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Knitting Gauge Explained

Klara Nilsson | Updated on July 24, 2023

In this guide, you’ll find out exactly what knitting gauge means and the factors that affect it. You’ll learn why knitting gauge is important, how to effectively measure it using stitches per inch, and how to fix common gauge problems to achieve the perfect tension. You’ll also find a knitting gauge chart to help you choose the right materials for your project.

Knitting Gauge and Tension

Learning about knitting gauge is an important step in every knitter’s journey. In fact, achieving constant tension is one of the most common challenges beginners face, and even seasoned experts sometimes face problems getting their gauge exactly right.

Regardless of how long you’ve been knitting, you’ll know how it feels to finish a project and be disappointed by how the final garment looks and fits.

Truthfully, every knitter is different, which means we all face different problems with knitting gauge. Some of us knit too tightly or too loosely, while others simply can’t keep their tension even.

Luckily, you can learn to fix these issues and prevent your disappointment later on. By taking the time to learn what knitting gauge really means and how you can adjust it, you can make sure you don’t end up with a project that’s much bigger or smaller than you intended.

Summary: Knitting Gauge Explained

  • Knitting gauge refers to the number of stitches per inch of knitted fabric, and knitting tension describes how tight your stitches are. Your gauge will affect the size, density, and drape of your garment.
  • Knitting gauge is mostly determined by your needle size, yarn weight, natural tension, and how you hold your yarn.
  • If your knitting gauge is wrong, it will impact the size of the finished garment. If you have too many stitches per inch, your project will be too large. If you have too few rows or stitches, then the finished item will be too small.
  • You can measure your gauge by knitting a small tension swatch and counting the number of stitches and rows fit in four inches. To do this, use exactly the same needles and yarn you’ll use for your real project.
  • You can fix your knitting tension by changing your needle size, using a different yarn weight, or changing the way you hold your yarn.

In this guide, we’ll explore the most common problems with knitting gauge and explain exactly what you need to do to overcome them. You’ll find out what knitting gauge is, which factors affect it, and how to adjust your knitting to meet your pattern’s specified gauge consistently.

You can also use our knitting gauge chart to find common yarn weight and gauge combinations.

If you’re just getting started with knitting, you can take a look at our recommendations for the best online knitting courses to speed up your learning.

What’s In This Guide?

What Does Knitting Gauge Mean?

In hand knitting, gauge refers to the number of stitches in one inch of knitted fabric. Gauge measures the number of stitches per inch in one direction, and the number of rows per inch in the other. It is affected by the size of your knitting needles, the yarn you use, and your knitting tension, which is how tightly or loosely you knit.

Put simply, gauge will measure both the width of your stitches and the height of your stitches in a given area of knitted fabric.

Knitting gauge is an essential part of any knitting project as it determines the size and fit of the final garment. Most knitwear designers will reference the desired gauge at the beginning of their knitting pattern, which is the number you’ll need to meet to achieve the sizes listed in the pattern.

For example, a typical knitting pattern will include gauge instructions that look like this:

“10 sts/16 rows = 4 inches in stockinette stitch”

This means that if you knit a 4 inch square in stockinette stitch, it should measure 10 stitches across and 16 rows high. When following the pattern, your aim is to match this gauge for both stitches and rows.

Tension Swatch
Gauge is usually measured by the number of stitches and rows per 4 inches.

The typical number of knitting stitches per inch usually increases with the difficulty level of the pattern or the skill level of the knitter. The average knitter will usually knit approximately 6 stitches per inch, while a more accomplished knitter may knit 10 or more.

In most patterns, the required gauge is usually listed beside the designer’s yarn and needle suggestions. You can use it to match the intended size or to try other yarn fibers and weights while still creating the same final item.

Every knitter is different: some tend to knit tightly, while others knit looser stitches. This can vary depending on the needles and yarn you’re using, too. At its most basic, gauge simply accounts for variations in tension so that both tight and loose knitters can create the same pattern in the same size and end up with identically sized garments.

Why Is Knitting Gauge Important?

Knitting gauge is important because it ultimately determines the look, feel, and size of your project. If you don’t check your gauge beforehand, you might end up with a garment that’s much bigger or smaller than anticipated.

Gauge will also determine which yarn and tools you’ll use to complete your pattern. For example, you might find you need to go up a needle size to meet the required gauge because you knit too tightly, or vice versa.

The gauge of your knitted item also depends on your knitting tension, which plays a big role in how your fabric feels. Your tension can dictate how thick the knitting is, the density of the stitches, the clarity of the stitch pattern, and even how the fabric hangs.

Many beginner knitters think that following a designer’s yarn and needle recommendations will be enough to obtain the right gauge. However, even the pattern designer will sit somewhere between tight and loose knitting, and your technique might be completely different.

If you want the best results, you’ll need to find the right combination of needle size, yarn, and tension for you to get the perfect gauge.

Does It Have to Be Exact?

Your work is your own, which means you’re free to experiment with it in any way you’d like. In this sense, your gauge doesn’t have to be exact – you can try changing your needle size, knitting looser, or working with different yarns to see how your results change.

However, if you want the exact same results as the pattern you’re following, you’ll need to meet the pattern’s specified gauge as closely as possible. This is especially true for projects that need precise sizing or positive ease, such as knitted pants, dresses, sweaters, and vests.

For example, if you’re following a dress knitting pattern that includes multiple sizes, but you need it to fit a bust size of 32 inches, then you’ll need to match gauge exactly to ensure the size of your stitches is equal to the designer’s.

If you don’t meet the gauge exactly on these patterns, it’s likely the final garment won’t fit properly.

What Happens If Your Gauge Is Off?

If your knitting gauge is off, the most obvious impact will be on the size of the finished garment. If you have too many stitches per inch, your project will be too large. If you have too few rows or stitches, then the finished item will be too small.

Gauge affects the appearance of your work, too. If you have uneven knitting tension and inconsistent gauge as a result, your stitchwork may appear lumpy as the stitches will get bigger and smaller throughout the fabric. This can also manifest in gaps across the right or wrong side of the work.

Some designers might specify a looser gauge for airy garments. Others may prefer a solid, dense fabric with tighter stitches that hold in heat. If you don’t match the gauge and knit too loosely by accident, your stitches will be farther apart and the final garment might not be as warm.

It’s not just size and appearance: how you match knitting gauge will have consequences for the amount of yarn you use, too. If you knit fewer stitches per inch than the gauge in the pattern, you’ll run out of yarn too soon. If you knit more stitches per inch than the required gauge, then you’ll have yarn leftover when the project has finished.

What Affects Your Knitting Gauge?

Several factors will influence the size and number of your knitting stitches. Most importantly, knitting gauge is determined by the way your yarn, knitting needles, and knitting tension mix.

Adjusting or meeting gauge is a balancing act between these three key factors. In this section, we’ll explain the things that affect your knitting gauge in more detail, so you can have more control over how your projects turn out.

1. Knitting Needle Size

Knitting gauge relies heavily on the size of your knitting needles. Usually, larger needles will produce larger stitches and therefore fewer stitches per inch. Similarly, smaller needles will create smaller stitches and therefore more stitches per inch.

Most knitting patterns will include a note next to the recommended needle size that says something similar to: “or size needed to obtain the correct gauge”. This is a key part of any project, as different knitters will use different sized needles to obtain the same gauge.

Knitting pattern with gauge
Most knitting patterns include instructions for needle sizes and desired gauge.

If a pattern requires a gauge of 5 stitches per inch, a tight knitter may need a 5mm needle, while a loose knitter might need a 3.5mm needle.

If you knit with a ‘normal’ tension – not too tight and not too loose – then you should start with the pattern’s recommended needle size. If you’re lucky, you might knit with the same tension as the pattern designer, which means you can use the recommended needles to achieve the right gauge. If you know you’re a tight or loose knitter, you can choose larger or smaller needles accordingly.

If you’re substituting yarn, you can use a gauge chart to see what size needle is recommended to get the gauge you need.

Knitting gauge can also vary depending on the type of knitting needle you’re using. You might find you knit with a different tension using wooden versus metal needles, or circular versus straight needles.

2. Yarn Type and Weight

The weight of the yarn you use will directly affect your knitting gauge and tension. If you use a thicker yarn than the pattern recommends, you’ll knit fewer stitches per inch than the required gauge. Likewise, a thinner yarn will produce more stitches per inch.

The label on your yarn will usually specify a recommended gauge or range of gauges. If you’re substituting yarn, try to choose a yarn that creates the same or similar gauge to your knitting pattern.

Yarn Label Gauge Recommendation
Yarn labels usually specify a recommended knitting gauge. (Image Credit: Craft Yarn Council)

Fiber content and texture will also make a difference. If you’re substituting a fuzzy mohair yarn, it’ll be easier to obtain the correct gauge using a yarn with similar characteristics.

3. Knitting Tension

Gauge and knitting tension are often used synonymously. However, while gauge refers specifically to the number of stitches per inch of knitted fabric, knitting tension refers to how tightly or loosely you hold and knit your stitches.

Of course, the two are very closely related. In fact, your knitting tension has arguably the largest impact on how the gauge ultimately turns out.

Two people following the same pattern with the same yarn and needles can easily create two different-sized garments. Essentially, the tighter you knit, the more stitches and rows there will be per inch.

While you can change the yarn and needles you use, it’s very difficult to change your natural knitting tension unless you’re knitting remarkably tightly or loosely. However, we’ve listed some tips for adjusting knitting tension later on in this guide.

4. Stitch Type and Pattern

Knitting gauge is most commonly given for stockinette stitch, but some designers also provide gauge instructions for the different stitch types involved in the pattern.

While stockinette stitch is fairly consistent, different stitch patterns can affect your natural tension and cause you to knit tighter or looser than usual. For example, cable stitch patterns are often tighter than stockinette equivalents.

For this reason, it’s important you check the gauge for every stitch pattern you’ll be using, not just for stockinette.

5. How You Hold Your Yarn

Beginner knitters often pull their yarn tightly while knitting. This makes it difficult to slide the stitches up and down the needle and to get the point of the needle into the next stitch, which means it’s much harder to knit the next row. It also results in curling and much tighter knitting, which will ruin the gauge of the fabric.

Other knitters hold their yarn loosely, which is equally difficult and results in an airy, open fabric.

These are both fairly common mistakes for beginner knitters, but as you practice your knitting technique, you’ll develop a natural tension that will be much closer to the standard measurements featured in most patterns.

Remember to move your stitches to the thick part of the needle’s shaft, and try to wrap the yarn around your fingers as little as possible, as both of these habits can affect your tension too.

6. Blocking Your Knitting

Blocking your knitting will change its shape and size, which means it also has a significant effect on the final gauge of the fabric.

If you’re following a pattern that requires a very specific gauge, it’s sensible to knit a gauge swatch first and block it in the same way you’ll block the final garment. This will allow you to see how blocking affects the gauge, and adjust your needles, yarn, or tension accordingly.

How to Measure Your Knitting Gauge and Tension

The easiest way to measure your knitting gauge and tension is to knit a gauge swatch before starting your project.

A gauge swatch is simply a small knitted square, usually 4 inches wide and 4 inches tall. It is knitted using exactly the same needles and yarn you’ll use for the actual knitting pattern, and can be used to determine how these tools interact with your knitting tension.

Regardless of your pattern’s gauge instructions or recommended needle size, knitting a swatch is crucial to the success of your knitting pattern. It will help you figure out your natural knitting tension and how it is affected by different needle sizes and yarn types.

By knitting a swatch, you can measure the gauge you obtain with your current tools. This will help determine the needle size and yarn you need to achieve the right gauge, and therefore the right size for your final garment.

Your tension can change with your tools as well as your mood, which is why it’s important to knit your gauge swatch with exactly the same tools you’ll use when knitting the actual garment.

Spending time knitting a tension swatch can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, but it will save you the disappointment you’d feel if you knit a sweater in the wrong size.

How to knit a gauge swatch to measure your knitting tension:

  1. Knit a square using exactly the same yarn and needles you’ll use for the final garment.
  2. Wash or block the swatch in the same way you’ll block your knitting project.
  3. Once dry, lay the swatch flat and measure out 4 inches without pressing or stretching it. You can mark the beginning and end of the 4 inch section using straight pins.
  4. Within this 4 inch area, count how many stitches there are horizontally.
  5. Turn the swatch around and measure how many rows there are in the same 4 inches.
  6. To calculate the number of stitches or rows per inch, divide the numbers you’ve measured by 4.
  7. You now have an accurate measure of your gauge with the particular yarn and needles you used.

When measuring your gauge using a swatch, it’s important you don’t ignore fractions when counting your knitting stitches and rows. Even a small difference can compound to significantly change the size of your project.

For extra precision, we recommend using a gauge ruler designed specifically for knitting swatches. This will make it much quicker and easier to accurately measure your swatch both vertically and horizontally.

Gauge Swatch Ruler
Gauge rulers are specifically designed to help you measure your knitting gauge. (Image Credit: Clover USA)

If your gauge swatch matches the gauge listed in your knitting pattern, you’re ready to get started on your main project. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to change your needle size, yarn type, or tension to get closer to the required gauge.

Common Problems With Gauge (And How to Improve Your Tension)

If you knit a gauge swatch and discover your gauge is off, you’ll need to rectify the situation by knitting more or fewer stitches per inch.

In this section, we’ll explain what to do if you don’t meet the correct knitting gauge, and how to adjust your knitting tension accordingly. If your knitting is too tight or too loose, hopefully you’ll find this section helpful.

It’s actually completely normal not to get the right gauge on your first try. The needles recommended in your knitting pattern will be specific to the designer and their tension. That size might work for them, but it won’t necessarily work for you!

As a general rule, if you have too few rows or stitches per inch, you should use a smaller needle. If you have too many stitches or rows per inch, you should use a larger needle. Put simply, the larger your needles, the fewer stitches will fit into an inch.

If you do decide to change needle sizes, you can pick up the live stitches from your swatch and add another four inches across. Measure the gauge again and continue the process until you have the measurements you need.

Ultimately, getting the perfect knitting gauge is about experimentation. Begin with your pattern’s recommended yarn weight and needle size. If you don’t get the right gauge, try different combinations of the two.

1. Your Knitting Is Too Loose (Too Few Stitches Per Inch)

If your swatch has fewer stitches or rows per inch than the pattern’s target gauge, then your knitting is too loose and your garment will be too large. You can spot a loose fabric by checking for bends or gaps in the stockinette stitch.

If your knitting is too loose, try decreasing your needle size in small increments of 0.5mm. To tighten the tension, you can also try using a lighter yarn weight so that more stitches will fit in each inch of knitting. If you do substitute yarns, make sure the alternative has a similar recommended gauge.

Instead of changing your needles and yarn, you can also try simply pulling your yarn tighter every time you wrap it around your working needle. This may feel unnatural at first, but it will ultimately improve your tension and make your stitches tighter.

2. Your Knitting Is Too Tight (Too Many Stitches Per Inch)

If your swatch has too many stitches or rows per inch than the gauge in your knitting pattern, you’re knitting too tightly and your garment will be too small. You’ll know you’re knitting too tightly if it’s difficult to get the point of your needle into each stitch, or if the wrong side of your stockinette stitch looks bumpy and puckered.

The easiest way to fix having too many stitches per inch is to use a larger needle size or heavier weight yarn. In doing so, you’ll increase the size of your stitches so fewer will fit in an inch, thereby loosening your knitting tension.

Changing the way you knit can be a good solution for tight knitting, too. Some ‘tight’ knitters find that moving to a more comfortable position and loosening up their grip on the yarn produces significantly better results. Try not to pull as hard on your yarn once you’ve wrapped it around your needle, and be gentle.

It’s also worth making sure that your stitches are not at the very tips of your needles, but around the thicker part of the needle’s shaft. The tip of the knitting needle is easy to maneuver, but it will produce much smaller stitches if used consistently.

3. Your Tension Is Uneven

If you find yourself knitting both tightly and loosely at different times, your tension will be uneven and your gauge will be inconsistent. This is one of the most common problems for people that have just started knitting, and it can vary by stitch pattern, too.

You can tell your tension is uneven if your gauge varies across your swatch. If you knit a few rows on two different days and there’s a clear difference in the size and appearance of your stitches, that’s another clear sign you’ve got an uneven tension problem.

The most reliable way to fix uneven knitting tension is to practice. The more experience you have knitting and creating gauge swatches, the more consistent your tension will become.

It’s also worth looking at when and how you’re knitting. If you knit less often but for longer periods of time, you may find that larger sections of your knitting are worked up in the same tension. Your concentration, stress levels, and mood can all affect how tightly you knit, so you can reduce inconsistencies by having fewer but more productive sessions.

If you’ve finished a project and you notice your gauge is inconsistent, you can also even out the appearance of your stitches by blocking the fabric. Wet blocking can work magic in some cases, but it won’t fix everything.

4. Your Colorwork Is Too Loose or Tight

If you’re working on a Fair Isle or intarsia knitting pattern, it can be difficult to maintain your gauge when switching colors.

You’ll know you’re knitting your colorwork too tightly if it begins to look bumpy or puckered on the right side. Similarly, you’ll know your colorwork is too loose if the stitches appear far apart from one another.

If your colorwork is too tight, make sure you’re regularly spreading out the stitches along your working needle and try to knit with a different color in each hand. Most importantly, try to catch your color floats in even intervals by setting an exact number of stitches to knit for each section.

These techniques will help to lengthen your floats and create a consistent tension across color changes.

If your colorwork is too loose, it’s probably because you’re not trapping your floats properly. Each color should be worked over another in a specific order, and catching each color float in time will reduce the amount of space between the sections.

In some cases, you might have to individually tighten each stitch until you can maintain a consistent tension throughout the colorwork.

Make Sure You’re Satisfied With the Final Fabric

If you change your yarn weight, needle size, or tension to achieve the right knitting gauge, make sure you take a good look at the test swatch before you start with your final project.

Even if you’ve obtained the exact gauge you need, you may find that your new combination of tools creates a fabric that isn’t right for you. It might still look or feel too airy or too tight, it might be too stretchy, or the stitches might not be defined well enough.

Sometimes changing needles can positively affect your gauge but negatively affect the fabric. In this case, it’s better to choose a different yarn or pattern than to create a garment that you’re unhappy with.

Ultimately, adjusting your knitting tension and improving your gauge is a product of experience. Pay attention to how you’re knitting and begin with simple scarf or bag knitting patterns where gauge isn’t so important.

Knitting Gauge Chart (Needle Size to Stitches per Inch)

If you’re substituting yarn for a pattern, you’ll need to see how many stitches per inch the pattern recommends and find a yarn that recommends a similar gauge.

If you need to find the right yarn to meet a specified gauge, use the chart below. If you’re simply looking to compare yarn weights and how they differ by country, use our yarn weight conversion chart.

In the knitting gauge chart below, we’ve listed each yarn weight category along with its most common knitting needle size and gauge recommendation:

Use this knitting gauge chart to find the recommended gauge for each standard yarn weight.
Yarn Weight Knitting Needle Size Gauge (Stitches per 4 inches)
Lace (0) 1.25mm-3mm 33-40+
Superfine (1) 1.25mm-3.5mm 27-32
Fine (2) 3.25mm-4mm 23-26
Light (3) 4mm-5mm 21-24
Medium (4) 4.5mm-6mm 16-20
Bulky (5) 5mm-8mm 12-15
Super Bulky (6) 8mm-12mm 7-11
Jumbo (7) 12mm+ 3-6

Printable Knitting Gauge Chart

Below, you’ll find a printable knitting gauge chart that you can save or download for free.

Printable Knitting Gauge Chart

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