Is getting gauge an illusion?

A close look at the biggest myth in knitting and why I personally believe that getting gauge is actually impossible

So, you’ve knitted your gauge swatch. Diligently. You went down a needle size, you even adjusted your tension, you picked a different yarn and needle material, and there it is: You count your stitches and you are off. Again, you can’t get gauge. Frustrating, isn’t it?

With this article, I want to relieve a lot of that frustration and take a look at a couple of facts and even alternative ways to treat a dilemma that’s probably as old as knitting itself.

comparing two swatches knit with different needle sizes to get gauge one with size 4 the other with size 7 much bigger
The same number of stitches knit with two different needle sizes

First of all, the fact that you never seem to be able to get gauge on your first try is nothing to worry about. We all knit with a different technique (English, continental, etc.), a different tension (tight, loose, etc.), a different needle brand (Chiagoo, Knitter’s Pride, Addi, etc.), different needle materials (bamboo, stainless steel, etc.), a different yarn (there’s no standard measure for yarn weights). It would be preposterous to assume all these choices could possibly lead to the same fabric.

Your gauge is a testament to your creativity and your unique personality. It’s, if you will, an expression of who you are. And you are decidedly not a knitting machine and not a robot. And this should be celebrated. Period.

But let’s take a look at the facts:

The math behind getting gauge – or rather lack thereof

Now, why do I believe it’s impossible to get gauge. Isn’t that a kind of daring postulation for someone who published so many knitting patterns that all list a gauge? Yes, and no!

Issue #1: Blocking

someone blocking a gauge swatch on a special mat using pins

If you read my tutorial on knitting gauge swatches, you will certainly learn that a proper gauge swatch should be blocked. But how do you actually block something? Where do you set the pins? Do you stretch your fabric when you block it and if yes, how far?

The truth is, nobody knows! You might stretch things for 10 percent and the designer for 15 percent or vice versa. And as a result, your fabric might end up having less or more negative ease left to shape the garment (imagine the pattern requires 20% negative ease but you already stretched your ribbing to the max when blocking).

Without a blocking standard, getting gauge is maybe wishful thinking. (And even if there was one, how would you stretch a swatch by exactly 10 percent?).

working out how many stitch to cast on for a hat using a swatch and simple math

But there’s another way to approach this. In my free hat pattern, I explain how you should stretch the ribbings of the swatch until YOU are satisfied. So until you create a fabric you feel looks well. And nobody, not me or any designer can (or rather should) tell you where that sweet spot is.

For me, a swatch is a piece of fabric that will be able to tell you how your finished project may look like, how the yarn interacts with the knitting stitch pattern, etc.

Issue #2 Fractional stitches & measuring

First of all, a vast majority of knitting stitch patterns list their gauge as 10×10 cm or 4×4 inches. The reality is, however, that 4 inches are 10.16 centimeters. Just a tiny little deviation of 1.6 percent but these little factors all add up, right?

a fractional stitch on a gauge swatch with super chunk yarn
A fractional stitch on a little swatch using extra chunky wool to exaggerate the problem.

And the second and more important issue: Knitting stitches don’t magically squeeze themselves into the imperial or metric system. What do I mean? Well, your stitches are very rarely whole-numbered parts of 10 centimeters. So, when you measure those 10 centimeters, the actual reading would be something like 23.5 stitches.

A better way to treat gauge would thus be: 20 stitches are 9.1 centimeters. Yet, that’s something you will never see in a pattern. But if you think about it, it just makes little sense to do it any other way.

Sure, that’s the very reason most people tell you to knit a big enough swatch so any deviation won’t matter anymore. If you are 2 percent off when counting it probably won’t matter. But add another 2 percent from blocking and another 1.6 percent because the gauge was imperial but you measured metric…well then we already have 5.6 percent and that could be a whole size!

Issue #3 Where does a designer measure a gauge?

Knitting isn’t lego. And a gauge swatch is, theoretically speaking, the only way to make sure we are all using the same building blocks. But where do you actually measure the gauge as a designer? The finished object? Before or after blocking a garment? Or maybe on a swatch?

Now you might say, of course on the finished object after blocking. But what if it’s baby socks or home decor (like my pumpkin patch pattern) – where you couldn’t possibly get an accurate reading because the object is round and quite small or you never block it either.

One could of course use a smaller swatch size. But that will increase the problem with fractional stitches (30 or 30.5 stitches is a deviation of 1.6% – 15 or 15.5 st makes 3.2%!).

And it gets worse, yet. Some patterns were actually test knitted on knitting machines. Most smaller designers don’t do this but I have my suspicions when it comes to some larger yarn companies. These samples just don’t look handknit.

Why does it matter? In machine knitting, the stitches sit flat on the hooks. When you hand knit, the stitches of the current row are all twisted. Your fabric is flat but and each stitch is mounted at a 60-90° angle on the needles compared to that. And this will dramatically influence the length of the strands between two stitches (read my post on knitting neater ribbings if you are interested in the theory behind this!).

Plus, a single tighter stitch will influence the whole stretchiness of your fabric (ask a fair isle knitter: A single messed up float can spell disaster for your whole project). That sort of thing rarely happens when knitting with the aid of a machine.

And these differences might not be noticeable when measuring an unstretched swatch. But if the pattern does indeed work with negative ease, this might mean that, despite actually getting gauge, the finished garment still won’t fit.

A better way to treat gauge?

I could list quite a couple of other reasons why getting gauge is difficult but I’m sure I was able to bring my point across. Yet, as knitters, we don’t have a lot of other choices, do we?

The truth is, knitting a swatch is essential. It can definitely tell you how well your yarn and stitch pattern work together. It can also tell you how the fabric behaves after washing. Often, you will also notice that the perceived softness or scratchiness of a skein of yarn is decidedly different in a finished object. And the same can apply to color – especially when you are working with multiple colors. Some yarns bleed out quite heavily during the first wash as well.

before and after washing and blocking a swatch of alpaca yarn. it got slightly bigger and fuzzier
A swatch before and after washing

At the same time, I hope I established that a swatch cannot help you to get gauge 100%. There are just too many variables that could be off. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless. It definitely can serve as a first step in finding your perfect fit.

Think of it as baking bread. You add your flour, pour in some water, and knead it thoroughly. But then you notice you still need to add a little bit of flour or water to get the ride texture. And knitting patterns essentially work the same!

So, you knit your swatch, do the calculations of your recipe or follow your pattern. But then, after a couple of rows, you absolutely need to measure, try things or check any other way if what you created meets your expectations.

And if it does, carry on, and if it doesn’t figure out what you need to change, frog things, and start all over again. It’s very important to realize that this is part of the process. It’s actually quite unreasonable to nail something the first time.

When you go bowling or so, sure, there are those lucky or gifted people who will get a strike on their first throw. But typically, your ball will end up in the gutter. So, you try again and improve! And since knitting involves a lot of more variables than bowling (sorry :P), it sometimes takes a couple of more tries. And that’s okay!

That’s why I personally feel getting gauge is an illusion. But more sure to comment to add your thoughts & views.

12 thoughts on “Is getting gauge an illusion?”

  1. I watched and read this very interesting article about gauge knitting. I remember that as a beginning knitter, I hated to knit gauge whereas now I do not mind it a bit.

    My question is about different stitch gauges. I am running a little too close for comfort on the amount of yarn I purchased for a blanket (I am blaming my son’s math skills :]). The plan is to add a stripe in a different stitch (same yarn but different colour) that looks intentional rather than an afterthought. Would an 8-9″ border contain a different stitch gauge?

    Thank you in advance for all your help. Your website and YouTube channel are a fountain of knowledge.

    Reply
    • I would definitely go up or down a needle size and do a swatch to check if it works. A border cannot really contain it..in fact, it might make the curling/puckering worse.

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  2. This blog and your YouTube series are superb. I learned to knit from my grandmother when I was a little kid, but didn’t start knitting seriously until nine years ago. There are so many things I still don’t fully understand and sadly my grandmother is no longer around to ask. Your tutorials have helped me improve my knitting tremendously. In addition, your dry sense of humor and impeccable way with words make you a joy to watch as well. I often throw your videos on to listen to in the background while I knit. Thanks for your fantastic content!

    Reply
  3. norman, thank you so much for giving us your thoughts on this. i’ve often thought the same things, but it nice to know someone as experienced as yourself is in agreement.

    that being said, you need (knead) to come up with a better analogy besides the cake. you don’t knead cake, that’s bread. also, i can’t think of a cake batter that includes water. maybe you should substitute cake for bread.

    at any rate, thanks again — love your youtube videos!

    Reply
    • Oh…I always keep on forgetting that cake is something rather peculiar in America with lots of cream and frosting. Tons of very delicious cake recipes need water (basically any yeast dough).
      Still, I switched it for bread.

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  4. I like the patterns that say – Knit in pattern until your fabric measures x# of inches, along with the numbers that make up a pattern on the needles. For example: Pattern requires X # of repeats plus X # of stitches. I feel I have more control this way.

    Reply
  5. Thank you for affirming our experience.

    Many variables exist for all. Beyond needles and yarn and knitting style, some wearers have physical anomalies to contend with—like double mastectomy and lymphedema leaving arms of different sizes.

    Startlingly, as a new knitter, about sixty years ago, my first sweater was a faire isle Lopi sweater which fit perfectly. (Of course back then Knitting instructions for size 12 were true to size, and so were my arms. Piece of cake—made with milk😊)

    Happy to be alive and still knitting!

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  6. Exactly! That is why I would NEVER worry about getting gauge —- It’s quite meaningless anyway! I would prefer to concentrate on doing accurate knitting, than worrying about something so stupid as “gauge”, whatever that means!

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  7. I’ve been learning to knit socks and have tried several different patterns. I now have my favourite pattern memorized and measure length and width instead of number of rows and stitches. That makes it easier to experiment with different yarns and needle sizes. The only tricky part is figuring out how many stitches to cast on for the ribbing. It sometimes takes a few tries.

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  8. When I’m knitting a wide piece of fabric flat (e.g. the back of a cardigan), the gauge at the edges is looser. It’s worse in cotton, and worse on the left-hand side (looking from the right side) of my knitting. Recently I was trying to knit a cotton cardigan in pieces, and the back kept coming out too wide. I was so puzzled because checking the gauge in the middle of the piece gave me the same gauge as my swatch. It wasn’t until much later that I checked the gauge at the sides and found it woefully loose. I have to admit I threw it into a bag and put it in the corner of my bedroom, and it’s now nearly winter. I need to work on improving my gauge at the sides. I wondered whether I might be more consistent if I used plain old straight needles rather than circs because the knitting would be more supported, and not hanging down from the cable section as on circs. What do you think?

    Reply
    • Well, it’s important to remember that knitting always behaves a little bit different on the edges and you always take a while to fall into a rhythm. Other than that, I have no big thoughts. Cotton is, actually very difficult to work with, so I would actually try to toy around with different fibers first.

      Reply

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