Knitting tension square (or gauge square as it is known in the US) is really important for getting the best result from your pattern, but exactly what is gauge and why do you need to check it? In this article we’ll show you that knitting gauge squares is easy, and well worth the effort! We’ll cover:
What is gauge in knitting?
To achieve great results from your knitting it’s important to ensure that you have the correct gauge.
Gauge is how many stitches and rows can be found in a square of knitted fabric, typically one measuring 10x10cm (4x4in). For your finished project to turn out like the one in your pattern, your gauge needs to match the gauge given in the instructions.
The gauge you need to knit to is determined by your yarn weight and needle size, and is usually stated in the knitting pattern and on the yarn’s ball band. In our patterns you’ll see it written like this:
“22 sts and 28 rows to measure 10x10cm (4x4in) over stocking stitch using 3¼mm needles”
How loosely or tightly you knit will determine the gauge of the fabric you produce. Everybody’s gauge is different, and it can also vary for one person from project to project.
You may find you knit more tightly with wooden needles, for example, or knit more loosely if you’re learning how to do Continental knitting.
Since you might not have the same gauge as the person who designed the pattern you’re following, it’s crucial that you check how yours matches up every time you cast on something new.
So, before starting any project, it’s a good idea to knit a small square with the yarn you’re going to use. This is called a gauge square or tension square. Some knitters see knitting gauge squares as a chore, but it’s an important step that it’s best not to skip – particularly if you’re making a garment that you want to fit well and look fantastic.
If your gauge is too tight, your garment will come up smaller or shorter and might not fit you properly; if your gauge is too loose, you’ll find that the garment is too baggy.
How to check gauge in knitting
Knit the gauge square
To make a square to check your tension or gauge, use the yarn and size of needles that the pattern states. The pattern will also tell you what stitch to use – this is often stocking stitch, but may instead be a decorative stitch pattern used in the design.
Most often, you’ll find that the instructions given are for a 10x10cm (4x4in) square, but to correctly measure your gauge, we recommend that you make a square at least 15x15cm (6x6in) in size. (Try using the number of stitches stated in the pattern gauge plus half again.) If you’re working in stocking stitch you might also want to include a garter stitch border to prevent it from rolling and make measuring easier.
If you are intending to block your garment when it’s finished you may also want to wash and block your square before you measure it, to give you the most accurate results. Some fabrics can change a lot in size when they’re blocked! Find out more about this process in our essential guide on how to block knitting projects.
When you’ve completed the square, pin it to a padded surface (such as a firm cushion), and gently smooth it out, being careful that you don’t distort the stitches.
Check your stitch gauge
To work out the stitch gauge, use a pin as a marker and insert it vertically between two stitches. Then, using a rigid ruler, horizontally measure 10cm (4in) and place another pin in the fabric. Count the number of stitches between the two pins. If your gauge corresponds with that given in the pattern you can start knitting.
However, if you have more stitches than is stated in the pattern’s gauge guide, it means that your knitting is too tight; try making another square knitted on needles that are one size bigger. If you have fewer stitches than is stated in the pattern’s gauge guide, then your tension is too loose, so try knitting another square on smaller needles.
Continue increasing and decreasing needle sizes until you get as close as possible to the gauge stated in the pattern.
Check your row gauge
To check row guage, horizontally insert a pin and measure 10cm (4in) vertically and insert another pin. Count the rows between pins and if they correspond with the pattern, your row gauge is fine. If there are more or fewer rows, use smaller or larger needles to create another square.
If the row gauge is only slightly out (such as half a row to one row), it shouldn’t make too much difference to the final garment, especially because most patterns instruct you to knit the piece to a certain length.
When you’re happy that your stitch and row gauges are close enough to the pattern’s, you’re ready to cast on.
Tension squares project idea
Why not knit up a collection of tension squares to make a stitch sampler blanket? We have 120 stitch patterns for you to try.
3 knitting swatch rulers to buy
As well as checking your needle sizes, some needle gauges also come with a handy ruler for checking the measurements of your tension squares. Here are three of our favourites…
1. ChiaoGoo Needle and Swatch Gauge
This all-in-one gauge from ChiaoGoo can measure needles and swatches in US and metric sizes, and it also has a needle conversion chart and guide to the different types of yarn with their recommended gauge and needle size. Plus did we mention it has all the info you need for crochet too?
2. Clover Swatch Ruler and Needle Gauge
The 4x4in window in this swatch ruler from Clover is the perfect size for measuring your gauge squares, and makes it easy to count your rows and stitches by isolating the section of fabric you need. If that wasn’t enough, you can also measure your needles (and hooks) in metric, US and Japanese sizes.
3. KnitPro Elephant Needle Gauge
Check the size of your swatch using the window in this fun elephant-shaped needle gauge from KnitPro. It also has a built-in yarn cutter, handy for finishing swatches on the go, and can be used to check the sizes of your knitting needles and crochet hooks. The gauge comes in two colours, lilac and blush pink.
Other uses for gauge squares
You can use a gauge square if you have an old pattern that was intended for a now discontinued yarn and you want to make up the garment in a yarn of the same weight, or you simply want to substitute the yarn used in the pattern.
For example, if you want to make a Double Knitting jumper, buy a similar DK yarn and work gauge squares until you get the tension stated in the pattern.
Swatches are also useful to test how a yarn washes. Does it stretch after washing, and does the dye bleed? Is it safe in the washing machine or will it felt? All these things are useful to know before you cast on, and knitting gauge squares can help you find out.
What should you do with your finished squares? We recommend keeping them. They can be handy to unravel for finishing off if you run out of yarn, or you can store them in a folder or knitting journal to record how a yarn knits up, in case you want to use it again. Just remember to pin a ball band or label to each swatch, so you know which one is which!
Gauging to greatness!
Have we convinced you to check your gauge now? We hope so! It is such a crucial part of a project that is often missed because knitters are too excited to get started, but will ensure that you don’t meet any surprises along the way.
If your chosen pattern includes some new stitches too, it’s an excellent opportunity to practice them – like a dress rehearsal before opening night.
The perfect finish
Now you’re on the road to success with your project but there’s another equally important thing to consider once you’ve completed it – finishing techniques! Read our guide about how to finish knits like a pro, featuring tips from designer Judy Furlong.