Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What is an appropriate gauge?

Many of us start knitting with shawls and scarves . . . which means that we learn to knit worsted weight on a 6mm / US 10 needle. Once we graduate to garments, we find it difficult to use needles many sizes smaller. Add to that the fundamental characteristic of knitting that we love—its drape—and we are inclined to want to knit garments that are knit too loosely.

Whether we follow patterns or draft our own, it is our initial inclination to like a fabric that is too loose. (I know this, because I did this . . . and have watched many others do the same.)

But what happens when we knit a fabric that is too loose for the yarn?
  • The fabric is more likely to pill.
  • The garment is more likely to stretch out of shape—especially after we wash it.

So how do we find the appropriate gauge for the yarn that will give the best results for the garment?

When I was first drafting and teaching, I wondered if the math would give us an answer. Considering that stockinette usually gives us 5 stitches versus 7 rows to-the-inch (which is .71), I wondered if that .71 relationship would go awry if I knit a piece that was too tight or too lose.

So I knit a whole lotta swatches, and measured their gauges, and then did the division . . . and still came up with .71. Sadly, whether it was way too tight or way too loose, it still came up as .71.

For once, the math doesn’t help. So what does? The feel of the fabric. We want a fabric that feels firm enough that it will hold shape over time: and most often this is a firmer fabric, knit on smaller needles, than we initially were inclined to go for . . .

 . . . especially if you consider that this fabric has to be relaxed before we accept its gauge. And what is this? We relax the fabric when we either steam press or wash it. (Many fibres and stitch patterns can be steam-pressed, which is certainly easier than washing, but there are some which must be washed—garter stitch, for example.)

Like every other knitter, I’ve tried to force a yarn to the gauge of a pattern. But if this produces a fabric that is too loose, I’ll end up ripping—after days of knitting and trying to talk myself into a fabric that is too loose!

So don’t do this! Please learn from my experience! Especially if you are knitting a vest or cardigan—a garment that will be worn over another garment—don’t knit a fabric that is too loose. Knit a good-sized swatch, steam press or wash it, and be really critical of the fabric. Be sure it is firm enough to hold shape over time and reward you with years of wearing!

PS If this is a gauge that doesn't quite match your pattern, go to my post of July 11, 2012, which discusses re-gauging a pattern.

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