The translation of gauge

I’ve just hit another milestone in Ithilien – it now has two sleeves (just barely) joined to the body! From here on out, it gets really interesting… simultaneous decreasing on the sleeves and armholes is next.

Two sleeves!

Two sleeves!

But I got to worrying, very late last night as I was adding the second sleeve and working on the first joining round, that maybe during Ithilien’s winter hibernation, I’d lost my rhythm and maybe the gauge on the second sleeve was just enough different from the first that maybe it would be bigger around AND longer! Nagging worry grew into barely suppressed horror as I slogged on through the fiddly bits, until I could lay it out and compare the two sleeves.

They matched. Whew! Talk about relief. I’m not a worrier by nature, but every once in a while I get this irrational thing that happens late at night, and while I am reassured in the morning light, it gets me thinking. Anyhow, after a good night’s sleep – well, not a very long night’s sleep, but it felt good while it lasted – I spent some of my drive time thinking about how we think about gauge.

It completely baffles me that there are knitters out there who will make a whole sweater and then find out it doesn’t fit. How in the world can they be taken by surprise?? Don’t they measure them in progress? Try them on or hold the pieces against their bodies? I mean, I understand the “This isn’t fitting like I thought it would” thing, but “This could fit a gorilla – I’d better find one and give it to him” just leaves me speechless. Why does that happen??

So here’s what I came up with. See if it makes sense to you.

Gauge is like another language. We measure ourselves in one language (inches) or a closely-related language (centimeters). Measurements are often given in both, but if not, it’s easy to translate. An inch is always about 2.5 cm. Most of us are ‘bilingual’ in that context, and can deal with it if we have to.  We’re used to the concept – 20 miles to the next town, or a 10k race.  A 2 liter bottle or a gallon.  These are predictable.

Swatch for Ithilien Brocade

Swatch for Ithilien Brocade

But knitting… here’s where the translation comes in. We don’t knit inches, we knit stitches. And if it was a direct translation, as in ‘all yarns always knit up as 5 stitches to the inch’, we’d be set. But stitches is a variable – more like currency exchange rates that can fluctuate wildly.  That requires some more thinking.  Awareness.

How many stitches around do you measure? It all depends, doesn’t it? And that, of course, is why you knit a gauge swatch. Don’t you? How else are you going to find out how many stitches around you are?

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone


Any pattern you’re working from has no relation to YOU until you can translate stitches in your yarn to inches for your body. Then you can connect the theory of the pattern to the reality of your knitted fabric.

Let me put this another way. If you’re going to visit Spain, or Mexico, or Argentina, for example, don’t you think it would be a good idea to learn a few Spanish phrases? Like, “¿Dónde está el baño?”? Well, yes, you could very effectively communicate through body language that you needed to find the bathroom, but we don’t really like to do that in public now that we’re grown up, do we?

So if you’re going to adventure in the land of knitting, let me encourage you to learn a bit of the language so you can translate… I promise it’s easier than the misery of an accident a sweater that fits no one.

Just think of a gauge swatch as your own personal Rosetta Stone.

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One Response to The translation of gauge

  1. Joyce says:

    ohhhhh…..I love, love, love it!!! It’s going to be beautiful….thou ALMOST persuadest me to I DON”T NEED another hobby!!!!! …but now the wire thing in your previous post does intrigue me….I like to use wire in my projects…but I’ve been stuck with gold and silver….I didn’t KNOW it came in gorgeous colors!!!!

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