Ignoring the Rules of en(guage)ment Top Photo

How do you feel about rules? Some people want rules because they create structure and others don’t want them because they feel restricted by them.

Knitting doesn’t really have rules. Yeah, I know. Right now you might be churning with the need to say “But---!” or nodding your head and maybe feeling relieved. But it’s the honest truth. There are however, a lot of guidelines out there to help you make decisions. One thing I hope to cover frequently on this blog are what kind of guidelines there are, and what happens when you ignore them.

Let’s start with gauge. We did a video showing how to measure gauge that you should check out. In this post though, I’m going to talk about what happens when you decide to defy the recommended gauge on a yarn.

What is the recommended gauge? It’s what’s listed on the label that comes with your yarn. The needle sizes the manufacturer suggests and what gauge you should get on those needles.

Does that mean you have to knit that yarn with those needles at that gauge?

Not at all. For one thing, if you are a tight or loose knitter you might have to change needle sizes to get the listed gauge. For another thing, you can just throw those suggestions out entirely and use wildly different sized needles.

Let me show you what happens, and explain why or why not you may want to do this.
I knit the three swatches that you see above. These were all knit with Spud and Chloe Sweater in Lilac 7523 with 24 stitches cast on, and the only thing I’ve changed is needle sizes.

As you can see, I’ve got three very different swatches. Let me go over each one.

 Medium Sized Guage Swatch

Spud & Chloe is a worsted yarn, which in general is meant to be knit on a US 7-9 and get around 4.5-5 stitches per inch. I used a US 8 and got 4.5 stitches per inch. The fabric this gives me is pretty nice, something of a goldilocks situation where it’s not too loose or too firm. You could definitely use it for anything from a sweater to accessories like hats or cowls.

Smallest Guage Swatch

o get a dramatic difference I went down 3 needle sizes to a US 5 and did another swatch. You can see how much smaller this swatch is (especially in the top image), even though the gauge is 5.25 per inch, less than a whole stitch smaller than the first swatch. You can see why getting gauge is so important if you want something to be the right size.

What you can’t tell from an image is that this swatch is much stiffer and less soft than the first. This gauge is more typical for a DK weight yarn (which you would typically knit on 5-6), and in theory you could knit any pattern calling for that gauge with this yarn, but you might not like the feel of such a dense fabric.

On the other hand, if you were knitting a stuffed toy, where you want to stuff it and not have any white filling show through, this would work.

 Largest Gauge Swatch

For my last swatch I went up in needle size, all the way to a US 10.5. You can see this swatch is much, much larger at 3.75 stitches per inch, a more typical gauge for bulky yarns. Also, because of my tension, you can tell the stitches got kind of loose and a little sloppier looking than at the tighter gauges.

Because it is so loose this is the softest of the swatches, but also the most shapeless. When you knit thinner yarns on larger needles the stitches can get so open that the fabric looses definition. It is also creates a light weight feeling fabric that is not as warm as when knit tighter. This is nice when you are doing a drapey shawl that you want to wrap around your shoulders, but it doesn't work for a warm winter hat.

A lot of designers like to use larger needles with thinner yarns to create drapey shawls and sometimes even sweaters.

Now, with these swatches I went for a dramatic effect. You can imagine that only going up or down a needle size won’t make as dramatic a difference.

We’ve got a number of projects on Kitterly where the designer has deliberately changed up the gauge in their pattern. Here are just a few:

Joji Locatelli uses a size 6 needle with a fingering weight yarn in he shawl Imagine When.

Leah Coccari-Swift uses a size 8 with a sport weight yarn in the Volcano Cowl.

Tin Can Knits uses a size 4 with a lace weight in their light weight top Bonny.