Measuring gauge

Why?

Checking your gauge is one of the most important first steps in almost any knitting or crochet projects. Only a few things like scarves of baby blankets seem to allow for skipping that essential step, and even though, one's favorites usually are of a reasonable size. It takes many years of knitting before you can pick up a yarn and some likely needles and come out with a scarf that's truly satisfactory without at least one false start, so why not make a gauge swatch right off?

Even a very slight deviation in gauge will cause some very startling results - one or even a fraction of stitch per inch may not seem like much if you're making say a mitten, but try that on a sweater and some of us could be off by 40 or 60 stitches! Good luck finding the lucky larger/smaller friend who'll inherit it after you are done crying... I heartily recommend liberating yourself from the tyranny of patterns in general by reading Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitting Without Tears (or any of her later works). It'll allow you to pick up any yarn and do what you think is best, without worrying for instance that what you're thinking of only comes in size small, bony, and minuscule. But her method of understanding the topology of the object you're trying to make and working it out from scratch rests even more than a regular pattern on measuring an accurate gauge.

How big?

So let's get something straight (so to speak) up front: when a pattern gives a desired gauge, they mean the gauge over the average of the object overall, they don't mean making any allowances for whatever method you're using to do the edges for instance, which never come out quite the same. For that matter, it's normal to have the first couple stitches in a row be a slightly different tension than the rest, what with turning and so on. So you can only measure a good gauge in the middle of a piece of knitting, your swatch must be wider than what you're measuring. And unless you're aiming for such a fine gauge that you wouldn't be able to see part of a stitch without a magnifier (like 12-14 st/"), you'd better make sure that you're making a swatch that'll be at least 3 or 4 inches wide. That means looking either at the recommended gauge on the ball of yarn, or starting with what your pattern asks for, or whatever you think will work. No casting on 5 stitches if you're aiming for 5 stitches per inch, OK? Make it at least 15-20.

Ditto for the height, you should be going on with this swatch for at least 3 (eyeballed) inches so you can later get some accurate picture of what your row gauge will be without getting snarled in cast-ons and cast-offs etc. This does not take into account the fact that you may not get into the swing of working with this yarn/needles right away, and that the first few inches may be totally worthless... So if you're doing something unfamiliar, you may do well to practice for a good while longer than 3".

Note also that some patterns want you to measure for gauge either 'over stockinette', assuming that if there's to be a pattern yours will turn out the same as theirs (which is not that bad an assumption). But others want you to measure 'over pattern' which means whatever fancy stitch you're going to end up with, and then you'd better practice before measuring if this is your first attempt at cables or lace or whatever, or you don't feel totally comfortable with this stitch right off.

Now we're only thinking here of making a swatch to measure gauge and check how large the finished object will be. But be aware that there are more reasons to make a swatch, such as checking the density and drapeability of the final fabric. Knitting is making a fabric, and how tightly or loosely you knit that yarn will determine a lot of the fabric properties, perhaps overriding some of the properties you'd expect from the yarn content. This in turn will determine what this fabric is suitable for, in terms of design and in terms of wear. I can't hope to cover it all here, but keep in mind that if you want to know whether what you're doing is going to be suitable (especially for a sweater), you should make a lot bigger swatch than just a little patch sufficient to measure gauge. In fact, a swatch that uses an entire ball is not a bad idea, but that's why people then go on to knitting machines :-).

How?

Gauge ruler Here I am going to be totally out of character and actually recommend a specialized tool. I snorted at it for years myself, wondering why anyone would need it, and have since repented thoroughly. Take a look at this innocuous little piece of metal. Looks almost like a regular ruler, doesn't it? Ah, but it has those little red teeth, which can be easily adjusted to be any distance from the other metal tooth at the beginning of the ruler, and trusted (and checked) to stay in position as long as you need it. What they do is allow you to skewer that swatch to the table, and keep it in position while you count the stitches between them, and recount them. Maybe some of you don't go cross-eyed during that delicate operation, but I sure do. And if the gauge is fat enough that it's easy to count stitches (like 2 per inch :-)), it allows for the all-important evaluation of stitch fraction above or below the obvious. It's not a coincidence that the little teeth are sharp, they help to make the measurements precise.

This measuring operation seems like something any child can do, and many in fact do it perfectly well. But there are a couple tricks to it. If you have followed the above advice, you'll be trying to measure at least 2", if not 3 or 4, so set your red teeth accordingly, count stitches over that entire length, and divide them by the number of inches to get a much better average gauge than one that would be measured over a single inch. After you skewer the swatch, you should make sure the ruler is aligned to a single row as closely as possible. If you'll recall some high school geometry from the murky depths where they all fall as soon as the grades are in, you'll remember that a line measured off the horizontal will be ever so slightly longer than the true horizontal. This difference may make the difference between a fitted sweater, and one for your little sister.

But the most important advice on measuring a swatch is the following. Most likely this swatch will be your first glimpse of the yarn in action, you'll be excited to see it, chomping at the bit to get going on the project, in short all riled up with nowhere to go yet. But pay attention. Toss the swatch on the table, lightly. If it really curls, you're allowed to perhaps pat it flat, gently, at most. Then immediately skewer it and measure right then. Temptation will be great to first smooth it out and make it all pretty. RESIST!! This is precisely what leads so many people to chronically make their stuff too small. What you want is to measure the natural knitted fabric behavior, not what happens after you stretch it. And you may not think you're stretching it a lot, but even a teeny-weeny little itty-bitty stretch will throw off your gauge enough to ensure that you'll be short. If you're lucky you'll be able to wash the thing and stretch the hell out of it and maybe then you can get into it, till the fog comes out and shrinks it right back. But why? Just measure its natural state first, and then you can play with it as you like.

It may be noted that the same applies, doubly, if you have been extra consciencious and have gone the extra step of washing the swatch before measuring. First, this is an operation which hopefully will not have involved wringing or stretching. Then even more hopefully you will have resisted the urge to stretch the thing on wherever it's drying. While we ourselves often resort to the hair dryer to see what the results of a sample will be, whether spinning or dyeing, it's something that can only lead to distortion temptation if you try it on a knitted swatch. So try to just let it lie there undisturbed, or at least plonk it down and blow-dry it without touching it in any way. You won't get total dryness, you'll just be hastening the process, but in this case you must be patient.

Fuzzy yarns

There is a hitch in all this gauge-checking if you're using yarn so extravantly fuzzy that you can't see the stitches, like all the eyelash I've been working on lately. A person can get used to knitting blindly, concentrating on one stitch at a time and trusting that the end product will be just as desired. But she can also wish to know how many $#*#$ stitches to work with, and it's indispensible to get a good gauge if you're making something wearable.

There is a simple trick:

Now all you have to do is make sure the contrasting loops aren't pulled in a funny way, and measure the distance between them! Neat, eh? Thanks to Crystal Palace for thinking of it.

You might wonder why I only give you directions for plain garter stitch. There is a reason for this: if you can't see your stitches well enough to count them, you should not be knitting anything else than garter stitch! You might think it's only a waste of time for you to make invisible patterns, but in fact they will probably show subtly in some lights, like a different dye lot would, and you'll only be setting yourself up for a nasty mess. So don't do it :-).

Thank you to Crystal Palace for permission to use their original materials.

First published: 7/24/02

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