For the best introduction to this topic, let’s start out by defining what gauge is in relation to knitting. Gauge is a measure of the number of stitches in one inch of fabric. Gauge is essential in knitting and you will see it referenced in a number of places.
Once you have selected a pattern to knit, look for the designer’s given gauge. This can usually be found at the start of the pattern, near the yarn and needle requirements. The designer gives you the gauge of the pattern as shown so that you can achieve the fit and drape that they intended the knitted fabric to have. However, the gauge is also included so that you can experiment with other yarns and styles while still creating the same basic finished item.
Now that you’ve chosen a pattern, it’s time to select your yarn. Look at the label on any yarn for a starting point. Usually the label will indicate a gauge (i.e. - 5 sts/inch) and a recommended needle size (i.e. - U.S. 9). This information may also appear in the form of a small graphic. The example shown at the right tells you many things about gauge. It lists the suggested needle size (in millimeters and U.S.) and the number of stitches and rows per 4 inches and 10 centimeters. Many yarn companies provide a row, or vertical, measurement to match as well. This number is usually different than the stitches per inch because a stitch is shorter than it is wide. This is important but not something you need to worry about when choosing your yarn. If your yarn lists a gauge of 20 stitches and 25 rows over a 4 x 4 square, this means that there are 5 stitches per inch. Simply divide the number of stitches over 4 inches (20) by 4 to determine the number of stitches per inch. Provided the gauge on the yarn matches the gauge on your pattern, you have a potential winner!
Once you understand the gauge listings on a pattern and on various brands of yarn, you have the power to explore options to your heart’s content. This freedom is incredibly liberating. If the yarn the designer used is not in your price range or your preferred fiber, you can confidently choose a different yarn. Various fibers knit up differently, but as long as you stay within the recommended gauge, you are headed down the right path.
Whether your yarn has a listed gauge on it or your pattern says size 8 needles are needed for the project, always do a test before you begin knitting. This test is called a gauge swatch and is vitally important to the success of your garment. Spending time knitting a decently sized swatch may take you an hour, but it will save you the hundreds of hours you might have spent knitting a sweater the wrong size!
If you knit up a gauge swatch and discover that it has either more or fewer stitches per inch than your pattern calls for, you can rectify the situation by increasing or decreasing your knitting needle size accordingly. It can be tricky to remember that if you want more stitches you should use a smaller needle and if you want fewer stitches you should use a larger needle. Just remember that the larger your needles get, the larger your stitches will be and therefore fewer of them will fit into an inch.
In the pattern you have chosen, it will most likely have a note next to the required needles that says something like “Or size needed to obtain correct gauge”. This is an important tip as various knitters will use different sizes of needles to achieve a specific gauge. If you knit tightly, you may need a size 8 needle to achieve 5 sts/inch. If you knit loosely, you may need a size 5 needle. If you happen to be lucky enough to knit at exactly the same tension as the person who wrote the pattern, you’re ahead of the game – but you wouldn’t have known that for sure without knitting a gauge swatch! Your swatch will help you figure out what needle size you need.
Gauge is your friend, but you’ve got to negotiate until you, your yarn, your needles and your pattern have reached an agreement. Then you’re ready to get down to business!