The secret to a truly great-fitting sweater

The secret to a truly great-fitting sweater

Hopefully those of you participating in the #fringeandfriendsknitalong are knitting away at whatever pace suits your lifestyle and heart rate. Remember we’re not knitting to any particular schedule, but we will be continuing to post content here at what is likely a faster clip than most of us knit — that way the information is here when you need it, whether that’s next Thursday or next year. Last week we talked about the body and next week we’ll talk about the sleeves, but meanwhile let’s talk about row gauge! That under-discussed topic.

In knitting and measuring swatches (in the event that even happens), people tend to focus on stitch gauge. Of course, stitch gauge is what will determine the width of your fabric — or more specifically for our purposes, the circumference of your sweater. And when we talk about fit, we tend to talk about circumference (our own and our sweater’s). But row gauge determines the length of your fabric; your row gauge is most likely different from pattern gauge; and to be adept at accounting for differences in row gauge is to have a much better chance of your sweater fitting the way you want it to.


Say for a minute you’re knitting a scarf with a stitch-pattern repeat, such as Shackleton (a good Amanda alternative). If your row gauge is shorter (more rows squeezed into each inch) than the pattern gauge, your scarf will be shorter. No big deal, right? Unless you are really, really particular about how long your scarves are. To make up for your more compact row gauge, you could simply knit an extra repeat of the stitch pattern. The same is more or less true for something like the body of Amanda. Since it has no waist shaping, the body is just a big rectangle, same as a scarf. So if your row gauge is different from the pattern gauge (or you simply want your sweater to be longer or shorter than desired), you can simply knit to your desired length, and it really doesn’t matter that it took you a different number of rows to get there.

But where there is shaping involved — as in the sleeve increases and the yoke decreases — a pattern will almost always be written according to rows, not inches. For the sleeve increases, you’ll be told to work an increase row, then repeat that a set number of times, a set number of rows apart. (E.g., “repeat the increase row every 8th row 11 more times.”) If your rows are bigger, it will take you fewer of them to reach the total sleeve length, which means you may need to work your increases closer together in order to fit them all in.

For the yoke decreases, if your row gauge is bigger and you work the prescribed number of rows (alternating decreases along the way), your yoke will be longer than the pattern measurement. Your underarms will hang lower, in other words, and the sleeves you attach to that lower underarm will hang that much longer as a result. Conversely, let’s look at my Amanda in progress. My row gauge is much tighter than the pattern gauge, and Amanda has a pretty shallow yoke to begin with. Because my overall gauge is tighter (more stitches and rows per inch) I’m using the Large numbers knowing my sweater will come out a little smaller than the Medium. Knitted at pattern gauge, the sweater has an armhole depth of just 6.5 inches. If I don’t make changes based on my smaller row gauge, I won’t even be able to get my arms into those armholes. So I’ll need to space out my decrease rows, working them at a slower pace over more rows, in order to wind up with enough yoke depth. (That’s also why I’m knitting with a cable needle on this, because swatching both with and without one showed that my row gauge was even more compact when I knitted without a cable needle. I want all the row depth I can get in this situation, so cable needle it is!)

So it’s super critical to be mindful of discrepancies in row gauge and what implications that might have — as well as knowing how to account for them. If you’re not familiar with how to calculate increases and decreases for yourself, there’s a basic formula in my top-down sweater tutorial. The process is the same whether you’re increasing or decreasing, knitting from the top or the bottom. It’s simple, and it’s one of the most important skills a knitter can have.


But what about the whole issue of row gauge that changes with blocking? Some swatches will be obviously shorter or longer after blocking, but it’s hard to pinpoint how much your sweater might shrink or grow in length. Blocking a swatch is different than blocking an entire sweater, plus some fibers grow tremendously with gravity as you’re wearing the garment. (You’ve no doubt experienced this phenomenon at some point in your life.) Lots of people will advise you to knit a very large swatch and to hang it on a hanger to try to get a better sense of how it might grow. This is less of a concern with wool than with bamboo and some other fibers. Regardless, say your swatch is different in length after blocking. Well, if you want your sleeves to be 18 inches long, for instance, you don’t actually want to knit to 18 inches — you want to knit to whatever length will become 18 inches when blocked. Below is Kate Gagnon Osborn again with a simple but meticulous way to solve for that. Take it away, Kate!

. . . . .

To make sure your sweater body and sleeves come out the correct length, you want to knit to your blocked length, which may differ from your unblocked length. How does this work exactly? First, determine the number of inches your knitting should be, as written in the pattern. For the Amanda sweater back in my size, I am to knit 14.5″ total length, and my personal row gauge — after blocking — is 7 rows per inch.

Calculation A: Ribbing

Multiply your row gauge by the length of ribbing specified in the pattern, in this case 2.75″:

2.75″ ribbing x 7 rows per inch = 19.25, or 19 rows of ribbing.

Calculation B: Body

First, subtract the length of the ribbing from the total length of the body:

14.5″ total length – 2.75″ ribbing = 11.75″ of the body (cable) pattern to be worked.

Now multiply your row gauge by this length. Again, I’m getting 7 rows to the inch:

11.75″ body x 7 rows per inch = 82.25, or 82 rows of body.

Instead of measuring my unblocked sweater back, I will count my rows to determine the correct length. Once I knit the 19 rows of ribbing and 82 rows of the body, I know I will have the correct length back after blocking. If the pattern tells you to end after working a WS or RS row, or end the cable pattern (or lace or colorwork) pattern on a certain row number, you may adjust your final number of rows by a few as needed, and your overall length won’t vary too greatly. Just make sure to match this row number on the front pieces as well.

. . . . .

Thanks, Kate! And here’s a bonus tip for making that easier to keep track of. Remember my Hot Tip about marking your increases/decreases to save having to count? Some people will pin a marker every 10th row when knitting, period, so they can easily tally up their rows. That comes in super handy in a scenario like Kate describes above.

Of course, if you matched row gauge, you have nothing to worry about!


PREVIOUSLY in #fringeandfriendsknitalong: WIP of the Week, week 1

11 thoughts on “The secret to a truly great-fitting sweater

    • Front and back, yes — you should be working to the same length, meaning same number of rows worked. The sleeves will be a different length, so you’ll be in a different place in the chart when you reach the underarms. But the two sleeves should obviously be the same as each other!

  1. Judy’s question is also on my mind: What about the overall pattern?

    My main problem at the moment is that I have the German version of the back – and that is without the drawn pattern with the measurements ;-(
    I would like to ask if somebody would be so helpful and mail me a picture just of the drawn pattern with the length and width. Since I do own the complete description in the book it shouldn’t be a copyright problem, my guess. I would be glad to receive it. No idea, why it is not in the German book.

    If I can’t get hold of the the drawn pattern I will do my math with what we call the 3-sentence:
    x st equals 10 cm/4 inch in the original gauge. I will have to knit a set number of inches.
    y st equals 10 cm/4 inch in my personal gauge. How many stitches do I need for that number in inches?
    Probably the same as described in the post. I found out that this math sounds more awful in words than in actual calculating.

    Thanks in advance and happy knitting!

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