Ask Patty: We Need to Talk About Gauge
My inbox for the last three months has been filled with a variety of questions on the same touchy subject. So, to get us ready for Bang Out a Sweater month, I’m going to be devoting the next two columns to one topic. That’s right, it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. The fly in the ointment, the monkey wrench in the works. The pee in the pool: gauge.
Yes, I hear your collective groans through my computer screen. Just settle down, stick your head between your knees, breathe into a paper bag, and let’s go to the mailbox.
I never can get row gauge right. No problem with stitch gauge, but I cannot figure out what to do to get stitch gauge and row gauge at the same time. Sometimes the pattern can be adjusted for the row gauge I am getting, but I cannot understand why I cannot get it to begin with.
Many hands shoot up in the air when I ask my students, “Who has had trouble matching both stitch gauge and row gauge?” Then I say, “Take a look around the room. Anyone who is not raising their hands falls into one of two groups. They have never measured row gauge, or they are lying.”
There are so many factors that affect row gauge: the twist of the yarn, the style or method you knit, your purl row, and your needle material to name just a few.
If you know different ways to knit, you can often change your row gauge by changing your style. Continental knitting can yield a different row gauge than English, Portuguese, or combination knitting.
Then there’s the loosey-goosey purl.
Have you ever seen gaps that look like stripes on the WS of your fabric? That is called “rowing out,“ which is caused when your purl rows are taller than your knit rows.
Try an alternative purling method like the Portuguese purl or purling backward, or use a smaller needle for the purl rows.
One crazy simple way to change your row gauge is to change needle material.
Here’s a lace swatch where I changed needle material between every repeat.
The first repeat (measured from above the cast on) was knit with nickel, and the repeat is 1 7/8” tall.
The second repeat was knit with stainless steel, and it is 1 3/4” tall.
The third repeat was knit with plastic, and it is 1 5/8” tall.
And the final repeat was knit with bamboo, and it is 1 7/16”.
So take comfort in the knowledge that it’s not you, it’s them. It’s the stitches’ fault. But there are many ways you can wrangle that row gauge into submission. And if you can’t, there’s math, but that’s a topic for another day.
In the MDK Shop
When I knit a large garment, like a tunic-length cardigan or coat, I’m concerned that despite swatching, the garment will stretch in length—due to gravity. I know, of course, that the type of yarn can affect this, but I am also wondering whether the type of stitch can have an effect? For example, is a double moss stitch less likely to stretch than stockinette?
I have not been able to find this answer in my searches. Can you help?
You are correct that some yarns can be growers, but different fabrics also have a different stretch, so pairing a “grower” fiber with a “grower stitch pattern” can equal tragedy.
I once knit a cotton bamboo top that was garter from the shoulder to the waist, and featured a cute square neckline. It fit like a dream for approximately two hours. My first indication that something had gone awry was when I started feeling a bit of a draft around my chest area. I knew the situation had reached critical mass when I walked into a room and my friend said, “Yowza lady, leave a little something to the imagination!”
So, before we turn our attention to which stitch patterns can grow, let’s look at a single humble stitch. Think of it as a weight lifter who routinely skips his leg day. Our stitch is smaller at the base and larger at the top, and the head of the stitch becomes the purl bump of the next row. Where that purl bump sits and how it’s stacked will affect the stretch of the fabric.
Stockinette: When all the purl bumps are on the same side of the fabric, the fabric will be thin and the edges will curl. Stockinette can stretch horizontally, causing the rows to get shorter as the stitches get wider. That’s why when you knit that sweater too tight, it will also be too short. It’s a gauge lose/lose.
Rib: When purl stitches are stacked vertically, the purl bumps recede and the fabric stretches horizontally. Ribbing off the needle pulls in quite a bit, so the fabric is narrower than stockinette. When stretched to its extreme, it can be quite a bit wider than stockinette, but will also get shorter.
Garter: When purl stitches are stacked horizontally, the purl bumps stick out and the fabric stretches horizontally. Garter off the needle is more compressed than stockinette, and the fabric lays flat. However don’t be fooled by how it looks off the needle. Add any weight or gravity (like my cute bamboo top) and garter can stretch a LOT. Which means it not only gets longer, but gets tighter. It’s a gauge lose/lose.
Seed Stitch: When knits and purls are distributed evenly across the face of the fabric, the fabric lays flat and has similar vertical and horizontal stretch, making it very stable.
Most knitters find the stitch gauge to be similar to stockinette but the row gauge to be more compressed.
So how could we anticipate what the finished row gauge would be? Swatch, of course, but we need to take one more step, and hang our swatch. Hang your dry swatch with weights to simulate the effects of gravity on your garment.
Here is a picture of a ribbed swatch for my Harbor Springs sweater hung with weights.
I used earrings that hurt my ears.
It’s important to weight your swatch because your finished sweater will weigh more than your bitty swatch. Measuring it while it is hanging vertically is also helpful, since most likely you are not going to be wearing that sweater lying flat on your back.
So now you can avoid ending up wearing a low-cut, skin-tight sweater when you didn’t mean to.
I’m in a knitting group and there’s a knitter who starts every sentence with “I’ve been knitting for over 50 years” and who says she doesn’t need to swatch. In the category of “you can’t make this up,” she sat in the group ripping out an entire sweater while complaining about the pattern, the yarn, and the designer for the sweater not working because (and I quote) “clearly there’s something wrong with this pattern. I never do a swatch because I’m a good knitter and I always get gauge, but this came out huge.” The whole group is getting a headache from how hard we are rolling our eyes. It’s all well and good that she makes this decision for herself, but now she’s telling a new knitter in the group that if she is a “good knitter” she will get gauge and not have to swatch. What do you do with someone like that?
Rolling My Eyes in Atlanta
Dear Rolling Eyes,
This is a tough one. Defensive sentences that start “I’ve been knitting for over 50 years” never end well.
Changing this knitter’s mind is about as likely as stockinette lying flat, or self-correcting lace. Best to let stubborn knitters frog and turn your attention to the newbie.
Find a time for the group to set the new knitter straight that swatching has nothing to do with being a good knitter, then tell her to smile and nod while the nonswatcher offers her advice. Best way to keep peace in the group.