Row Gauge: Why it Matters

Tell the truth: When (if?) you knit a gauge swatch, do you measure both stitch gauge and row gauge?

I mean, you know stitch gauge matters. You know that having too many or too few stitches in a 4″ swatch means you’ll end up with a sweater that is either larger or smaller than you wanted it to be. But why does row gauge matter?

Row gauge isn’t a formality; it actually serves a purpose. NOT checking row gauge can leave you with a sweater that doesn’t fit the way it should (and can potentially cause you to run out of yarn). It’s especially important in top-down sweaters.

The most important purpose of row gauge is to ensure that the arm drop (armscye) fits your body – not too short, not too deep. If you’ve ever knit a top-down sweater and the arm depth was too tight or too loose, chances are it was a row gauge issue. A surprising fact about arm depth: no matter what size you are, whether you’re a 32″ bust or a 52″ bust, the depth of a sweater armhole doesn’t vary as much as you might think. To get a proper fit sweaters often include shaping (like the curved underarm shape you’d usually see in a set-in sleeve, or the fancy-shmancy shaping I put in place on my top-down sweaters), which allows the garment to reach the appropriate width while at the same time achieving the correct depth. Because top-down, seamless sweaters are my specialty (and my fave!), we’ll talk about how row gauge affects this particular sweater style more than others.

Let’s say the intended arm depth is 8″ from the top of the shoulder to the armpit and the pattern says your row gauge should be 24 rows over 4″ (or 6 rows per inch). In a top-down seamless pattern, the depth is generally fixed because the pattern is written row by row. In this case, that would be 48 rows from the cast-on edge to the row where you separate the sleeves and join the body. Look at the way these numbers break down according to variations in row gauge:

22 rows per 4″ (with 48 fixed rows) = 8.7″

24 rows per 4″ (with 48 fixed rows) = 8″

26 rows per 4″ (with 48 fixed rows) = 7.38″

28 rows per 4″ (with 48 fixed rows) =6.86″

In our scenario, 8″ row depth is ideal for a nice fit. With blocking that depth will grow just a bit (1/2-1″ in some cases). But notice how if you get 28 rows per 4″, your depth is less than 7″… which is a tight squeeze. Even with slightly relaxed stitches from blocking, it’s going to be snug.

I have a theory about sleeves: I believe that sleeves that fit a little better (with less ease than the body) are more flattering than sleeves that are overly loose. And I believe that saggy armhole depth is not only unflattering, but a waste of good yarn. I design my sweaters with this theory in mind, and I count on you – my dear sweet knitter friend – to make sure your row gauge works so that you will love the way your sweater fits.

What if you can get stitch gauge but not row gauge?

  1. Try going up a needle size. Sometimes it will barely affect your stitch gauge, but can help you get closer on row gauge.
  2. Try changing the type of needles you’re using. I design my patterns using slippery, pointy metal needles. But every knitter is different: try a few types of needles to see if one kind or another makes a difference to your row gauge.
  3. Don’t forget to block your swatch before you measure gauge, and remember that gravity will get involved, too. If you’re pretty close, gravity and blocking may give you that last little nudge you need.
  4. The most common problem I see is that knitters end up with too many rows over 4″ (ex: 28 rows instead of 24). The easiest way around this is to count how many rows you have extra (in this case it’s 4 extra rows in 4″) and use 8″ as your general baseline for armscye depth. (Actual arm depth will vary, but that will at least give you something to estimate with.) Since the pattern tells you how many rows you are supposed to get over 4″, all you really have to do is double that number to estimate what you should have over 8″. Compare that to the number of rows you’re getting (take your 4″ row gauge number and double it). The number of rows you have in excess of what the pattern calls for is the number of rows you’ll need to add before you get to the sleeve divide in order to reach the intended depth. Because of complex shaping, it is sometimes better to space out these extra rows over several inches rather than adding them all at once at the end before you divide for sleeves, and work them in pairs (sets of two). The extra rows are ghost rows – you’ll keep them in pattern (working stripes or stitch pattern as appropriate) but you won’t work increases on these extra rows. Yes, this process can be a teensy bit tricky; if you find it frustrating or confusing I recommend doing your best to get as close as possible to the correct gauge to start with so you may only need to add a couple of rows. If you’re only off by a couple of rows, adding them at the end right before you divide for sleeves isn’t a big deal. But if you’re off by 8-10 rows, you’ll need to space them out so the shaping doesn’t get weird. But again – for best results, try to get as close as possible to row gauge right from the start. If you are not getting enough stitches in 4″ (which rarely happens), there’s not as much you can do in terms of taking rows away – at least not without a lot of calculations. But the good news is that a sweater with a little extra armhole depth is one you can still wear.
  5. If all else fails, consider knitting one size larger.

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