Inches per Stitches - changing how we think about gauge

   As a knitting designer, I sometimes get questions from knitters, and one of the most common type of question has to do with gauge. A knitter might have a different gauge than the one suggested in my pattern, say 24 sts per 4", when the pattern suggests 23. Should she use larger needles or smaller to get gauge? If she can't get gauge, should she make the next size up, or the next size down?

   I try to explain, if her gauge number is larger, then her fabric will be smaller. And if she wants to go down from a gauge of 24 to reach a gauge of 23, then she will need larger needles to do so. What?! Up to go down? Down to go up? No wonder so many knitters are confused about gauge. The convention we've been following - stating gauge in terms of stitches per inches is completely counterintuitive!

   The good news is, there is an alternative. We can change the convention, or at least how we think about it. We can simply change it from "stitches per inches" to "inches per stitches", and in so doing, a lot of good things will happen, the first being that we won't have to feel so clueless anymore when it comes to gauge.

Inches per stitches is easier to understand

   As an example, let's decide to state our gauge in terms of inches per stitches. Say your pattern calls for a gauge of 24 sts per 4". Now, instead of seeing how many more or fewer stitches you have within a 4" span, you measure the width of your 24 stitches. It might be 3.75" per 24 sts. Your 3.75 gauge is smaller than my 4. Your fabric will end up smaller too. If you want to achieve a larger gauge, you will want to use a larger needle. Larger needles, larger fabric, larger gauge. Smaller needles, smaller fabric, smaller gauge.

   This makes sense. These correlations are direct and linear. They are not inverse as they are with stitches per inches. Nobody has explain to us how this works. We understand what we're doing, and we are more confident about our calculations, our modifications, and our knitting.

Hurray for inches per stitches!

   But freedom from confusion, intuitive modifications, and increased confidence are only some of the good reasons to start thinking in terms of inches per stitches. For another, our current convention of stitches per inches can be pretty imprecise. And resulting garments, upon completion, may measure quite differently than expected because of it.

Inches per stitches helps garments fit better

   We currently state our gauge in terms of number of stitches. It's either 15 sts, or else it's 16. The convention doesn't account for partial stitches. So if our gauge is a little over 15 and a half stitches, we call it 16. And if it's not quite 16 and a half, we also call it 16. Our margin of error is plus or minus a half-stitch width.

   A half stitch is very small if our needles are tiny and our gauge fine. But if we're working at an aran-weight gauge of 16 sts per 4", then a half stitch measures 1/8". That's the margin of error for a 4" swatch. Now when we knit a sweater that's supposed to measure 48", we are multiplying the margin of error times twelve. And that means that our 48" sweater may end up measuring as small as 46.5" or as large as 49.5"!

   We got gauge, and our sweater doesn't fit right. What did we do wrong? Nothing, actually. It's just that our convention isn't serving us as well as it might. And the margins of error get even bigger when working with bulkier yarns.

   These kinds of fit issues may be reduced, and can be anticipated fully in advance when gauge is viewed in inches per stitches. Even when our gauge is off, knowing that we're a quarter inch shy over a span of 24 stitches, say, will allow us to predict ahead of time how our sweater is going to fit, and to compensate for it if we want to.

   How precisely should you measure? For yarn weights ranging from sport through aran, I would recommend measuring gauge to the nearest 1/8 inch. This is more than twice as precise as our current convention for aran gauges, and it continues to be better down to gauges as fine as 7 sts per inch. For finer knits than this, a more precise measurement, like measuring to the nearest 1/16 - might be useful. While for bulky yarns, measuring gauge to the nearest 1/4 inch over 24 stitches is plenty precise, and is certainly more so than our current convention, since those 24 stitches may measure as wide as 7-8 inches or more.

Good news for inch-centimeter conversion

   As things stand, we view gauge in terms of how many stitches fit into a 4" or 10 cm length. The thing is, though, 4" isn't the same thing as 10 cm. 10 cm is shorter by about 1.6%. 1.6% less than 4" is a very small amount of width. But multiply that width times twelve for a sweater that's supposed to measure 48", and 1.6% less means that our sweaters measure 2 cm smaller than what we would have expected based on the stated gauge and probably on the schematic too. Add to that the errors resulting from imprecise measuring conventions discussed above, and fit issues become unavoidable when we convert from one unit to another.

   However, when gauge is measured in inches and centimeters per stitches, we are able to know exactly where we stand relative to the stated gauge, regardless of what units we're using, and our garments will be more likely to fit as we expect them to.

Working together for change

   I'm no radical. But if it was up to me, the standard method for reporting gauge would be in terms of inches per stitches instead of the other way around. And I do think that this change could in a small way make the world a little nicer, a little simpler, a little better for those of us who love to knit.

   So I'm taking this opportunity to call on you to spread the word, organize, be an activist. It really is the only way to change something as deep-seated as this.

... Or just thinking differently

   Okay, maybe I'm dreaming. But even if we can't change the world, we can certainly change the way we view our own gauge. We can at least think of it in tems of inches rather than stitches.

   The next time you measure for gauge, don't count the number of stitches that fit into a 4" length. Instead, measure the width of the number of stitches called for in your pattern. For instance, if the stated gauge is 23 sts per 4", work a swatch several stitches larger than 23 sts, and measure 23 sts from the inside of the swatch.

   Do they measure less than 4"? If so, your gauge is too small. How much smaller than 4" are your 23 stitches? If they are a quarter inch too small, realize that that .25" too small over 4" will multiply out to 2.5" too small over 40". And If you want your 23 sts to measure wider, you'll need to use larger needles. And so by merely adjusting our thinking, questions about gauge can be answered intuitively, we can simplify our calculations and also improve the way our sweaters fit.


Happy measuring, and merry knitting!

Carol