Pumpkin Season 3 - Do we have to talk about tension/gauge? 😱
Updated: Oct 23
This is a topic that many knitters do their very best to avoid! I get it. You want to start the project, yarn and needles at the ready, you are good to go, and impatient to start. "My tension is fine" you say, "I don't need to do a tension square". Well, you don't HAVE to..... but you could get a much better result if you did.
You are fine...
First things first though, your tension IS fine. Everyone's tension is completely fine. The way you knit is the way you knit and you are perfect in your own style. No one is asking you to change. The thing is though, we all knit differently, and it's quite possible that the way you knit is not the same as the way the pattern designer knits. And whilst that is completely OK, it does mean that you may not get the same result as the pattern designer, your finished article will likely not look like the photos, and you could be disappointed with your result.
Let's enjoy the preparation process: we spent time selecting the pattern, carefully choosing the yarn, now we are choosing the best needles for the project. The needles that you select to use will make a difference to your finished article that you are choosing to put your time and energy into. This is your chance to have your say, make the most of it! Tension squares are all about selecting the best needles.
In this series I'm talking through knitting a hat. Ideally you don't want your hat too big..... it falls off. Or too small = cold ears. In the first post I suggested that you could freestyle and knit to fit yourself or your recipient, to do that you must know what your own tension is. So we ALL need to measure tension/gauge. And just so we all know: tension & gauge are the same thing. I'm English so I'm going to use the word tension, gauge - commonly used in the US - means the same thing and the words can be interchanged as you choose.
So to make a tension square, choose the yarn that you wish to use, and start with the recommended needle size for that yarn, or the needle size specified in the pattern. Cast on 25-30 stitches, or at least 4 more than the expected stitch count for 10cm/4 inches. You need a few extra at the sides because the edge stitches cannot be counted easily and accurately, they will always lie a little differently.
Ideally knit a square - so until the length is the same as the width. You can get away with knitting a little over half way, but more is desirable. Don't take the knitting off the needles you can leave it on, and recover the yarn afterwards**** - the asterisks are to say that you really should read the postscript to this post if you are kitting a fine jumper, or some article where the fit is REALLY crucial. For us here, a hat is moderately stretchy and forgiving, we can measure on the needles.
The fabric that you have created
So, you have knitted your tension square - I've made three in the photo above so that you can see what we look for first: What do you think of the fabric that these squares have made? It is hard to get a true sense from a still photo, so I've made a little video to show the result a bit better.
All of these samples are the SAME yarn, just different colours. I have knitted them in 3 different needle sizes: 8mm (pink), 4.5mm (orange) and 3.5mm (yellow).
The pink fabric is very loose. The stitches are large and wide, there is noticeable distance between the strands of yarn. It wouldn't really keep you very warm, I think you would feel the wind through the fabric. But of you wanted a very casual sloppy look, and weren't going out in low temperatures it could work.
The yellow fabric is really quite stiff. It would certainly keep you warm, but I would suggest that it may not be so comfortable to wear. The stitches are very dense and closely packed. Maybe if I were visiting Father Christmas in the Arctic...
The orange fabric is the good place in between. The fabric is flexible, and feels likely comfortable. The stitches are close enough to keep out the wind. It looks like a good place to start. I think that I would quite like it a little looser, but I doubt that I would want it any tighter.
If you don't like the fabric of your tension square, you will want to reknit it until you find a needle size that you do like. Increase the needle size to loosen the fabric, Decrease needle size to tighten and thicken.
Having decided on the fabric that you like, measure the tension and we can see how close it is to the pattern. Or if you are free styling then this measurement will help you to calculate how many stitches to cast on.
Here is a video to show you how to measure your tension.
So, compare your tension with that of the pattern that you are following. You will ideally want to get the stitch count exactly to the suggested tension. This will give you the most accurately sized result. If your tension does not measure to the suggested tension, then you have some choices to make.
Stitch count LOWER than pattern = change UP a needle size.
Stitch count HIGHER than pattern = change DOWN a needle size.
Reknit your tension square, or knit a purl row (on the knit side of the fabric) using your new needle size, then continue in stocking stitch for another 10 rows (ish). Now you can re measure the stitch tension and compare the fabric of the two samples. Knit more rows if you can and measure the row tension. Having the two tension pieces side by side gives you a good opportunity to compare. I like to write the needle size on a small piece of paper and pin it to each section. It is scarily easy to forget what size you started with!
Find the tension you like
Working like this, keep going until you ideally find a needle size that gets you to the correct stitch tension, close to the row tension and you like the fabric that it creates. If you have reached this ideal then great! You have selected your needles. Make sure you have recorded all of the useful information from your tension knitting. Now you can take it off the needles and frog back the yarn.
If you are not happy with the fabric that the pattern stitch tension gives you, you will need to make some other adjustments: Maybe the yarn is not as specified by the pattern and is actually too thin / too thick to work for this pattern. Consider changing the yarn.
Your final option if kitting to a pattern is to change the garment size that you are knitting. Most patterns have a range of sizes. If your stitch tension is LOWER than pattern, go UP a size (or two), if your stitch tension is HIGHER than pattern, go DOWN a size (or two). This is not going to be a very accurate method of resizing - probably fine for a hat, but for a fitted jumper I'd seriously consider changing the yarn!
Using tension to work out number of stitches
If you are knitting freestyle - let's just use the tension measurements from your tension square to calculate the number of stitches that you will need to cast on for a hat. Measure your head around the widest point of where your hat will sit. Imagine that the line you are measuring will be parallel to the bottom edge of the hat. Consider if you want your hat to be looser or tighter than this measurement (known as positive or negative ease). Adjust your measurement accordingly. So the measurement you are working to is the circumference that you wish your hat to be at that point on your head - larger than your actual head if you want it to be a loose hat, smaller than your head if you want it to be a tight fit. And you choose how loose or tight by how much you add or subtract from that measurement. (and if you are knitting for someone else you will have to go and ask them!)
Your tension measurement is the number of stitches for 10cm or 4 inches. So divide your head measurement by 10 or by 4 to depending on whether your measurement is in centimetres or inches - keep the decimal places. Then multiply by the stitch count of your tension piece. Round to the nearest digit and that number is how many stitches you will need to cast on. But you must check your pattern at this point to be sure that you have the right multiple of stitches. Most hats are knitted in multiples of 6 or 8. You could tell that from my pattern as all the sizes have a cast on number that is divisible by 8. The main pattern is K6, P2 (total eight stitches) and when the decrease is worked, the first round is over 8 stitches. Therefore to make this pattern work you will need to ensure that your cast on stitches is divisible by 8. If you are working out your own pattern, then 8 is a good number to work with. Whether you adjust your stitch count up or down is up to you.