Does Gauge Matter?

People joke about gauge swatches (in fact, I’ve seen a button that says “Swatching is for sissies!”), but let’s talk about  it. Does gauge really matter? Do you need to do a gauge swatch with each new project? The answer is yes. And no. Yes it really does matter. No, you don’t necessarily need to do one for each new project, depending on what you’re knitting.

I had 12 people around here do a swatch using the same instructions, the same ball of yarn, and the same pair of needles. I washed and blocked the squares and here they are. Twelve people, twelve different results:

Swatches-The-Loopy-Ewe-1

And here is the largest next to the smallest:

Swatches-The-Loopy-Ewe-2

No one had the same sized swatch in both stitches plus rows per 4″. Small and Large Swatch The Loopy EweHere are the stats:

Wendy     17 st,        26 rows
Roberta   16.5 st,     26.5 rows
Sheryl      17.5 st,     26 rows
Jenny       18 st,        27 rows
Rebecca   18.5 st,     29 rows
Jody         20 st,        28 rows
Lynn        20 st,        30 rows
Michael    20.5 st,     31 rows
Cathy       21.5 st,     30 rows
Sheri        22 st,        29 rows
Julia         21 st,        32 rows
Anne        22 st,        30 rows

We used Cascade 220 Superwash in the recommended needle size (size 7). They say the gauge will be 20-22 stitches per 4″. Our gauge ranged from 17 – 22. Our row gauge ranged from 26 – 32. Those few stitches and few rows can make the difference between a sweater fitting or not.

How? Let’s say you’re getting a gauge of 20 stitches per 4 inches (which is 5 per 1 inch), and the pattern calls for 18 stitches per 4 inches (4.5 per 1 inch). You think, “Half a stitch difference – that’s good enough.” But you have to remember that it’s half a stitch for each inch. If you are making a 30″ sweater and your pattern tells you to cast on 135 stitches, that will give you 30″ at the 4.5  st/inch gauge that the pattern calls for. If you are knitting at a 5 st/in gauge and cast on 135 stitches (as the pattern calls for), that will give you 27″. Your sweater will be 3″ smaller than you were expecting.

How do you adjust your stitch gauge? Generally, if you’re getting more stitches per inch than the pattern calls for, then your stitches are too small. Try going up a needle size. Bigger needles equal bigger stitches equal less stitches per inch.

If you’re getting less stitches per inch than the pattern calls for, then your stitches are too big. Try going down a needle size. Smaller needles equal smaller stitches equal more stitches per inch.

Sometimes you might have to go up or down more than one size. And remember, the same size needle but from a different company (or out of a different material) can also affect the gauge. You may find that using Addi Turbo’s instead of ChiaoGoo’s in the same size, will change your gauge. Or using bamboo needles instead of metal needles. For our Elf Test, we all used the exact same set of needles so our differences come just from tension and the way we all knit.

What if you match on stitch gauge but not row gauge? Generally, matching stitch gauge is more important. Many sweater patterns will tell you to knit x-amount of inches (or centimeters), and that’s easy to measure. It can become more of an issue if you’re knitting a very fitted sweater, or raglan sleeves, or doing a lot of increasing or decreasing and the directions are given row by row. Many times the pattern will come with schematics (a diagram with measurements of the different sections) so you can adjust accordingly. You can also do the math – see what the length would be at their row gauge, and translate the into your row gauge.

Which projects don’t need a gauge swatch? I don’t usually swatch for socks. I swatched the first few times, and now I know that when I use most regular fingering weight yarns, I will need to do 64 stitches on a size 1 needle. If it’s a little thinner fingering weight, I’ll do 68-72 stitches. I try to knit at a gauge of 8 stitches to the inch for socks in fingering weight yarn.

I also don’t swatch for scarves, shawls, mitts, mittens and gloves. Most mitten and glove patterns have enough “give” in the pattern, that using the recommended size needle and yarn ends up being about right for me. Scarves and shawls are wrap-ables and don’t have to fit specifically. If you know you’re a tight knitter, you might just plan to go up a needle size or two on these projects. If you know you’re a loose knitter, you might just plan to go down a needle size or two on these projects. (If you find it hard to go with the “good enough” philosophy, you might just need to swatch it all!) The more you knit, the more you’ll get to know your own tension, and the easier it will work with and adjust the results.

So – how often to you swatch?

Coming next week – how to correctly knit and measure a gauge swatch.

Coming on Friday – the winner from this blog contest. Be sure to get in on it.

Sheri I’llalsotellyouaboutthepattern
thatalloftheLoopyElvesdecidedtomake

52 comments

  1. I pretty much never swatch. I start most sweaters with a sleeve, which is roughly the same as a swatch – if it’s working, I’m further along than if I’d swatched, and if not, well, it was basically a test swatch anyway! The only thing I’m likely to swatch for is lace to see how open I want the lace to end up.

  2. Thanks for some really interesting evidence that even I can’t ignore! I rarely swatch, but I rarely knit sweaters. Gauge is one of the big reasons, but I may attempt a sweater in the near future with this valuable information.

  3. People underestimate the power of swatching! Even for projects that don’t have to fit, the yarn requirements are calculated based on gauge. So if you are way off gauge, you may have too much or too little yarn. Swatching is also a great way to see how a yarn behaves with a stitch pattern and how it changes with washing. I maintain you should always block your swatch in the same way you plan to block your finished project. (Superwash yarns often grow quite a bit, for example.) And, like you said, needles matter! The material, circular vs. straight, brand, etc. Definitely swatch with the same needles you plan to knit with. Oh, I could go on and on and on! 🙂

  4. I almost always swatch because I knit loose and usually have to go down a needle size. Today, I swatched and actually came out with the needle size that was called for in the pattern. I would rather know before getting too far on a project. Thanks for your experiment.

  5. I just took my very first knitting class. I’m making a top down sweater and yes we went over gauges. Yes, I did one and love this post to reinforce doing gauges.

  6. Sheri – What a helpful post! I tend to avoid swatching like the plague – but I also have never made anything that needed to “fit” – at least not yet. I would say I’m a tight knitter and would therefore take your suggestions about needle size into consideration. Thanks again for keeping things interesting and always teaching us something new. 🙂 Looking forward to the measuring a gauge swatch post as that was my next logical question – I’ve never done it before, how on Earth? You get the gist… lol 🙂

  7. The amount that I knit to check gauge is not what I would consider a swatch — I do as little as necessary to determine what my stitches/inch are. I know this is not a good thing, but in most cases, it has worked for me. I do sometimes takes notes as to what needle works with what particular yarn, so that if I use that yarn again, I have a good idea what size to use.

  8. Gauge can change with the type of needle, too. I started a Christmas stocking with double points, then switched midway to a circular (because I got tired of the dpns) in the same size. There is a very visible difference in my gauge in the stocking where I switched. So, whatever technique you start with, stick with it!

  9. This is the most interesting post I’ve seen on the subject of gauge and why it matters. I really love the experiment, and the data. I’m exactly like you on the items I don’t swatch for (which also happen to describe 95% of the items I ever try to knit, hmmm.). I can knit socks in my sleep and they always fit, but my few sweater attempts have been humorous disasters. On socks I use 1’s or 2’s depending on yarn thickness, and 60-64 stiches, again depending on the yarn, and I am good to go.

  10. I do swatches for sweaters, but I have a hard time measuring. I think it’s tricky trying to measure something stretchy. Do you have any tips for the best way or place or measuring tools to get the most accurate measurement from your swatch?

  11. Love the photo of all the different swatches! That’s one of the best demos I’ve seen of how much each individual knitter can affect gauge. I’m one of the rare people who enjoys swatching for a big project. I’m a math person so I do find satisfaction in the process of pre-knitting calculations to ensure a project will fit right (I’ve not yet knit a sweater that doesn’t fit just like I want). But more than that, I feel like it’s a chance to get to know the yarn, see how it works with my needles, how it washes up & blocks out, and generally figure out whether there is anything else I want to change before casting on for a sweater or something large. But if it’s a smaller project where size doesn’t matter or it’s not a big deal to rip back, I may start the project & just check gauge as I go.

  12. I swatch for sweaters (most of the time). An adult-sized sweater, yes absolutely. A baby sweater, most of the time. I definitely don’t swatch for socks, mittens, hats, scarves, etc. This occasionally results in “gauge denial” – I had to reknit a colorwork mitten twice because it came out way too small on the recommended needle size. I’ve never meet a blooming yarn where a swatch or project grows a lot after being blocked. I might change my mind about swatching if I encounter this. I read a post by Amy Herzog once about defining the stitch count differently – it’s easier to determine if you’re at 4.00 or 4.125 or 4.25 inches than to determine if you’re dealing with a quarter or half of a stitch, so she recommends counting total stitches in about 4 inches and then measuring the distance very accurately rather than determining what fraction of stitches fit in exactly 4 inches. I thought this was a great idea and I’ll try it next time.

    I also have an issue with “stupidity denial” – I had to reknit a mitten for my husband because bulky weight is close enough to worsted that I can use the needle size and number of stitches called for in the worsted pattern instead of doing math, right? Um, no.

  13. I only swatch for things where fit matters: sweaters, mostly. I don’t even swatch for hats most of the time, though if it looks too big or too small, I’ll take it out. I rather like Elizabeth Zimmerman’s take on swatches. Rather than do a swatch, she suggested doing a sleeve to test your gauge if you’re making a sweater, or making something like a hat, so that it doesn’t feel like a throw away, but rather like you’re actually making something. I took Ann Budd’s class at the last Spring Fling, and she suggested that you swatch, check your gauge if you like the fabric, and then pick the size in the pattern that will give you the size you need. In other words, don’t change your needles, change which of the pattern sizes you do.

    Which might explain why my stash is so extensive. 😉 I always buy extra yarn, in case it’s the largest size.

  14. I do a lot of shawls and don’t swatch for them, but tend to look at how I like the fabric after I have knit a bit, and adjust if needed. BUT, I am getting ready to knit a Nuvem and will be swatching. Any time I am planning to knit an acre of fabric, well, it makes a lot more sense to spend a little time swatching, than a lot of time reknitting. JMO, of course!

  15. I don’t swatch shawls but I knit loose so I always go down a needle size. I always swatch a sweater no matter how many times I have used a yarn like 220. Socks I need 60-64 stitches on a size 1 but I knit toe up so I try those on as I go. Love the blog!

  16. I swatch pretty faithfully. I knit tightly when knitting back and forth in rows, but very loosely if in the round. And my ribbing is hella loose …especially if I am using a new yarn, I consider my swatches to be the first date. That “getting to know each other” period.

  17. Wow! One great post! Thanks, Sheri!
    I must be pretty anal retentive cause I have been swatching since almost the beginning of when I really caught on to knitting. Except for the 4 shawl items that I have made. I even swatched for my mitts (Loopy challenge project last winter) cause I wanted to make sure I would have enough yarn. I am working on socks now for the current challenge- I did swatch for those. I think I’m kind of a tight knitter but am trying to loosen up. :). Wow, that statement could be deep meaning in many ways, right?! Tee- hee. :).
    Thanks for all of the info, Sheri and to all of the Loopy poster’s – I always learn something from everyone!

  18. I swatch for just about everything- big swatches. My friends laugh. Take time to save time. Easier than ripping out. I,’ll swatch for shawls, etc. if I’m concerned about having enough yarn.

  19. I am a new left-handed knitter. Lol so number one it would seem I knit backwards. I work from right needle onto my left. Whole different set of issues there. But iI was just working a gauge piece that was supposed to be 48 rows= 4 inches… I came up two tenths of an inch short… still, I am trying to decide if I should go with the needles I am using or go up a size.

  20. When I was much younger and a lot poorer I would always swatch because I had to get the most out of the time and supplies I had while raising 4 kids–does that make sense–anyway, after a few year of my gauge always being spot on I decided that I didn’t need to swatch anymore. Now with all the independent dyers and their wonderful yarns I am finding that my gauge is never what it should be so I swatch when it counts, like for sweaters and hats, but for not much else. Nevertheless this was a fantastic example of why we should swatch!

  21. I don’t swatch, but then I rarely knit sweaters. 64 stitches on size 1 for ladies socks. 66 stitches on a 1 1/2 for mens socks. I have enough family that the socks will certainly fit someone very nicely.

  22. I will swatch for sweaters/shirts aka wearables and if I am using a yarn that I’m not familiar with. But I have never swatched for a shawl or scarf or any other wrap that really doesn’t have a size/fit factor.

  23. Hi Sheri,

    Great post, but you have the math mixed up when you’re knitting at 5 spi vs. 4.5 spi. If you knit at a tighter gauge (more spi, in this case at 5 spi), you’re going to end up with a smaller finished garment if you use the same number of stitches. The larger swatches above have the smaller spi, while the smaller gauges have a larger spi.

    Alex

  24. Great illustration of what difference the gauge can make. But I think you got your example mixed up a bit. A gauge of 20 st/4″ makes a smaller garment han the gauge 18 st/4″, not bigger. With the same amount of stitches of course,

  25. Thank you for the helpful post. I will definitely keep all the information in the back of my mind as I get ready to knit another sweater. I have been a very bad girl by not swatching. I’ve been very lucky in the fact that my sweaters have all fit, but then most of my sweaters were from one designer. I will make sure to make a gauge swatch for the next sweater project. I promise!

  26. Christina and Rachel – you’re right! I changed it. Just another example of how confusing it can be to re-configure when your gauge doesn’t match. Thank you!!

  27. I crochet but I thought this was a wonderful visual representation of how different individual tensions change the size of a project. I was just trying to explain this to someone the other day. Nice job! That said, I never swatch! LOL But I don’t make clothes that has to fit. I generally do afghans, shawls, scarves, hats and things like that.

  28. Loved your piece about gauge swatches. I found out the hard way how true this is. I ruined a garment of expensive yarn. Ever since then, I test my gauge. It doesn’t take long and it’s worth it.

  29. I’m definitely a swatcher although I love EZ’s recommendation of starting sweaters with a sleeve in lieu of a standard gauge swatch. I’ve found sleeves give me better gauge guidance and a,good chance to get to know yarn. I do love to play with new yarn over different needle sizes to see how I like the yarn knit up tight through loosely. I’m a loose knitter and have some flexibility.

    Sheri, thanks to you and elves for knitting gauge swatches. I greatly appreciate the lessons you are teaching. Good solid lessons. Deborah Newton must be very please

    That sample pack of Wallmoise (spelling?) is beautiful and really get the design spirit going. Thanks!

  30. I swatch for sweaters but not much else. Socks are suppose to fit snug, scarfs, shawls etc do not matter, most hats are small enough to undo and restart (which I have done lots of times!)

  31. Maybe this goes without saying, but how do you figure out what size needle you need to go up or down? Does this mean I have to knit yet another swatch to be sure? 🙁 Or are there general guidelines you follow? I think it means I have to do another swatch if I’m way off, which makes me sad but I’ll do it.

    I’m just starting knitting after decades of crocheting and I’ve never made a garment that needed a swatch but I’ve most definitely started some and then quit. I’m taking baby steps into garments after the Christmas stocking I made that was supposed to be two socks from a women’s large sock pattern but ended up as a giant stocking. It used the entire ball of fingering weight yarn and was bigger than any man’s foot I’ve ever seen. Oops.

  32. Great advice on swatching – straight and to the point. Love your test. It brings a known fact into perspective.

    My swatch sizes are directly related to the size of the project and the value of the yarn 🙂 I don’t want to get into a lengthy project, using an expensive yarn, and have to start over when I discover it’s not going to fit. Or, worse yet, be in denial, ignore my gauge, and end up with a beautiful garment that will never be worn.

    Yes, swatches are a necessity. In addition to insuring proper fit, they give you the opportunity to evaluate the appropriateness of the yarn to the pattern and a preview of what is to come.

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