What to Do When You Can’t Get Gauge
If you’ve ever sat down to knit a gauge swatch – and I hope you have – you may be able to relate to the maddening experience of trying to get gauge. It might seem like a bit of a mystery, but gauge is really just a simple case of math and measurement. If you get the number of stitches as indicated over the suggested distance (for example, 24 stitches over 4 inches/10 cm) then your finished sweater will fit the width measurements indicated in the pattern. Row gauge, the often overlooked counterpart to stitch gauge, will affect things like arm drop/shaping, body length (in some cases), fabric density and yarn consumption.
Let’s break it down by answering some of the most common questions I receive about gauge.
Q: I can’t get gauge on the recommended needle. What should I do?
A: The suggested needle size in the pattern is the needle the designer used in conjunction with the recommended yarn to get the gauge indicated in the pattern. Every knitter is different. Your knitting style, the type of needles you use and yarn substitutions can effect gauge. You should adjust your needle size as necessary until you are able to get gauge.
Q: The pattern calls for worsted weight yarn. I’m using a worsted. Why can’t I get gauge?
A: The description of yarn weights vary from base to base, brand to brand. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the description of a yarn as the sole basis for making yarn substitutions. I have found that it’s incredibly helpful to, instead, consider the following factors:
- Are you using yarn from a similar fiber family? Fiber content can affect your ability to get gauge, especially if it’s drastically different from what the pattern recommends. For example: If the pattern recommends a worsted weight cotton, you may get slightly different results (both in gauge and in the intended fabric) from a worsted weight wool/alpaca blend.
- Have you compared the yardage to weight ratio? For example: One fingering weight yarn may have 400 yards/366 m in 100 g. Another may have 460 yards/421 m in 100 g. These differences in yardage/weight ratios can mean a dramatic difference with respect to gauge.
- Does your fabric feel correct? Sometimes you can get the correct gauge, but the resulting fabric is too stiff or too lifeless for the design. Be sure that the correct gauge also creates fabric that is appropriate to the design.
Q: But I’m using the exact same yarn and needle the pattern calls for, so I should be able to get gauge, right?
A: Every knitter is different. Some of us knit more loosely, some knit tight, some struggle with consistent gauge on their purl rows, some are prone to gauge variations based on what they happen to be watching on TV (or how many cups of coffee they’ve had). Using the same yarn and needle size as recommended in the pattern will not guarantee correct gauge. It’s a good place to start, but you may still need to make adjustments for your particular knitting needs.
Q: Does type of needle make a difference?
A: Yes. Metal needles, wood needles, and everything in between – all can affect your gauge. You might consider trying a different type of needle to see if it makes a difference.
Q: Does yarn ply make a difference?
A: It does. Yarn ply and the way it’s processed can create gauge challenges. You’ll have to address this on a case-by-case basis, but if the pattern calls for a woolen-spun yarn and you’re substituting with a high twist bouncy plied yarn, you may find it difficult to match gauge to the pattern – even if the yardage and weight are similar.
Q: Can’t I just knit a different size if my gauge is wrong?
A: Yes, you can. But keep in mind that it’s up to you to do the math to make sure you’ve selected the right size adjustment, and remember that having a different gauge can affect yarn consumption in your project (meaning: you may use more or less than indicated in the pattern). When you decide to make a modification, it’s your job to navigate the many ways this may affect your results. I recommend taking a class on pattern modifications if this is something you run into on a regular basis.
Let’s sum it up
The easiest way to ensure correct gauge is to double check that your yarn is similar to the recommend yarn in the pattern – not just worsted for worsted – but that you really take the time to consider fiber content and the yardage to weight ratio. This ratio doesn’t need to be exact, but you DO need to keep it in mind. Consider your needle type and size, and be willing to make adjustments as needed.
Remember: Getting correct gauge is just part of the knitting process and it plays an important role in the way our garments fit and feel. When you approach a new pattern, do so with an open mind and a willingness to adjust your process and materials until you achieve the correct results.