The word “gauge” alone can be intimidating – the first time I read it I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it. It is one of these English words that are spelled one way and sound totally different when spoken out loud. (In case you are still wondering, or, if for you like me English is a second or maybe third language: say ‘gage’ and you’re good.) Gauge seems to be another secret part of the knitting lingo that can be easily debunked if you are willing to give it some thought.
Most patterns will tell you at what gauge (or tension) you are supposed to knit. This is good information. Information you need to knit a sweater (or hat or socks or…) that actually has the measurements given in the pattern and therefor fits you as intended. At the same time it is information that can be thoroughly confusing.
The reason is that the information you get from a yarn label can be quite different from the information for the same yarn given in a pattern. That happens not all the time yet often enough. Do not fear, there is an explanation.
As you can see on this particular yarn label, there is actually a lot of intelligence to be gained. Beginning with the composition of the yarn (100% superwash merino), there is info about the weight (fingering), the yardage (420 yds), the gauge (26-30 sts/4″) and what needle size is recommended (2.25 – 2.5 mm). Then follows how to care for the yarn once it is knit up.
Let’s concentrate on two things: Gauge and recommended needle size.
What it means is if you use the needles recommended on the label, you will get gauge in the range mentioned on the label. I know that using a 2.25 mm needle with a fingering weight yarn I am going to have 28 stitches to 4 inches. I know that because I have done so a lot. It is a knitting experience gained over many projects. This is something nobody really can tell you, you are going to have to work that one out for yourself. The best thing to do is using the range of needles mentioned to knit up a swatch and then measure how many stitches per 4 inches you get. This in return is an indication about your tension, if you are a tight or loose knitter. There is no good or bad about it, it just tells you what needle size to use to get any specific number of stitches per inch.
Now, imagine you have bought this particular yarn to knit a lacy shawl. You did so because the pattern recommended to buy ‘fingering’ weight yarn. The pattern also states that the gauge is 20 stitches per 4 inches. Wait. What? The label says 26-30 stitches per 4 inches. How am I supposed to get 20? Easy. By using much larger needles. Probably a 4 or 4.5 mm needle, depending on what is recommended in the pattern and your personal gauge. Which you are going to have to determine by knitting up a swatch. There is no way around it. To be sure you are going to have to swatch and measure your gauge.
If you arrive at the correct number with the needle size recommended in the pattern, off you go and knit. If you have more stitches per 4 inches it means you are a tight knitter and you are going to have to use a larger needle size. If you have less stitches than needed, you are going to have to use smaller needles, because you are on the looser side, I know I usually have to go down a size.
As long as you have the weight of yarn recommended in the pattern and are able to get gauge (no matter the needle size, really) you are good to go. This is valid for all yarn weights, and that is also why swatching is so important. It’s personal, you know. Designers use that. They do whatever they like and knit up small yarns at large gauges and vice versa. Because we can. And it is fun. And gets us exactly what we want, even if the label says differently.
To recap: General information about gauge and what needle size to use can be found on the label. Specific information about the gauge of the pattern you chose the yarn for can be found in the pattern. To find out about your tension, swatch, swatch, swatch.
Happy knitting, as ever!