The experience of knitting or crocheting is an adventure! It should involve a fair amount of experimentation, but also some careful planning. If you just jump into a project without any preparation, you’re likely to run into a major problem: gauge. Read this post to learn more about what gauge is and how to get gauge in knitting and crochet, to set your next project up for success.
What is Gauge?
Gauge, also known as tension, is the size of your stitches. When making a project, you want your stitches to be the same size as the ones in the pattern. So, when a pattern indicates that the gauge is 16 sts over 4 inches, you want to make sure that you’re actually knitting (or crocheting) 16 stitches over every measurement of 4 inches.
Also note that the gauge written on the label of the skein of yarn may be different than the pattern gauge. In order for your project to fit, you need to match the pattern gauge, not the yarn gauge.
Get the most out of this post!
If you really want to learn more about gauge, the best thing to do is to practice! Grab some spare worsted weight (size 4/medium) yarn and a pair of knitting needles or a crochet hook in an appropriate size (if in doubt, use the size recommended on your yarn label), and get ready to play along!
How to calculate your gauge
Before making any project that needs to fit you well (ie. a garment or hat, versus a scarf or cowl), you should make a gauge swatch. This means that you should knit or crochet a square of fabric at least 6 inches by 6 inches (you will be measuring 4 inches of stitches and you don’t want to measure all the way to the edges as those stitches tend to be distorted).
In general, you want to work your swatch in the same stitch pattern as indicated in your project pattern. In order to calculate how many stitches are in just one inch, divide the total number of gauge stitches (in this case 16) by 4 inches to get your number of stitches per inch (in this case, 4). And since you want to make your swatch at least 6 inches wide, multiply the number of stitches per inch you need by 6 inches, which in our example will equal 24 sts. (Note that in crochet, you will need to make the additional chains required for the turning chain).
Start now: Cast on 24 sts (knitting) or chain 27 (crochet – the 3 extra chains are for the turning chain). Start working in stockinette stitch or double crochet.
In general, you would start by working a swatch with the hook or needle size recommended in the pattern. Work a few inches in the gauge stitch pattern, then measure across the middle of your swatch (try to stay a few stitches away from all edges). Measure and count your stitches over 4 inches. Include any fraction of a stitch that you see, as even half of a stitch can end up adding or decreasing inches to your final garment. (Want an example? See this post about how I crocheted a vest that ended up 8 inches too small!)
Do it now: Measure your gauge swatch across the middle 4 inches. If you have…
- 16 stitches: you’re right on the mark! Keep going!
- Fewer than 16 stitches: Your stitches are too big! If you have about 15 stitches, try going down just one needle or hook size. If it’s even fewer than that, go down two sizes.
- More than 16 stitches: your stitches are too small! Go up one needle or hook size if you’ve got about 17 sts, and go up two sizes if you have more than that.
You want to make sure that you keep track of where you changed hook or needles sizes within your swatch. One way to do this is to work one row of a different stitch pattern in the old hook/needle, then go back to your gauge pattern stitch after changing hooks/needles. So, for instance, if you’re doing a knit swatch in stockinette, work one row of knit on the purl side to create a garter ridge; if you’re working a crochet swatch in double crochet, work one row in single crochet. You’ll visually see the change in stitch pattern in your overall swatch and know that that is where you switched your tool.
Do it now: Work one row in garter stitch (knit along the wrong side), or single crochet. Then change to a new needle or hook size.
You also want to make sure you know what size hook or needles are used in each section of your swatch. Keep clear notes that you can attach to your swatch later. In knitting, you can also create little yarnover holes on the first row of using the new needle, each hole indicating a number of needle (one hole for a US #1 needle, two holes for a US #2 needle, etc). Or you can put knots in the tail of your work to indicate size (one knot per needle size). In crochet, you could chain a few extra stitches that are left unworked, each chain representing a hook size. Or for both, you can attach little tags indicating hook/needle size on the edge of the swatch where you changed sizes.
Do it now: Keep measuring your swatch after every few inches, to see if your gauge is consistent or how much it needs to change. Use a new needle or hook until you get to the correct gauge of 16 stitches over 4 inches, or 4 sts/inch.
Can gauge change?
As you may know from working your own projects, your gauge can change from day to day based on many factors including your stress level and the conditions in which you are crafting (heat and humidity can make your hands sticky, vs. cold temperatures numbing your fingers).
Also, in cases where needles and hooks are the same size, differences in manufacturing can make tools vary slightly between companies as well as between materials. In addition, using a metal tool vs. bamboo vs. acrylic can affect your tension, as the material affects the slipperiness of the tool and therefore the ease of making stitches.
Can blocking change the size of the finished project?
When you block any project, the stitches even out and your final dimensions can adjust slightly. It is also possible to wet block and pin your project, stretching it out to a bigger size (this is typically done intentionally when blocking lace projects).
Tips for YOUR Adventures in Gauge:
- Make a swatch that is at least 6 inches square for any project that needs to fit.
- Check the pattern for gauge instructions: is the gauge given before blocking, or after? If it doesn’t say, assume it’s after blocking, as you want to make sure your garment still fits after you wash it. So you should always block your swatch before measuring!
- Measure your gauge across the center of your swatch so the edges don’t skew your stitch count.
- Also measure row gauge, to make sure it matches the pattern. (If you can only match one, go for stitch gauge; it’s easier to adjust row gauge by just working fewer or more rows.)
- If it looks like you’ve got even a portion of a stitch at the end of your measurement, make sure you count that towards your gauge total!
- If your stitch count is too few, go down to a smaller needle or hook size. If your stitch count is too great, go up to a bigger hook or needle size.
- Continue to measure your project as you work on it, to make sure your gauge is consistent. This is especially important for a larger item like a garment!