KW Tips + Tricks: Measuring Gauge in Cable Pattern

SWATCHING AND Measuring Gauge in A Cable Pattern

The August Mitten, the first design in the Year of Mittens, features a unique diamond cable flanked by two 4 stitch cables on a reverse stockinette stitch ground. The palm and gusseted thumb are worked in a lovely textured moss stitch.

The gauges listed in the August Mitten are as follows:
Cable Panel (36 sts) = 3.75” (9.5 cm) on larger needles, after blocking.
40 rnds of Cable Panel = 4” (10 cm) on larger needles, after blocking.
27 sts + 40 rnds = 4” (10 cm) in moss st on larger needles, after blocking.

But what to do with this information? Why is it important to swatch in pattern, and not just in Stockinette stitch? Why is the Stockinette gauge not even listed? Why bother blocking your swatch? 

Below are all your answers - and more - in our in depth guide to help you get the best pair of mittens possible!

Where to begin

There are four steps to take when swatching in a cable pattern:
1) Look at the stitch pattern, recommended yarn, and recommended needle size.
2) Swatch in pattern.
3) Treat your swatch the way you will treat your finished fabric.
4) Measure your gauge. If necessary, change needle size and repeat Steps 2-4 until desired gauge is reached.

KW Tips + Tricks: Measuring Gauge in Cable Pattern
KW Tips + Tricks: Measuring Gauge in Cable Pattern

1) The Stitch Pattern

Cables “pull in” the stitches: the cable crosses produce a fabric where more stitches fit into a smaller space, so the gauge given for a cable pattern may be deceptively smaller than that of other stitch patterns in the same yarn. In the images above, 36 stitches of the cable pattern = 3.75", but 36 stitches in the moss stitch pattern is 5.3".  Since there is no stockinette stitch in the August Mitten, it is not listed in the pattern - this would be about as useful as providing the gauge for a cable pattern in a lace shawl. If you are working with the recommended yarn, you don’t have to worry whether or not your yarn is the correct weight, but if you’re substituting yarns, it is important you choose a yarn of a similar weight to the one recommended in the pattern.

In the case of the August Mitten, the gauge is given in both the moss stitch and the cable, and the mitten is designed so that both stitch patterns are worked simultaneously. As it is much easier to make any necessary adjustments to the moss stitch, I recommend swatching the cable pattern first and using that as your guide. In the rare instance that you might achieve the correct gauge in the cable pattern, but not in the moss stitch, it is easier to tweak the moss stitch rather than the cable. (I’ll go over some common issues and solutions in the Additional Notes at the end.)

2) Swatching

Most people have a general idea of whether or not they are “loose” or “tight” knitters, but what does this mean, exactly? The recommended needle size and gauge on a yarn tag is just that: recommended. But just how do we get those numbers? During yarn development, we first design a yarn with a certain count (number of yards per pound) in mind. We then swatch the yarn using a bunch of different needle sizes within the range that is appropriate for the count, and ask a few friends/colleagues to do the same. We then calculate the average gauges based on the most common needle sizes used, compare this to industry standard gauges and sizes for yarns of similar weight and fiber content, and the end result becomes the recommended gauge. The same holds true for our patterns – the recommended needle size in the pattern is based on what the “average” knitter would need to use in order to achieve the given gauge. If, as a knitter, you tend to need to go up a needle size or two to achieve the recommended gauge, this means you’re a tight knitter, and if you need to go down, you are a loose knitter.

As mentioned previously, cables pull in stitches, so there are more stitches in a cable pattern per 4” (10 cm) than in a typical Stockinette stitch. This doesn’t mean your stitches are tighter, it is just the nature of the fabric in that the stitch crossings allow more stitches to fit in a smaller space. This doesn’t mean you need to knit on a smaller needle in order to “fit” that many stitches into the space, either - in fact many find they need to knit cables on one needle size up than they typically use due to the hand manipulation cabling requires.

If you do know you’re lose or tight, it is always a safe bet to start out one needle size down or up than recommended. If you’re pretty “average”, you can begin swatching with the recommended size.

Remember: needle size doesn’t matter, gauge does! If you swatch and get gauge using a needle size that is different than the one listed in the pattern, that is okay. What is not okay, though, is to follow the needle size given as set in stone, and not pay attention to gauge. 

Many choose to cast on the exact number of stitches as given in the gauge, and then measure to see if the width is 4”, but I believe it is more accurate to have extra stitches on both top, bottom, and sides. This way, any wonkiness from the cast on or bind off or any loose stitches or pulling that happens at the edges is not part of what you’re measuring. For this any any other cable chart, if you’re working flat, I recommend casting on the full width of the cable chart plus some extra stitches on either end for selvedges. If working in the round, you could do the same, especially if your intention is to steek the swatch open to measure the gauge. For the moss stitch, or any stitch pattern with a small repeat and gauge given over 4”, I recommend looking at the number of stitches in 4” and adding around 3-5 stitches and rows on either end. For my cable panel chart, I cast on 44 stitches and knit the 36 stitch cable panel with a 4 stitch garter border on either side for 50 rows. For the moss stitch, I cast on 38 stitches and worked all stitches in the moss stitch for 50 rows.

KW Tips + Tricks: Measuring Gauge in Cable Pattern
blocked cable.jpg

3) Blocking

If you go through the trouble of swatching, but do not treat your swatch the way your going to treat your finished project, you might as well not swatch at all. (And while I’m willing to hear people out, I never been convinced by anyone that they’ll never, ever, ever not wash their knitting – or crochet – item in its lifetime). There are a wide variety of variables that effect the outcome of a blocked item versus an unblocked one, including fiber content, stitch pattern, and density of fabric. Just as different fabric substrates behave differently when washed and dried, different yarns will bloom and grow differently when blocked. The only real way to know how your fabric is going to behave is to wash it. THEN you can check the gauge. If need be, you can read more about the hows and whys of wet blocking here

The only instance where it is okay to measure gauge pre-blocking is during swatching to see if you’re on track: if the gauge is 20 stitches over 4", but you measure 25 stitches, there is nothing blocking will do to fix your gauge, so you might as well switch to a larger needles now before going through the entire process. If your gauge is 20.5, or even 20 stitches over 4 inches, it is a safe bet to keep going and finish the blocking process.

If you're someone who lives by the "swatches lie" mantra, or always swatch but find your pieces never come out to the correct size, I'm willing to place a good sized bet on the fact that you don't block your swatches, you're not swatching the correct pattern, or your swatch isn't nearly large enough. Again, if you do not treat your swatch the way your going to treat your finished projectyou might as well not swatch at all.

4) Measuring Gauge

Up until this point, (maybe save for yarn substitution, if that is the route you took), there isn’t much difference in the basic steps taken to check gauge in cable pattern versus another stitch pattern. The real hiccup when checking gauge in cable pattern is counting the individual stitches over a certain number of inches, especially, as is the case here, where the cable is a panel and the full width doesn’t cover the “typical” 4” / 10 cm gauge. 

KW Tips + Tricks: Measuring Gauge in Cable Pattern
KW Tips + Tricks: Measuring Gauge in Cable Pattern

We've done our best to do you all a big favor when providing the gauge for the August Mitten, and have given the width of the full cable panel in inches. This way, you don't have to go through the trouble of counting each individual stitch to see if you have the correct number of stitches in 4". To measure your cable panel, simply lay your ruler across the swatch (I've added pins in the swatch as a guide to show the beginning and end of the panel here) and measure the width. If your panel measures more than 3.75" wide, your stitches are too loose, and you need to go down a needle size or two. If your panel measures less than 3.75" wide, you'll need to go up. 

Measuring row gauge in a cable pattern can be just as tricky as the stitch gauge, as the rows can twist and turn, making it difficult to follow one line of stitches. In order to solve this problem, I always count row gauge in cable patterns from the wrong side of the work. Many patterns - especially panels such as this one - have a one or more purl stitches that run vertically up the pattern. As you can see in the image above, counting the rows here is just as easy as if I was counting rows on the right side of a stockinette stitch fabric.

If you're still having difficulty measuring the row gauge, you can opt to measure the length of one or two repeats of the pattern, and calculate row gauge that way. In the case of the August Mitten, the diamond repeats every 24 rows. Measure the length of one repeat, and divide 24 by that number to get the number of rows in one inch. Multiply that by 4, and you'll have the number of rows in 4". For my swatch, one repeat measures 2.4". 24/2.4 = 10, so I know I have 10 rows per inch.


Moss Stitch and Cable Panel Gauge Discrepancies
As I mentioned in the beginning, you will be working the moss stitch and cable panel simultaneously. If you achieve proper gauge with the cable panel, but are off slightly on the moss stitch using the same needle size, you will probably be okay. Below are some possible scenarios and solutions:

1) Moss Stitch Gauge: 29 sts + 40 rnds = 4” (10 cm). Instead of having 6.75 stitches in each inch of moss stitch, your gauge is a little tighter and you have 7.25 stitches in each inch. Since the main palm is 29 stitches, your palm will be 4", not 4.25", reducing your overall circumference by .25". It is doubtful this will make a huge difference, but you can always add 2 stitches to the cast on (and inserting 1 on either side of the thumb) to make the circumference larger.

2) Moss Stitch Gauge: 25 sts + 39 rnds = 4” (10 cm). Instead of having 6.75 stitches in each inch of moss stitch, your gauge is a little looser and you have 6.25 stitches in each inch. Since the main palm is 29 stitches, your palm will be 4.65", not 4.25", increasing your overall circumference by almost half inch. Your mitten might be too loose and not fit properly in the palm. To reduce the size, you'll want to omit 2 stitches from the cast on, removing 1 stitch from the chart on either side of the thumb. Your row gauge is also off slightly, but it is such a small amount, it won't really matter in the mitten overall. If you're worried, I recommend working the mitten through a few inches of the hand and placing the stitches on waste yarn and blocking your piece to make sure the moss stitch isn't buckling or pulling the cables in any way. 

Proper Stitch Gauge but Incorrect Row Gauge
A common problem knitters face is achieving correct stitch gauge, but incorrect row gauge. This typically is easy to solve, and you can read more about this in our counting rows post here. In the case of something like a fully charted pattern, though, it is more difficult to knit to length, as you're following a chart for the full piece. Using the same principles outlined above, using your rounds per inch, you can calculate your mitten length ahead of time to see if it will work for you. If not, you may find you need to add rounds to the mitten, either in the ribbing, or cable pattern before beginning the top of hand decreases. Just know you won't then be able to follow the chart for that portion of the pattern, and you'll need to work the decreases on your own.

Swatching in the Round Versus Flat
The observant among you will notice my swatch here is flat, but the mittens are knit in the round. Most might assume I’d be standing high on my soapbox saying how you must knit your swatches in the round if the gauge/item is knit in the round. Yes, you should. Or, the vast majority of you should.

Most knitters experience rowing out in one way or another. This means your knitting is looser (usually on the purl side) when working flat versus in the round. This causes a slight striping to occur – sometimes it is very subtle, other times it is really obvious, especially on a project where one section is knit flat and another is knit in the round. (I don’t want to unfairly single out any one knitter here, so if you’re not sure exactly what I’m talking about, you can do an image search for “rowing out knitting” and many examples will come up.)

If you, like me, do not experience rowing out, there really, truly is not a “real” reason why you shouldn’t be able to swatch flat. That said, rowing out (or even slight gauge difference) will cause real problems. Many people aren’t totally sure if they experience rowing out, or can’t “see” any difference, so if you haven’t made enough swatches in a wide variety of stitch patterns and yarns to be  100% sure, its better to err on the side of caution.

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