In knitting, “gauge” just means how many stitches you get per inch using your yarn and your needles.
Some of us knit tightly, some knit loosely, and some of us knit with average tension. And that’s why we need to measure gauge before starting a project that we want to actually fit. If your stitches are bigger than the designer’s were, then your sweater and her sweater will look vastly different, even if you both cast on the same number of stitches.
There are a couple methods out there for measuring gauge. This is the simplest one I know:
Lay a straight ruler along a row of stitches. (Not a fabric measuring tape; they can stretch and distort the measurements over time.)
Line it up with the zero measuring line directly between two knit stitches. Knit stitches look like V’s, so the line should be between two full V’s.
Now, count the V’s that are in that inch. If your inch contains 4 full V’s and just one side of a V, the gauge is 4.5 Sts per inch.
Move the ruler to another row, across other columns of V’s, and measure again. Measure three times, in three different places, and average your measurements. Don’t forget to include the partial knit stitches because they’ll make a difference. If there’s just a quarter of a V, don’t ignore it.
It might help to poke your needle tip in the center of each V as you count it. Do NOT count in the upside-down V’s. If you need to blink, poke your needle in the V first so you don’t lose your place.
Do not measure gauge near the cast on edge or near the sides of your swatch or directly under your needles. Measure in the middle where the stitches are not distorted. (This means that your gauge swatch needs to be big enough to have a middle with undistorted stitches. Aim for about 4 – 6 inches wide and tall.)
About your gauge swatch
Don’t dread your gauge swatch! It is your friend. It can save you hours of frustration. Would you like to spend a whole month knitting an entire sweater that doesn’t actually fit a human person? Neither would I.
Now, here’s the trick about gauge swatches. They won’t show you how your sweater will behave unless you wash them, just like you’re going to wash your sweater, and then measure them. Sure, your sweater might fit perfectly before you wash it, but what will the yarn do after it’s been washed? Some fibers really fluff up and spread out or relax or do nothing. You won’t know until you test it. So wash your swatch.
(For the yarn-frugal, yes, you can probably unravel a washed swatch if you need to later. Or, you could save them all up for a walk-down-knitting-memory-lane patchwork blanket.)
If you’ll be knitting your project in the round, knit your gauge swatch in the round, too. Most of us purl more loosely than we knit, so this really does make a difference. Knit your swatch in a way that mirrors your project. Always.
Most patterns will tell you whether their gauge was measured over the pattern (like cables or lace) or over stockinette. There’s a bit of disagreement on which way is better, but for your gauge swatch, measure it in the same way the designer did.
Row gauge is really hard to match. And most of the time, it doesn’t matter, because a pattern will tell you to knit for such-and-such inches instead of so many rows. So don’t worry too much about it unless the pattern tells you to.
There’s lots more to talk about when it comes to gauge. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you how to adjust your gauge and how to do some basic knitting math.
This post is part of my 31 Days to Your Nicest Knitting series. Every day, I’ll post a new tip or trick to make your knitting nicer. You can follow along easily by subscribing. If you have any knitting problems you’d like me to fix, let me know and I’ll try to answer your question as part of the series. You can find all the posts in the series here.