will want to achieve in 4 inches, HOWEVER for the Flax Light it is less critical since most of the sweater involved ‘knit to’ lengths rather than ‘knit x rounds’

  2. Martha Adams permalink
    November 28, 2016 7:58 pm

    Just found your site although, I haven’t been knitting that long. Thank you so much for the lessons. I read all the questions to try to learn more. I think you do a great job with explanations. I do have one question. I was trying to get a correct gauge with a linen/cotton yarn. I used needles, #8, #7, #6, #5. There was almost no difference in gauge. I was trying to get 5 sts to inch but would only come out to 4.5 sts. I usually don’t have that particular problem although getting a correct gauge takes me quite some time. Do you have any suggestions?

  3. August 17, 2016 10:43 am

    I have done 2 swatches. Cannot get correct needle size figured out. I think the best things to do is just make a smaller size. What do you think?

    • August 24, 2016 9:50 am

      Hi Irene – it depends on what you are knitting and how ‘off’ your gauge is….

  4. Joanne permalink
    June 30, 2016 10:52 am

    Hello, just fell upon your blog and find it so helpful since I’m struggling with a sweater pattern I have. I’m onto my 4th swatch to try to get correct gauge (14 st=4 in) with size 10 needles. I need to use #11 to get that gauge and find it very ‘loosy’…afraid it will change the look of the sweater. I must mention that the pattern calls for aran yarn and I’m using DK…this lovely yarn I have (Berroco Vintage DK). Should I proceed with the size 11 or give up and start a different pattern which calls for DK yarn? There is quite a difference in size between the size 10 & the 11. Hope you can offer a suggestion! Joanne

    • June 30, 2016 2:34 pm

      I think you will get a very different sweater if you are using a 22 stitch gauge yarn (DK) in place of a 16 stitch gauge yarn (Aran), so the changes you would need to make are probably greater. You may need to knit a different size, or make further adjustments to the pattern to accommodate

  5. Daisy permalink
    May 19, 2016 1:47 pm

    Is gauge knitted in round or flat for flax sweater?

  6. Claire permalink
    April 20, 2016 11:59 am

    Hello, I am starting to knit a Harvest cardigan and have two questions. I have recently discovered “tincan knits” so thank you for these tutorials and free patterns. This is the first time that I have knit something that the gauge matters and have two questions. The first being are swatches included in the overall estimated yardage? I am worried if I knit too many swatches I will run out of wool for the harvest. And secondly, prior to blocking, I am hitting the suggested size (4″) with 4.5mm needles, so should I then perhaps so to 3.75 for the main body of the knitting? Hope that makes sense to you.

    • April 21, 2016 9:17 am

      Hi Claire – definitely check out our gauge tutorial for more tips. You can always unravel your swatches and use the yarn if need be, so don’t worry too much about ‘over swatching’. You definitely want to block your swatches, you are going to block your finished sweater so you want to treat your swatch the same way. If you are getting gauge on 4.5mm needles those will be the larger needles. You will use needles 2 sizes smaller for the cuffs, so a 3.75mm makes sense.

  7. Sara Elsholz permalink
    February 15, 2016 10:36 am

    First of all – Thank you so much for the flax pattern! I have never done a pullover before, but I am certain, that I will get there in the end.
    So, before I get started I did the gauge. I found this perfect wool, but it’s quite bulky…
    My gauge is 8st and 9 rows in a 2″x2″ square with 8mm needles. The pattern requires 18sts and 22 rows. I have never made a gauge before or worked exactly with a pattern. Is it possible to make the pullover with thicker wool? How can I calculate the needed stiches I need to start?

    I hope I was able to give you an idea of my problem! Thanks in advance! :)

    • February 22, 2016 2:47 pm

      Hi Sara – sounds like you are getting 16 sts per 4 inches in your current yarn and needles. That isn’t TOO far off from the pattern gauge, I would maybe adjust the size you are making.

  8. Shelly Mitchell permalink
    January 23, 2016 10:11 pm

    I am going to make Flax Light for my very first sweater. It is for a newborn baby gift. I purchased Socks that Rock yarn in medium weight. I was able to get gauge with a size 3 needle. My question is, there are two needle sizes listed, a 2 and a 5. The gauge was based on the larger, but my “larger” is a 3. Since this is the case do I need to decrease the size of the size 2 needle?

  9. Barb permalink
    December 21, 2015 10:13 am

    I would like to make your Harvest cardigan with chunky yarn (Brett Marble Chunky). Using sz 10 needles, my gauge is 15 sts/4 in. The pattern wants 18 sts/4 in. I want to make a size S for a tall 12 yr old. I don’t really want to use a smaller needle.

    • December 21, 2015 8:35 pm

      Hi Barb – while I think making yarn substitutions is great, that is quite a difference. If it were for a little one (3 and under) I would just do a size or 2 down and know they would grow into it, but for a 12 year old fit is a little more important. If you are willing to do the math and alter the pattern go for it, otherwise I would stick with a yarn and pattern that match.

  10. Kellie S permalink
    November 16, 2015 8:40 pm

    Hello. I’m working up a swatch for your Maize Mitts pattern. I got stitch gauge with a size 7 needle, but am off a little on row gauge. How critical is row gauge? Thanks for the lovely free patterns.

    • November 17, 2015 8:41 am

      Row gauge isn’t too important! You can simply knit to length, so you just may use a little bit more or less yardage than called for.

  11. Gillian permalink
    July 23, 2015 8:12 am

    Can you please help, my friend has a pattern that says to do a swatch in a bigger size (7mm) needle than the actual pattern (5.5mm) I’ve never seen this before can you help please?

    • July 27, 2015 12:06 pm

      Hi Gillian – sorry, I don’t know why it would suggest that. Perhaps contacting the designer directly?

  12. Red permalink
    June 1, 2015 7:55 am

    What if the gauge is different from the actual pattern? I got this knitting book that reads: Gauge 16 stitches and 22 rows= 4 inches in stockinette stitch. However the pattern’s instructions reads: Front and Back: Cast on 55 stitches (60•65 stitches), and this is followed by the instructions for the pattern. I’m confused by the gauge and cast on though. Why are they different from each other?

    • June 1, 2015 11:21 am

      Hi – I’m not sure I understand the question. The gauge is the number of sts you get per 4″ (so, theoretically, if you cast on 16 sts and work 22 rows in stockinette you would get a 4 inch square). For the pattern, you are casting on the number of sts for the front and back of the garment, you would need a lot more than 4 inches to make the front or back of a sweater. Does that help?

  13. Chris permalink
    March 9, 2015 8:06 am

    This is an amazing site for knitters. Wow I’m excited to make the flax sweater
    Thanks
    Chris

  14. Suzanne permalink
    December 10, 2014 12:17 am

    And if we are working in the round, must our gauge swatch be worked in the round as well ?

    • December 12, 2014 9:05 am

      It is ideal since gauge over knit sts is often different from gauge over purl sts.

      • Rhonda permalink
        May 10, 2016 10:41 pm

        Do you actually work it in the round with DPNs? Or that flat method of doing gauge in the round that seems to use a ton of yarn?

      • May 13, 2016 9:29 am

        Well, if it is a garment that I’m knitting in the round I will probably just do a wee hat to check gauge, it uses up more yarn but then I get something useful out of it. Or, because I know that my gauge in the round and my gauge flat is about the same, I will just swatch flat (although this doesn’t work for everyone). While the other method of swatching for working in the round does use a little more yarn, you can always frog your swatch and use the yarn again.

  15. Dawn Carter permalink
    November 5, 2014 8:56 am

    How much stretch should I allow for stockinette stitch when trying to decide how many stitches to cast on for a hat? I got my gauge as close as I could. 5.5 st/in, for a hat pattern written for 6 st/in. At my gauge the finished measurement will be the exact diameter of the head, without stretch. What percentage of stitches should I reduce to allow for stretch?

    • November 6, 2014 11:28 pm

      You would want a little negative ease for a hat, meaning you will want the finished measurement for the hat to be a bit smaller than the head it’s meant for, how much will depend on your design desires but an inch or so of negative ease should work. Don’t forget to wash and block your swatch to get the full picture of your gauge.

  16. Elizabeth permalink
    October 12, 2014 11:04 am

    I am having a hard time figuring out what needle size to use for your Flax pattern, I am using Cascade 220 superwash and my swatch was 5.5 stitches with size needles.

    • October 17, 2014 2:32 pm

      Try going down a needle size and making another swatch, should get you closer to the right gauge

  17. August 18, 2014 2:01 pm

    I’m a bit confused–my unblocked gauge matched the pattern (in a size 9 needle) but my blocked gauge swatch is now 16 stitches per inch instead of 18. What should I do?

    • August 18, 2014 10:52 pm

      Good question. Because you are going to block your sweater, you will want to go down a needle size at least. You don’t want a sweater that is too big!

  18. April 1, 2014 7:49 pm

    I want to knit the Flax in the 6-12 mos size. How important is gauge when knitting for babies/toddlers? I know some knitters go with the “well-it-will-fit-at-some-point” logic. How many stitches/rows do you recommend knitting when doing a gauge swatch for Flax in the 6-12 mos size?

    • April 2, 2014 2:42 pm

      If you want the knit to come out to the specified size, I would swatch the same way as for an adult (I am one of those ‘it’ll fit someone’ knitters though so I usually won’t swatch and will knit a size larger than the kid is). Cast on about 30 sts for your swatch, that will give you an accurate picture of what your gauge is. Remember to always wash/block your swatch too!

  19. adamalia permalink
    December 25, 2013 11:50 pm

    Very very well explained. You convinced me too. Thanky you.

  20. Helen Stephens permalink
    October 2, 2013 1:22 pm

    Ok, you’ve convinced me!!!!
    Thank you so much for making the reason to swatch VERY clear.
    Lovley blog and so many delightful ideas and patterns. This grandma is still learning new tricks – long may it ( and Tin Can Knits) continue.
    Cheers,
    Helen
    Brisbane

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