I get the occasional e-mail from a knitter asking about this or that. While I'm more than happy to answer questions or point people in the right direction as far as articles on the web or tutorial videos, I thought it might be nice to collect some of these questions and answers on my blog.
So today, I'd like to share a little note about gauge, and my answer (with some extra thoughts on gauge tacked on to the end):
Q: I'm fairly new to knitting and hope you don't mind a quick question. I've
started a few rows of my Meditation Infinity Scarf and it seems to measure about 5 1/2" wide. I
noticed that the yarn label recommends size 1-3 needles and your pattern
calls for 5's. Should I start again with smaller needles (size 3?) and see
if the width is closer to the 4" the pattern calls for? Or stick with the
5's but try and knit a little tighter? My work looks a little looser than
A: You've probably heard of gauge (where you count the number of stitches
your work has over a span of 4 inches, then compare it to the gauge listed
in the pattern. Go up in needle size if you have too many stitches, and
down in needle size if you don't have enough stitches). With something
like a scarf, gauge isn't as important as it is with something that has to
"fit", like a sweater or a hat. So if I were you, I'd use whatever needle
makes a nice fabric with the yarn you are using. (My yarn was a pretty
typical fingering weight, which I'd knit on size 1-3 needles if I were
doing socks, but since this is a light, lacy scarf, I upped the needle
size to make the fabric more drapey and less dense. Always start with the
needle size in the pattern when you're trying to figure out what to use -
not the needle size on the ball band of the yarn, although they will
sometimes be the same thing. As you become more experienced, you may find that you are a "tight knitter" who typically needs to use a size or two larger needle than recommended to get gauge, or you may be a "loose knitter" who typically needs to use a size or two smaller needle.)
If you like the way your work looks, then I'd just go with it and have a
slightly wider scarf (but 5.5" is not at all "too wide".) If you think it
looks too loose, I'd start over on size 4 or size 3 needles and work a few
inches with that size and see what I thought. Did you try the provisional
cast-on? Kudos to newer knitters who aren't afraid to learn new tricks!
A couple more thoughts about gauge: First, make sure your swatch is large enough that you aren't measuring distorted edge stitches. If you want to measure 4", try casting on the number of stitches that you are guessing will give you about 6" of width, then knit it about 6" high.
Second, if there is ever a time where you are going to wash the item you're making and you want to know what size it will be after washing, make sure you wash & dry your gauge swatch the same way you will wash your project in the future. There is nothing worse than spending time and money to make a beautiful hand-knit only to find out that after its first bath it is two sizes too large!
Third, make a note of your "working" (preblocked) gauge as well as your "finished" (after washing & blocking) gauge. If you are working from a pattern that says, for example, "Knit until work measures 10" from cast-on edge", you need to know the difference between your two gauges so you can figure out what your length should be in your working gauge so it will measure 10" once it is blocked (if the two gauges aren't identical, you don't actually want to just knit to 10" then go on to the next step.)
Here's an example - Let's say your working gauge is 26 sts x 37 rows = 4" square, and your blocked gauge is 24 sts x 35 rows. If you have an instruction concerning the length of your garment, then you need to look at the row gauge (37 rows vs 35 rows.) If you divide 35/37, you find that the blocked gauge is about 94.5% the number of your working gauge. Translated into practical application, that means you should only knit to 95% of the 10" that was instructed, or 9.5". Once you block the garment, that 9.5" section should "grow" a bit length-wise and turn out to be 10".
Finally, if you are making a garment where fit is important, please, please, please don't skip the swatching step! Unless you are a woman with 10 kids or someone who knits for charity with the philosophy that "it's gonna fit someone!", you really don't want to invest your time and money in a garment that may or may not fit in the end. It's frustrating for you and it wastes your time, money and talent. Take the extra hour to knit a swatch, then wash & let it dry overnight, and hopefully you'll be ready to begin your new project in the morning!
If you have a question about one of my patterns, I am always happy to help out. If I think your question could help other knitters, you will likely see it on the blog sometime!