The Three Faces of Gauge

For the uninitiated, gauge is a term used by knitters to describe the type of fabric they are creating – the size of the stitches, mainly. Frankly, if you don't knit, this post will bore and confuse you.

So, when I started knitting – and really, up until very recently – I thought of gauge as a pattern-specific thing. I'd open up a new issue of Vogue Knitting, or download something from Ravelry and see that the designer wanted me to get 17 stitches per inch and think "OK, that's what THAT DESIGN is knit at, and if I want it to fit properly I have to get that same gauge." (This is, of course, true.) This left me with three options if I wanted to knit that pattern:

1. Use the exact same yarn the pattern calls for
2. Somehow magically stumble onto a yarn that knit up at the same gauge
3. Adjust the pattern to work with a different gauge

Number 2 really did feel like only magic would help, because I didn't really understand yarn weights, which I'll get to in a second.

Personal Gauge

gauge-swatch-768x512.jpg

Every knitter has a personal gauge, inherent to the way they knit. You may be a tight knitter, who has to work hard to get your tips into the stitch, or you might be a loose knitter who has to worry about stitches falling off your needles. Your gauge may change when you work in the round versus flat, and it might change depending on the fiber you are knitting with - more loosely when working with superwash, acrylic or other slippery yarns, for example. You might be like me, pretty much in the middle on stitch gauge (number of stitches per inch) but very loose when it comes to row gauge (number of rows per inch.)

If you are a new knitter, your gauge may change over the course of your knitting. That scarf you started might be very tight at one end, and loose at the other. It will probably stabilize as you get more adept and knitting becomes as second-nature as holding a pencil.

When you see the gauge listed on a knitting pattern, one element of what you are reading is that designer's personal gauge. To replicate the pattern, you'll have to find a way to match it. If you know your own tendencies, you can go in armed with that information. Maybe you already know you'll need to go down a needle size, or use sharp-tipped metal needles. When you shop for needles, the clerk at the shop may ask you about your personal gauge. The general wisdom is that tight knitters should use slick needles (metal or coated plastic) and loose knitters should use sticky ones (bamboo or other woods.)

Yarn Gauge

labelinfo.gif

Yarns are classified into different weights. At the fine end are lace and fingering, DK and worsted are in the middle, with Aran, Chunky and Bulky at the thicker end. (This is a simplification, but man, there are a lot of classes of yarn.) It wasn't until I started consulting at Espace Tricot that I saw that what these classifications are, really, are gauges. These categories tell you what gauge this yarn is suited for. Most yarns carry this information on the label. It shows you a little square - 10cm x 10cm - and tells you how many stitches you can expect this yarn to make in that space, when matched with the appropriate needle.

Obviously, you can knit any yarn with any needle you like (although really thick yarn with really small needles may prove physically impossible). You can knit your fingering weight yarn (which lists 32 sts on 2 mm needles) on 5mm needles and get an open, airy fabric. Some patterns may ask you to do exactly this. But most of the time, the gauge listed in a pattern and the gauge listed on a yarn ball band are going to square up. Any minor inconsistencies are probably down to personal gauge - the designer's and yours - and can be accounted for by adjusting needle size.

Writing this down, it seems so obvious, but I honestly didn't really get it until I started helping other knitters find substitute yarns while working at Espace Tricot. My experience before then had been so personal, so much just doing my own thing, that I didn't see the bigger picture. Gauge is not the only factor in finding a substitute yarn – fiber content and texture are important too – but it sure does help. If you can go into your LYS and say "I need a DK weight yarn that knits up to 22 stitches per inch on 3.5mm needles in stockinette, with a smooth texture, and I tend to knit loosely" you will not only delight the clerk working there, you are much more likely to find suitable yarns.

Pattern Gauge

Sometimes I see a knitting pattern in my Ravelry feed or in a book and think "Ah, I love that! But instead of buying new yarn to make it, I'm going to use something from my stash." But a visit to the stash later, I realize I don't have enough Worsted on hand, but I do have plenty of this lovely hand-dyed DK. And then madness of recalculating the pattern begins. For some patterns, it's easy to change yarn weights - a delicate shawl can be a thick wrap. A simple raglan sweater might take some number crunching, but hey, I've designed patterns from scratch, I can handle it!

The Bayerische Sock by Eunny Jang makes maximum of use of its tiny gauge to load up on twisted stitch motifs.

The Bayerische Sock by Eunny Jang makes maximum of use of its tiny gauge to load up on twisted stitch motifs.

But why was the pattern designed using that yarn? If it's in a big magazine, possibly because the brand advertises there. But it's also a conscious and important choice a designer makes, and it affects proportion, fit and feel. When you change it, you risk losing some element of the design that made it so appealing to you in the first place. You may not think that having a cable twist 12 times on its way up a sweater is much different from 15 times, but you might be surprised. You might think that adding a single repeat of a colourwork motif to the yoke of sweater is harmless, but it might take away some indefinable element of symmetry.

Granted, it might be fine, but you won't know until you've put an awful lot of work into it.

I'm not saying you shouldn't adjust patterns - I do it often, though less often than I used to. Part of that is laziness. If I want to do a whole bunch of math, I'll cook up something of my own. But part of that is caution born of experience. I sympathize with knitters who don't wear standard sizes and often have to make these kinds of adjustments just to make something that fits.

In conclusion, I guess what I'm trying to say is that gauge really is one of the most important things in knitting, so when a pattern exhorts you to knit a gauge swatch, there's a reason. And when you think about altering a design, think about how gauge contributes to the pattern and whether changing it will leave the parts you like so much about it intact.

 

Reading Cat's Eye in Therapy

catseye.jpg

I landed in Dr. Pollock’s office in my second year of university.

When I first started to lose my mind, I modeled my breakdown on the books I’d read about breakdowns. Prozac Nation, reading incredulously as yet another chapter was dedicated to Bruce Springsteen, waiting for Elizabeth Wurtzel to get back to chasing her roommate around Cambridge with a knife. I looked over at my roommates speculatively. Three stoners, musicians all, fellow students at Berklee College of Music. They would never go for a hysterical chase scene outside in the New England snow.

Then I found Girl, Interrupted and a quieter, funnier way to be nuts. That was Susanna Kaysen’s word for it. Nuts. I liked that. A blunt word, short. It sounded permanent. But also zany, like a Nora Ephron heroine.

Therapy was slow going. I was so jacked up by the time I sought help that I’d spend the whole hour-long appointment relating every feeling I’d experienced on the bus ride over to Dr. Pollock’s office, which also took an hour. She pointed out the hopelessness of this, how we’d never get anywhere if I required a 1-to-1 ratio of therapy to life. Glumly, I agreed with her, but I didn’t see what I could do about it.

Eventually, I got better. Better as in less bad than before, not better as in cured. That’s when we started getting into it. My family, my rape. She had me do a little ceremony. I burned the clothes I was wearing when it happened. Plaid jodhpurs with laces at the ankle and a black T shirt. The shirt burned okay but the pants had acrylic in them, so they melted on the old fireplace grate and it smelled terrible. At my next appointment, I told her about my very witchy little bonfire and left out the part about the stink. She gave me a present. It was a toy, a white stuffed bunny. This is what a seventeen year old girl is, or it is what I was. Sleeping with strangers one night, curling up with the stuffed animal my therapist gave me the next.

On the wall opposite my chair in Dr. Pollock’s office was a bookshelf. I often scanned the titles when I was trying to think of an answer to one of her gentle questions, or when I ran out of ways to describe how much I hated being in my own body. I assumed they were her books, her personal collection, so I was surprised when she offered to loan me one. Had she seen me looking at them and thought I was covetous? But she explained it was more like a lending library for patients, and you didn’t get to pick your own books, she picked them for you.

She gave me Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I read Reviving Ophelia first, and it helped, I guess. The conclusion that books draws, that girls who have a tough time in adolescence often grow up to be resilient, authentic adults seemed a lot like the platitudes I heard from my mother. It wasn’t much comfort to me in the thick of things.

I put off the Atwood because I knew about her. As a Canadian, I’d read some of her stories in high school English. Lots of woods and water and impenetrable adult protagonists. But Cat’s Eye, it turned out, was about girls.

Over on Goodreads, the consensus is that Cat’s Eye is about bullies and being bullied, a literary pre-cursor to Mean Girls. I didn’t read it that way back then. It’s like how I missed that the movie Heathers was satire. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate piece of speculative fiction to me, to use the phrase Atwood herself likes so much. Same with Cat’s Eye. Cordelia and Elaine torturing each other across the decades was almost romantic, the way Tolstoy is romantic. This was a love story I had lived.

But as I followed Elaine and Cordelia, one incident after another mirroring my own experience, I had the original second-wave feminist thought: what if I’m perfectly sane? What if all my pain and anger is actually a perfectly normal reaction to living in this body, in this world? I didn’t know then that other women had already drawn this conclusion, I didn’t even understand that Atwood had drawn this conclusion.

You’ve probably heard that depression is anger turned inward. I’d heard it about a thousand times by then, but I didn’t feel it until my anger made a one-eighty. I was mad at everybody! I’d come in to my appointments and explode. That guy’s an asshole! This other guy’s an asshole! My school is an asshole! The state of Massachusetts is an asshole! And so on. Dr. Pollock encouraged this. She noticed the circle was getting bigger before I did. “So, you’re mad at the whole world?” she asked finally.

“The whole fucking thing!”

It was a lot better than just being mad at myself. I knew I was improving when I started asking Dr. Pollock how she was after thirty minutes of talking about myself, suddenly mortified by my rudeness.

The main thing you notice about Cat’s Eye is that Elaine and Cordelia, friends and antagonists, are mirrors. They switch places, each wielding power and each losing it. Elaine paints a picture of Cordelia with half a face. Elaine’s face is the other half, duh. I shouldn’t say ‘duh.’ It’s great. It’s fucking amazing. This is a book where it takes two fully-realized, infinitely complex and enigmatic female characters to hold up all the mirrors Atwood is providing for you to see yourself in.

But what I think about now when I think of that book is that Elaine’s father was an entomologist. He studied bugs. So was Atwood’s, a rare moment of undeniable biography from her. She spent the earliest part of childhood in the bush, looking at insects.

Girls. We’re down here at ground level, small and quick. There are some interesting things going on. We make alliances. We break them. We build strange and mysterious structures, inscrutable to outsiders. We eat each other. We survive.

Resolution Knit-Flat Hat

This is a great starter hat pattern for new knitters. It’s knit flat, so no circulars or double-pointed needles required! Once you master the basic ribbed version, try adding cables to your technique arsenal.

This is a great starter hat pattern for new knitters. It’s knit flat, so no circulars or double-pointed needles required! Once you master the basic ribbed version, try adding cables to your technique arsenal.

Since I started consulting in a yarn shop a few days a week, I often have to suggest patterns for very new knitters - as in, first project ever. I know a lot of people favour scarves for teaching beginners, but scarves just go on and on, and even as an experienced knitter I have sometimes lost heart at the third foot of a six foot project.

Get it on Ravelry

Make your own pom pom, add a store-bought one.

Make your own pom pom, add a store-bought one.

Personally, I like a hat as a first project. It's quick, even a very simple design looks stylish and you can splurge on a nicer yarn since often one ball or skein is enough. But then hats are usually knit in the round and that means introducing your new knitter - already skittish - to the concept of circulars or DPNs. The upside of a knit flat hat is just that - it's knit flat back and forth on straight needles. The downside is it has to be sewn up after, and many knitters find seaming as intimidating (or more so) than circular knitting.

Personally, I think seaming is a bit of magic, especially in small hat-sized doses, so I offer this ribbed hat pattern in three sizes (child, small adult, large adult) with a cable variation. The pattern is three pages, with written instructions aimed at novice knitters, and links to tutorials for seaming and making your own pom poms.

The price is $5.00 CAD but until January 15, 2018, get 50% off with the promotion code NEWYEAR - try it here.

 



 

Record Low

This song was recorded around the holidays in 2006, I think – actually that’s the date the file was last modified. Could be earlier than that.

 

Anyhow, it’s very much inspired by Matt Barber’s ‘The Beautiful Things That We Waste' stealing the image of the the red and green lights on Princess Street in Kingston. It was recorded by me and my friend Niall Fynes on a digital eight track on loan to us from Steve Pitkin, and features such instrumentation as the microwave bell (one of those old ones with a turning dial for the timer) and a bunch of tiny jingle bells strung on a grotty piece of wire. Sophisticated!

I think those are my chubby fingers playing bass, and any decent guitar work is Niall’s, the rest is mine.

Happy holidays!