It’s the ultimate test of self-control. You’re eager to start a new sweater project – all the beautiful yarn is sitting on the couch next to you, the pattern is waiting on your lap, and the recommended needle is in your hands. Why in the world would you knit a tiny, seemingly useless square when you could be starting on the actual sweater?
I’m here to tell you (because I’ve learned the hard way, many times over) that a gauge in knitting is the key to avoiding a lot of future irritation and frustration. Sure, for scarves and afghans you can get away without one, but when you’re knitting a sweater or anything else that needs to fit, resist the urge to just blindly cast on!
When we’re writing a pattern, we base all of the stitch numbers for every size on a knit gauge (or swatch). Whether it’s stockinette or another stitch, that’s what we use to calculate everything for the rest of the pattern. If I measure my gauge swatch and it has 5 stitches in every inch, and the sweater I’m designing needs to measure 18” across the bust, I will multiply those 5 stitches by 18 inches and write the pattern so there will be 90 stitches across the bustline.
The potential for frustration comes from the fact that each individual has their own way of knitting, which naturally results in variation. Some people are very tight knitters, others knit very loosely, and some are right in the middle. Even when everyone is using the same exact yarn and needle size, three different knitters could get three different results. And no one’s doing anything wrong – that’s just how things go.
If you’re going to knit my pattern and your gauge swatch also happens to have 5 stitches in every inch, your sweater will measure 18” across the bust, too. But if your gauge swatch only has 4 1/2 stitches in every inch and you go ahead and follow the pattern exactly as written, you’ll end up with a measurement of 20” across the bust – and a sweater that’s too wide.
The solution to the problem is to figure out where you stand with regards to the gauge, then make adjustments accordingly to ensure that everything will work out as planned. One important way you can alleviate some of the difficulty is by using the recommended yarn for the pattern. Substituting yarns can potentially open up a whole other can of worms! Go for the recommended yarn, and then start swatching with the recommended needle size. Make it at least 4” wide so you can get a really accurate measurement later. Knit in the appropriate stitch pattern until your swatch is 4” long, then bind off. If you’re planning to block the finished sweater, you’ll want to block the swatch, too. I know it sounds kind of obsessive, but sometimes it really makes a difference especially with lace knitting, for example.
When you’re ready to measure the swatch, lay it on a flat surface and measure how many stitches fit into 4” (measuring across 4” is more accurate than measuring across 1”). Compare this number with the gauge for your pattern. You should also check how many rows fit into 4” and compare this with the pattern. If you’ve got too many stitches or rows, try going up to the next needle size and make a second swatch. If you’re coming out with less stitches or rows, try going down a needle size. It can take a couple of tries, but your efforts to match the gauge will not be wasted. Remember, it’s much easier to knit a second swatch than it is to rip out half of a sweater!