Machine Knitting Tension or Gauge

Published July 4, 2016 by estherknit

An understanding of tension or gauge is the key to successful machine knitting. It involves the relationship of yarn to tension dial number and the way the yarn is controlled.  The tension you work is personal to you and your machine. The tension is affected by, not only the stitch dial setting on your machine, but the setting on the yarn tension mast, the type and colour of yarn, whether the yarn has been waxed and the speed of the knitting.

Usually a pattern will give a tension guide that states the number of stitches and rows to a measurement of 10 centimetres (or 4 inches) using the recommended yarn and stitch dial setting.  This is the designer’s tension and all measurements for the knitting pattern are based on it.

If you want to end up with the garment fitting correctly then you must achieve the same tension as the designer, or re calculate the pattern.  Even one more or less stitch over every 10 centimetres makes a significant difference in the size of a piece of knitting. This is especially important with thicker yarns and larger stitches.  This is the only time in knitting where one stitch or one row makes a big difference.

This knitted sample is called a tension square or gauge swatch.  Making a tension square to check the measurements is vital before you start work.  Both stitches and rows must be correct. Stitch tension is necessary in most patterns to obtain the correct width (or length in sideways knitting).  The row tension is important where you are increasing or decreasing over a specified measurement to shape a garment, where you are working a garment from side edge to side edge where the number of rows, not stitches, form the width of the garment, and where the length of the garment is critical.  The size of the tension square should be big enough to show a few pattern repeats if possible.

Knitting a Tension Square

There are two parts to a tension square:

  • the number of stitches – width (usually)
  • the number of rows – length (usually)

A pattern will only look right if knitted at the correct tension for the yarn.  When the square is complete – feel it.  It should be elastic and regain its shape easily after being pulled sideways and then released.  If the tension is too tight, the square will appear stiff and not stretch easily sideways.  If the tension is too loose the stitches will be uneven and when it is pulled sideways it will stretch very easily but not return to its original shape quickly.  Garments that are knitted too loosely become shapeless very quickly.

For this reason you should not knit a design on a smaller or larger tension dial setting to obtain a different size of garment.  This gives the wrong tension and the garment knitted in this way will not wear well.  However, this is not the same thing as changing the stitch dial setting to obtain the correct tension in the pattern, which is acceptable.  Borders and cuffs require a greater firmness and a tighter tension is used for these than the rest of the garment.  So, smaller tension number on your tension dial would be appropriate here.

Always keep the tension squares you have knitted and label them with the type of yarn and stitch dial number.  Knit a tension square for each pattern used in the design and that includes different stitch patterns and different colourways.  When you knit a tension square it must be left to relax before measuring for at least an hour, or perhaps overnight. Tension squares in natural fibres, such as wool, are better washed and dried before measuring.  Tension squares should be pinned out and blocked before measuring. If the garment is going to be washed after knitting and before wearing, then this procedure should be done with the tension square before measuring.

If you cannot obtain the correct stitch and row tension for the pattern, then match the stitch tension, and alter the rows stated in the pattern.  For example, if the pattern states that you must have ’40 rows to 10 cm’  and you can only obtain 39 rows, whilst obtaining the correct stitch size, then every time the pattern wants you to knit 40 rows, you should knit one less i.e. 39. So, say the length of the back of the sweater is 50 centimetres, you would be 5 rows out.

The tension can be affected. by several things.  For example, the tension can be affected by the machine used.  You will quickly learn whether you have a machine that knits slightly tighter or slightly looser than the pattern states.  The tension can also be affected by the colour of the yarn.  Dark colours tend to be thicker than average while light colours tend to be thinner.  So, lighter colours should. be knitted on a tighter tension (a lower number) while dark colours will need a looser tension (a higher number).  The make of the machine is also important;  Knitmaster/Silver machines will need a higher tension dial number than Jones/Brother or Toyota.

The Stitch Dial 2

Use the Stitch Dial to regulate the size of stitches.  Set the number to the ▲ mark at the front.  The higher the number on the stitch dial the larger the stitch size and the looser the fabric.  The lower the number on the stitch dial the smaller the stitch size and the tighter the fabric.  The dots between the numbers represent intermediate stitch sizes.

Blocking and Pressing a Tension Square

Blocking is the method of pinning down pieces of knitting to ensure the correct shape and size.  It is especially helpful with a stocking/stockinette stitch fabric, where edges tend to roll under and curl. The amount of ‘pressing’ required depends upon the type of yarn used and the stitch pattern.

  • place the knitting with wrong side up on a padded, flat surface.  If your ironing board is too small, use a blocking board, or a table top with  blankets or towels on it.  See that the stitches and rows run in straight lines.
  • ease piece into shape, then check measurements.  Hold in position with plenty of pins – this is called “blocking”.
  • if pressing is required, use a clean pressing cloth slightly damp or dry.  Press according to the instructions on the ball band.  Do not press heavily.  Leave garter and rib borders free and do not block and press.  Press evenly and lightly, lifting the iron and lowering it over the surface.   Take out pins and make sure that knitting is dry before lifting.

After removing the tension square from the machine, allow the edges to roll in until the knitting forms a tube. Pull it length-ways.  This allows the stitches to take on their true size after having been ‘stretched’ across the machine.

When ‘pressing’ you are simply putting heat or steam into the knitting to set the stitches and stop the edges from rolling. Allow the square to dry before removing the pins. The square should then be left to ‘relax’ – at least an hour for acrylic yarns; but overnight is best.  The tension square can now be measured.

Measuring a Tension Square

There are several ways to measure tension squares.  Here is the most usual and traditional method for machine knitters.

The Green and the Blue Rulers

Knitmaster have invented rulers which make the knitting of tension squares a lot easier for knitters. These rulers are called a gauge scale. This scale is so designed to get how many stitches and rows to 10 cm (or 4 inches) measuring between yarn marks on the tension square.  The scale has two sides. The ‘S’ side is used for measuring stitches and the ‘R’ side is used for rows. Knitmaster invented the green ruler (for 4 plys on Standard Gauge machines) and the blue ruler (for double knitting and chunkies on Chunky machines).

Rulers 3

The pattern usually tells you the exact number of stitches and rows over a given measurement, usually 10 cm (4 inches), that the designer obtained when making the original garment. Before knitting your garment you must find out which tension dial number to use, for the yarn you are going to use, which achieves this given tension. Measuring tension squares can be a tedious business.  The green and blue rules make this process easier.  These rulers are generally used by machine knitters but there is no reason why hand knitters and crocheters cannot use them as well.

Knitting a Tension Square on the Standard Machine
Green Ruler Method

The green ruler is used for thinner yarns with standard gauge machines and the ruler measures a square of 40 stitches and 60 rows.

  • Cast on 70 stitches.
  • Knit 10 rows in waste yarn.
  • Join in main yarn, and using the correct tension for the yarn, knit 30 rows in pattern.
  • Mark the 21st stitch either side of centre 0 with a spare piece of yarn.  This is your 40 stitches.
  • Knit another 30 rows in pattern. This is 60 rows in all.
  • Join in waste yarn and knit ten rows.
  • Cast off and remove from machine.
  • Take a note of the yarn, tension dial number and pattern used in this tension square.
  • Allow the tension square to “rest” –  an hour for acrylic and overnight for natural yarns such as wool or cotton.
  • It may be necessary to wash the tension square or even steam it if this is
    going to affect the tension.
  • Now, measure the square as follows: Use the ruler with the ‘S’ side up. Place the arrow end of the ruler inside the left stitch in contrast yarn.  Measure to the inside of the right hand contrast stitch.  The number at this point on the ruler indicates how many stitches are required to knit 10 cm (or 4 inches).  The ruler should be used from the left edge where there is an arrow.  Now, for the rows, use the ruler with the ‘R’ side up.  Place the arrow end of the gauge scale at the top of the tension square just below the rows knitted in contrast yarn.  Measure inside the two pieces of spare yarn knitting.  The number on the ruler indicates how many rows required to knit 10 cm. (or 4 inches).

Knitting a Tension Square on the Chunky Machine
Blue Ruler Method

The blue ruler is used for thicker yarns with chunky machines and the ruler measures a square of 20 stitches and 30 rows.

Blue Ruler Rows 2

  • Cast on 30 stitches.
  • Knit 10 rows in waste yarn.
  • Join in main yarn and knit 15 rows.
  • Mark the 11th stitch on either side of centre 0 with contrast yarn.  This is your 20 stitches.
  • Knit another 15 rows.  This is 30 rows in all.
  • Join in waste yarn and knit ten-rows.
  • Cast off and remove from machine.
  • Take a note of the yarn, tension dial number and pattern used in this tension square.
  • Allow the square to “rest”; a couple of hours for acrylic yarn and overnight for natural yarns such as wool or cotton. It may be necessary to wash the tension square or even steam It if this is going to affect the tension.
  • It may be necessary to wash the tension square or even steam it if this is
    going to affect the tension.
  • Measure the square as follows:  Use the ruler with the ‘S’ side up. Place the arrow end of the ruler inside the left stitch in contrast yarn.  Measure to the inside of the right hand contrast stitch.  The number at this point on the ruler indicates how many stitches are required to knit 10 cm. (or 4 inches).  The ruler should be used from the left edge where there is an arrow.  Now, for the rows, use the ruler with the ‘R’ side up.  Place the arrow end of the gauge scale at the top of the tension square just below the rows knitted in contrast yarn.  Measure inside the two pieces of waste yarn knitting.  The number on the ruler indicates how many rows are required to knit 10 cm. (or 4 inches).

Blue Ruler Stitches 2

Knitting a Tension Square on the Ribber

This is how to measure a tension square for k1, p1, rib using a ribber on a Standard Gauge machine and using the green ruler.  Set the ribber to full pitch position (P position) and both carriages should be set to knit in both directions. Select needles according to the following needle diagram:

MB     10101010101010101
RB     01010101010101010

where
1 – nneedle in working position
0 – needle in non-working position

Using the 1 x 1 needle pusher, select the needles on the main bed starting with the 35th needle on the left to the 34th needle on the right. This gives us 69 needles in working position on main bed.  It is an odd number because we obey the “end needle rule” i.e. both end needles are on the main bed and not on the ribber.  On the ribber push the needles which are opposite the non-working needles on the main bed, up to working position.  Run the joined carriage across the needles to align needles.  Carriage at right.

Thread main yarn into the feeder on the joined carriages, and drop the end between the two beds.  Knit the zig-zag row.  Set tension to 0/0.  Hold yarn end with left hand underneath beds.  Insert cast on comb.  Use shortest possible comb to cover needles in use.  Leaving the wire in position, hold the comb underneath the beds.  Push the right end up between the beds to the right of the knitting, positioning the comb centrally.  Slowly pull the wire, at the same time pushing the teeth of the comb up between the beds. Pull out only enough wire to allow the comb to be raised into position.  When all the teeth are above the level of the knitting, push the wire through the holes.  Lower the comb so the wire rests on the zig-zag row.  Make sure the end of the wire does not catch on the needle bed.  Hang two large weights underneath the knitting.  Place the weights evenly.

Now, knit the selvedge or circular rows.  Set the carriage so that the beds knit and slip alternately.  Always knit at least two rows for a selvedge, but normally you are asked to knit 3 or 5 circular rows.  It does not matter which bed slips first.  Knit 3 circular rows. Carriage at right. Set tension to T3/T3.  Set both carriages to knit in both directions.  Knit 6 rows of rib.  Break off yarn.  Knit 4 rows in waste yarn.  Change back to main yarn.  Set row counter to 000.  Knit 30 rows rib.

Take two pieces of waste yarn above 20 cm (8″) long and use them to mark the 21st stitch either side of 0.  The one on the left will be on the ribber and on the right will be on the main bed.  First knit the stitch manually onto the waste yarn, then thread both ends into the transfer needle and drop them between the beds. Knit 30 rows more in rib. Row counter = 60.  Change to waste yarn; knit 4 rows rib.  Change to main yarn; knit several rows.  Break yarn and release from machine.  Now, place the knitting on a flat surface and leave to relax overnight.  Pin out square on blocking board stretching the width slightly. Press very lightly or steam.  Leave to cool. Remove pins.  Use green ruler to measure 40 stitches and 60 rows

Points to Keep in Mind

1: If you cannot match the tension exactly, then match the number of stitches and knit the garment, making allowances for the fact that the rows are incorrect. For example, if the tension square says that there are 44 rows to 10 cm. and the pattern says there are 40 rows to 10 cm, then every time the pattern tells you to knit 40 rows you should knit 44 rows.

2: When changing from Fair Isle to stocking stitch tighten the tension by one whole number.

3: Tension varies with the make of the machine. Toyota is usually two dots looser than Knitmaster/Silver which is too dots looser than Brother.

4: To alter the tension

  • adjust yarn feed
  • rewind the wool more loosely or tightly
  • allow the finished fabric to relax or wash it
  • alter the tension dial

5: Mark your tension square with the tension dial number:

  • to indicate ‘tension 6’ on your fabric – push out six needles and knit these by hand
    in contrast yarn.  In this way, you make a row of holes, the same number as your tension dial, on your tension square.

6: Every other or every third needle selection is required when you knit with very thick yarn.  So, knit your tension square as above but use every other or every third needle as you would in your project.

 

I don’t think any knitter likes checking their tension, but the best knitter always do.   Patterns which say ‘tension is unimportant’ just reflect a lazy designer.  If you want to re-create the beautiful garment illustrated in the pattern, then getting the tension correct is the first and vital step.

 

 

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