Ask Patty: More Chatting about Gauge
Since my last column, the gauge questions kept coming, so in honor of Bang Out a Sweater month (and in honor of having sweaters that fit you), please enjoy part two of “Chatting about Gauge,” the columns nobody wants and everybody needs.
Lock Up Your Tape Measure
Your recent post on row gauge was enlightening, but most of the patterns I use do not instruct you to knit a certain number of rows, but a certain number of inches instead. If knitting can stretch so much that you need to weight your swatch to get the right row gauge, then what do I do for the ones that tell me to knit a certain number of inches?
You’ve hit on the reason we need to predict our finished row gauge. The single most important tip I can give a sweater knitter: BACK AWAY FROM THE TAPE MEASURE. I always say in class, your tape measure touches your knitting twice, once when you measure your gauge and once when you block.
Wait a minute, you ask/shout, “What about when the pattern says now work straight until piece measures 13 inches from the cast on, what about that, huh?”
Settle down. When a pattern says “now work 13 inches straight,” assume it means, now work 13 inches worth of your finished row gauge. Seriously, you can’t go wrong.
Let’s look at why we can’t really measure our knitting in progress. First of all, how can we measure unblocked fabric when the finished measurement is blocked? Sometimes our fabric stretches out, sometimes it shrinks up. That’s why we swatch: to predict our finished gauge.
But even if your unblocked, blocked, and (if needed) hung gauge were all the same, there’s another important factor: stitch gauge and row gauge are linked.
You can’t get a correct measurement of the length of your piece lying flat on a table, with the live stitches all bunched up on your needles.
Have you ever been so bored working a section of “now knit straight” that you are living for the excitement of a 5-stitch bind off or a k2tog? Have you ever measured your knitting in progress and been sure the length was 13 inches, and then when you get it on the blocking board and stretched it to its full width, it was 11½ inches?
Yep, me too.
Let’s look at why.
Look at the difference when we measure our fabric on the needle.
We might think we are getting 13.5 stitches + 16 rows over 4 inches. But actually…
When the piece is stretched to its full width, we can see we’re really getting 13 stitches + 18 rows over 4 inches.
That’s why I measured those 52 rows on the needle and were sure it was 13 inches long, but when I actually stretched the piece to its full width on the blocking board, it was only 11½ inches long. What I really needed to do was multiply 13 x my finished row gauge of 4.5, and knit 58 rows.
So lock that tape measure in a drawer and give the key to someone you trust with the instruction “no matter how much I beg, do not unlock this drawer.” I promise, you’ll be much happier.
I was told by a really experienced knitter in my knitting group that if I swatched and learned what type of gauge I get on what needle for each yarn weight, then I’d have my gauge info for any sweater. So, I spent a ton of time swatching for every weight yarn that I would use (Sport, DK, worsted, and chunky) and found out what needle size I need to use to get the right gauge. For instance, I swatched on DK weight yarn on a US 6 and I got the right gauge of 22 stitches over 4 inches.
So what’s the problem? I knit another sweater using another DK weight yarn, and the garment came out giant.
How could that be? They were both DK weight yarn so how could they have two different gauges? They were both done in stockinette stitch, so what gives?
Frustrated Sweater Knitter
I’m reminded of something my mother said when watching those old exercise commercials showing a woman standing absolutely still, fully dressed, with a vibrating rubber belt around her waist, as the announcer declared “Let the vibrations melt the pounds away.” She said, “If that was all it took, wouldn’t everyone do it?”
There is no shortcut for swatching.
First of all, yarn label weight classifications—DK, worsted, sport—are broad categories. Think of them as names of grocery store aisles. They keep you from looking for a canned ham in the dairy aisle, but that’s about it.
Take worsted weight, for example. The gauge for a pattern using worsted weight yarn can be 16, 17, 18, 19 or 20 stitches over 4 inches. That means if you were knitting a pattern written for a light worsted at 20 stitches per 4 inches, and you cast on 100 stitches, but you were knitting it with a heavy worsted at an actual gauge of 16 stitches per 4 inches, the chest measurement, which was supposed to be 40 inches, would come out 50 inches!
Even if they are used in the same stitch pattern, every yarn construction and every fiber will act differently.
My advice: steer clear of shortcuts that are actually time wasters. There is no vibrating rubber belt of swatching.
A Vibrating Belt in Disguise
Is there a mathematical ratio between garter stitch and stockinette? I have a poncho pattern that is knit from the neck down in the round. It is designed in garter stitch, but I think the yarn I want to use will look better in stockinette. If I use the same shaping (basically increases) as specified in the garter stitch pattern, will it fit the same way? Would it matter whether I was using bulky yarn or fine yarn? I ask because I made a blanket of squares sewn together and the garter stitch squares took more rows to line up with the stockinette squares.
When it comes to swatching, knitters go through something very similar to Dr. Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
We know the anger (don’t want to, hate swatching, can’t make me), and the depression (I didn’t get gauge, waah).
The two letters above touched on denial, and with your letter, G, we have bargaining. You’re trying to find a mathematical alternative to swatching, right?
I think you can guess what I’m going to say—swatch!
Mathematical formulas can be another one of the vibrating belts (see above) of swatching.
You can find all sorts of ratios on the internet. Some websites will declare with great confidence that the ratio of garter stitch to stockinette is 1:2, others will say it’s 3:5, while some contend that it’s always 4:6. (Red flag: nothing is “always” in knitting.)
What do I say? SWATCH.
In the two photos below, I swatched stockinette and garter in a worsted weight yarn.
I got 26 rows per 4 inches in stockinette and 36 rows per 4 inches in garter. In other words, close to a 5:7 ratio.
But here are swatches of stockinette and garter in a chunky weight yarn.
I got 14 rows per 4 inches in stockinette and 23 rows per 4 inches in garter. In other words, closer to a 3:5 ratio.
A pre-set ratio between stockinette and garter stitch is no substitute for swatching.
I hope this helps you find your way to the fifth stage of swatching, acceptance.