Colored Pencils, Goldilocks, and Gauge

Do you remember....

... the kid in elementary school who put so much pressure on a pencil, the lead was constantly breaking? Was it an excuse to get up and go to the pencil sharpener? Hmmmm… maybe! Were you that kid?!

Colored Pencils

The 3 handwritten lines photographed above were written with the same colored pencil, just applying different pressure. Assume the middle line is how you comfortably write. The lightest and darkest represent 2 of your friends’ writing at the pressure that is comfortable for them.

How does this translate to knitting?

sheep needle holder

Imagine 3 people, each with slightly different tension, knitting the same swatch with the same size needles and the same yarn. Even though at first glance all 3 would look alike, when measured, each gauge could be slightly different, similar to the colored pencil illustration.

So, what are the real implications of a gauge that is slightly off? Take a look at the numbers in the following scenario. To set the stage, you are making a pullover in the round with a 40 inch (101.5 cm) finished chest measurement. The pattern states that the gauge is 20 sts = 4” (10 cm) with medium/worsted weight yarn when worked on size 7 (4.5 mm) needles. You will have 200 sts in your needles. So 3 knitters sit down, ignore the directive to make a gauge swatch, and proceed with the pullover.

  Actual Gauge per 4" (10 cm) Resulting Finished Measurement
Knitter #1 21 sts 38.1” (96.8 cm)
Knitter #2 20 sts 40" (101.5 cm)
Knitter #3 19 sets 42.1" (106.9 cm)

Guess what?! Knitters #1 and #3 aren’t going to be happy – what a waste of time, effort and money! Knitter #2 got lucky. When it comes to gauge, you have to be like Goldilocks and keep swatching until you find the needle and yarn combo that knits comfortably to the gauge that is “just right”. In our scenario, Knitter #1 needs to swatch again with a larger needle, and #3 needs to try again with a smaller needle.

Why do patterns list gauge over 4” (10 cm) rather than 1” (2.54 cm)? Because the larger the swatch you are measuring, the more likely you are to realize that your gauge is a little bit off. In a smaller gauge swatch, it’s easier to overlook a fraction of a stitch.

While we are on the subject…. It’s really, really smart to wash and dry your swatch before you take your final measurement, especially when working with plant fibers.

Achieving correct stitch gauge is only half the battle of gauge. There is also row gauge to contend with, but that can be the addressed in another post.


Here’s a tip: Save your swatches and label them with the yarn and needle size used because you never know when you might work another project with the same gauge and yarn. And eventually, you might have enough gauge swatches to make a patchwork quilt!

If you were ever on the fence about working a gauge swatch, perhaps this explanation will convince you that it is worth your time to take the time to work a gauge swatch, and yes, maybe even more than one gauge swatch. Your time and effort are important, and it is so discouraging to see your effort fall short of your expectations. We all knit not only for ourselves, but for those we love, and we are all worth that little bit of extra effort on the front end. Maybe I am a Gauge Nazi. Yeah... but it's in our best interests.

Knit on!
Joan signature

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *