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Tutorial: The Elusive Gauge

You've been browsing through the spring issue of Creative Knitting, I am sure, and fell in love with the sweaters, like Amanda Saladin's Classically Cabled Cardigan or Kennita Tully's Lacy Ribs. But there might be hesitation sprinkled in the back of your mind, "I'd love to knit these sweaters, but they always end up too big or too small. Gauge is impossible."

These are the same thoughts that my students utter when they participate in my gauge workshops. Well, shake that thought from your mind! I'm going to give you a quick primer on stitch gauge and solve your woes.

First, for reference' sake, let's say that we are going to make the Lacy Ribs sweater. The sleeves are worked in stockinette stitch; let's pretend that we are just going to cast on a sleeve without swatching. After all, sometimes we can match gauge, right? So, you cast on and work, ending up with 72 stitches as specified. You check your gauge and find you are still getting 4 1/2 stitches per inch. Looks right -- right? WRONG! The minute you wash your sweater, something terrible happens; the gauge changes. A quick measurement shows that you are now getting 3 7/8 stitches per inch because the water and drying process have made your sweater grow. Instead of a 16-inch upper arm, you now have an 18 1/2-inch upper arm. That's just the sleeve. I shudder to think how much the body would grow -- it would be much bigger and much baggier.

Rule No. 1: Finished gauge is the number of stitches that equals an inch after you have washed, dried or blocked, and used and abused the piece. This is the gauge that determines the fit or size of the project and is what nearly ALL published patterns are based off of. When you swatch, you should treat the yarn exactly as you would the finished piece. It doesn't matter if it is a different yarn or a different washing method than what the pattern recommends. ALL that matters is that your finished gauge matches the pattern's gauge.

Rule No. 2: Working gauge is exactly what it sounds like: The number of stitches that equals an inch while you are knitting the actual piece. These stitch counts are not accurate in determining size or fit because we haven't "treated" the fabric yet. This is the before picture, and it is helpful to know so that you can tweak some numbers or measure your in-progress piece.

How to Swatch

Step 1: Look at the pattern gauge. It will indicate the number of stitches and the number of rows that equal 4 inches. Let's keep using the Lacy Ribs sweater as an example: 18 stitches and 22 rows = 4 inches/10cm in stockinette stitch.

Step 2: Cast on the number of stitches the gauge section specifies, using the needles you think will achieve that gauge. In this case, cast on 18 stitches (I used size 7 needles).

Step 3: Work the number of rows, in pattern, that the gauge section specifies. So, you'll work 22 rows in stockinette stitch. Bind off loosely.

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Working Swatch

Step 4: Measure the total width and length of your swatch.

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Measure the Working Swatch

a. To measure the width, lay the swatch flat, public side facing down, and measure from edge to edge. Gently uncurl the edges as you need to, but avoid stretching.

b. To measure the length, lay the swatch flat, public side facing up, and measure from the cast-on edge to the bind-off edge (I usually do not include the bind-off edge in the measurement since it represents a tighter extra row).

c. Write those measurements down for future reference, and if you desire, you can work a little bit of math to determine your stitches per inch: Stitch count divided by width measurement equals stitches per inch.

Step 5: Wash, dry and "abuse" your swatch exactly as you plan to the finished piece.

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Finished Swatch

Step 6: Measure the total width and length of your swatch, following the guidelines I mentioned in Step 4 (a and b). This is where we determine if your gauge matches the pattern's gauge.

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Measure Finished Swatch

If the finished swatch is less than 4 inches wide, you'll need larger needles. If wider than 4 inches, you'll need smaller needles. USUALLY (and I use that term loosely), a difference of 1/4 inch (if your width measurement equals 4 1/8 inches for example), means that you only need to change one needle size; you can pretty much start your project. It still helps to re-swatch, though, to get a firm gauge. Anything larger than 1/4 inch difference means you will definitely be changing at least one needle size, so you should swatch again.

And that, my dear friends, is all there is to stitch gauge (in a nutshell). I'll talk more in depth about row gauge in the next issue!