Since starting the swatching project, we've noticed a lot of questions regarding the techniques involved in making the swatches in order to better understand the various forces that may affect gauge.
"What kind of needle did the swatchers use?"
"I'm a tight knitter, so I try to stay loose when I knit."
"I usually knit loose, so I always go down a needle size."
"I won't use wooden needles because my gauge will be too tight."
Needle material, the way the yarn is tensioned, which hand you're wrapping the yarn with, and general 'style' (tight or loose) do all affect gauge.
"GOOD" KNITTING VS. "BAD" KNITTING
We spend a lot of time teaching knitting all over the country. We meet a lot of quirky knitters (and also a lot of perfectly fine knitters) who are convinced they are doing it wrong. Sometimes, a knitter is doing something technically incorrect, like wrapping their purls wrong and creating a twisted stitch. But often, they are knitting just fine - but are obsessed with being able to knit better. They want to know if they are doing it the "right" way. Often, I think there are a lot of knitters who subscribe to the idea that certain ways of knitting (most often the way they were taught) is best, and they will shout this from the mountain top, making those of us who don't knit that way feel as though we're not doing it the "best" way.
But, sometimes it's that a knitter finds that their knitting doesn't actually look as good as their friend's knitting, and they don't know why. That can be an issue of knitting too tight or too loose - using the wrong needle size for the way you knit - or it's a problem with your technique. (Note that I did not say it's a problem with the hand you carry the yarn in!)
KNITTING TOO LOOSE / TOO TIGHT
We all know by now that everyone should swatch. Does being a tight or loose knitter affect how you interpret pattern specifications? How much heed should you give the recommended needle size? Yes, using the recommended needle size in a pattern is a good starting point, but remember there is no industry standardization for gauge and corresponding needle size. This is compounded by the fact that there are exponentially more publishers and independent designers than there were previously. Many knitters say that they always get gauge, or they "always have to go down or up a needle size". To be frank, this is impossible. Why? Let me repeat:
THERE IS NO INDUSTRY STANDARDIZATION FOR GAUGE.
"LOOSE" KNITTING VS. "TIGHT" KNITTING
Let's look at a hypothetical example:
Jane Designer writes a pattern for a simple hat. She knits it on a US 7, at a gauge of 18 stitches to 4". She'd like the final measurement of the hat to be ~18.75". Jane is he is getting 4.5 sts per inch, so if she writes the pattern with a cast on of 84 stitches, the hat will be 18.66" circumference.
Johnny Knitter believes he is a loose knitter, and is knitting Jane Designer's hat. He thinks to himself, "I am a loose knitter. I will need to use a US 6 for this hat." He casts on (gasp! without swatching!) and knits the hat. After knitting, his hat measures 20 stitches to 4". At this gauge, his hat is only 16.8" circumference. His hat is too small.
"But Johnny is a loose knitter!"
It turns out Jane Designer is also a loose knitter, and always uses metal needles. She likes them better because she is a fast knitter, and the wood needles feel logy.
"Jane Designer should use wooden needles, and her gauge wouldn't be loose."
Shouldn't Jane use the needles that she likes best? As long as she checks her gauge it doesn't matter what kind of needle she uses. I concede that wooden needles have more friction, and for many people result in a slightly tighter fabric, but the difference is often negligible.
"Does Jane knit continental? I do, and I don't knit loose."
It doesn't matter which way she carries the yarn. She knits loosely, so changes her needle size as needed to keep her stitches even and the gauge correct, according to the pattern. Since we're all individuals and knit the way we knit, we all should change our needle size as needed to keep our stitches even and acheive the correct gauge.
"Maybe if she wraps the yarn around her middle finger, like I do, her yarn will have more tension and then her stitches will be tighter."
True, but if she's not technically doing anything wrong, why retrain herself to knit a different way? The only real takeaway from this should be that it is imperative to always swatch.
WHEN TO CHANGE YOUR TECHNIQUE
What if you're knitting so loosely that your technique is affecting your ability to knit the things you want to knit? Let's look at two examples:
KNITTING TOO LOOSELY:
Betty Jo Knitter knits continental, with the yarn in her left hand, tensioned around her fingers. She knits so loose that she cannot knit patterns at a gauge smaller than 22 stitches to 4 inches because they don't make needles small enough for her to match tighter gauges. She is often knitting on size US 0 and 00, and uses wooden needles because she was told they would help her knit tighter. Her knitting looks fine, it's just a bit frustrating that she can't knit things like socks. She also cannot knit color work, because it always looks warped. Additionally, her row gauge is often affected and her stitches appear very narrow and long. In the textile design industry, the ratio of courses (stitches) to wales (rows) determines the structural integrity and viability of a fabric. Betty Jo's ratios were way off, and therefore her fabric was also structurally unsound.
This is a great example of one's tension (and technique) actually being problematic. Something is happening with the way she is knitting that is unusual.
This story is based on a true situation, and Kate and I sat with her and watched her knit. We came to the conclusion that her issue was that she was knitting too far down the needle tips, and pushing them away from the points after completing each stitch, thereby stretching the stitch out. When she slipped the stitch from the left to right needle, she was pulling the stitch a great distance, and hence, elongating it further. The result was loose, droopy stitches. We stopped her and told her to move the stitches up much closer to the points, so her hand movements were smaller and less dramatic. (Coincidentally, this also improves her joint health and knitting longevity). Her initial response was, "But won't they fall off the needles?" No, they will not fall off the needles. This new technique felt slow and awkward, but she kept at it. After a couple rounds the difference was dramatic. Her stitches were tighter, more even (her ratios were more balanced), and she was able to go up multiple needle sizes in order to properly match gauge, making her more in line with the "average" range.
If you are having the same troubles as Betty Jo, look at your needle points while knitting. Your stitches should be very close to the tip of your left hand needle, and sit just behind tapered end of your right hand needle, not an inch or more back from the points.
KNITTING TOO TIGHTLY:
1 / On the flip side of the above scenario, we have also encountered knitters who knit so tight that they are causing injury to their hands and wrists. In most cases, these knitters are forming their stitches on the tapered points of their needles, as opposed to around the barrel.
If knitting causes you a lot of pain, or if every stitch feels like an incredible effort and you have to forcefully push the stitches back onto your right hand needle, there is a problem with the way you are knitting. If your stitches are formed on the right hand needle on the tapered ends, you're unintentionally knitting around a much smaller circumference, as if you're knitting on a needle 1-3 sizes smaller than you intended. Your stitches are tight, and likely uneven. Just as a loose knitter needs to move up, a too tight knitter needs to move down, ideally around 1-5 mm behind where the right needle begins to taper.
2 / Also in the realm of too tight knitting is the a knitter who holds their yarn in a sweaty-palmed death grip, yanking it taut as if tying a ship to dock in a storm. I have witnessed this many times, and often the knitters response to my inquiries about their stitching is something along the lines of, "I want the stitches to look better, more even, tighter." If this is what you want, and you find if you're not getting nice looking even stitches on the needle and yarn combination you're working with, just go down a needle size or two. Your hands shouldn't make the stitches smaller, that is what needles are for. Never try to knit tighter (or looser, for that matter). Let the needle do the work for you. Relax your shoulders, loosen your grip, breathe. Your joints and neck will thank you for it.
Moral of the story: There is no universal gauge standardization. What is listed in the pattern is often based on the needles and gauge the designer used to make the garment. A yarn company or distributor will base their needle/gauge recommendations listed on the yarn labels on an average sampling of test knitters, or of an average needle size commonly used by in-house designer(s).
What is often called a British worsted weight is sometimes closer to a US knitter's DK, and what we call worsted here in the US is often referred to as Aran in the UK, and in Australia they use ply number to determine the weight of the yarn (regardless of the number of actual plies in the yarn). One of our stockists, the Tangled Yarn in England, says this on their website: