So far, we’ve talked about selecting yarns and patterns and how to determine which needle size you need and different methods of knitting in the round to make socks from the toe up. Now, it’s time to talk about getting gauge and swatching.
When it comes to knitting anything that must fit well, gauge is the most important thing. And socks demand the most accurate fit because if they are too big, they will slide around on your feet causing discomfort and probably keep your shoes from fitting. To snug, and the heel sneaks under your foot while you are walking, which is also uncomfortable and it damages the sock.
So we use accurate measurements and consistent gauge to get a sock that fits properly, which makes your foot, your shoe, and your sock happy.
Gauge is the number of stitches (including fractions of a stitch) that are created with the yarn and needles you are using. It is generally measured over a 4 inch by 4 inch square. The reason for doing a 4×4 square is that it helps you determine fractions of a stitch. While may not sound like much it adds up.
Your pattern should have a gauge included in the beginning section before the directions for knitting begin. It will say something like “8 stitches and 12 rows = 1 inch in stockinette.” So what does it matter if you are a little off? Let me show you.
Let’s say the gauge you get when you knit with your yarn and needles ends up being 8-1/2 stitches per inch. The pattern calls for 64 stitches in the midfoot area. Based on the pattern’s gauge, the sock will be 8 inches in diameter. If you are following the pattern but your stitches per inch is 8-1/2, the diameter of the sock will be 7-1/2 inches and suddenly your sock look more like it will fit a kid than an adult.
The rows per inch, while not as critical in most patterns, can become an issue if you are far off the gauge because it areas where you have a set number of rows that you must work, you could end up with a sock that is shorter or longer than the pattern calls for.
Another important thing to know about gauge is that it can vary for a number of reasons. Here are a few
- How tightly you hold your yarn while you knit. This will change how big the loops on your needle – which are your stitches – are. Also, if you are tense or stressed, you may tighten up your hold on the yarn. Or you might be more relaxed or more comfortable and confident with your knitting skills than the last time you knit using this yarn and your gauge is now looser.
- Your gauge will vary depending on the material your needles are made of. I know that may sound crazy but it’s true. Just because the needles are the exact same diameter does not mean you will get the same gauge on different materials. Here’s a blog post from Knit Darling on an experiment she did with various materials and how it changed her gauge.
- Most people knit more loosely than they purl. When you are knit socks you are knitting in the round. In the round, stockinette stitch means knitting every row. If you work your gauge swatch on a pair of straight needles, to do stockinette stitch, you knit a row then purl a row and it won’t be the same gauge you will get with the same needles and needle size in the round.
Gauge assignment: Using your yarn and needles for circular knitting, cast on and knit enough stitches to get at least four inches in diameter. Make this tube at least four inches long. With a ruler (NOT a flexible tape) measure carefully over 2 inches and divide your number of stitches by 2. This is the stitches per inch you are getting with these needles and yarn. Do the same with the rows. You use a ruler because you need accuracy and a flexible tape can stretch a little bit over time and quarter inches count here.
If your stitches and rows per inch matches what your pattern says, you are good to go to move on to the next lesson.
If you are off by more than 1/4 of a stitch, you need to do one of two things
- try a larger or smaller needle (larger to reduce number of stitches per inch, smaller to increase stitches per inch), make another swatch and measure again, or
- find a pattern with the gauge you are getting with your needles and yarn.
Once you are consistently getting the gauge that matches your pattern, you are ready to move on to the next lesson.