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Complete Guide to Knitting Gauge, and How to Measure It

If you’re a knitter, you’ve probably heard the term “gauge” before. But what does it mean – and more importantly, how do you measure it? This blog post will answer those questions and teach you how to make and measure a knitting gauge swatch.

ruler and knitting needles with two gauge swatches made with blue yarn

All About Knitting Gauge

“Make sure to knit a gauge swatch.” How many times have you read those instructions in a knitting pattern? If you’re like most knitters, the answer is “too many to count”! But what is a gauge swatch exactly, and why is it important?

What is Gauge?

Gauge is a measurement of the tightness or looseness of your knitting.

Some people knit very tightly, and some knit more loosely. Give a group of knitters the same yarn and the same needles, and each of them will knit a slightly different size swatch.

And that’s where gauge comes in. Gauge (rhymes with page) is a way to measure your knitting tension and make sure it matches the tension of the pattern designer. If you get the right gauge, you can be confident your finished knitting project will be the right size.

3 Factors Affecting Gauge

Three things affect knitting gauge: the yarn weight, the needle size, and your natural knitting tension.

  • Yarn weight: Thicker yarns mean bigger stitches and a looser gauge. Thin yarns mean smaller stitches and tighter gauge.
  • Knitting needle size and type: Similarly, the bigger the needles, the bigger the stitches; the smaller the needles, the smaller the stitches. Even the needle material can make a difference. You might get a different gauge on wooden needles than you do on metal needles.
  • The individual knitter’s tension: Some knitters knit very tightly, and some knit very loosely. Changing your grip from English to Continental can also affect your tension.

And while it’s almost impossible to change your natural knitting tension -it’s pretty easy to use different size needles. You can use a smaller knitting needle to get a tighter gauge and a larger knitting needle to get a looser gauge.

Listen, I know most knitters dread knitting swatches, and I completely understand. But gauge swatches are one of the most important tools in your knitting toolbelt. “Getting the right gauge” is the difference between a sweater that fits and one that stays buried at the back of your closet. And so, we carry on!

gauge ruler on a swatch made with blue yarn on a gray background

How Gauge is Measured

Now that we know what gauge is let’s talk about how it’s measured. Gauge is typically measured in stitches and rows per inch. You’ll also see it measured in stitches and rows per 4 inches (10 cm).

Stitch gauge is the number of stitches per inch, and row gauge is the number of rows per inch.

The smaller your stitches are, the more stitches can fit in an inch, and thus the tighter your gauge. Likewise, the larger your stitches are, the fewer stitches you can fit in an inch, and thus the looser your gauge.

How Gauge is Written

Here is an example of how gauge might be written in a knitting pattern.

Gauge: 16 sts + 22 rows = 4 in. (10 cm) in St st

This means that a swatch of stockinette stitch that’s 16 stitches wide and 22 rows tall should equal 4 inches by 4 inches.

And here is an example of how knitting gauge might be written on a yarn label.

Knit Gauge (4in x 4in): 18 sts x 24 r on #8 (5mm)

This means a 4-inch by 4-inch square of stockinette fabric should be 18 stitches wide and 24 rows tall when knit with size 8 (5mm) knitting needles.

Why is knitting gauge so important?

Matching your knitting gauge to the pattern gauge is essential if you want your finished project to fit correctly. If your gauge is too loose, your project will be larger than expected; if your gauge is too tight, your project will be smaller than expected.

stockinette stitch under a gauge square ruler

How to Measure Knitting Gauge

So, how do you actually measure gauge? By knitting a gauge swatch! (I can hear your groans, and I’m sorry.) The good news is that knitting a gauge swatch is quite simple, even if it is a bit boring.

Knitting a Gauge Swatch

A gauge swatch is a small square of knitted fabric that’s used to measure your gauge. You’ll knit your gauge swatch with the same yarn, the same needles, and the same stitch pattern that you’ll use for your actual project.

How to knit a gauge swatch:

  1. Cast on a number of stitches. I cast on the number of stitches the pattern says I should get in 4 inches, plus 50% or more. For example, if the pattern gauge says 16 sts per 4-inches, I’ll cast on at least 24 sts.
  2. Knit the way you usually knit until the swatch measures at least 6 inches. Don’t try to knit perfectly, and don’t try to knit tighter or looser than you normally would. You want the swatch to reflect your regular knitting habits.
  3. When your swatch is larger enough, cast off loosely, and take the swatch off your needles. Wash and block it as you intend to wash and block the finished project.

After the swatch is knit, washed, and blocked, it’s time to measure your gauge. You can use a tuler, a tape measure, or a handy swatch ruler + needle gauge.

How to measure your gauge:

  1. Lay the swatch on a flat surface, being careful not to stretch it.
  2. Lay a ruler on top of the swatch. If you have them, you can use pins to mark out a 4-inch section in the middle of the swatch.
  3. Count the number of stitches in the 4-inch section, including half stitches. Then, count the number of rows.

If your gauge matches the pattern gauge, congratulations! You can start knitting the actual project. But if it doesn’t match, you’ll need to try again. Pick out a pair of larger or smaller needles, and reknit the swatch. Then, measure again to see if you have the correct gauge.

How big should the gauge swatch really be?

A general rule of thumb is to knit a gauge swatch that’s at least four inches wide by four inches tall. But I think it’s better to knit a slightly larger swatch – say, 6 inches or even 8 inches square.

Why? A larger swatch will give you a little more fabric to work with when measuring your gauge. With a larger area, you can disregard the edge stitches, which are often looser than the rest of the swatch. You can then take your 4-inch gauge measurement from the center of the swatch, which is more likely to be accurate.

What kind of stitch should the gauge swatch be?

Knit the gauge swatch in the same stitch pattern that you’ll use for the majority of the project itself. More often than not, the pattern designer will tell you what stitch pattern to use.

For instance, if you’re making a sweater in stockinette stitch, you’ll make the gauge swatch in stockinette stitch too.

But, if the project is made with other stitch patterns, like seed stitch, ribbing, or cables, you’ll knit the gauge swatch in that stitch pattern. This is important because different stitch patterns have different gauges.

What about adding a garter stitch border?

Some knitters will tell you to knit a garter stitch border around the edges of your stockinette swatch. Theoretically, adding a garter stitch border to your swatch will help it lay flat, so you don’t have to wrestle with it when you’re trying to take your measurements.

But, I don’t recommend it. And here’s why. Garter stitch has a wider stitch gauge and a tighter row gauge than stockinette, so the garter stitch border will pull in and distort the stockinette portion of the swatch – leading to inaccurate measurements.

So instead, I recommend knitting a larger 6 to 8-inch swatch of plain stockinette (or whatever stitch your pattern calls for.) Since you have a larger area, you can disregard the edges of the swatch, since they tend to roll anyway. Then, you can take your measurement from the center of the swatch, which should be the most accurate.

Should I measure before or after blocking?

You can get a pretty good idea of your gauge by measuring before blocking, but the results will be more accurate if you measure after blocking. I understand that this may not be what you want to hear! But for the most precise measurement, you’ll want to measure your gauge after washing and blocking.

Why? Some yarns, especially some natural fibers like wool, will bloom and expand when washed. This means that your gauge swatch – and ultimately, your finished project – will be a slightly different size after being washed and blocked.

So, after you finish knitting your swatch, wash it as you would the finished project. If you’re going to hand wash it, hand wash the swatch. If you’re going to run it through the washing machine, run your swatch through the same cycle.

And the same advice goes with pinning and blocking. Block your swatch like you would your finished project. Don’t stretch or pin out your gauge swatch if you aren’t going to do the same thing each time you wash your sweater. Instead, let it dry flat and relax a bit before taking your gauge measurement.

Does knitting gauge really have to be exact?

In general, it’s important to try to match the pattern’s gauge as closely as possible.

True, there may be some knitting projects where it’s not critical to get the exact gauge. For example, you might not mind if your dishcloth or baby blanket is a little bit smaller or larger than it’s supposed to be.

But, for wearable garments like sweaters and hats, it’s important to match the pattern’s gauge. Why? Even a small mismatch can make a big difference in the size of a finished garment.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you want to make a sweater with a 40-inch finished size. If you knit at a gauge of 4 stitches per inch, you’ll need to cast on 160 stitches. (4 stitches/inch x 40 inches = 160 stitches)

But, let’s say your gauge is wrong, and you’re actually knitting with a gauge of 4.5 stitches per inch. If you cast on those same 160 stitches, you’ll end up with a sweater with a finished measurement of 35 ½ inches. (160 stitches ÷ 4.5 stitches/inch = 35.56 inches) In other words, way too small!

I hope this example illustrates why it’s essential to check your knitting gauge before beginning a project – especially a garment. If the gauge is not correct, the finished project will not fit correctly.

garter swatch with a gauge ruler on top

Tips for Knitting an Accurate Gauge Swatch

Now that you know why gauge is important, and how to measure it, here are a few tips for knitting an accurate gauge swatch.

  • Use the same yarn that is called for in the pattern. If you can’t find the exact same yarn, try to find something similar in terms of weight and fiber content.
  • Use the same needles that you’ll use for the rest of the pattern. Even something like the needle material can affect your gauge, so choose a metal needle if you’ll use a metal needle for the project, or a bamboo needle if you’ll use a bamboo needle.
  • Knit the swatch the same way you intend to knit the project. If the project is knit flat, knit the swatch flat. If you’ll knit the project in the round on circular knitting needles, knit the swatch on circular knitting needles as well.
  • Make sure your swatch is representative of the project. In other words, if you are knitting a sweater in stockinette stitch, make sure your gauge swatch is also in stockinette stitch.
  • Make sure your swatch is big enough. A good rule of thumb is to knit a swatch that is at least six inches wide and six inches tall.
  • Measure your gauge after washing and blocking for the most accurate results. Wash and block your swatch in the same way you intend to wash and block the finished measurement.
  • Don’t stretch or pin out your gauge swatch if you won’t stretch and pin your finished project. Stretching or pinning out your swatch will give you an inaccurate gauge measurement. Instead, just let it dry flat and relax a bit before measuring.
close up of stockinette stitch and garter stitch fabric

Fixing Your Gauge Problems

Got a problem with your knitting gauge? Here are a few tips to fix a gauge that is too loose or too tight.

Gauge is too tight. If you have too many stitches per inch, your gauge is too tight. To fix this, try using larger needles. Larger needles will make larger stitches, and your gauge will be looser.

If larger needles don’t seem to fix the problem, you might actually need to switch to thicker yarn. For example, if you have been using worsted weight yarn, try subbing in an Aran weight yarn.

Gauge is too loose. If you have too few stitches per inch, your gauge is too loose. To fix this, try using smaller needles. This will make your stitches smaller and your gauge tighter.

If smaller needles don’t seem to fix the problem, you can also try substituting a thinner yarn.

What should I do with the swatch afterward?

Now that you’ve knit your gauge swatch and measured your gauge, what should you do with the swatch? Here are some options.

  • Unravel the swatch and use it in your project. If you get to the end of your project and find you’ve run out of yarn, you can unravel your swatch and use it in your project.
  • Keep it as a reference. Most of the time, I save my swatch to reference later. You can label your swatches with a small paper hang tag, and record the type of yarn and the needles you used to knit it.
  • Use it as a coaster or small washcloth. If you don’t want to keep your swatch, you can always use it as a coaster or small washcloth.
  • Save them, and sew them all together into a patchwork blanket. If you have a lot of swatches, you can save them and sew them all together into a patchwork blanket.

FAQs about Knitting Gauge

Here are a few common questions about knitting gauge, how to measure it, and how to fix gauge problems.

Do I need to make a gauge swatch for every project?

Generally, you need to make a gauge swatch for every project – but there are some exceptions. As mentioned above, there are some projects where it’s not critical to get the exact gauge. For example, you might not mind if your scarf or baby blanket is a little bit smaller or larger than it’s supposed to be.

How do I know if my gauge is off?

The best way to tell if your gauge is off is to knit a gauge swatch and measure it. Compare your measurement to the pattern’s gauge. If they don’t match, then your gauge is off.

What if I can’t match the gauge exactly?

If you can’t match the gauge exactly, then you need to go up or down a needle size and try again. If your gauge is too tight, try larger needles. Likewise, if your gauge is too loose, try smaller needles.

What if I’m way off?

Sometimes your gauge can be way off if you’ve substituted a different yarn than the one called for in the pattern. In that case, double-check that the yarn you’ve chosen is the same thickness as the one called for in the pattern. For example, if the pattern calls for a worsted weight yarn, you need to use a similar worsted weight yarn.

More Beginner Knitting Tutorials

Ready for more? Here are a few more knitting articles you may be interested in.

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gauge ruler on a swatch made with blue yarn on a gray background

How to Measure Knitting Gauge

Yield: 1

Learn what knitting gauge is and why it's important, plus how to knit and measure a gauge swatch, and fix your gauge problems.

Materials

  • yarn

Tools

  • knitting needles
  • ruler

Instructions

How to knit a gauge swatch:

  1. Cast on a number of stitches. I cast on the number of stitches the pattern says I should get in 4 inches, plus 50% or more. For example, if the pattern gauge says 16 sts per 4-inches, I'll cast on at least 24 sts.
  2. Knit the way you usually knit until the swatch measures at least 6 inches. Don't try to knit perfectly, and don't try to knit tighter or looser than you normally would. You want the swatch to reflect your regular knitting habits.
  3. When your swatch is larger enough, cast off loosely, and take the swatch off your needles. Wash and block it as you intend to wash and block the finished project.

How to measure gauge:

  1. Lay the swatch on a flat surface, being careful not to stretch it.
  2. Lay a tape measure or a ruler on top of the swatch. If you have them, you can use pins to mark out a 4-inch section in the middle of the swatch.
  3. Count the number of stitches in the 4-inch section, including half stitches. Then, count the number of rows.

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