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Stranded Knitting Discussion: Part 3 - Gauge and Tension

Clover gauge swatch

Clover gauge swatch

The strands…or floats…across the back of the work also help to even out the overall dimensions of the individual stitch…changing the stitch silhouette from rectangular to more square in shape. In other words, your stitch gauge and your row gauge will be almost, if not exactly, equal. Putting it yet another way, there is no need for knitter’s graph paper when charting out a stranded pattern. Regular square graph paper will do.

You may have noticed a difference in your gauge/tension when working on different types of needles. This is also true with stranded knitting. We’ll talk more about needles later.

Something else to watch for is the difference in gauge/tension between plain knitting and stranded knitting. This is especially important when working on project which includes plain stockinette combined with stranded work…like a stranded yoke sweater. For this reason, it might be necessary to change needles sizes between the plain stockinette and the stranded work. Most knitters, who have a difference, are tighter with the stranded work…so the plain knitting is worked on a smaller needle than the stranded knitting. But check your own gauge and see if your knitting falls into this category.

Also, a tighter gauge is generally preferred in stranded patterning. This practice helps to prevent the stranded floats across the back from peeking through to the patterning on the front….and makes a warmer fabric.

Ok, here’s my cautionary tale about gauge:

After my first introduction to stranded knitting, I was so blown away with the technique that I brought every Alice Starmore book I could put my hands on. When The Celtic Collection came out, I could not get wait to get started. Obvious to Shetland yarn…fingering weight or otherwise…or that silly little thing called gauge, I decided to tackle Erin.

At that time, there was a Yarns Brunswick mill/outlet an hour or so from where I lived which had a huge selection of the various lines of yarn spun on site. Soon I was wandering around selecting yarn…by color only, not by weight or fiber content. Thankfully, the aisle with the best color selection contained sport weight yarn which was reasonably close to the fingering weight the pattern called for. Even so, I could not find all of the colors in wool…so I substituted a silkened cotton yarn for two of the colors. Yeah, I know.

Choosing the 38”-40” size (there are only two choses), I cast on…so excited.

The pattern has 3 panels of these fabulous Celtic dogs marching around broken up with 3 gorgeously shaded Celtic knot panels…placing the knot panels at the shoulder. Part way through the third dog panel, my sweater was 23” long…the length called for in the pattern. But I hadn’t finished the third dog panel and was nowhere near the third knot panel for the shoulder. Not wanting a tunic, I stopped…cutting the poor third dog off at the knees!

Erin ...without benefit of gauge swatch

Erin front. Note the dog legs at shoulder. Can you pick out the cotton yarn?

Erin shoulder seam. Note morphed dog legs.

Somehow I finished the thing.

The sweater I was aiming for: 3 dog panels, 3 knot panels, 40” circumference, 18.5” sleeves,

Gauge: 16 sts and 19 rnds in 2 inches.

The sweater I ended up with: 2.75 dog panels, 2 knot panels, 48.5” circumference, 19” sleeves. Gauge: 13.5 sts and 14 rnds in 2 inches.

It was the ‘80’s when big sweaters ruled…but that was a bit ridiculous.

Bottom line: check your gauge!

Gauge or Tension Swatches

To avoid this same or similar misadventure, a gauge swatch will have to be worked to determine the number of stitches and rounds per inch. Although this is sometimes referred to as the “dreaded gauge swatch”, finding out what your gauge/tension is BEFORE you work an entire garment will save a lot of heartache...and hugely malformed outcomes. You all know this. I will spare you the lecture.

As I’m sure you are also aware…gauge swatches need to be a good size. Large enough to get about 4 in. (10 cm) square without including the inconsistency of the edges…..and need to be made with the same yarn and needles you will be using for your project.

In addition, specifically pertaining to stranded work, these swatches need to be worked in the round as gauge/tension can be different from knitting flat to knitting in the round. It has to do with getting a different gauge when knitting than when purling.

In an attempt to ease any “dreaded” aspects, think of the swatch as a way to test out any color changes from the designer’s choices…or to just see how the design looks in person before you work an entire garment.

Keeping all of this in mind, there are a few ways to finding tension for stranded work.

The first is a “swatch hat or cap”, a two-for-one solution made popular by Elizabeth Zimmerman and Meg Swansen.

With the yarn and needles you plan to use for your project, cast on a number of stitches equal to a multiple of the total stitch repeat of the largest motif used in your garment…and enough stitches for a hat.

So for example, if your largest motif has a 16 st repeat and the required gauge is 32 sts = 4 in. (10 cm) ...or 8 sts = 1 in. (2.54 cm)…and you want a hat that is approx. 21 in. (54.34 cm) in circumference, then you would cast on either 160 sts [20 in. (50.8 cm) and 10 repeats of the motif] or 176 sts [22 in. (55.88 cm) and 11 repeats of the motif].

The idea is to create something useful while also making something large enough to get a gauge/tension measurement.

The second gauge/tension measurement option is a flat swatch which is worked to simulate knitting in the round. Like the swatch hat, you cast on a multiple of the stitch repeat of the largest motif, except you do not need as many repeats. You will still need 4 in. (10 cm) not including the edges. This swatch is best worked on a circular needle.

Eastlake flat gauge swatch

Eastlake flat swatch with early color trials...and not really large enough. :)

If you use the numbers above, 4 in. (10 cm) at 8 sts per 1 in. (2.54 cm) gives you 32 sts….which is exactly 2 repeats of the motif. Since you want to have 4 in. (10 cm) away from the edges, you’ll need to cast on 48 sts (16 sts x 3 repeats).

When you get to the end of the row, break yarn(s) and move the knitting to the other end of the needle…so the first stitch is once again on the left needle and the right side is facing. It is similar to the technique used to make an i-cord, except you break the yarn at the end, Continue in this manner until you have completed about 5 inches. Steam or wet block the piece and trim the yarns ends to 1 or 2 inches.

FYI, this is the swatch I use most of the time. As a designer, it gives me a record of what I have been working on…especially if I need to send the sample garment off to a yarn company or magazine.

You may have noticed, though, that both of these methods require purchasing extra yarn to have enough for both the hat or swatch AND the garment you are planning to make.

An alternative is the speed swatch which is produced almost exactly the same way as the flat swatch, except instead of breaking the yarn at the end of the row, the yarns are pulled back around in a giant loop to the first stitch. Make sure the pulled yarns are loose enough so the swatch will lay flat for measuring.

Sample gauge swatch

Sample speed swatch - kinda messy, but it works!

This type of swatch is perfect for those times when you are not sure you have enough yarn for a project. Since you never break the yarn, you can pull out the swatch and start your garment. My recommendation, though is to take a quick picture for future reference before you pull it out.

I use this method if I am working on a project where a limited amount of yarn has been sent to me to work on. I have been known to work up a sample swatch for a client, take a picture, and pull it out. Working this way, I can send a choice of two or three designs…before I start on a garment.

Ok, so now you have your gauge/tension measurements. What happens if what you measured does not match the gauge/tension in your pattern?

Adjusting for gauge is a fairly personal exercise because everyone knits a bit differently….meaning the stitch that is created is slightly different with every knitter. Some stitches are taller, some shorter…some fatter, some thinner.

There are a couple of possible solutions you can try, though. The first of which is to change needle size, but you probably have already tried this.

You may not have tried is to change to wooden needles. The wooden surfaces can provide a bit more friction than metal needles. More friction, more grab, changed stitch…and hopefully changed gauge.

Also, make sure you are moving your stitches from the tips of the needles. I am sure you all know this, but the tips of the needles have a smaller circumference than the main part of the needle. You want to give all of your stitches to opportunity to grow up to their fullest capacity…so push them on over to the main part of the needle as soon as they are “born”.

Another possible solution…and one I suggest in my patterns, is to work toward row gauge. Stitch gauge can be manipulated in blocking if you are not too far off.

You can also work to stitch gauge…then adjust the length as necessary. So that's it for this post. If you have any questions or gentle comments, please add them below. I'd love to hear from you! Next time: Needles Used and Casting On.

FYI, I talk more about this topic on my podcast. You can find it under the Podcasts.

If you have any questions or gentle comments, please feel free to send me an email. I'd love to hear from you.

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