Saturday, January 1, 2011

About gauge in Knitting (and Crocheting)

Primarily, I'm talking about knitting here. But these facts also apply to crocheting as well. Gauge is gauge.  And to do a proper gauge swatch, you're supposed to knit at least a 4"x4" (10cm x 10cm) swatch, wash and dry it like you will do the finished article and THEN do the gauge check.

Let's face it, most of us do NOT do a proper gauge swatch. Some of us are doing good to get the swatch done at all and then we measure it without bothering with the washing and drying part. I'm guilty of said practice.

A sad but true fact. Very few patterns will turn out the same size as written if you don't check the gauge.  If you're an experienced kniter, you may know that you traditionally have to go up or down and how many needle sizes you usually have to change. But even then, unless it's the same designer who's patterns you've used before, you may be off gauge. The person that wrote the pattern (that's done by knitting something and writing down what you do as you do it - and frogging - A LOT!),  may have a different gauge themselves. If they have the same gauge as you do and you change needle sizes as you'd normally have to do, you'd have something too big or too small.

There are two camps or ways of checking gauge and each camp thinks the other camp is crazy. One camp thinks that knitting a swatch takes less time and then you have a "sample" to keep of how you knit with that size needle and that weight/brand yarn and that pattern (seed stitch, ribbing, etc). They start out with one size needle, do their 4"x4" square and measure it. If it's not to gauge, they switch out needles, but keep on knitting on the already existing swatch for another 4", measure that and then correct again if needed. The advantage to this method is that you then have a ball park figure for the next time you knit with those combos IF YOU'VE WRITTEN DOWN what you've done and kept it WITH the swatch. (paste a corner of a piece of paper to the swatch and mark on the corner what you did and how you did it. The cons to this method is that you've got yarn sitting there that could be in an item and you've spent time that you could have spent knitting what you want on an otherwise useless sample. OR you can make your swatch larger and when it's finished you both have a sample of your work and a washcloth/dishcloth for use.

The other camp is the "start knitting it and then see what the gauge is" camp. The value of it is that, if things are right, you can just keep going. AND you have all of that skein of yarn available to work with. Down side is this - if it's NOT right, you've got to frog it all and start again. And if it's a big project, that's a LOT of time wasted.

What I tend to do is go ahead and start a small item - one that I'm not going to have to cast on a bunch of stitches to do and then check my gauge as I go along, with the foreknowledge that I MAY have to frog it. Toe-up socks and top-down hats and mittens, squares for an afghan all make good examples of something I'd just dive into and do, then check to see if I'm on gauge. Usually you have only a few stitches to start with, and as the stitches grow you can both see and try on the item as well as measure it to see if  the gauge and size are correct.

Brim-up hats, cuff-down socks and cuff-up mittens/gloves, as well as scarves are a toss up. My feelings are that by the time I've done a swatch, I've cast on almost as many stitches as I would making the item. So I may as well go ahead and start knitting - again keeping in the back of my mind that in an hour or so, it could be frog pond time.

Something large - one piece or large panel afghans, sweaters, coats  - BIG projects that take a LONG time to do, I'd swatch. Also if I make something that uses a very fine yarn - like lace or novelty yarns, where frogging can mess up the yarn, I would also swatch. There is one time that I would go ahead and knit a big project and that's if I was making something that has sleeves that are a separate piece, cuff-up (so there's not so many stitches), I would go ahead and knit a sleeve to see if I'm getting gauge in pattern on that sleeve.

Remember to do the swatch in pattern to make sure you have the same gauge as the designer calls for. Sometimes, the designer will tell you to have such-and-such a gauge in ribbing, stockinette or garter stitch. Mostly though, the gauge will be checked in the main pattern that the item will be knit in. And I've seen patterns with swatching called for in ribbing with one size needle and another swatch in another pattern with another size needle. So ALWAYS read the pattern ALL THE WAY THROUGH!

Three other things that I have found will affect my gauge. One is the yarn itself. I did 3 swatches of a plain scarf with some Red Heart or Vanna's Choice yarn. The scarf was a simple stockinette stitch with 3 garter stitches on each side and about 3 rows of garter stitch top and bottom to control the natural tendency of stockinette to roll up on you. Well, I got to knitting and that scarf just "grew" on me. It's WAY wider that the swatch showed it should be and it's way LONGER than what I intended. And yes, my swatch WAS accurate - in 4". The finished scarf was only supposed to be 12" wide, so even if the gauge was off, it wouldn't have grown to 18" wide. I guess as I made it the weight of the fabric it caused it to stretch out. Since it was for a kid to take to school, I didn't loose any sleep over it.

The second thing that has fouled me up was changing types and "style" of knitting. When I went from using DPN's and either "Bates" or "Boyle" needles to using Magic Loop and Addis Turbos needles, I had a HUGE gauge change. To the point that I had to completely frog one of the Fingerless gloves that I was working on. It was my own pattern for a fitted glove. I wrote down what I was doing as I did it. And I still had the DPN/Bates/Boyle glove WAY larger (and fitting the recipient) than the ML/Addis glove, which was too small. That was about 18 hrs of work off to the frog pond. My fault because I should have checked the gauge when I changed, but never dreamed there would be a difference. After all, it was the same yarn and the same size needles. It wasn't until I had DD try them on that I found they were WAY too tight. To the point that the stitches were stretched enough you could see her arm through the stitches.

Third thing that affects my guage is what's going on in my life as I knit. Perhaps other more experience knitters can control this, but if I'm watching something tense on TV, having a disagreement with a kid or I'm upset over something, my gauge tightens a LOT. Crazy thing is, it's doesn't "feel" any tighter on the needles as I'm knitting, but I can see the gauge is off as I look at what I've done. Like when knitting a pair of socks one at a time. They take me a LONG time to do and when done, I can "see" if I've been knitting while something is "bothering" me or if I'm in a good mood. I can see it in the fabric. Again, that may be because I'm not really a very experienced knitter. Mostly dish cloths, 1 pair of socks, a several of pairs of wrist warmers/gloves and a couple of scarves. And while blocking cures a multitude of sins in a wool/wool blend fabric, it doesn't always do much for synthetics.

What I'm working on is collecting patterns that are really just the math equations for knitting certain items. I have socks covered with my Crazy Heels and Toes book. I can choose any size needle and any size yarn and then make my socks fit the recipient. I may have the math figured out for brim-up hats too. But to do these kinds of things, you have to understand HOW gauge works and then either do swatches or be willing to frog items. Oh, and keep a record of how many stitches you get to an inch on certain brand & weight yarns with certain size/brand needles.

In the end, with all knitting that needs to "fit", you HAVE to know how many inches you're getting to an inch and how many inches you need on the finished item. If I need an item that goes around a 9" ankle, and I know that I'm getting 6 stitches to an inch, then I KNOW I'm going to have to have about 54 stitches to get around that ankle. Then you factor in such things as negative or positive ease and number of stitches needed for the chosen pattern. Then those figures are add or subtract for the stitch adjustment(s) to the base number of stitches. So using my 6 stitches/inch and 9" ankle I know I need 54 stitches as a base. Then, usually you want some negative ease in socks so they fit properly. Usually between 10% - 15% is a good negative ease starting number. So 54-10% (5.4 rounded down to 5 stitches) = 49 stitches. If I'm using a k2, p2 ribbing on the legs and top of foot, I need a number divisible by 4 (2 knit stitches + 2 purl stitches = 4 stitches in the pattern). So I will need either 48 or 52 stitches to have the proper number of stitches. In this case, I would go with 48 stitches. That would give me a negative ease of  about 11%, which would not be too tight. 

And the bigger the item or the more stitches the item requires, the more important 1/2 and even 1/4 stitches have to the final size of the item. 1/4 of a stitch makes an equivalent of adding an additional stitch every FOUR stitches. 1/2 stitch per inch and you'd have the equivalent of 1 stitch every 2 stitches. If the pattern calls for something to be 40" and you're SUPPOSED to be getting 10 stitches to an inch, you need 400 stitches cast on. But if YOU'RE you're getting 10.25 stitches, then you've added 1" to your project without meaning because you've cast on the equivalent of 410 stitches. And if you're getting 10.50 stitches to an inch, then you've added 2" to the size - again, without meaning to do so because it's like you've cast on 420 stitches. Those inches can mean the difference between looking good and looking like something is two sizes too big. It can mean the difference between something that is supposed to be "fitted" looking like it's fitted and something looking sloppy and ill-fitting. And the reverse is also true. Too FEW stitches per inch makes something too tight! 40" of 9.75 stitches per inch is like only casting on 390 stitches. 40" of 9.50 is like casting on 380 stitches. A loss of 1" for the missing 1/4 stitches and a loss of 2" for the missing 1/2 stitches. So that 40" is now down to 38". And that's an entire SIZE difference on some items and TWO sizes different on other items.

Moral to the story - at some point, preferably not too far into the project, check your gauge! It will save you being unhappy with the final fit the project.

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