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What to do if you can't get gauge

“Help, I can’t get gauge! Do I have to give up on this yarn?”

This question comes up a lot, so let’s dig into it today! But first, I want to share my favorite pointers for making gauge swatches and measuring them.

Make and measure a gauge swatch that won’t lie

Two handknit swatches in cormo/corriedale blend yarn, in the color of toasted wheat with a slightly green undertone.
Make a big enough swatch to measure a MINIMUM of 4"

Make a bigger swatch - aim for at least 6” square in the stitch pattern you need to measure

  • Wet block your swatch and allow it to dry completely - then wait a few more hours

  • Unless it’s lace, don’t use pins when your swatch is drying

  • Allow your swatch to dry on a smooth surface

  • Use thread or slender pins to count out whole stitches, then use a rigid ruler to measure to the nearest 1/8” or single mm. Convert that to 4”.

Whole stitches/ precise length * 4 = stitches in 4”

So you’ve made an excellent swatch and measured it accurately, and you still aren’t quite there. What next?

Tip: Don’t plan to ‘knit loose’ or ‘knit tight.’ We really can’t control our gauge that well throughout a project. Let the needles determine your tension and change the needles until you get the best fabric possible for your yarn.

What to do if your gauge doesn’t work out

Evaluate your result

Do you like the fabric?

If your stitches were tighter/looser to get gauge, would you still like the result or would it be too dense or too unstructured? If you like the fabric you’re getting, you’ll need to adjust the pattern to work or save this yarn for another project. If you don’t like this fabric, keep trying different needle sizes.

A swatch with a miniature pocket, an assortment of buttons
Make separate swatches for gauge and for testing out different trims and shaping

What’s the difference?

Calculate the impact of the gauge you’re getting. How do the width and length of the garment change if you use this yarn and needle combo?

If your pattern has a single stitch pattern:

  • Pattern torso in inches: 40”

  • Pattern gauge is 20 sts in 4”, or 5 sts/inch.

  • Your gauge is 18 sts in 4”, or 4.5 sts/inch.

  • So your sweater would be 44.5” - a substantial change.

Some patterns have features or multiple stitch patterns, and extrapolating the exact circumference is impractical. In this case, use a percentage.

  • Pattern: 20 sts = 4”

  • Your gauge: 20 sts = 4.44”

  • Percentage change: .44/4 = 11%

  • Original torso becomes: 40” = 11% more = 44.5”

Make sure to follow the same process for row gauge, an often overlooked but important measurement. How will the yoke or armhole depth change? It’s easy to adjust the hem to the underarm, but it’s important to know whether your arm will fit in the garment - or if the underarm will be way down by your lower rib!

Tip: Sometimes our row gauge is too short and our stitch count is too wide. For whatever reason, different yarns sometimes assume different shapes. If this happens, you’re probably on target - when you wear the garment it is like to stretch down some, or at least be amenable to some coaxing in the blocking process. I recommend knitting a sleeve and seeing how it blocks out.

Option 1: Walk away from this yarn

This is the right choice when the fabric of your swatch is delightful - but unsuitable for this design. It would be practically re-writing the pattern to get the thing to fit, or maybe you can just tell the swatch is too delicate or too coarse for the pattern.

Handknit sweater, olive green, with rich knit-purl texture and a pocket.
When working pieces that are joined vertically, row gauge may be more important than stitch gauge

Option 2: Keep trying to get closer to gauge.

This is the right choice when you’re not quite happy with the fabric of your swatch and think you could get a bit closer.

Change needle sizes

I often find that changing needle sizes does not change my stitch count, but DOES change my row count. So if you’re getting stitch count but not row count, it’s worth trying a different sized needle.

Change needle material

Because yarn moves differently across different surfaces, swapping from wood to metal or plastic can make a difference in gauge. If you’re close but want to see if you can get closer, try switching to a different needle type.

Option 3: Deal with it

You have two choices here - accept an oversized/undersized sweater, or modify the pattern.

If you’ve evaluated the final measurements and you’ll be happy with the finished measurements - just go for it! As I discussed in this post, it’s totally fine to modify from the designer’s vision. It’s also fine if we let go of perfection in favor of enjoying the process.

The final choice, of course, is to modify the pattern. Remember to consider both lengths and widths, paying special attention to the fit in the armhole, neck, and upper chest area.

Any questions on gauge? Pop them in the comments!

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