Knitting a tension square is quite a hassle so I want to find out why and when it is a good idea and how to do it easily.
A tension square is also known as a gauge swatch. It is supposed to be a square piece of knitting that contains the gauge.
What is gauge?
In a typical knitting pattern, you will see something like this:
Gauge: 16 stitches and 24 rows = 4 inches / 10 cm
A specific number of rows and stitches that makes up 4 inches or 10 cm.
This means that your knitting should produce 4 inches of knitted fabric consisting of 24 rows and 16 stitches using the recommended yarn and knitting needles.
Why is gauge important?
If I am knitting dishcloths, blankets, or bags, I am not going to knit tension squares to check gauge. It is not a big deal. But I will do so for socks, hats, gloves, and garments.
Why? Because I want my knitted items to fit me and the people I knit them for.
Personal experience taught me that the type of yarns I used, the type of needles I use, and the stitches or textures I am knitting affect how tight or loose my knitting is. So, if I want my finished project to have the same measurement as that of the pattern I am using, I must check my tension against the given gauge.
The recommended way of doing this is by knitting a tension square. The general instructions are to make it, wash it, and dry it before measuring.
How To Knit a Tension Square?
The simplest way is to cast on the desired number of stitches and knit the desired number of rows. The most common complaints of this method are uneven edges and curling. Another complaint is the likelihood of the swatch or square being too small.
The video tutorial below recommends adding a garter stitch border around the square and adding additional stitches and rows. I find this video quite comprehensive for a beginner knitter. At the 15 min mark, she demonstrates how to count the stitches and rows.
I find measuring and counting stitches and rows in a gauge swatch a real pain. Fortunately, there are tools to help. One of them is a tension square ruler. I like this one.
What happens when your gauge is different?
I think I can say for all knitters that when we start a tension square, we want to achieve the gauge. Because if we don’t, it means doing it all over again. Ugh!
But missing gauge happens more often than we want it to. So what do we do when we do not get gauge?
Firstly, we can ignore the gauge. A knitter wrote that just being aware is enough. This works for items that may not need the perfect fit. I would ignore gauge for mittens, scarfs, cowls, shawls especially if it is off by a little.
If we cannot ignore, then we need to interpret the gauge difference.
If you have more rows than recommended, your project will be too long. If you have fewer rows, your project will be too short.
It is unlikely that your mismatched gauge will only be in the rows. But if it is, there is no need to change anything, just knit more or fewer rows to get the measurement.
Too many stitches meant that the tension is tight. The project is going to be smaller than expected. The remedy is to use larger needles. Too few stitches meant that the tension is loose, the project is going to be larger than expected. The remedy is to use smaller needles.
Another way to get gauge is to substitute the yarns. So far, most instructions assume you are using the recommended yarns. So the suggestion is to change the needles. But changing yarns is also an option.
Changing the way you knit
I knit using the English style most of the time. But I do know how to do Continental too. I noticed my tension is looser when I knit using the Continental style. If you are a super tight knitter, you might want to consider practising loosening up a bit.
Shortcuts to Knitting the Tension Square
I still do not like knitting tension squares. I am not an A+ student in knitting. So, are there shortcuts?
Question: Why 4 inches or 10 centimetres?
I came across this gauge ruler that only has measurement for 2 inches.
Does this mean I do not necessarily need to knit 4 inches worth of stitches and rows? 2 inches would do? A thought to consider. It would literally halve the time needed.
I can understand why 4 inches was recommended. Without a measuring tool, 2-inch squares would be too small to measure properly.
Techknitter of https://techknitting.blogspot.com suggested replacing knitting tension squares with gauge-less objects. For example, scarves, potholders, pillow tops, and quilt squares. It is not a shortcut, per se and it definitely appeals to the practical knitter. More details at https://techknitting.blogspot.com/2007/02/gauge-less-gauge-swatches-or-dating.html.
She also suggests thinking of knitting a tension square as yarn dating.