Gauge is defined in the dictionary as a measurement, such as the distance between railroad tracks or the thickness of a wire or the width of a cylinder.
In the world that does not apply to knitting, you can apply a gauge as a standard measurement. When it comes to yarn and knitting or crocheting, it is not.
Gauge is something that has mystified knitters and crocheters for years because we have tried to apply logic to it.
In the world of wire, you can go to the hardware store and ask for 20-gauge copper wire and then go right to it. If you went into your LYS (Local Yarn Shop) and asked for 20-gauge yarn, heads would turn. However, every yarn has a gauge on the label.
Make sense to you
It never did to me until I learned that the manufacturers make up the gauge on the yarn label based on what they think that the yarn will look the best knitted in.
Sometimes it’s a committee decision; other times it is the designer alone. That’s it. There is no more science to it than that, so don’t try to take the label too seriously, except as a recommendation.
When making yarn substitutions, a much more accurate method than gauge is to compare both the yardage of the yarn vs. the weight. For instance, if you have two balls of yarn, and they both have 102 yards and weigh 50 grams, you know you are dealing with two comparable yarns.
Yarn is usually sold in quantities of weight, 50-gram or 100-gram balls or skeins being standard. A weight comparison is sometimes much more accurate than a gauge comparison, and you should take both into consideration.
You should also look for a similar fiber when substituting yarns, because the natural “hand” of the fiber will also affect the way it knits.
A small mohair yarn that has a large hand will knit much larger than, say, a smooth silk yarn that has a strand size that looks about the same size.
Are you confused yet Good, then let’s go on. If I am charting a navigational course and I am a degree off in my heading, and I am going from Tracy to San Francisco, it is not too big a deal, and I will get there. But if my intention is to get to Hawaii and I am a degree off, well let’s just say it is a big ocean out there. Gauge as it relates to knitting is something like that.
If you are knitting a scarf or a blanket and size doesn’t really matter, go for it and don’t check your gauge, if you don’t want to.
If you’re knitting something that needs to be a certain size, you need to make sure you are getting gauge, and you need to do a gauge swatch. The pattern you are using will usually tell you how to do the swatch.
Let’s say you are a good girl and do your gauge swatch and you are getting five stitches to an inch, and the pattern is calling for 5.5 per inch. Doesn’t seem like that big a deal; only a half a stitch off. But, and this is a big but, if you are knitting a sweater, and the back piece is to be 20 inches wide, and you cast on the 110 stitches it calls for and get five instead of 5.5, whoops! Your back piece is 22 inches wide.
Repeat that in the front, and your sweater will be four inches bigger around than you wanted it. Same is true in reverse. If you are getting six stitches per inch, you will end up with a sweater that is almost four inches smaller than intended.
The rule is that the more stitches you have more than gauge, the smaller the piece will be. The less stitches you have than gauge, the bigger your piece will be.
Less is more, more is less.
Substitutions are always a gamble, but with a little patience and good judgment, you can conquer gauge.
Next time, we will talk about the way to knit a gauge swatch and how to correctly find your gauge and what to do if you are off.
• Kathy Kindred is one of a handful of rotating columnists for Fiber Friends. She owns K2Knits in Tracy. If you have a knitting question or want information in a future column, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy trails and happy knitting.