Yes, this is a post in which I reiterate a frequently made point: that while gauge is really important when you are knitting a pattern, needle size is completely immaterial.

When you want a hand-knitted item to fit correctly, the only thing that matters is that the fabric you are knitting is as similar as possible to the fabric the designer wants you to knit. That is, that you are knitting with the same number of stitches and / or rows per inch (or per 4 inches, or 10cm) listed in the pattern. It doesn’t matter if the designer achieved that fabric on a 2.5mm needle and you need to use a 6.5mm needle. It is only important that the gauge matches. The needle size is immaterial.

Mel and I have been knitting together for many years, and we know that our gauge with the same yarn on the same needle can vary wildly. If I swatch for a pattern, on a certain needle, Mel generally finds she has to go up at least two needle sizes above mine to achieve the same gauge and the same fabric. Swatching and matching gauge is the most crucial element of our pattern writing and sample knitting process. Our awareness of our different knitting styles, and distinctive gauge-y anomalies, frequently informs the way we work. For example, because I find I often achieve a weirdly ‘square’ gauge when knitting colourwork (that is, a gauge with the same number of rows as stitches to the inch) and because this is quite unusual (few other knitters, it seems, produce this) we’ve found it can be useful for Mel to knit a swatch to the same stitch gauge, and for us to take the row gauge in the pattern from her swatch rather than mine (because, overall, the gauge of her swatch is most like the ‘average’). So while we are continually thinking about gauge – and how best to swatch – Mel and I do not think about which needle size we knit with because we know that needle size is immaterial. In creating samples and writing patterns, we are only ever aiming to achieve – and to measure accurately – a certain number of stitches and rows per inch.


One of the most frustrating things as a designer is when a knitter pays no attention to a pattern’s gauge or swatching instructions, but simply looks at a pattern’s recommended needle size, and casts on. Then they get in touch to let you know the thing they knitted doesn’t fit.

“it’s so big I’ll have to felt it”
“it’s so small it wouldn’t fit a child.”
“did you swatch?”
“no.”

It might surprise you that such exchanges most often concern accessories : gloves, shawls, hats. This is, I suspect, because while knitters are generally happy to take the time to swatch carefully before knitting any garment they actually want to fit properly, they are bizarrely unwilling to do so for a hat. The lure of the small, quick knit is irresistible. There is yarn at the ready. The pattern includes a recommended needle size. Knitters don’t check their gauge, but simply cast on right away.

In 2015, I was developing my first yarn (Buachaille), and one thing I knew from the outset was that I didn’t want to list a recommended range of needle sizes on the ball band. First, I was aware that seeing a needle size prompted knitters to think of a yarn in ways that might be misleading (“that’s obviously a 4 ply”, for example – when the yarn might not be that at all). Second (and perhaps more importantly) I knew that seeing a black-and-white statement that this yarn should be knitted on a certain needle size made many knitters feel uneasy about the necessity of working with a needle that could be many sizes larger or smaller than recommended to achieve a pattern’s listed gauge. I really wanted knitters to feel more confident and more relaxed about gauge – and achieving such confidence to a certain extent means forgetting about needle size – because needle size is immaterial. So I hatched a plan to dispense with recommended needle sizes altogether in my pattern writing.

At that time, I was developing a collection of accessories and I thought that rather than starting the pattern with my usual:
“Cast on with 3.25mm / US3 needle” I would instead say:
“Cast on with gauge-size needle,” re-emphasising the fact that gauge, rather than the dimensions of the needle, was the only thing of importance.

This was a decision with which, it has to be said, my technical editor was not at all happy. We began to release the patterns as part of our weekly club, and it turned out knitters weren’t happy with it either:
“Can’t you just give us an idea which needle size was used?”
For a short time I brazened it out:
“just swatch, and find which needle gives you gauge” – but the clamour grew ever louder. Knitters really wanted to see a recommended needle size, and so I was encouraged – and felt compelled – to provide it. My compromise was that my patterns would list the size of needle with which each sample was knitted with a clear disclaimer that this was provided for information only, and was in no sense a substitute for careful swatching.

Describing needles as “gauge-size” and including a needle size “for information only” has been our practice going forward. We receive a small number of queries about our somewhat unusual nomenclature: “what on earth does gauge-size mean?” But it only takes a moment to explain that “whatever needle gives you the gauge specified in the pattern is your gauge-size needle,” and frankly I would rather we dealt with such queries than those of the “it doesn’t fit” variety. In the three years since our introduction of the “gauge-size” wording, I would say we’ve had far less “it doesn’t fit, and no I didn’t swatch” enquiries than previously. It’s difficult to say if that’s because we’ve shifted the emphasis from needle size to gauge, and continually reiterated the importance of swatching, but whatever the reason, it is good to see.

And yet, I was prompted to think again about my compromise of including a “recommended needle size” in our patterns when putting together our Milarrochy Heids collection. All of the hats in this collection were knitted in the same yarn – Milarrochy Tweed – but the samples and patterns were created by thirteen different designers. I knew that gauge can vary very widely, but I was still surprised to discover how differently our designers knitted. Some were clearly super-tight and others obviously super-loose knitters. In one example, using the same needle size, across a 4 inch swatch, there was a seven-stitch difference in the gauge achieved by two different designers. This created something of an editorial conundrum for us. The patterns were all knitted in the same yarn. Did we effectively introduce a technical inconsistency into the collection (and also potentially confuse knitters) by suggesting, in one pattern, that they knit with a 3mm needle to achieve a gauge of 23 stitches per 4 inches, and then, in the next pattern, suggest that they knit with a 3mm needle to achieve a gauge of 30 stitches per 4 inches, using exactly the same yarn? Or did we (my preferred option) dispense with recommending needle sizes altogether, simply list the required gauge, and instruct knitters to swatch to achieve the right fabric on their “gauge-size” needle?

Once again, I was counselled against dispensing with listing a recommended needle size (not least by some of the designers). So I looked at other edited collections of patterns produced by different designers that used exactly the same yarn. There were different approaches to this issue, but reading between the editorial lines, it was obvious that the most common solution was to list what was effectively an ‘average’ recommended needle size for any given gauge. This meant that if the numbers of stitches per 4 inches differed significantly, so did the recommended needle size. So we decided to try this approach for Milarrochy Heids. Looking across the patterns, and the range of needle sizes used, it was fairly easy for my editorial team and me to develop a sense of what an ‘average’ gauge might be on a 3mm, a 3.25mm, a 3.5mm needle and so on. If we associated each gauge with the average needle size used to achieve it, we’d avoid introducing a potentially confusing technical inconsistency, on the one hand, and, on the other, avoid the wrath of knitters upon opening a book completely devoid of recommended needle sizes (the horror!)

So listing what was effectively “average” needle size for information only was our compromise with each pattern for Milarrochy Heids. Yet, throughout the editorial process I’ve remained unhappy with this compromise. I knew that the designers might feel freaked out (or irritated) that their pattern’s ‘recommended needle size’ was not, in fact, the one with which they knitted. I also knew that there was the inevitable likelihood of some knitters simply glancing at the recommended needle size rather than the gauge and casting on – ignoring my strongly worded, and continually reiterated, instructions to swatch.

So in the book I included the following clear statement:

“Though all knitted in Milarrochy Tweed, these hats are as different as their designers, and are worked at different gauges. Gauge is crucial to the fabric the designer wishes to achieve as well as the fit of the finished hat. So it’s important to swatch and, if your gauge does not match that which is specified in the pattern, to swatch again, going up or down a needle size where relevant. Whichever needle gives you the specified gauge is your “gauge-size needle.” You’ll usually select the size immediately below for your “below gauge-size” needle, unless differently instructed. Don’t rely on your instincts (“I always knit with this yarn on an xx needle”) and please don’t simply start knitting with the needle upon which gauge was achieved in the sample (which is included in the pattern for reference only, and a starting point for swatching).”

Anyway. All of this is the context of just one of the many behind-the-scenes decisions and compromises that I have to make in consultation with my editorial team when developing a collection. I describe it here because – only a week after publishing Milarrochy Heids – we have become aware that knitters are not swatching or checking gauge before casting on their hats and are simply casting on with the ‘recommended’ needle size . . . with the inevitable result of a finished hat which does not fit as well as it should.

So may I once again reiterate the key – and really the only point – that ever needs to be made regarding gauge: the needle size with which you knit is completely immaterial. The only thing that matters is that you achieve the gauge listed in the pattern, and the only way to do that is to SWATCH.

Here endeth the lesson.

Perhaps one day I will feel brave enough to stop listing needle sizes altogether. Who knows?

97 thoughts on “needle size is immaterial

  1. I do swatch. I’m a loose knitter and need to downsize my needles. However, I find as someone else did, that my row gauge doesn’t change just because I’ve downsized the needles. This is very problematic when a pattern tells you to knit x amount of rows to armhole, or your gauge doesn’t allow you enough rows to shape the armhole properly. What do you do then?

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  2. Firstly let me say I love this post! So well written and on point.
    Secondly – can I ask where to get the pattern for the hat in the top photo (with the wavy short row bands of color)? I’ve searched your Ravelry hat patterns and don’t find it there. Thanks!!

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  3. I am not sure I could ever not give knitters a suggested needle size in my patterns. Gauge is the most important but I wonder if knitters would flounder if they didn’t have some direction. I think you would be very brave if you ever stopped giving a suggested needle size. My two cents worth :)

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  4. Wonderful to read the variety of comments generated by this post, Kate. I agree that swatches can be mischievous (and sometimes downright malicious!) and do take on lives of their own.
    I have noticed recently that I trust my own instincts when matching a yarn to a needle size, but this has come about only after many years learning the craft. However, even after decades of knitting, I still like seeing a recommended needle size, it acts as an orienteering marker to help set my course for a new project.
    I wonder if I could recommend a line for patterns, something that reads:
    “Sample shown knit on 3,25mm”
    No harm in providing a marker to show what size of needle was used by the knitter to make a photographed item.
    I am a Swatcher. Swatching is just more knitting and knitting is good for the soul.

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  5. Brava!!!! The only time I get the gauge with the recommended needle is on Arans – or a mix of knits/purls. Otherwise I always drop two sizes from the recommended needle size for my first swatch. I am a spinner so I am especially careful with my knitting because there is no going back to the store to get another skein!

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  6. I felt that you must have been reading my questions on the Scatness Tunic group! I have trouble with gauge and by the time I went down several needle sizes I felt that I must “be in the wrong” (absurd at my age -68). However I have a question which I haven’t seen answered here which is how is it that my row gauge stayed the same and tighter than my stitch gauge even when I went down from 3 mm to 2mm. And thanks for the post which will help me to have the confidence to go as many needle sizes down as necessary.

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  7. I love this explanation, thank you! I’ve never really had conformist gauge compared to what’s suggested in many patterns and also have WILDLY different gauge depending on needle type so I’ve learned this lesson through practical application. I’m always tempted to rush swatching, then remember the first cardigan I ever knit for myself, draped gracefully over my (one dress size bigger) mom’s office chair for ever and ever!

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  8. Many years ago I went to a talk that Kaffe Fasset gave about his knitting and design work – sometime before he became really well known. During his introduction he asked for knitters in the audience to raise a hand. He handed out balls of double knitting yarn and knitting needles of a similar size to the knitters. He then asked us to cast on xx stitches – I cannot now remember how many, let’s say 40 – and to knit a similar number of rows. He carried on with his talk – I was transported. At the end he passed around tape measures. First of all he told us to fold our ‘squares’ to see if indeed we did have a square and then he told us what our ‘squares’ should measure. His, of course, was the required size. For many of the rest of us it was not the case. A dramatic and clever way to demonstrate that we all knit to different tensions or gauges.

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  9. Great article. I work in Wool, bath and spend my days telling people that they must always do a swatch. The amount of people who react as if I have asked them to dance naked around a lamp post never fails to amaze me. I then go on to give them my lecture about ‘the needle size is irrelevant’. I also point out that row gauge is not as important as stitch width. I am a designer and always do a swatch, everytime I make a garment, as each wool may vary slightly. Also the different needle types, i.e. metal, bamboo etc can alter the gauge as well. Let’s hope you have made a difference for some knitters.

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  10. Maybe a key is to present the variation, make it visible to challenge notions of the imagined monolithic knitter–“project gauge is xyz (average recommended needle size x; designer/sample knitter achieved gauge with needle size y)”

    This makes me want to run a little statistical study; it would make a compelling knitterly pamphlet.

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  11. May I print this article in our guild newsletter. We are small (about 85 members) but I try to put out an informative newsletter with articles like yours. I will give you credit and link to your website. Also link to Ravelry patterns too if you like.
    Thank you, Cindy Moore

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  12. I can’t agree with you more about gauge size but have to say that that needle size you give makes for a great starting point. I would hate to have to blindly search out the needle size for gauge. I know that I am usually two sizes smaller than what is published so I have a starting point, I do my swatch and nine times out of 10 I get gauge. IfI had to start just blindly seeking that would be frustrating. Perhaps you could start every pattern with a statement such as “if you choose not to swatch you go forth at your own peril”.

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  13. I laughed out loud reading this……maybe that was rude of me but loved the explanations…….sort of like splitting atoms as a friend once said. I knit Deco with my fine handspun and Love the result……can’t even remember what I used for needle size but I too never get row gauge and I just knit on anyway until I have the inches/cms I need. I read every post and they are interesting! My book should arrive any day now……….

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  14. I knit most Saturday afternoons with a small drop-in group of Italian women in a tiny merceria (a shop which sells not only yarn and notions, but also undergarments and socks) in Rome’s city center. With one exception, I have never, ever heard the other ladies refer to pattern gauge; it’s always needle size — either the one listed on the yarn label, or one picked out of the air. It’s a cultural difference that I, an American, find rather baffling. Years ago, I discovered that I should automatically subtract two (US) numbers from a suggested needle size when setting out to knit a gauge swatch. This nearly always works for me; when I progressed to finer yarns, I had to accept that I’d be knitting with very slender sticks.

    Much to my delight (and I hope yours, too, Kate), one member of this group of delightful women had already discovered you before I shared one of your pattern books, and later some of your yarn, with everyone. Susanna and I have remarkably similar taste, and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that she’d been drawn to your work. She’s working on Coinneach at the moment. And, yes, she’s the exception to the rule.

    Susan, l’amica di Susanna

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  15. EZ is smiling down on you right now! I am laughing a bit as I NEVER EVER GET THE NEEDLE SIZE GIVEN FOR THE GAUGE! Thus giving a needles size doesn’t work for me anyways. I say stick to your knitting needles and make people think a bit! Knit On!

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  16. Interesting. I never pay any attention to needle size in a pattern. I always look for the gauge number. This must be Elizabeth Zimmermann’s influence on me too!
    I use the “ball band” numbers as a starting point and swatch for gauge. But I’m no saint, I’ve used previous item’s gauge info and assumed I would get that gauge again and that’s bitten me on the rear on occasion!

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  17. As a “strict rule follower”, this article gave me the permission, so to speak, to alleviate the guilt I feel when I can’t arrive at the correct gauge with the recommended needles. I was always of the attitude that these were etched in stone rules as opposed to guidelines or just a statement of fact from the test knitter and or designer. I always felt there was something wrong or lacking in my knitting abilities.
    So, if the experts experience a range of results, why would I, a lowly amateur, expect perfect results. Thank You!

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    1. This rings so true with me Crys. I always felt that having to go up and n average two needle sizes meant there was something wrong in the way I knit. I dislike swatching but after an expensive mistake I start with the sleeves and use this to check my gauge. Thanks Kate for an interesting post

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  18. One reason that I personally like a suggested needle size is because I’m a knitter on a budget. I don’t have a huge collection of needles or a full set of interchangeables, so I tend to work with what I’ve already got, and with whatever yarn I can get for cheap. If I have an idea of what the gauge needle *might* be, it can help me assess whether or not I already have the tools for a project and whether the yarn I have will work with the pattern. Needles might not be hugely expensive to most, but buying new needles as well as a pattern can make a project unaffordable for me.

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  19. I can’t say how much I enjoyed this — for some reason, I couldn’t find the comments yesterday when I read it, as I wanted to shout for joy when I first finished it!
    I occasionally help out in my LYS and also teach classes there, and I’m often surprised by the conversations that happen around needle and gauge. I’ve encountered experience and life long knitters who still take the suggested needle as gospel — and how difficult it is sometimes to express what you’ve said here. I think it should be framed and hung up in every yarn shop :D Thank you for writing so well on it — I’ll refer people to this post in the future! And it’s been a good reminder for me as well .. sometimes I feel frustrated that I am such a loose knitter, and usually have to drop down several needle sizes — but really, who cares as long as I get gauge!

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  20. When I first started knitting I needed the needle size as a starting point, because I didn’t know, also I did not have a large selection of needles to choose from and needed to buy the one that would most likely work with the pattern, especially when my LYS has a no returns policy on needles. And having to wait for the next opportunity to buy the next trial set of needles is an agony.
    Now, of course, I have a large range of needles to choose from so it’s not so much of an issue, but for beginners trying out a small project like mitts or a hat, it might be necessary to always list a recommended needle size.
    Even if *needle size is irrelevant” (say again?)

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  21. Does anyone else do the trick of folding a new-to-me yarn to make a double thickness loop and then seeing what hole in a needle gauge it fits through?

    Perhaps it’s because I am a handspinner but I use this trick all the time to decide where to begin swatching with an unfamiliar commercial yarn or some of my handspun. This is only an approximation of course. All yarns have their own density and character depending on what fibres they are made from and how they were spun. Different patterns are designed at totally different gauges to get a certain kind of fabric. And then of course every knitter holds their yarn and knits differently.

    The amount of experience and knowledge behind understanding gauge and fabric is quite subtle but substantial. Instead of knitters just mechanically following a set of instructions it is really important to talk about things like this so that general knowledge expands, especially for beginner knitters. This experience takes time and thought and probably plenty of mistakes to develop but with that comes confidence that you can make it work! Perhaps this is difficult for many of us because, especially in today’s culture, we would prefer if things just worked out right away? Or it depends on how we learned to knit? (And I definitely agree with the earlier comment that, for whatever reason, often we just want to be told what to do, even if that will not work out well for us.

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      1. Sure! Do you have a needle gauge with the holes of various sizes? If you take the yarn and fold it over to make a loop that very roughly is the size of a knit stitch. Then you can take that loop and see which of the holes in your needle gauge it fits through snugly. You shouldn’t have to force it but if it fits the hole nicely without a lot of space left over it can be a good needle size to start swatching with.

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  22. I agree that you really need to offer a starting point. I have a number of favourite designers and, although I still swatch, I feel more comfortable and confident with a suggested needle and (over time) knowing where my gauge normally relates to their gauge. Then changes are small and manageable. Offering no needle size at all presents the spectre of half a dozen swatches and you haven’t even started yet…which puts it all into the too difficult box.

    However, I do feel your pain of having lead herds of willing horses to water only to find they won’t drink ❤️

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  23. I’m not much of a commenter, so this is quite likely my first ever comment here.

    I think this whole issue exemplifies a wider tendency that I’ve often noticed; most of the time, most of us want to be told what to do.

    Whether that be because we lack experience in an area, simply don’t trust ourselves to make good decisions, or just want our leisure time to be devoid of responsibility and the pressure of choices or the consequences of a not so great choice, or whatever, is obviously dependent on the individual.

    I’m not raising this as a criticism – just an observation. I have certainly fallen into that pool of people myself at times, though when it comes to knitting I am a happy swatcher who is fine with knitting two or three swatches to ensure I get my tension right – and it’s a rare pattern that has me using the suggested needle size!

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  24. I think that if a knitter has an idea of a starting
    Point for gauge then that is a good thing! For an inexperienced knitter who is unfamiliar with gauge and needle sizes, they do need a starting point. What Kate says about people skipping swatch making is quite accurate. I certainly have cheated when making small things like baby hats and I have paid the price! The hardest thing for me is matching the vertical gauge!
    Margaret

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  25. Great article Kate, I struggle with needle size and gauge. My knit is tight and pearl loose so I
    prefer to knot in the round. This way I get a
    better tension however I’ve discovered
    “Portuguese knitting “ which seems to give me an even tension. Now for tha gauge .. I recently decided to check my needles on a “Needle
    gauge tool” , I have two off these and
    The needles had a different measurement
    on each gauge. 😳😳😳 A gauge swatch is the only way

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  26. I stopped swatching years ago because my swatches are big fat liars. The gauge on my swatch is never the same as on the finished item. I took Ysolda’s course where she gave useful tips to do the swatching as efficiently as possible, but…nope! My swatches still misbehave. The reason is that when I swatch I really concentrate on what I’m doing. But when I knit, I really just knit.

    So, these days I already know what needle size I need for different yarns and stitch counts. I know that when I knit one of the hats in the Milarrochy Heids book the mailman brought yesterday (Thank you, I love the book!!! I took some time again to drink coffee and just admire the pretty pictures. It’s a special occasion when your books arrive <3), I know that my needle size for 126 or 128 stitches is 2,5 mm. Because after all the trickster swatches I've encountered I've learned what needle size I really need. And it works that way too! So swatching has become rather pointless, I remember the needle sizes for different stitch counts and yarns.

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      1. I swatch or do a wee start to the pattern and have a measure happy to frog and go up or down if needed depending on the pattern size. A swatch allows me to feel I am in the right ball park, go ahead start and after a wee bit check it is behaving according to plan still as the item is usually a larger one for that scenario. If it is the smaller one, I can start off, have a wee knit and check and either frog and change or smile and keep knitting.
        You should always be happy to rippit for a better fabric.

        Also there is the not quite what I’m looking for fabric thing. Yup got gauge, but oh dear! Time to play some to get the fabric I like, then do a bit of maths to rework the new pattern set up for that fabric. This can work well if you find you have two needles only a size apart which don’t give gauge but the one which would is non-existant. Which needle gave you the best fabric? Do the wee bit of Maths and know you have something just right for you.

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  27. Having fought with gauge my entire knitting life, always frustrated that I could never get anywhere near gauge with the recommended needle, this is the best lesson I have ever received. Thank you!!

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  28. I worked in a yarn store for five years and I absolutely HATED when people came in to complain because their item turned out too big or too small when they didn’t swatch. However, customers were even more disgruntled when no needle size was listed. We always tried to encourage people to get to know themselves as knitters. Are you generally a loose knitter? Tight knitter? On gauge? We had a needle return policy, so that if you went home and swatched and the needle wasn’t right, you could exchange it for the size you needed. But without the recommended needle size, it is very hard to sell patterns. It is a good place to start, as long as you understand that it is merely an educated guess. Thanks for struggling through the existential parts of knitting so that they rest of us can enjoy what you come up with!

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  29. I worked at an LYS which allowed customers to swatch in the shop when the purchased the yarn. This allowed us to check the gaug d on the door and show them how to do it. Of course that swatch wasn’t blocked, but it was better than not at all. You might be surprised how many people measure optimistically rather than accurately.

    Many knitters, especially younger ones, lack a full complement of sizes, and lengths. Sometimes it is a choice between buying a needle, or buying the yarn. Lacking enough sizes to swatch correctly leads them to use what they have and try to “make it work”. Over time that changes, but we keep the craft alive by cultivating the young new knitters, and budget is a huge factor. But if I were writing the pattern, I would probably write, in dark bold type ” It Is Imperitive That You Swatch”. No other verbiage as it confuses the newcomer, and the experienced knitted doesn’t need to be told.

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  30. Hi Kate,
    Do you also recommend that we wet block our swatches for gauge accuracy or does it very seldom matter whether a swatch has been wet blocked on not? Thanks! Lisa

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  31. Thank you for your article. I completely empathize with your situation. I teach a props and design class where we use everything from fabrics, glues, paints, makeups, prosthetics etc., all manipulated with various tools; sewing machines, airbrushes, glue guns, heat guns, brushes or sponges. Every artist has a different hand! Perception and physical application can vary a project slightly to significantly. I understanding swatching for knitting , and to emphasize your theory of the article you have presented, I will ask my kids to “SWATCH” everything first;. “See What A Trial-run Can Heed”! Trending: SWATCH it! Good luck with your pursuit of educating your clientele and thank you for writing this piece!

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  32. FWIW, I tend to think of hats as small enough that they are my gauge swatch (ditto mitts and socks). With that said, I’m also willing to rip out the first few inches of a hat if it turns out that I’m not getting gauge. In other words, I might try the needle size that the designer knit with to start, but I wouldn’t be upset if it wasn’t the right size for me, nor would I finish the hat if I wasn’t getting gauge. So, I like your system as it is – it gives me a sense of where you and/or the designer was starting (so I have a place to start – otherwise, it can be really hard to know around what needle size to get going with when I swatch), without telling me that that’s the needle size that’s going to work for me!

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      1. Or a cowl. A cowl is a useful swatch, especially for colourwork. The ladies over at Tin Can Knits (my other favourite knitting blog!) suggest making a hat or cowl as a swatch when testing out colours/patterns when designing a colourwork jumper, as you then get something useful out of the swatching process.

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  33. Well this is a rabbit hole! Thanks for the behind the scenes look and the reminder that needle size is immaterial. Most of us, over time, develop an awareness of whether we knit tightly or loosely; it averages out. One of my best knitting teachers advised me to recheck gauge every few inches. Like so much else it comes down to what works for you. If you really want a good fit then it behooves one to be diligent about gauge. If what you love is the act of relaxed knitting, your work will fit someone and be appreciated!

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  34. Like many of the commenters here, I really appreciate having a ‘suggested’ needle. I substitute yarns frequently, for reasons of practicality, availability, and style, and between ball-band information and the suggested needle size, I can usually get a gauge with one or two swatches. Left up to my own devices, I seem to be hopeless at estimating: more than once I’ve ogne through four+ swatches and then let the project fall to the bottom of the WIP list out of annoyance. Do I ever knit recklessly, without a swatch? I’ll never tell…

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  35. Great post and conversation!!

    I frequently want to use my handspun yarns in Kate’s patterns – and it doesn’t come standard at all. So gauge is really important to me. My swatches are initially small and casual but if I’m doing a sweater, I might start with a sleeve first.
    Thanks so much, Kate!

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  36. This might be a silly question, but can the swatch wool once it’s blocked be re-knit? e.g. Buachille and Milarrochy.
    I think Kate’s recommended yarn quantity for her patterns includes 5% extra for swatching.

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  37. this is a friendly remarkts from a supporter of mentioning needlesize.
    i am belgian, and in the dutch language there are no words for fingering, DK, sport, worsted, etc, we named yarn by needle size. you buy yarn for needlesize 3-3.5mm, or for 4-4.5mm, etc. that is how i grew up with yarn and i had never heard of stitchgage before i discovered ravelry and the international knitting world. of course we calculated but always on the whole width of the piece (we all knitted in pieces). we knitted 5 cm, looked if it was alright, and if necessary started again.
    the big difference with the younger knitters is that i lived in a community of knitters, i learned to knit from experenced knitters, people who could guess how many stitches were needed or wanted.
    if i browse through ravelry, books or magazines for something new to knit, what you suggest is that i don’t pay any attention to the needlesize but the stitchgage. this means that i can imagine what it means 24, 18 or 15 stitches/10 cm, that i know in this way what kind of yarn from my stash i can use. to me (being dutch-speaking) this sounds like la translation from centimeters to inches.
    what i want to say : to me, there is a rough calculation and a finer calculation : do i want to knit something in fine, middle or thick yarn and there is a mention of needlesize very convenient to me, you see immediately in what category the pattern is. and then there is of couse the finer calculation: i swatch – in my case, i start with a sleeve, see what it gives and my first question is : do i like the fabric – not do i get the right gage – and secondly : will it fit? – if necessary, i adapt, change needlesize or change the amount of stitches.
    this is just how i feel it – this is not saying how the international knitting world should think.
    don’t worry, i will stay a fan of work!

    Liked by 1 person

  38. A really interesting article. I had no idea that there was so much variance between experienced knitters. I often find my stitch numbers are fine on the recommended needle but my rows not quite the same I must admit that I too would baulk at patterns that don’t give a suggested needle to start swatching on but I wonder if the tendency not to Swatch for accessories is as simple as yarn wastage considerations? Trying several swatches when few balls are purchased for a project may result in having to buy more yarn.

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  39. I’m one of those who would be frustrated without the needle size listed, because I only use it as a jumping off point to choose my own needle size. There are, of course, yarns I’ve worked with so often that I can look at the listed gauge and instantly know which needle I’m going to use, but if I’m using a new to me yarn or a different than usual stitch I still need to swatch, and a starting point keeps me from knitting endless swatches.

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  40. Interesting! And I agree everyone knits a different gauge and you have to knit to the gauge of the designer. but what happens if you dislike knitting swatches and just want to start knitting! This may sound silly, I start to knit the pattern as it says or what I think is right and knit about 4ins. I then measure the number of stitches, if it’s right I carry on and I have lost nothing. If you have knitted 4ins you have a good idea if it looks right and if not I would undo it anyway. So I guess its a large swatch! I must say that it’s more difficult to decide if a hat is going to fit until its finished if you have used the wrong gauge needles. Experience helps, so keep knitting lots and enjoy all the processes and I know I should knit more swatches. Thank you for the great blog.

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  41. This is the best explanation of why gauge matters that I’ve ever read. I appreciate your inclusion of “gauge was achieved with” in your patterns — but now realize that it is irrelevant. One problem: if recommended needle size is omitted entirely, how would pattern designers address the problem of knitters who may not own many needles, and not be able to afford to buy several needles for a project, to test/achieve gauge? Quality needles can be half the price of a skein of quality yarn.

    Btw, I’ve always wondered why yarn shops don’t rent needles (with a credit card as collateral) or why there isn’t a needle-exchange program in shops or among knitting groups. Sometimes I change needle type after swatching, not just because the needles are the wrong size, but because they are too “fast” or too “slow” for the yarn. Thus I have a lot of needles I’ve barely used. Perhaps if yarn shops made test needles available to customers in shop, customers could swatch right there, till they achieve gauge, then buy the correct needle. Or a customer could check out several needles (like library books) and return them after swatching, purchasing a new “gauge-correct” one.

    In any case, I appreciate the preciseness of your patterns, which always makes them a pleasure to knit. Your posts (both technical and personal) are instructive and insightful. Thank you! Off to swatch ‘Firth o’Forth’ now….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some shops will let you swatch or try needles in their store, especially if you’re at a knit night-type event. It depends on the shop, but I’ve been in the vicinity when it happens.

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  42. Thanks for the explanation Kate and I feel your frustration that someone would start a project without swatching. Why would you invest so much time and effort in making a project without checking gauge is beyond me!

    I agree with you that it’s gauge, not needle size, that is the key to success. However, suggesting a needle size as a starting point for the yarn used in the pattern helps people determine which needle size to start swatching with. Having said that, if I’m using a completely different yarn from that used in the pattern then I’d pay more attention to the ball band.

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  43. While I understood that it’s the needles I use to get gauge that matters, I hadn’t thought about the dilemma of representing that in a pattern – interesting! It does require some meta-thinking about knitting on the part of the knitter, probably more representative of a knitter who has read and thought about knitting and therefore mastery oriented in their practice – a challenge when hare writing instructions for all knitters who are drawn to your designs.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on the relationship between row and stitch gauges. I can’t find anything that would help me understand how to manage my row gauge. I can get stitch gauge by adjusting needle sizes but the related row gauge never matches, it’s always higher i.e. more rows. I am guessing my knitting style produces shorter stitch heights. I work around it but would love to do a colour work yoke but not sure how I would manage the row gauge!

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  44. Not giving a starting point is fine for experienced knitters who have some idea of the range of needle sizes and where one might start to get a certain tension but not so good for beginners who may struggle to know where to start. And even as an experienced knitters (15 years plus) I still struggle looking at a swatch and knowing if I need to go up or down needle sizes; something about that bit of maths confuses my brain. But at least an indication of needle size on a Kate Davies pattern tells me where to start with going down two needle sizes to see if that gives me gague (I love love love your patterns, have knitted many of them, am making my second Deco because I have worn the first one out so please please please don’t think this is a criticism)!!

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    1. I definitely prefer a needle size starting point, and generally have a good idea of where my “gauge-size needle” gets me compared to different designers: Kate Davies & Norah Gaughen== start at least 2 needle sizes down from recommended, Carol Feller == start 1 needle size down from recommended, etc. That said, for accessories I always just start in with what I think will work and measure frequently to see how things are coming along, especially when there are patterned stitches that really change from stockinette. It’s frustrating ripping out two inches of a hat, but I’ve never managed to knit a gauge swatch that accurately represented the gauge I got once I was truly knitting the hat anyway and often ended up redoing that hat in addition to having started with a gauge swatch.

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    2. I think this hits the nail on the head. I know I generally have to go down a couple of sizes from the recommended needle size (hence swatching) but I do need that starting point. It’s the difference between cooking with or without a recipe for a beginning cook. Both will result in a meal, but one will take a lot more trial and error. Not providing a starting point for experimentation needlessly complicates things for all but advanced knitters. It’s not a substitute for swatching, but it is a supplement

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  45. Thanks for the lecture, Kate! I always swatch. I’ve felt nerdy about it in the past, but it is always informative. And I like the ‘gauge-size’ concept. It works for me. As someone with a tight natural tension, advice on needle size in a pattern needs a reality check.

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  46. I love your blog! Here in the US at least, knitters seem to want more and more details specified in patterns which then become long and wordy. Assuming the knitter knows everything isn’t great either and as a sometime designer, I don’t have an answer for finding the happy medium. I always find your patterns very well written and easy to follow. When I teach I try to foster individual creativity and resourcefulness instead of giving minute instructions to my students. It’s hard! But I agree, focusing on creating the fabric you want is so important. Getting gauge to insure results match the pattern/image/item is important, but how you get it is not important. Thank you for encouraging knitters to think for themselves!

    Liked by 1 person

  47. I agree, I don’t think listing a needle size is helpful, just gauge, and perhaps a yarn weight bracket as a starting point. Although I confess, I rarely swatch for small items, just make an educated guess and measure gauge as I go, ripping back and reknitting as necessary.

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  48. Wonderful post… thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. While I know the leap might be hard, if you stopped putting needle sizes, perhaps you’d open the door for the rest of us to follow suit. You are such a trendsetter in the field… The fact remains that If you have a needle size listed, the yarn shops will still sell the customer that size needle so it seems the problem can’t be resolved until we stop publishing needle sizes. Thank you!

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  49. I certainly understand the logic that, using the same yarn and achieving the same gauge, we may pretend that everyone used the same size needles but I was a bit bemused that this was held to be true over different knitting techniques eg stockingette, stranded, and double knitting. I would expect to need different needles to “get gauge” over those techniques.

    I first encountered patterns with gauge only about six years with Hunter Hamersen’s patterns and whilst I understand that gauge is improtant and needle size is not, much as the fit of clothing matters and the number on the label does not, in both cases a number serves as a place to start one’s efforts.

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  50. Thanks for this Kate – it’s an excellent lesson on a topic for a knitter, like myself, who can be somewhat casual about swatching. I am fairly good on swatching for garments, but lazy when it comes to small items like hats. I wish I had swatched before I knit my Peerie Flooers hat a few years ago: it’s beautiful and much too large for my head!

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  51. I agree completely that needle size is irrelevant, but I appreciate having a starting needle size. As I said on IG, I think I’d a hat as practically a swatch itself, and if it doesn’t come out right, I wouldn’t blame the designer.

    That said, I am a complete whiney baby when it comes to making swatches. I am trying to get over it. I want to knit every hat in this book, so I should just to one big mondo-swatch with all the techniques, just to get it out of the way 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  52. I have a couple of excellent examples where I knit two hand-warmers with the exact same yarn and needles, and the two came out drastically different sizes. I apparently vary my gauge from day to day. That’s the worst. :(

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    1. Yup, I just knit a sweater with sleeves two inches different in length. One sleeve knit on a day off in front of the television, the other knit over a few commutes back and forth to work. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which sleeve was longer. In the meantime, I’m considering looking into “two at a time” techniques.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Very funny (not) which is why I ALWAYS knit 2 at a time…sleeves esp. Mittens? Dog walking mittens? haha I have a pair that look like 2 different people own them! LOL

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  53. I agree with you that it’s gauge, not needle size, that it’s, but giving an average needle size will help people determine which needle size to start swatching with.
    Also, for me, just starting the hat and measuring my gauge after a couple of inches (with the intention of completely ripping it out if I’m way off) makes more sense than swatching – because I like to knit hats in the round on a 16″ circular needle. This only really applies to small things knitted in the round though.

    Liked by 2 people

  54. I understand & agree with you mostly. I’ve always felt like I wanted to see the needle size to have some idea of a starting point for my swatching. But after reading this and thinking on it further maybe a compromise would be to state something about the gauge achieved was done by deliberately knitting this yarn to a (looser/tighter whatever descriptive word) gauge than is listed on the ball band. If substituting yarn look for a yarn that meets the meters per gram rather than the stitch gauge of this pattern. Or something to that effect. If I knew that a DK wt yarn had been deliberately knit more drapey and I know I already need to go up a needle size to get “average” gauge for this DK yarn then I would know to start swatching at least 2 or 3 needle sizes up from the ball band. Not every knitter is going to have the budget (or time if it is a gift) for unlimited swatching if there is no guidance at all on where to start swatching and this isn’t a typical yarn/project for them. But I totally agree that finding some way to leave the needle size off of patterns while at the same time giving a way to work out where to start swatching would be a very good thing. Because you are right too many of us just take that needle size & go with it (or adjust up or down if we know we are loose/tight knitters) which would be ok if we were all willing to check gauge and frog once started. It still blows my mind that people complain about fit when they haven’t followed the instructions on gauge.

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  55. I think golf clubs and knitting needles have something in common. A certain club might be recommended for a certain distance, but the golfer ultimately decides which to use. I think needles are the same. I like to know where I might start in achieving that gauge swatch, but I ultimately know I’ll need to make adjustments. With regard to gauge, I once read an article written by a very well known designer that stated she never does a gauge swatch. She uses a sleeve or a small item as the swatch with the idea she’ll rip out if she doesn’t hit gauge. That does not appeal to me, but I see where someone adverse to swatching might find this idea attractive and then forget to check gauge!

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  56. This article really made me feel better about a pattern I am currently knitting that most people were knitting with size 6 needles (the pattern quite specifically states that although 5s were used, others would most likely need to go up a size or two) – I went up four sizes, but I got gauge and I love the fabric I’m getting!

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  57. Gauge is crucial!!! I rarely hit gauge with pattern needle size specs.
    Question for Kate:
    For all KDD patterns, is gauge wet blocked, steam iron blocked or unblocked???
    I didn’t see any discussion of that in this post (sorry if I missed it)

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  58. When I recently started knitting a Traigh, I ended up choosing to knit it with a sze 4mm. While swatching I had tried a size 4 1/2mm, but I didn’t like the resulting fabric. I knew there was a chance I might need additional yarn, and indeed that is what happened. Later I was puzzled when I noticed that ‘the gauge achieved’ for Traigh was 14 sts and 34 rows, while the ‘gauge achieved’ for St. Catherines was 24 sts and 40 rows. Both gauges were achieved using a 3.75 mm needle, but presumably by different knitters?

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    1. The key difference here is that both are knitted in garter stitch – but blocked completely differently. While Traigh is stretched very vigorously so that the garter stitch fabric opens up and drapes, St Catherines retains a much more closed fabric. It’s all in the blocking!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the explanation. I haven’t yet finished my Traigh and will be curious to see the look and size of the finished piece. For some reason I feel squemish about blocking anything vigorously.

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  59. So true! Check your gauge, always! Needle size is irrelevant so long as you get the correct fabric/gauge. Your knitted items will always look great and fit properly.
    Well said!
    By the way, I absolutely love ever so many of your patterns ♥️

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    1. I perfectly understand the need for correct gauge and know that I must never rely on the needle size shown in a pattern or ball band. I do however remember the occasion when you published patterns with no mention of needle size and using the words ‘cast on with gauge size needle’. This was the first time I had subscribed to one of your clubs and I had never used Buachaille. I must admit I was lost. I had no idea what size needle to start with and I had fears of producing countless swatches and never finding gauge. So I didn’t knit anything. So please continue to at least indicate a starting point/average needle size. I promise I will swatch and will never complain that an item doesn’t fit!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree: a starting point is really useful, and that after that it’s up to us! The other thing I’m always a bit confused about, is whether the number of balls/skeins required allows for swatching, or whether I have to purchase a little extra…? Some yarns don’t take too kindly to being “unknitted” and re-knitted if used to swatch.

        Liked by 1 person

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