Gauge is one of the most crucial elements to successful garment knitting. For newer knitters, or knitters who haven’t spent a lot of time knitting things that eventually make it to a body part of a specific size (think a sweater, a hat, gloves, socks), you might not be as familiar with the concept of trying to ‘get gauge’. Gauge is just as crucial with vintage patterns as it is with modern patterns.
What is gauge and why does it matter?
Here’s a concise summary of gauge from one of my vintage pattern booklets:
What this boils down to: if you aren’t knitting at the same gauge as the pattern says, your knitting isn’t going to be the same size as the pattern says.
If your gauge is looser (less stitches per inch), your knitting will be bigger. If your gauge is tighter (more stitches per inch), your knitting will be smaller.
Granted, we have a little more leeway here in our knit-along, because many of us will be resizing the pattern, so ultimately we could always change the gauge, too. I’ll talk about that more when we get to resizing, but for now, let’s work under the assumption that we’re trying to get the gauge stated in the pattern.
Gauge/tension using needle size 3.25mm (US 3): 13 sts over 2” by 17 rows over 2”. This works out to 6.5 stitches per inch by 8.5 rows per inch.
You’ll more commonly see modern knitting patterns measuring gauge over 4 inches, while our vintage pattern measures by 2″. A lot of vintage patterns measure gauge over only one inch, but it’s a much better idea to measure gauge by 2″ or 4″ for accuracy (just multiply up as needed). Our pattern gauge is 6.5 stitches per inch. Have you ever tried to measure half a stitch?
Sure, it can be done, and in a pinch I’ve done it. But multiply 6.5 times by a 4” swatch, and you get 6.5 x 4” = 26 stitches. Our pattern recommends measuring your swatch over 2″, so you’d get 6.5 x 2″ = 13 stitches. Much easier to measure over 4″ or 2″, isn’t it?
And before we talk about how you knit your swatch, here’s a little example to show why gauge is so important.
Our pattern as written has 220 stitches at the bust. To figure out how many inches this would be, divide our gauge 6.5 stitches per inch into 220. 220 ÷ 6.5 = 33.84″ at the bust.
What if your gauge was too loose, and you ended up getting 6 stitches per inch? 220 ÷ 6 = 36.7″ at the bust.
What if your gauge was too tight, and you ended up getting 7 stitches per inch? 220 ÷ 7 = 31.42″ at the bust.
And those few inches might make the difference between a sweater that fits great and a sweater that doesn’t. So don’t cheat! Make sure you get gauge! 🙂
Knitting a gauge swatch
Get out your project yarn. Get out a pair of knitting needles that is similar to the size specified in the pattern. If you know you have a tendency to knit tighter, consider going up a needle size. If you know you have a tendency to knit looser, consider going down a needle size. If you have no idea, then just start off with what the pattern recommends: US 3 (3.25mm). Personally, I tend to knit looser, so I did my swatch on US 2 (3.0mm) needles.
There are tons of resources online about how to knit a proper gauge swatch, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, I want to point you to a couple of quick reads on the subject that should really tell you everything you need to know if you’ve never knit a proper gauge swatch, and then I’ll tell you what I did at the end.
- Knitty’s Swatch Out is a great article about why you need to swatch, how to block your swatch, and how to measure your swatch. The only thing I would add to this is I always measure my swatch before as well as after knitting, just to have an idea how the yarn reacts to blocking.
- Need a little more? The KnitPicks article about gauge is also a good resource.
But what if you plan to knit the sweater in the round?
Here’s where swatching can be a bit of a pain. Let’s say you’d prefer to knit the body of the sweater in the round. That means instead of knitting back and forth (knit one row on the right side, purl one row on the wrong side), you cast on all the body stitches (front + back together) and knit in the round. Meaning no purl rows, and no seaming up to the armholes.
I do this a lot. Most vintage knitting patterns aren’t written like this (actually I’m not sure I’ve seen any pattern from the era of Briar Rose written like this). However I am a big fan of using a variety of techniques to help me achieve my goals. I am not such a stickler that I will only knit from a vintage pattern using the exact techniques they specify. If there is an easier or better way, odds are I will use it (or invent it). I’m all for modern shortcuts when available and useful.
Back to knitting it the round. Swatching for something you’re going to knit in the round can be tough. You technically shouldn’t just knit a flat gauge swatch normally, because your gauge may be different from knitting flat to knitting in the round. So you’ll need to knit your swatch like you’ll knit the sweater. And you’d likely be knitting the sweater on one circular needle. But you’re surely not going to knit a swatch as big as your sweater! That’s just called casting on. 😉 If you use a smaller diameter cable or double-pointed needles to knit a smaller swatch, your gauge is liable to be a bit different than what it will be with the needles you’ll use for the sweater. Fear not. There is a great technique for knitting a swatch for circular knitting. If you’re planning to do this, watch this video from KnittingHelp. I’ve used this method and while a bit fiddly to execute and a bit trickier to block with all the strands in the back, it works nicely. Tip: if you’re not planning to re-use the swatch yarn, you can always cut the strands in the middle and tie them off as knots at the each end.
Now if you’re interested in knitting Briar Rose in the round, I do have one recommendation before you start swatching. Most people tend to knit a little tighter on knit rows vs. purl rows, so your gauge may be a little tighter working in the round than flat. I’d recommend saving the slight hassle of swatching in the round until after you’re in the ballpark of your gauge working flat. Whip up a mini little swatch knit flat, and see what your gauge is. If you’re knitting tighter than you need (say, 6 stitches per inch), odds are that if you stick with the same needle size you’ll still be knitting too tight in the round. You may try going up a needle size and then swatching in the round.
Row gauge is the number of rows per inch, i.e. measuring vertically vs. horizontally. Don’t worry too much about the row gauge stated in the pattern, which is 17 stitches over 2″. You really just need to know your row gauge. This will primarily be of importance to you when we start talk about working increases between the waist and bust. All I’ll say right now is don’t kill yourself trying to match both stitch gauge and row gauge. Get the stitch gauge right (6.5 stitches per inch), and simply make note of what your own row gauge is. I’ll go into more detail as we go along.
How did I knit my swatch?
I’ll walk you through the steps I took to complete my own swatch. As I said above, I tend to knit loose, so I swatched on 3.0mm needles (US 2). This is one size down from what the pattern recommends.
I cast on about 35 stitches. If our stitch gauge is 13 over 2″, that’s 26 stitches over 4″, so I made sure my swatch would measure larger than 4″. I knit a couple of rows of garter stitch, then just knit in stockinette stitch until it was a little longer than 4″, knit a couple of more rows in garter stitch and cast off.
It looked like this.
I like to measure my gauge before and after blocking my swatch, so I have an idea how the yarn performs. So I pinned it on my blocking mat without stretching it out at all.
and the number of rows (row gauge)…
Note in that second photo the blue arrows. Fingering weight yarn means lots of stitches and rows per inch, so it can become a bit difficult to keep track as you measure (I always recommend measuring a few times just in case). I like to place a pin at the beginning and end of where I’m measuring to help me keep on track.
Next up, I washed my swatch the way I’d normally wash my sweater, with a bit of delicate soap and in lukewarm water. I didn’t need to fill up a sink of water for a tiny swatch, so a Pyrex bowl worked as my mini sink.
After about 10 minutes and some swishing around, I rinsed it in cool water and squeezed it dry in a towel. Then I went back to my blocking mat and carefully pinned it back out. Note I used different pins this time. Make sure you use rustproof pins! My cute daisy pins aren’t, and for that matter neither are these T-pins though they’re supposed to be, but they’re more rustproof than the others so I used them.
Once the swatch was completely dry (and I mean completely dry), I unpinned it. I never measure the “final” gauge with it pinned, in case the pins are causing the yarn to stretch out more than it normally would. In fact, I usually fiddle around with the swatch in my hands a bit, then measure my gauge.
Then I measured the stitch gauge again.
Now look carefully at the next photo. It’s the same as the above, but shows the actual stitches. I have 13 stitches over 2″, meaning I’m at our desired stitch gauge of 6.5 stitches per inch!
And then I measured row gauge.
And here you can see the actual stitches I measured. I have 20 rows over 2″, or 10 rows per inch, when the pattern calls for 8.5 rows per inch. This is just fine, as I said above. (And I’m not surprised, because my rows always tend to be a bit short.)
And I’m done swatching! I’ve hit our gauge and I’m pleased with how my yarn performed and how it feels knit up at this gauge.
Any questions on the process? Let me know, or post in our Flickr group. Next week I’ll be going over resizing the pattern, which might end up being broken into two parts because there’s just so much good information to cover. Ready for it? 🙂