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In my last post, we learned how to count stitches and rows in knitted fabric. Today, we’re learning how to measure knitted fabric. You know, with a ruler or tape measure.

Easy, right?

Of course not!

General Rules

  1. Use a good tape measure or a ruler. Tape measures aren’t always accurate: fabric ones have been known to stretch over time, and I’ve seen a couple of inexpensive plastic ones that were misprinted. The centimeter markings were accurate, but something had gone horribly wrong with the inches.
  2. Spread the stitches out on the needle to about the width of the finished fabric. If you’re working a circular needle, move the stitches down onto the cord.
  3. Measure the piece lying flat, rather than hanging.
  4. Actually flat, on a table or the floor; not over your leg or the arm of your chair.
  5. Measure from the bottom of the lower edge of the piece, to about the middle of the needle—that accounts for the length of the row on the needles once it’s worked.

Subtle but important: if your pattern and tape measure have both metric and imperial measurements, make sure you’re consistent about which measurement system you’re using. Things can get muddled if you’re referring to two different sets of measurements.

Your tape measure says that the piece is 11 inches long. That’s what the pattern calls for. You’re done, right?

Oh, absolutely not.

Swatch and Block the Swatch

Remember that little thing that we’re always talking about? The G-word? Remember that we’re always begging you to swatch, and to wash your swatch before you measure your gauge?

Crucial side note: all knitting needs to be “blocked” before you declare it done. For the vast majority of your projects, “block” should be read as “wash.” Specifically, wash the way you intend to wash the finished item. Unless you’re making garments to be worn in a runway fashion show in Paris, there’s no need to stretch and pin the pieces for blocking. The only type of knitting I do the stretch-and-pin treatment for is lace.

Here’s the thing: fabrics can change with washing. Row gauge can shift, your work might stretch out a little vertically. A length measurement of 11 inches before washing can easily become 12 inches. In the grand scheme of things, it’s less than a 10 percent change in the length, but an inch can be important.

If you’re making a small item—a hat, a sock, a mitten, for example—then there’s not so much length that a 10 percent difference is a huge deal. A sock leg that is supposed to be 6 inches long might come out to be 6½, nothing to stress about. And if it’s an item that doesn’t actually need to fit—a tea cozy, a scarf, a toy—then there’s no worry. As long as you’re consistent in how you measure—for example, measure both socks in their prewashed state—then you’ll be fine.

But if it’s an item that has specifically placed shaping—the waist of a sweater, for example—or is to fit a specific size, or is to be sewn together with another piece, then you better make sure that you get these lengths right.

Which is to say when the pattern says “work sleeve until it measures 18 inches from cast-on edge,” then that 18 inches is supposed to be the blocked length.

I’ll let you have a lie-down. Come back when you’re ready.

The upshot: when you swatch for a garment, you need to actually measure your gauge pre- and post-blocking.

If your row gauge doesn’t change after blocking, then you can breathe a sigh of relief (and perhaps consider buying a lottery ticket). This means that when you’re working the sleeve, you can safely measure the gauge of the fabric on your needles and be done with it.

But if your row gauge does change, then you need to take that into account. Specifically: if the fabric stretches vertically with the washing, then you need the sleeve to measure 18 inches after it’s been washed. Which is to say that if you know that your fabric grows with washing, then the prewashed pieces will need to be shorter than the finished length you’re aiming for.

In the MDK Shop
Love your gear! Set yourself up for glory with our two favorite tools for accurate row and stitch counts. Thanks for your purchases. They support everything we do here at MDK.
By Hoechstmass
By Akerworks

Two Approaches to Row Gauge

There are two ways to approach this.

You can do it by counting rows. Many designers give row counts for pieces like this, precisely for this reason. And if even the row count isn’t there, you can work it out. If the sleeve is to be 18 inches long, and the blocked gauge is 7 rows per inch, you know that you should work 7 x 18 = 126 rows.

Or you can do it by ratios.

For example, if your pre-blocked gauge is 30 rows per 4 inches, or 7.5 rows an inch, and your blocked gauge is 28 rows per 4 inches, or 7 rows per inch, calculate the percentage change by dividing the blocked gauge by the unblocked. So: 7/7.5 = .9333

Take the length you’re aiming for, and multiply it by that number. In this case, we’re aiming for 18 inches, so the calculation is 18 x .93333 = 16.8 inches. That’s the length you should measure on your needles so that after washing the piece turns out to be the right size.

It’s amazing how a tiny little half-a-row can add up to over an inch of difference in the finished item.

Put another way, if you work the full 18 inches of fabric and then wash it, you’ll end up with a sleeve well over 19 inches long.

This may seem like a lot of fuss, but it’s crucial for a few reasons: if you work too many rows, then the pieces will come out too long. But also consider: not only does your piece come out to be the wrong size, but you risk running out of yarn. And if you’re needing to sew pieces together, such as sleeves, then the different edges might not actually fit together.

The good news is that this is all much easier for us than it was for previous generations of knitters: they didn’t have a tiny computer in their knitting bags, did they? Your phone isn’t just for listening to podcasts while knitting—it’s also for helping you make sure that your finished project comes out the right size!

This Could Come in Handy

The next time you have to figure out how many rows to knit to achieve the length you want, it would be nice to have Kate by your side.
Here’s how to save this article in your MDK account with one click.

About The Author

Kate Atherley is a teacher, designer, author and technical editor. She’s also the publisher of Digits & Threads, a magazine all about Canadian fibre and textile arts.


  • Super helpful — thanks so much. I’m happy and sad in equal measure (!) to be called out on my technique of waving a tape measure over my knitting while it sits curled on my knee. I’m sure I’m not the only knitter in the world who thinks that length and gague can be willed into being just by looking at my knitting and whimpering a little. A tiny computer in your knitting bag is fine — and I’m grateful for that — but when are we going to get magic?

  • After all this fuss and muss about swatching…egad…I think it would be helpful (or at least a soothing salve for my soul) if we all sent in our ideas for what to do with all of these finished and blocked swatches. Being the thrifty/stingy knitter that I am, I don’t want to “waste” several yards of precious yarn to simply lie in a basket somewhere feeling sorry for itself having served its purpose. So, let’s post our ideas here and I nominate Kate to put together a future article apprising us of some of the more promising ideas of what do do with these swatches. What say you all??

    • I’m a year late to this party but you have inspired me!
      I’m a new knitter but I’ve been a quilter for decades & love quilted “project bags” & little quilted zippered accessory cases out of scrap fabrics! (I hate to waste fabric of any kind it seems.) I’ll have to be sure to sort or mark fiber content of my swatches well but I see lots of swatch based project bags in my future!
      I love some of the Felted Bag patterns I’ve seen. So colorful! ….. & I hate my current in-a-pinch knitting accessory bag. SwatchProject 1!

    • I recently laid out all of my swatches from sweaters I knit over the last few years…mainly to just enjoy them and remember what I had knit from each swatch. But it also gave me a chance to look at the color palette of my knitting. While lovely, functional and what I chose, I definitely need to add some different colors to my wardrobe. So for now I keep them in a pretty basket.

    • Keep them in a notebook with your pattern notes. Add a tag with needle/yarn/gauge details for future info. Or frame them altogether in a shadow box and proudly hang it on the wall.

    • I agree!! I used a couple of swatches to make catnip toys last year. Fold in half, stuff with catnip and sew it up!! Ya know how kitties love to play with yarn

    • Brilliant!! I have more swatches than I care to mention, and I’d love to put them all to good use!

    • I have wondered about this too and must admit that my frugality regarding yarn was my long-standing yet flawed defense against swatching. I don’t usually like a “patchworky” kind of look, so I’ve not gone that route for using them. I wondered if it would be useful to keep and catalog these heretofore unusable swatches with a little note attached as to the yarn and needle type and size and use it for future reference. If you tend to use the same yarn, would it, could it, be a swatch already done for another project????

      • I swatch the beginning of a cuff of a sleeve. Knit up a long enough ways to check your gauge, then carry on. If it is right you are on your way.

  • A long, long time ago I got this tip: you can unravel your swatch and use it for seaming, sewing on buttons, etc. It’s a tiny safety net, especially for those yarn-chicken projects. The bigger your swatch, the bigger your net.

    • Yep, my mum always used to do that with hers.

    • That’s what I do with my swatches – they are yarn that’s available for repairs. I don’t unravel them since usually I don’t need them & they are easier to find knitted up. They are piled on a shelf in my cedar closet, tagged with the yarn info (ideally with a yarn label taped to it), needle size, and what was made with it.

      Someone said that really it’s better to sew a small butterfly of extra yarn & tie it onto a seam, so that it will undergone the same wear and laundering if needed later for repairs. I don’t like having extra stuff hanging on the inside of my sweater so am willing to risk using unworn yarn for repairs to worn sweaters.

    • I do this, too. Usually I leave the swatch with the leftover yarn in my “Leftover yarn” bin, so I will know gauge if I use the leftovers on another project. I love the idea of using it to sew up seams, buttons, etc. Could just put a note with gauge into the leftovers bag.

    • Brilliant!

  • Another terrific article. I’ve saved it, and know I will come back to it time and time again. Thank you so very much!

  • Wow, i wish i had this info decades ago. Enjoy all your articles. Thank you.

  • Thanks! Sadly this is why I’m not banging this month. But one day I shall again….

  • Kate, I just used this technique to make sure sweater pieces matched. The pattern did say “knit to 5 inches past marker.” I checked my row gauge post blocking and determined that I would need a few more rows, then knit the fronts of my cardi to those specs. Seaming was a dream. I haven’t seamed a sweater in over ten years, so it wasn’t because of experience. I know that teachers such as yourself may feel like the bearers of bad news with the gauge advice, but it is so worth the little bit of extra time. Not to mention, you get to feel like you know what you’re doing. It’s confidence building, through accurate knitting. Thanks for your words of wisdom.

  • How did knitting get so complicated. I am used to doing a swatch but washing and blocking? I think I will stick with socks and scarves.

    • Honestly, the point isn’t to make it more complicated, I promise! It’s such a small and easy thing to make sure your sweater will turn out exactly right. Remember, all you need to do is wash the swatch. If you’re planning to machine wash the garment, just chuck the swatch in the machine, too. It’s all about being able to predict what the fabric will look like through its entire life, not just the first little while.

  • I’ve only recently wised up on row gauge (pre and post wash/block) and it’s a game changer for me. Have been winging it until now and got away with it, but now armed with new info and a bit of maths, my jersey fits have really improved!

  • I’m not sure I should admit to this, but as I hate to see my washed swatch yarn wasted, I don’t cut it off the skein. I drop it into the sink and dry it flat and measure it, with one end like a leash to the skein, then frog it and it starts the project.

    • You are not alone Amy!

  • Helpful per usual

  • Join swatches together in a scarf or afghan & donate to a homeless shelter. They won’t mind if colors or textures don’t quite match! U will be blessed & so will they ~

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