I know, I know; I’ve heard it so many times before, “Size doesn’t matter.” Well, perhaps it’s not true in every circumstance, but if you’re a knitter, then yes, it does.
I also know that beginning knitters can’t wait to fire into the next project; just as I know that the admonition, “To save time, take time to check gauge,” is timelessly relevant. Likewise, the carpenter’s proverb, “Measure twice, cut once; measure once, cut twice,” applies to knitting as well.
Why? It really is more relevant than you want to know...
Here’s how it works…
Read the label on the yarn skein to see what size needle the manufacturer recommends, also how many stitches per 10 cm2 (4”-square). Cast on at least that many, adding a few extra as a selvedge. I generally use 25-30 sts to slightly exceed 10 cm2 (4”-square).
Start knitting in the pattern stitches you’ll use for the garment, and keep going until you have at least 10 cm (4”-length), adding a few extra rows for selvedge. You’ll get a more accurate measurement with this additional width and length.
Maybe you found a yarn that you desperately want to use, and start right in with your only pair of needles…and maybe, no matter how much you want it to be so, this marriage is blatantly incompatible. Consider the gauge swatch as the dating process, and be glad you didn’t make a lifelong commitment. Go out and find a suitable match for both yarn and needles. They’re both wonderful in their own right, but so wrong together.
This may feel like wasted time and yarn, but after working a variety of projects over the years, you’ll have amassed enough squares for a cozy ‘memory’ quilt! Or if you’ve purchased enough yarn, you may want to create a swatch cap instead. This is especially useful if your project is worked on circular needles. Cast on 60 or so stitches (with a medium-weight yarn, more or less with thinner or thicker yarn), make a nice length of ribbing, and be sure that the pattern you’re making for the final project is long enough to accommodate the 10 cm2 (4”-square)—well above the stretchy rib for an accurate measurement.
The time you spend to work the swatch will yield time and spare the expense of guesswork gone wrong, not to mention sparing you needless heartache!
Measuring the gauge swatch:
Use a straight ruler to mark off 10 cm2 (4”-square) with thread or pins. (A flexible ruler or tape measure is not as accurate as a straight edge.) Try to stay clear of the knitting needle, if you’ve not cast off, because this would give an inaccurate reading. Count the number of stitches (the V-shapes that sit one next to the other straight across a row); write down the number. Be sure to count the fraction of a stitch, because over a 50 cm length, you can see that a half-stitch adds up to 2 ½ stitches—every little bit counts!
Count the rows between your thread lines, also making note of any fraction of a stitch and write that down.
Now, compare your finished measurement to the one listed on the pattern. If you have fewer stitches in a 10 cm square than the manufacturer assumes, then your finished product will be larger than desired. (Do the calculations to see for yourself: multiply your number of stitches per centimeter (or inch) by your desired finished measurement. How does that number compare to the one on the pattern?
“For any given gauge, there are four variables: the hands, the needles, the yarn, and the stitch pattern. If you change any one of these variables, the stitch gauge will also change.” [June Hemmons Hiatt, The Principles of Knitting, pg. 416]
It’s perfectly natural for beginning knitters to experience uneven tension. Like taking first steps, nothing but practice-practice-practice can take the process from mental to physical. Generally, uneven sized stitches and gutters between rows are simply due to a lack of familiarity with the knitting process. When the knitter is paying too much attention to the method (in-out-around-through-repeat, etc.), he will often over-extend the stitch or tighten the yarn in order to have a good look at his work.
You can equate the ‘wasted’ swatches with drawing practice or violin lessons. (“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”) Persistence, patience and repetition allow the motions to become muscle memory, and you gain confidence and become comfortable with knitting, you’ll usually relax enough for tension ‘problems’ to resolve themselves. Quantity MUST come before quality work at the early stages. It’s far better to choose one’s best from a dozen attempts than to expect the one attempt to be perfect from the start.
Get used to weaving the knitting yarn lightly though your working hand on its way to the needles. Just like running a thread through a sewing machine, this is an essential step to even tension. You’ll find that you are able to maintain a more constant speed, rather than letting the thread drop, needing to pick it up again with every stitch. Remember to let the yarn flow—try not to pull or attempt to restrict the natural resiliency.
The most noticeable difference for me was in learning to recognize the yarn direction. Just as we don’t brush our hair from tip to scalp, pet the dog against his fur, or sew velvet against the nap, yarns are spun in a particular direction. I enjoy demonstrating this to the unwary, because it always gives a delightful lightbulb moment.
Quality materials and a tranquil environment are the best cure for uneven tension (and a worthy excuse for good living.) Listen to what the stitches are trying to tell you, and practice, Practice, PRACTICE!
With that in mind, it’s important to practice the correct movements. Practice makes ______________________. Did you say ‘perfect?’ If I’ve been practicing the wrong techniques, then my practice made permanent! Thankfully, I keep finding that it’s never too late to teach this ol’ girl some fancy new tricks…
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