Technique Tuesday: Accounting for Row Gauge Differences

On Technique Tuesdays, I’ll be tackling technique questions in knitting (mostly about sweaters), questions about how to execute a particular thing rather than “how to think about executing a thing” (that’s for Thursdays).


Q: If I’m preparing to knit a pattern and my swatch doesn’t quite match gauge, which is more important: stitch gauge or row gauge? If I can match one but not the other, what do I do?

So, first of all: thanks for swatching, dear knitter! You are well on your way to the land of sweater-knitting happiness, and I’m thrilled about it. Now: where do we go from here to ensure a happy sweater face awaits you at the end of your project?

First: make sure your swatch is a realistic representation of how you will actually knit the sweater—and how you’ll treat the finished object. I talked some about this last week, but it bears repeating here: your swatch needs to be big enough to represent how you actually knit a larger object, and if you’re not prepared to aggressively pin your sweater to particular dimensions every time you wash it, you shouldn’t do that to your swatch, either. (Full disclosure: this is a real do-as-I-say-not-as-I-did moment, as my first three or four sweaters all ended up mysteriously too big because the stitch gauge on my too-small swatches was about .25-.5 stitches per inch smaller than my actual sweater-knitting gauge. Don’t be early-knitting me!) Some people will go as far as saying that if you typically knit in the dark after a glass of wine while watching Game of Thrones, you should simulate those conditions when swatching. I won’t go that far, but if it floats your boat, go for it (although I will question why you’re knitting while watching Game of Thrones, even as I endorse your choice to down an adult beverage beforehand, given what the writing has been like this season. Woof.). 

So, you have your realistic swatch that fairly represents how you actually knit, and it’s close-but-not-quite to the stated pattern gauge. What do you do now? Here are a few things you should keep in mind, and a few things to do and (equally importantly) not do as you make adjustments:

  • Broadly and generally, it is harder to adjust a sweater pattern for a discrepancy in stitch gauge than in row gauge, especially if the sweater has a lot of stitch patterning (cables, texture, lace, whatever). The repeats (or panels) have an intended width and a baked-in stitch count, and this is likely a major factor in the width of the sweater, the spacing of increases and decreases, etc. You can adjust for a discrepancy in stitch gauge, but you may be in for a lot of math, and you may end up circling back to discover that the designer specified that particular stitch gauge because that was the most expedient (and sometimes the only) way to make that particular sweater work. So, if you have to pick between matching stitch gauge and matching row gauge, and you can match the stitch gauge honestly, match stitch gauge.

  • So, you’ve matched stitch gauge, but your row gauge differs, what do you do, mechanically? 

    • When I look at a pattern that has length measurements specified (things like, knit to X” / XX cm from CO edge, or knit to X” / xx cm from armhole), the first thing I do after I figure out my blocked row gauge is to convert all those length measurements to row or round counts, by multiplying the length measurement by the number of rows per inch. (Note: this is a good practice to do whether you match row gauge or not.)

    • If you’re making something where there’s a specified number of rows or rounds in a given stitch pattern, like a shaped shawl, or a particular cable chart, do the math the other way: figure out what the size will be based on your actual gauge, and compare it to the size stated in the pattern. 

      • If you’re making a shawl, cowl, scarf, or other thing with relatively loose fit requirements, sanity check your expected finished size against how big you’d like your thing to be. Same ballpark? Great. Carry on.

    • If I’m making a thing that needs to fit in a particular way (sweaters, hats, mitts, what have you), I then check to see if instructions like “rep increase row X more times every X rows” will still work given the number of rows my row gauge yields for that length measurement. If it works, great. If not, recalculate the shaping interval using the following formula, and rounding down to the nearest whole (or even, if you’re knitting flat) number: interval = rows available / (total increases - 1). (Note that the “total increases - 1” figure is usually expressed in your pattern as the “X more times” number.) If you need to do anything simultaneously (the dreaded “at the same time” instruction), make sure you make these calculations for everything that needs to happen over the same stretch of knitting. (Note that the same basic logic and math applies here as what you’re using if you’re adding sleeves or modifying their length, as we discussed a few weeks ago.)

  • This is a huge caveat: redistributing shaping to account for a discrepancy in row gauge is fundamentally easier for some kinds of things than others. It works great for sleeves (if the stitch patterning is simple), and the bodies of sweaters below the underarm (again, if the stitch patterning is relatively simple). It does not work very well for: anything with a long vertical repeat length of the stitch pattern (if you’re working with a 48-row-deep cable chart, I do not recommend trying this approach), the crown shaping of hats with complex stitch patterning, and anything that happens in the yoke (above the armhole) of a sweater, pretty much regardless of armhole construction. 

  • Altering instructions in the yoke of a sweater gets complicated, and we’ll get into some of why over the next few months as we talk more about sweater construction and how things like raglan shaping functions. Suffice it to say, once you start making changes above the armhole, you’re well out of back-of-the-envelope territory and into the land of “I need a spreadsheet and the cone of silence.”

  • In any kind of modification, make sure you proceed with caution and check both ends of the math! Sanity check before you start knitting, and be prepared to make adjustments if what you see in the wool doesn’t match what you had planned.

  • Don’t, please, take the “make a different size to account for a gauge difference” approach. Sweater math is complicated and there are a ton of dependencies, and it may or may not grade evenly based on your particular gauge discrepancies. If you’ve got a major difference but a yarn you’re desperate to use and you can’t make it work, it might be time to consider a different pattern, or getting some more detailed substitution feedback from the designer, or seeking some advice from someone you trust before you slam a square peg too hard into a round hole. As I’ve told many, many students and I’ve probably said to anyone who has talked about sweater knitting with me in person, an astonishingly high percentage of sweater failures are concept failures, not execution failures—issues that came up before anyone took yarn to needles. Don’t walk into a super common unforced error if you can avoid it!