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Kay wrote to me a few weeks ago and asked a simple question about a deep yarn mystery: why can you knit some yarns at multiple gauges and get good fabric, and some other yarns don’t work that way?

You can knit any yarn at any gauge. Really. The ballband gauge is just a suggestion. The result with most yarns, however, is a fabric that you may not like. If you knit most yarns to a looser gauge (fewer stitches per inch) than specified on the ballband, the fabric can be droopy and listless—not great for a garment.

But some yarns are magical gauge chameleons. (Cue Boy George, and dance around your living room.)

I’m not talking about knitting a lace shawl with fingering yarn on size 6 needles—anybody can do that, it’s easy. I’m talking about knitting a sweater at a worsted weight gauge when the ball band says the yarn is a DK.

Gauge-shifter yarns can be knit at a much looser gauge than the ballband implies, and still retain real structure. Your knitting stays a sweater, not a schmatta.

The Mystery

Why do some yarns shift gauge easily and some don’t?

Cast your memories back to my run of articles about sheep breeds, worsted versus woolen spun yarns, ply, and grist. Each one of those qualities contributes to a yarn being gauge flexible.

The Yarns

For demonstration purposes, I swatched two yarns by Jill Draper: Valkill and Mohonk. They are both great at gauge shifting.

Here are the facts for each, from the yarns I have. Jill does small batch yarns, so the facts can change slightly from season to season, depending on the sheep.

Valkill (teal)

DK Weight

252 yds/230 m

4 oz/113 g

100% NYS Cheviot wool

Woolen spun

Suggested gauge: 4.5-5.5 sts/inch

Recommended needle: US 5-7 (3.75-4.5mm)


Mohonk (lime)

Sport Weight

370 yds/338 m

4 oz/113 g

100% Cormo wool

Woolen spun

Suggested gauge: 5.5-6 sts/inches

Recommended needle: US 3-5 (3.25-3.75mm)


I could tell by feel that both yarns would be able to shift gauge. Both yarns felt substantial rather than drapey. This is the opposite of most superwash Merino yarns. Valkill’s ability to gauge shift is due mostly to the fiber used, while Mohonk’s gauge shiftiness is due to the fiber and the construction of the yarn.

Gauge Fun

I knit each yarn to the gauge suggested on the ballband, and they made fine fabric for a stockinette sweater.

They passed the poke test (trying to poke my finger through the fabric). I knit Valkill at 5 stitches per inch gauge and Mohonk at 6 stitches/inch gauge.

Then I started cranking up the needle sizes and knitting the yarns at bigger and bigger gauges.

I knit both yarns at four different gauges in stockinette swatches and a Staghorn cable swatch (because I thought that would be fun) (#iluvtexture).

With Valkill, I went from 5 stitches per inch to 4.5, 4, and 3.5 stitches per inch.

With Mohonk, I went from 6 stitches per inch to 5, 4.5, and 4 stitches per inch.

This is so exciting to me! They both work at the bigger gauges. The fabric gets looser, lighter, more open, but it is structurally sound and would hold up to being a sweater. 

The cable swatches have the benefit of the cable adding more structure. I could go up to a looser gauge if I were knitting a cable sweater or a stranded colorwork sweater. (Remember Mary Jane Mucklestone’s Stopover? That’s the OG gauge-shifting sweater.)

This is all due to the magic (and thinking) that went behind how the yarns were created.

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Yarn Construction Details: Let’s Dig In

Grab your favorite caffeinated beverage and gather round. Here’s the info on why these yarns work at looser gauges.

Earlier I said these two yarns felt substantial. What that means in the gauge-shifting world is that they stand up for themselves. In knitted fabric, they don’t have to rely as much on their sister stitches. They take up space because of their construction, and retain stitch shape without relying on being knit tightly.


Valkill is spun from Cheviot wool. Cheviot is a strong wool (not fine and not crazy soft) that has a lot of crimp. (The crinkle cut french fry make up of each fiber that contributes to elasticity.) Most crimp is organized, all the zigs and zags line up and nest, but in Cheviot the crimp is disorganized. This disorganized crimp makes the yarn open and super springy. Trying to make a Cheviot yarn drape would be like trying to put a cat in a pet carrier or a toddler in a car seat.

Mohonk is spun from Cormo, a fine and incredibly crimpy wool. Cormo is very fine wool, close to Merino and almost as soft. Cormo’s crimp is organized, but because each fiber is fine, there is a fierce amount of crimp packed into the yarn, coiled like a spring.

Woolen Spun

Both Valkill and Mohonk are woolen spun. Spinning a fiber woolen puts air into a yarn. For a fiber that is crimpy, spinning with air lets the crimp unleash in the yarn. It lets the crimp spread and stand tall, kind of like how I feel after yoga.


The crazy crimp and airy spin of Valkill make it unnecessary to ply the yarn. The style is similar to Lopi yarns, but with even more tooth.

The 2-ply construction of Mohonk lends durability to the fine fibers of Cormo. To help with gauge-shifting, the ply adds more air, and a 2-ply yarn pushes outward in knit stitches. A plied yarn is lighter than a single-ply yarn of the same size because there is air between those plies.

Grist: The Unbearable Lightness of Gauge Shifting

The grist of any yarn always stays the same, of course.

The grist of  Valkill is 756 yards per pound, and the grist of Mohonk is 1,110 yards per pound. What is gorgeous about gauge-shifting yarns is that as your gauge gets bigger, you make fewer stitches to cover the same area, and use less yarn.

Shift your gauge and make lighter sweaters!

I want to make a drop shoulder, 40-inch pullover. In Valkill, knitting my sweater at a gauge of 5 stitches to the inch requires 1,280 yards, and 3.5 stitches to the inch needs 870 yards. Doing magic grist calculations, the 5 stitches-per-inch inch sweater would weigh 1.7 pounds, and the 3.5 stitches-per-inch sweater would weigh 1.2 pounds.

With Mohonk, it’s similar. My sweater at 6 stitches to the inch is 1,810 yards, and at 4 stitches to the inch is 1,020 yards. The 6 stitches-per-inch sweater would weigh 1.6 pounds, and the 4 stitches-per-inch sweater would weigh just under 1 pound.

Knitting at a bigger gauge makes an amazing difference in the yardage required and the lightness of the garment.

A lighter, looser-gauged sweater also has better drape. If knit tightly, gauge-shifting yarns can get stiff pretty quickly; it’s that crimp and air fighting to get free. You can see in the photos that when both yarns are knit in stockinette, and especially when they are knit in the cable pattern, they have a lot of body. Comparing the tightest to the loosest gauge I knit, the looser gauge has plenty of substance to hold its shape, while the tightest gauges are, to say the least, stiff.

How to Tell If a Yarn Is Suitable for Gauge Shifting

It springs back when you squeeze it. It has substance.

It won’t be butter soft. It won’t be Merino, but there are plenty of wool breeds that, like Cormo, are next-to-skin soft.

Look for air. Air is good. Ask if it’s woolen spun.

Swatch it, and don’t be afraid to go up 3 or 4 needle sizes.



When you’re picking yarn for your next sweater, wouldn’t it be nice to have Jillian Moreno with you?
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About The Author

Jillian Moreno spins, knits and weaves just so she can touch all of the fibers. She wrote the book Yarnitecture: A Knitter’s Guide to Spinning: Building Exactly the Yarn You Want so she could use all of the fiber words. Keep up with her exploits at


  • I almost lost my coffee when reading about disorganized crimp and how it was like putting a cat in a pet carrier. The cat on my lap was, for some reason, not amused. Thank you very much for an informative and entertaining presentation of gauge switching.

  • This is brilliant! Lighter weight sweaters are my life here in mild north Texas, where heavyweight wool sweaters are sweat-inducing overkill at least 11 months of the year. I’m looking forward to (maybe next winter, at my wip rate) using this to adapt more beautiful, yummy sweater designs to my habitat in something other than cotton or linen!

  • Thank you, Jillian, for another amazing and insightful article. There is so much to understand about gauge…

  • Thanks for a wonderful explanation. I love hearing about the Why.

  • Boy, would I LOVE to go to a knitting retreat that let participants explore these ideas in depth! I always deeply appreciate these articles but can feel my brow furrowing as I concentrate on these woolly concepts. I’d sign up in a flash for a weekend of literal hands-on learning about these concepts. #takemymoney

    • Agreed! Lots of yarns to practice on, leaving with a collection of labeled swatches. pair this with a workshop on how to take my stitch gauge and do the math to knit a basic sweater.

    • That sounds amazing to me, too!

  • Thank you! This is brilliant. I have a guest room, would you like to move in and knit with me all the time?

  • I’ve done the other direction, I knit a pair of stranded mittens out of worsted-weight Rowan yarn on size 1.5 sock needles. Unlike my other handknit mittens, this pair KEEPS THE IOWA WIND OUT! (I think they could also stop bullets…)

    • Fixed you have to adjust the size?

    • ❤️ Love this idea! The wind blows in Ohio too. I need a pair of Very Warm dog walker mitts.

  • Great article! I love how the spinning know-how intersects with knitting and blows your mind! Now I’ve got to get my hands on some Cormo fleece and try woolen spinning.

  • Sort of dumb am-I-getting-this-right question: When you knit a sweater in bulkier yarn than the pattern calls for you need more yardage, but am I right in seeing that when you use the prescribed yarn on a larger needle you need LESS yardage? Because oh man could that help me when I don’t buy enough yarn after all …

    • Danielle, I think you’ve got it. I usually find I need less yardage when I knit a sweater in bulkier yarn because it takes fewer stitches per inch to get the width I need – I might need 1400 yards of fingering weight but only 800 yards of bulky to knit the same sweater…of course the gauge will be vastly different as well as the weight and appearance of the garment.

      So when you use the prescribed yarn on a larger needle, it’s kind of like sizing up the yarn to a larger gauge and yes, that could definitely help you when you don’t buy enough yarn after all…

  • What a fantastic, understandable, and useful explanation! Thank you!

  • Wonderful article. Thank you! I often see great cable patterns but part of me cringes thinking how thick and inflexible the fabric might be. New options!!

  • can someone please tell me what a schmatta is…??? 🙂

  • THIS IS SO USEFUL!!! Thank you! 🙂

  • I almost never knit to gauge but I do knit swatches to determine what needle to use, and what I am looking for is a certain feel to the fabric. That is what I go by. Then I adjust the pattern to the new gauge.

  • What size needles did you use to achieve the different gauges?

  • Great article. I learned to always swatch and let the yarn tell you what is best. You describe it perfectly.

  • As someone who wears my handknits often and for years, I worry about whether my more loosely knit garments will wear as well. I know there are lots of variables here, but this is certainly one of them. The last sweater I finished (the oft-knit beekeeper) called for dk weight yarn knit at more like worsted gauge. It is lovely, but I worry it won’t look nice as long as some of my more firmly knit garments.

  • Hi I love knitting . It’s something not everyone can do . I am one of the lucky persons who know how to crochet . It’s one of my favorite hobby. Yarns are beautiful to work with . Thank you.

  • This is such a great article! My handspun is precious to me and I’m glad to use less and still get great results. I don’t design my own patterns. How do I adjust a pattern? Do I follow the small size, when I need a large, for example? Thanks.

  • Thank you!

  • Great article. I really need to start spinning a wider variety of fibres for knitting sweaters.

  • Great read – so informative!

  • This is fabulous! I have a sweater worth of lettlopi, and even though I live in Minnesota I’m afraid it will be too warm for a pullover. Excited to try this!

  • So timely. Hubs just informed me he’d like me to knit him another sweater, lighter weight that he could wear inside, “like the one he bought in England.” (Um, yeah, that’s store-bought, machine-knit, super-duper fine Merino.) In fairness, the sweaters I have knit for him were early days in both my knitting and our marriage, they are exceptionally warm and questionably finished.

  • I don’t know it’s breed make-up but I do know that Blue Sky’s Woolstok is a gauge chameleon (oh and *thank you* for the ear worm – I’ll be singing Cormo cormo cormo cormo cormo cameleon for *days*). It’s ballband puts it firmly in worsted territory, worked on a 4 or 4.5mm needle, but I’ve used it on a 7mm (!) and love the fabric that resulted.

  • The take home lesson is to experiment with a different needle size and make a few swatches. And this experimentation opens up the option to use two on paper incompatible yarns in some cases in the same garment.

  • Thank you. I knew there was a good reason why I don’t like superwash fibers. Myeh! Anything I make that takes time and patience I wash carefully by hand. I’ll use acrylic (which I also don’t like) for items for kids and those I know who will just throw them in the machine.

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