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The Gauge Old Question: Why Gauge Matters

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The Gauge Old Question: Why Gauge Matters

If you’ve followed a few patterns you probably have seen “save time, check your gauge!” or some encouraging form of this instruction. But why does gauge matter and how can it actually save you time?


What Is Gauge? What Does It Do?

Before we go any further, let’s look at what gauge is. Simply speaking, gauge is the number of stitches and rows/rounds per inch. The reason it’s important is the designer used these stitches per inch to determine calculations for how many stitches wide, or long, your piece needs to be to achieve the desired measurement in inches. For example, if you want a sweater that is 40″ around and the pattern is calling for 5 stitches per inch (20 stitches = 4″) than you will need 200 stitches for the entire circumference of the sweater.

5 stitches per inch x 40″ circumference = 200 stitches

If you are working a little looser than the designer and are getting only 4.5 stitches per inch (18 stitches = 4″) and you still cast on the 200 stitches you will end up with a larger sweater. You can figure this out by taking the cast on number (or stitch count in crochet) and dividing it by the stitches per inch you are getting:

200 stitches divided by 4.5 stitches per inch = 44.44″

Now your sweater will be about 4.5 inches larger than your goal of 40″

To fix this you would try swatching the specified stitch pattern on smaller needles to achieve the 5 stitches per inch that the designer called for.


Lion Brand yarn swatches

Swatch shows knitting in LB Collection® Chainette in “Seafoam,” Homespun® in “Pearls”, & a crochet piece in the background using Color Made Easy ® in “Smoky Quartz”


Save Time, Check Gauge

Now we know what gauge is and what it’s used for. With that information you might be able to take a guess as to how checking gauge can actually save time in the long run. If not then I have a little tale of my own for you…

Years ago when I was an eager new knitter I too saw gauge swatching as a tedious and seemingly meaningless task. It was like pattern writers just wanted to add some frustration before getting down to the fun part. (Also, I had nobody to explain to me why it was important or even what it really was. It seemed similar to when you open a box of hair dye and it says to do a strand test and wait 24 hours for results. Who does that? It’s procrastinating the good part! Right?)

I found yarn and a pattern and went forth to knit up a hoodie sweater using worsted weight and US size 8 needles. Now, I was a newbie, so this in itself was no small feat. I took my time and made sure the stitches looked smooth. I seamed it together carefully like a pro (honestly I think I sewed it 10,000x better than I do now). I was pretty nervous as I was finishing it, but it really did look great. (Reach around and pat myself on the back.) Then I tried it on. Ummmm…. yeah…. I could have fit two of me and my little sister in it at the same time. I was crushed. Why was it so huge?! I used the recommended needle size and the correct yarn for the pattern, so what happened? Gauge happened. I grabbed a ruler and measured and that’s when I discovered something that would follow me through my knitter career. I’m a super loose knitter.

If I had taken the time to work a gauge swatch using those size 8 needles and my worsted yarn I would have noticed I had fewer stitches per inch than the pattern wanted me to have. But I didn’t do that. Instead of taking the little bit of extra time to check gauge and figure this out I spent hours, days, weeks of my life knitting something that never had a chance of fitting me.

After you’ve been knitting (or crocheting) and following patterns for a little while you begin to notice if you’re generally looser or tighter than most patterns suggest for certain yarn/needle/hook/stitch combinations. Now I know to start with smaller needles than any pattern calls for. And check my gauge!

Note: Gauge is only critical for projects that require a certain fit like sweater, hats, mittens, etc. For projects with more flexible sizing like blankets, shawls, or scarves you do not need to be as conscious. However, always keep in mind that being off of gauge will not only change the finished size of your project, but could also change the amount of yardage used.

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13 Comments

  • I never check gauge, never have never will. In fact I cheat all the time. Here is my trick. Because I’m a busty gal sweaters cost a lot of money and take a lot of yarn, so what I do is knit two sizes down with wood needles or plastic needles and BA’! It fits! I used less yarn (like way less always have left over) and it just works. I haven’t failed yet. Worsted weight yarn is so thick now anyway that it doesn’t even effect drape.

  • How about telling us where we can get the gauge that you show in the picture?

  • Even when I check the gauge I can never get the right tension. I either have the right number of rows and the wrong number of stitches or the right number of stitches and the wrong number of rows. I once ended up trying to work Aran weight yarn on really small crochet hook and still couldn’t get it right.ive abandoned trying to do anything where the gauge really matters which is very disappointing. I am running out of people to make scarves and blankets for!

    • I usually advise people to get the stitches per inch and ignore the rows/rnds. Most patterns you can get away with this. There are some that won’t work, but generally speaking many designers will indicate the length directions in inches/cm instead of rows or rnds. And if they do specify rows/rnds for length instructions you can determine the measurement. For example, if the pattern is working at 6 rows per inch and the designer says for 11 rows and then work a decrease row you can see that those 12 rows should = 2″ and therefore you would decrease after 2 inches.

  • I have been knitting and crocheting since I was teenager. I taught myself crochet as a pre-teen. I still haven’t mastered gauge, as in, getting it perfectly right. You would think after 50 yrs I’d figure it out. I seem to do everything too large no matter how I try. . I started crocheting one of these wonderful kimono patterns, that are so popular, figuring I can’t mess up.—- It’s a nice blanket, really it is! My friends are accostomed to everything being a bit large. That said, they love my tatting.
    The irony is my mother used to be able to pick up a pair of needles or a crochet hood, some yarn, and make a decent sweater without a pattern. Her mother taught her that bit of magic back in Italy. I usually find myself splitting yarns by the time the crochet hook/knitting needles are fine enough to get the right size.

  • I’ve been checking my gauge before beginning to make prayer shawls that should be at least 60 inches long and somehow they always end up not long enough! When I’m using circular needles and attempting to measure after I get several rows done, I can see that it won’t be as long as I want but starting over after all that casting on, just feels like such a waste of time that I usually add on rows at each end. I know I’m doing something wrong…but just can’t get it right.

    • Unfortunately sometimes as much as we can check before we begin, gauge can change. It can vary based on your mood and how relaxed or stressed you are!

  • I used to never check a Gauge for anything. I’ve been pretty consistent on size (I don’t do sweaters at all), and have enough of a yarn stash to cover just about any project.
    I do teach about Gauge in my beginning knit/crochet classes. They can see by the samples I have from hook size D through K using the same yarn and same number of stitches that hook size makes a difference. I need to do the same with knitting needles, but the knitters get the point that “size matters” when it comes to tool as well as yarns.
    I know there are Gauge tools out there, but most of them have a 2″x2″ window when most patterns ask for a 4″x4″ size swatch measurement. I wish some company would make a 4″x4″ window swatch measuring tool. That would help me out a lot both with my projects and teaching others.

  • I knit extremely tight stitches so should I use larger needles or just cast on more stitches? And then how do I determine the needle size or number of stitches to adjust? Thanks

    • If you’re following a pattern and have more stitches per inch (knitting tighter) than you should use a larger needle size in order to hit the correct number of stitches per inch. It is also possible to increase the stitch count to get the correct finish size, but this would take math and an understanding of how the garment is constructed. I’ve had some people tell me they went 2 or 3 sizes up or down to achieve the necessary gauge. I personally always begin gauge swatching with a needle one size smaller for wool and 2 sizes smaller for cotton because I’ve noticed my trend of knitting so loosely. It’s all practice!

  • I don’t sweat gauge because I adjust the pattern for whatever gauge I am getting with the particular yarn I’m using, on the needles, I want to use. (worsted weight is US#6s) I don’t even try to get the pattern’s gauge. This revelation (use the gauge you are getting) was pointed out to me in a book by Ann Budd when I was a newbie knitter. If I happen to be using yarn in the weight the pattern calls for, great, if not no big deal.

  • I have started saving my gauge swatches and sewing them together into afghans. It helps me to remember all of my projects, even the ones I gave away.

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