Learning to Love Gauge + Tension: the Tips & Tutorials You Need

If you struggle to get your gauge right and your tension even, this collection of tutorials and tips can help

How important are gauge and tension to a knitting project?

I’ll answer that question with another question: do you have a funny story of the result of failing to knit a project without first knitting a gauge swatch?

I would guess that every knitter who’s been at it for at least a year has at least one funny story to share. (Not that it’s ever funny at the time!)

Here’s my funny story: it was my very first attempt at a sock. That is, one I knitted using DPNs and with actual sock yarn, rather than straight needles with worsted weight yarn.

Now, I’m not entirely sure, to this day, if the trouble was actually with my tension. However, the sock that I knitted would not have fitted anyone in my family. I’m not sure it would have fit an elephant!

(I’m so mad at myself for not taking a photo before unraveling the sock in a huff. It’s safe to say that I did not find my elephant sock funny at the time!)

The Knitter’s Lament: Struggling with Gauge and Tension

Even when we can laugh at our gauge and tension disasters, getting these right can be a persistent and frustrating problem among knitters.

Here are some of the laments I’ve collected from Knitting Nuggets subscribers:

“I have never been successful at knitting in the round and I don’t understand how to count stitches to get gauge if you are working something beyond straight garter or stockinette – cables, for instance.”

Knitting a swatch

My biggest struggle is sizing, especially when there is (or isn’t) ease. I test gauge but I still think I am choosing the wrong size. This happens most when I use wool not intended (but same weight) for the pattern. Sweaters, slippers, socks, etc. are either WAY too big or WAY too small.”

“My biggest frustration in my knitting life is getting things to fit.  Even when I get gauge, I don’t always end up with something that fits right.” 

Knitting that fits

“[While knitting using the Magic Loop method,] I can’t seem to get the tension tight enough to prevent laddering. I tried doing a single sock on 9-inch circular, and even tried the Addi Flexi-Flips, but still get the laddering. Is it possible that my fingers are too short to keep the yarn at an even tension?”

“My biggest knitting challenge is keeping even tension when knitting flat. I always end up with ridges.”

“I struggle with keeping my stitches at the same tension row after row, and sometimes stitch after stitch.”

I think these are all exceedingly common problems for knitters. So the question is, how can we overcome them?

I’ve rounded up a terrific collection of tutorials and tips (some of which are from yours truly!) that, I hope, will help you lick whatever issue you might struggle with when it comes to knitting tension and gauge.

So let’s get started!

To Swatch or Not to Swatch?

When it comes to getting the right gauge in your knitting, it is–unfortunately–nearly impossible to even have a chance without knitting a gauge swatch.

I know, I know. Gauge swatching is not a favored activity for most knitters, although I have read some knitting bloggers who call it a relaxing activity. Relaxing it may be, but for those of us without as much knitting time as we might like, stopping to knit a swatch may feel rather irritating.

Are there any times when you can get away with not swatching?

Absolutely. You do not have to swatch when you’re knitting something where you can easily change the fit on the fly. I’m referring to projects like scarves, wash or dishcloths, blankets, or nearly every project that you knit flat. For nearly every such project, you won’t need to swatch, because you can easily adjust the size by knitting more rows.

I will also freely confess that I rarely knit gauge swatches, even when I’m knitting a fitted project like a hat, a pair of scarves, or a pair of mitts. No, it’s not because I’m brave and love to live dangerously. It’s because I often use the beginning of my project as a “swatch” of sort.

What I usually do is knit several rounds (or rows, if it’s a flat knit that will be seamed later), and then I try it on. This is usually enough to see if the project in question will fit over someone’s hand or foot or head. It usually also tells me whether the project will actually stay in place.

If all systems look good, I’ll continue. To be honest, though, more often than not, I’ll discover that something needs to change. I might need to use bigger or smaller needles. Or I’ll have to cast on more stitches. I might even need to use different yarn, if it doesn’t feel right or isn’t behaving how I wish.

The primary point here is that I’m not committing myself 100% to the project as begun. I am completely willing to unravel the project entirely and start over if I have to. That’s crucial for this method.

One big problem to this method is that I don’t do any washing and blocking. This is a significant disadvantage, and it is a risk you take if you “swatch” in this manner. So keep that in mind.

Sometimes, Swatching is Essential

Two times when you absolutely must swatch:

  1. When you’re knitting a sweater, a skirt, a pair of pants, a shirt… in short, anything that requires more complex fitting than a hat desperately needs swatching.
  2. When you’re altering a pattern significantly, particularly when you’re using a different stitch pattern than the one called for in your pattern instructions.
Gauge swatches

Both of these reasons are why, when I knitted a sweater for my husband, I knitted not one but two swatches. The pattern I used was for a simple stockinette stitch pattern, but I was using a stitch pattern called “modified linen stitch.” It was so different from the pattern instructions that I knew I couldn’t simply rely on the stockinette swatch!

So I knitted a separate swatch using that modified linen stitch. It proved tremendously useful in figuring out the size of needles I would require in order to knit a sweater that would fit my husband.

If you’ve never knitted a swatch before, or if you’re not sure if you’re doing it correctly, let me help you out with some tutorials!

Gauge Swatching Tutorials

Before you dive into these tutorials, please remember this caveat: Swatching is NOT foolproof.

That is, knitting a gauge swatch will not a guarantee that the project you knit will fit perfectly. Many factors can influence swatching, and those factors could well cause your gauge in a swatch to differ from your gauge in the actual project.

That doesn’t mean swatching is a waste of time. It simply is a reminder that while swatching will help you make informed decisions about your yarn, your needles, and your stitches, it is not a magical way to guarantee that your projects will be perfect.

Now then, let’s get swatching!

KnitPicks Gauge Guide: This is a simple and straightforward guide to swatching. If you’ve never tried to knit a gauge swatch before, this is an excellent place to start.

Swatch Out: Where the KnitPicks guide is simple and straightforward, this Knitty guide is in-depth, wonderfully descriptive, and fully illustrated. It may be the finest tutorial I’ve ever read for swatching.

How to Knit a Gauge Swatch: The video tutorial below is a fantastic visual guide to swatching.

Knitting Instructional: How to Measure Your Gauge Correctly: Do you struggle with measuring your gauge swatch accurately? The video tutorial below shows you how and offers an example of making needle size changes as necessary.

Circular Swatches Knit Flat: This TECHknitting blog post offers two methods for knitting a circular swatch on two needles. You may have heard of the first method, but perhaps not the second. I didn’t, and I hope to try it soon!

Blocking is an important part of the swatching process. Learn about blocking here!

Your Swatching Mindset

Knitting a swatch is all well and good. But, as you know, swatching doesn’t always tell the full tale. Sometimes you’ll knit a gauge swatch and still struggle with the way something fits. And that’s frustrating!

So you might want to consider changing the way you think about gauge and swatching.

The following articles will help you get more of a feel not only for knitting a gauge swatch, but for perfecting your knitting tension and for getting to know your yarn. I promise, these are worth reading!

Why Swatching Doesn’t Have to Suck: Do you resent the very idea of swatching? You’re not alone. This little piece just might help you change the way you think about the humble swatch.

Gauge-less Gauge Swatches, or “Dating Tips for Knitters”: This fantastic post from the TECHknitting blog offers a slightly different perspective on swatching, with some great suggestions for getting to know a new ball of yarn through swatching. It also offers advice on knitting a project that will double as a “gauge swatch.”

An Exposition on Everyone’s Favorite Dirty Word: This Knitty post goes beyond the previous TECHknitting post to get into the guts of gauge. If you find yourself frequently frustrated by gauge swatches that seem to lie, read this post; you’ll learn a ton of reasons why your gauge isn’t working out. And it goes beyond “your needle size is wrong”!

The Swatcher’s Manifesto: This is the only blog post I’ve ever read that actually makes swatching sound like fun. It’s must-reading for anyone who knows the importance of gauge swatching and would rather it not feel like drudgery. I especially love the several knitting patterns it links to that can actually be used as swatches. (Some are free, others for sale.)

Oh, the Tension

What’s the difference between “gauge” and “tension”?

Up to this point, I’ve focused primarily on gauge, which is the number of stitches within a certain number of inches (usually 4).

“Tension,” however, is a different but related word. It refers to the process by which you get that gauge. It’s far harder to quantify, because every knitter’s tension is different.

(UKers, correct me if I’m wrong: I believe you use “gauge” and “tension” interchangeably. That’s not the case in the US. Just FYI.)

Problems with gauge are usually resolved far more easily than problems with tension. And that’s probably why so many more knitters struggle with resolving their tension issues!

I’ve collected three blog posts that offer several suggestions for improving issues with tension–everything from “my purl stitches are looser than my knit stitches” to “my tension is all over the place” to “my colorwork puckers.” Give these a try if you find yourself struggling with tension!

5 Ways to Improve Yarn Tension: If you get tense but your knitting feels far too loose, this guide is a great place to start!

Simple Ways to Improve Knitting Tension: Here you’ll get several specific fixes to problems with knitting tension.

Knitting Tension Problems and How to Fix Them: This is the most comprehensive guide of the bunch. If the previous two posts didn’t offer solutions to your tension issues, this one just might!

Gauge and tension don’t have to cause you to feel tension! With this collection of tips and tricks for getting the right gauge and improving your tension, you can get back to knitting projects that fit and look great!

Learning to Love Gauge & Tension
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