On Swatching for Gauge

A knitter wrote to me this morning, wondering if she had misinterpreted something or done something wrong because she could not get the 32 x 38 stitches per 4″ gauge for a Dale Baby Ull pattern (Peace Sweater).  Her stitches, and resulting swatch, were too small.  She was surprised because she had even tried needles one size larger, but that didn’t change things appreciably. As she had said, “Usually my gauge is only off 1-2 stitches regardless of yarn/needles I use.”

I was happy to respond to her because it gave me the chance to write up something to share with all of you regarding one of the most important steps in all of Knitting.  Here’s my response:

I don’t think you’re doing anything “wrong”, per se and it’s great that you’re checking your gauge. You just need to keep testing and adjusting accordingly. And that’s perfectly normal and good.  In fact, it’s so good that I’m going to share your question (anonymously) and my answer on my blog, for this really gets at the most important question knitters can ask about getting a satisfactory fit from their projects.
If you could take any given yarn on the planet and ask all knitters on the planet what size needles they ended up having to use to achieve one pattern’s gauge (or one ball band gauge), you’d end up with a very wide range of needle sizes.  The majority of knitters would typically fall within a range of four or five needle sizes; but, as with any large, statistically significant population, there could be some real outliers, too. When you look at the big picture, you see that there are myriad variations, not only in any yarn’s characteristics and any available needle sizes, but also in knitting methodologies and personal knitting tensions, and it’s helpful to remember that those disparities arise both on the pattern publisher’s and the pattern user’s sides. Even for an individual knitter, one’s own knitting tension can vary over time.  Not only is it possible that two different needles marked as the very same size can have slight variations, it’s also possible – indeed, common – that knitters can get considerably different gauges when using the very same needle size, but in different materials.  For instance, the drag on wooden needles frequently produces a noticeably looser gauge than the slickness of metal needles of the very same size.
Sadly, it’s not uncommon to hear some knitters say, “Oh, I’m an ‘average’ knitter – I never have to check gauge!”, but that’s simply a senseless notion. When you think of all of the possible permutations of the many variables involved, no matter how experienced any knitter might be, it’s impossible to predict exactly where any of us might fall in the perfect needle size selection game.  If we have predetermined dimensions in mind for our projects, unless we’ve used the same, specific pattern/yarn/needle size/needle type combination within the recent past, not only should we do a gauge swatch before diving in, as you’re doing; we should keep testing different needle sizes until we find the best match for us, whether we’re using the finest wires or giant tree trunks.  The “right” needle size is nothing other than the size that works for you.
I can share a couple of time-saving observations from my own experience:
#1, take good notes!  Keep a file showing the date, project, yarn, needle size, needle make, needle material, stitch type and your resulting gauge for every swatch you make.  While I eternally advise swatching before diving in, at least by checking where your gauge fell the last time you used the same variables, you can usually narrow the swatching experience down to one or two tries. (Or not.)
#2, consider the other person’s / project’s viewpoint!  Maybe your dear friend A is the world’s greatest sock knitter.  If so, he probably uses an extra small needle size, since he probably wants his socks extra warm and durable. Maybe he’d tell you to use a needle size smaller than you want. On the other hand, maybe your dear friend B is the world’s greatest lace knitter.  She probably uses an extra large needle size, to make her lace airy and fluid. Maybe she’d suggest a needle size larger than you want. Similarly, the yarn labeler &/or pattern writer at yarn manufacturer X might use the Continental / “picking” method of knitting; maybe at manufacturer Y, the American/British “throwing” method dominates.  By just turning the wrist an extra degree or two, folks at manufacturer X (let’s call them “Dale” 😋) can significantly loosen up their gauge versus what the very same yarn/needle combination might get for the designers (and yarn labelers) at Y.
I hope you’ve found this helpful.  *Happy swatching…and note taking!  (Repeat from *! 😊)
Mary Ann



About twostrands

Traditional knitting with a colorful twist. Website = MaryAnnStephens.com.
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