Hot Tip: Count, don’t measure

Hot Tip: Count, don't measure

One of the fundamentals of knitting that it’s taken me the longest to truly absorb and incorporate into my process is that if you really want something to fit correctly in the end, as you’re knitting toward whatever length your project or pattern calls for (e.g. “knit until piece measures 7″ from cast-on edge”) you must count rows rather than measuring lengths. (Advice offered here by Kate Gagnon Osborn three years ago in a larger post about fit.) There are a couple of reasons why:

1) Measuring knitted fabric is an iffy proposition to begin with. A grippy or curved surface, the pressure of your hand, even wishful thinking can all influence it.

2) The fabric might change once it’s been soaked or washed in whatever way — it could grow, shrink, widen, shorten, you name it. If you’re just measuring your raw knitting and not taking into account how it will change in the end, that measurement could backfire on you.

Length is determined by number of rows and how tall each row is (i.e., your row gauge) and only a blocked swatch can tell you that. If your swatch doesn’t change — the row gauge is identical before and after you soak it — then only #1 up there applies. In that case, if you want to knit to the intended length and determine that with a measuring tape, ok.

But if your swatch does change, it’s a different story.

The way to be truly accurate, no matter what, is to calculate how many rows — at your row gauge — are needed to equal the intended length, and knit that many rows. Even if your swatch doesn’t change and you’re knitting two of something (sweater fronts, sleeves, sock cuffs …) counting rows is the way to make sure they match. To make keeping track simpler, try putting a pin in your work at helpful intervals, use the features of the fabric as a guide, or employ this elegant little trick.

The two half-sleeves of my fisherman-in-progress above are identical, except the top one has been soaked and laid out to dry (with no pinning or stretching or manipulation of any kind, so I could find its natural gauge — this is my sleeve swatch), whereas the bottom one is virgin knitting. As you can see, this fabric (heavily textured Arranmore) pulls up a bit when soaked. Therefore, if I were to knit each sleeve to 18″ as told by a measuring tape, and then block my finished pieces, they would turn out too short. I think I’ve counseled before to think of pre- and post-block gauge in percentage terms, or just “keep it in mind,” but the precise answer is counting rows. My row gauge here is 7.3 rows per inch — measured on this blocked fabric over 9″ to be really certain. So if I want my sleeves to be 18″ long from edge to underarm, I need to knit 131 rows from cast-on (which will be longer than 18″ in virgin form but will shrink to that length when blocked). In this case, there’s a cable cross every sixth row, which makes it easy to add them up, and I’ll also make sure both sleeves finish on the same row of the chart to guarantee they’re exact twins.

See also: How to knit and measure a gauge swatch


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35 thoughts on “Hot Tip: Count, don’t measure

  1. I thought the way to make sure two sleeves were identical was to knit them at the same time, on the same needles. Which becomes really interesting when knitting them onto the body of the sweater, in the round… :6

    • Ha! Knitting them at the same time is a great way to make sure they’re identical. Although, if you’re like me, you knit across one and forget to keep going and wind up getting them out of sync! So my habit is to go back and forth between them at key points — like knit a chart repeat or a decrease or a stripe (or whatever) on one, and then the same stretch on the other.

      Of course, regardless, there’s still the matter of knitting the right number of rows to get the intended finished length.

      • I got out of sync when knitting 2 sleeves at the same time so this time I clipped them together at the edges with those plastic bulb pins, so that I’ll be forced to knit across both sleeves before turning my work.

  2. Yes and no. After 60 years of knitting (BTW, I started with a cabled Aran at the age of ten), I’d like to amend this. Count AND measure! Our ‘knit-to-exact-gauge’ skills are also subject to variation in tension, no matter how good we get. You can compare an unblocked and blocked swatch of course. I use the removable marker, too, as suggested, but I promise you, row count methods do NOT always work if you don’t measure too.

  3. Thank you for (implicitly) pointing out the problem with all those top-down sweater patterns that cheerfully say you can try on as you knit: If your gauge changes upon washing, then trying it on doesn’t tell you what you want to know! You just have to grit your teeth and remind yourself that measuring shows the sleeve cap needs to be X rows/inches long even if it looks wrong unblocked. Why do knitting designers persist with this fiction?

    • Mm, I’m guilty of that, but I do make sure to caution people to 1) knit and measure a swatch first, 2) stop and re-check your gauge once you’ve got several inches of sweater, and 3) make sure you’re accounting for whatever growth or shrinkage your swatch might have demonstrated. If you’re using a yarn that changes much with blocking, it can complicate matters, but for me that doesn’t entirely negate the benefits of top-down or trying on.

  4. I always knit both sleeves at the same time. I find it takes a lot less time, because once I knit a row on the first sleeve then the second sleeve is exactly the same pattern, so I don’t need to look at any charts again, and i only need to count rows on one sleeve, because the other is identical. I test knitted how much of a difference in time it makes and it was a substantial amount of hours saved. I forget the exact amount of time, but it worked out to be almost 40% faster for me. So instead of, for example, it took 10 hours to knit two sleeves, it only took 6 hours if I knit them at the same time. Not that rushing the project is intended by this. But saving some hours helps me get things done when my deadlines are typically very tight.
    I always have counted rows. I tried to measure the first time I knitted and immediately came to the conclusion that measuring would not be accurate.

    • Are you knitting them flat, strung across one needle, or nested in the round, or … ?

      I definitely knit sleeves faster flat than in the round, and will more often go back and forth between them than literally knitting the same row on each sleeve at the same time, but I’ve never tried to time the differences.

  5. Love how full the knitting looks after soaking. This is going to be a gem of a sweater!

    • It’s so good — I can’t believe how beautifully it blocks. If it weren’t a little hard on my hands, it would be a challenge to pull myself away from it to do anything else.

  6. I have never knit both sleeves at the same time. But for some reason I often have to make adjustments to sleeves (e.g. rate of inc/dec), causing me to rip out the sleeve and start over. For me it would be twice as painful to rip out two sleeves.

  7. this is so very true, and it should not take years of experience to learn it. Why don’t teachers and teaching books and patterns include this information? I do knit both sleeves at once, if at all possible, so that they will be identical. That way, a mistake looks intentional, lol. It is gruesome if ripping is required, but I try to not have that happen.

    • I took a gauge class from Patty Lyons during Vogue Live in Chicago a couple years ago and she taught exactly what Karen talks about here. You use your measuring tape once at the beginning when you measure your swatch before and after blocking and then count your rows thereafter, based on the info you get in that first measurement. Works great. But you have to swatch, of course.

  8. This post is a game changer for me. I’m always measuring several times and getting several answers. This will be faster and more accurate. Of course heavy cotton yarn will always stretch with time.

    • Yeah, ideally we’ve knitted a nice big swatch and abused it some and maybe hung it if it’s a potential stretcher — although there’s really no way to fully predict the effects of gravity, since a swatch will never weigh more than a fraction of a garment.

    • Yeah – I’ve lost more sweaters to lengthening because of the weight of the yarn than anything. Two sweaters knitted for men which ended up with ape arms! I definitely would not rely on a small swatch to tell me the final length. That’s not to say that I knit big swatches … I go by a combination of experience from various losses and sewing for 30 years, and understanding that I need to feel the weight of the full front or back once it’s knit and wash or otherwise test from there.
      This is why it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something …

  9. Great post. As a finisher, I see a lot of really lovely garments that don’t fit properly. Oddly enough, it is typically because the knitter assumes too much growth in the blocking process.

    • That’s interesting — I would have guessed the more common assumption would be that the unblocked swatch is enough (i.e. that it won’t change if blocked).

  10. Great post indeed! I’m convinced now that blocking a swatch is basic!

  11. I have to echo everyone here that this is an excellent post. I find the newer knitters I know have issues that derive from this very bit of technical knowledge — or lack thereof! Do you like to hang heavier pieces of garments to see if they’re going to grow length-wise? I find it’s tricky to estimate how much they will grow based on even a large swatch.

    • I don’t knit with a lot of heavy/drapey fibers or blends — I’m mostly a wool girl — but I agree it’s basically impossible to know for sure what effect the full weight of a garment will have on some fabrics’ tendency to grow.

    • One tip from someone at my LYS: for fibers that grow, hang the swatch and clip or loop dangly earrings on the bottom as a proxy for the pull of gravity on the large piece. You have to use some judgement on how much earring weight to use, but it does give a bit more info.

  12. Yup. I learned this looooong ago. Too many sweater sleeves of different lengths and mismatched socks. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I did that before figuring it out!

  13. I think the “knit until garment measures x” or desired length” direction is mainly a way to sidestep the problem of row gauge being so frustrating to match, don’t you? Counting is good, if tedious. I also tend to think in terms of percentages (thanks, EZ), so if I calculated a 5% difference between my blocked and unblocked row gauge I might take the shortcut of adjusting the height direction by the same percentage. What usually hangs me up in achieving the perfect sleeve length, though, especially with seamed construction, is calculating how much the sleeve will be affected by the depth of the armhole, ease around the torso, and the lateral stretch of the fabric across the back. That’s really tough to foresee, I find, and if anyone has tips on that I hope they’ll share!

    • I do think so, yeah. There’s only so much information a pattern can (or should) include, really. I’m always going on about some facet or another of row gauge because I think it’s underconsidered in a lot of ways. People worry about stitch gauge but not row gauge, or if they’re able to match one and not the other, they go with stitch gauge, without necessarily understanding the implications of knitting at a different row gauge. And there will always be differences in patterns or parts of the same pattern as far as telling the knitter to work a certain number of rows for something vs knitting a certain number of inches, both of which have their drawbacks if gauge isn’t identical. It’s one of many things (like sleeve shaping!) that have to be generalized or glossed over for the sake of the pattern being write-able, but which hopefully knitters are equipped to compensate for.

      Your example of sleeve length is my favorite. You can’t think about sleeve link independent of yoke depth, so that’s the number one case where knowing your row gauge and what it will add up to is so critical! But so often overlooked.

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