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?
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.
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.