Tension (Or Gauge)

The Most Important Thing: Tension!

Do I need to do a tension (gauge) square?

Now most knitters may not get further than this first sentence when they reach this page.

"I always get the tension to the pattern." Is their answer and they will click onto another page.

When I ask knitters in the shop how their tension is, I feel like I am asking a very personal question. "It’s fine, I always get the tension as stated in the pattern." "Do I need to do a tension square? I always get the same tension on the ball band." And then as I ask further they might let slip that their finished garments are much bigger than they thought, or smaller. This is the result of a few things. One of them is the tension.


Tension does change depending on how you feel, what the yarn is and the time of the year. My tension used to verge towards tight generally but now it surprises me because it is loose and I have to go down a needle size.

Whenever I get a new yarn to design with I do at least 3 swatches to get an average tension, then check with a few of my knitters, at least one who has a loose tension and another who has a tight tension.

Then I always do a tension swatch for each design, even if it is stocking stitch. (Though in reality I am usually doing about 5 swatches for one design at least, I work hard to make sure my stitch techniques are easy, which means a lot of work goes into making sure they are! If I sewed up all the swatches I have I probably would be able to stretch it from John O’Groats in Scotland to Land’s End in Cornwall, maybe?!)

These are the very simple rules:

How to do a tension square

The importance of this square can mean the difference between a garment that is twice the size it should be and one that is the correct size.

Every pattern has its own unique tension and this is measured over a 10cm/4ins square. It is the number of stitches and rows in this square.

To make a square first cast on the amount of stitches stated in the tension part of the pattern, plus an extra 4 stitches.

Work in the pattern, in this example it is stocking stitch, until the square measures 12cm/4¾ins from cast on edge.

Don’t cast off but instead break off the yarn and thread through the stitches, taking them off the needle.

To count the stitches in your tension square, lay it down flat. On stocking stitch a stitch makes a ‘V’ shape, place a pin by the side of one v and measure 10cm/4ins horizontally with a tape measure and mark this with a pin. Count the stitches between the pins.

With the rows, the same ‘V’ is now a row and by placing your tape measure and pins vertically you can count the rows.

If you have the stated amount of stitches and rows between the pins you have the correct tension and may begin your chosen pattern.

If you have too many stitches, your tension is tight and your garment will be smaller than stated.

Change to a larger needle. So if you are knitting on a 4mm needle go up to a 4.5mm needle and do the tension square again.

If there are too few stitches, your tension is loose and your garment will be bigger than stated.

Change to a smaller needle. If you knitted on a 6mm needle, go down to a 5mm needle and try your tension square again.