The T word

I thought I’d do a blog post on the ‘T word’. 

Now if I say this word to some experienced knitters the response from them make me feel like I’ve just swore at them or I’ve asked about their personal hygiene. 

Like I’ve said, “How often do you shower?” Some knitters get a little bit offended and obviously it’s not meant as an offence! But I can understand why some knitters do feel like that. For some it’s because it’s a mystery. And also what do I mean? Tension? If I type the word into Google it tells me:

Tension (noun): 1. The state of being stretched tightly. 2. Mental or emotional strain
(verb) to apply a force to (something) which tends to stretch it.

It offers similar words such as stress, strain, tenseness

Now not one of those words fits in with my ethos that knitting is relaxing and soothing. IN fact it is the opposite, knitting helps with mental health and can encourage a relaxed mind. So I wonder who first named the amount of stitches per 10cm (though it was probably 4 inches back then) as ‘tension’

Because you do not want your knitting to be in a state of being stretched tightly…though of course, unless you do because some like to wear their knitting with negative ease (tightly over their body)

Yes, I totally understand why some people, knitters and non-knitters alike, do not like to be asked about the tension (knitting meaning) of their knitting, because there is no tension (Google meaning)! It is very relaxing and soothing and if there is tension then yep, you don’t want to knit!

Maybe they named it tension because they didn’t want to share the wonder of knitting. It was a secret only for the very enlightened to find the joy of knitting.

Well, I don’t want that to be true, I want to share the soothing stitch with everyone!

I’ve been writing patterns now for over 20 years and I’ve always used ‘tension’ but due to the world wide web we find that a lot of American patterns use ‘gauge’. I used to design for an American distributor and I always used the word tension in my books, because this was just before the internet and the growth of the knitting community on there, so my books were written in the English way! Now I write both words on my pdf patterns.
Sometimes gauge is a nicer explanation than tension because gauge sounds nice doesn’t it? Tension? *Shudders* Yuck! What’s your gauge? Nice!

Now I reword how I ask, I don’t say, “How’s your tension?”, it’s not relevant really, but “Watch the gauge” or “Watch the tension.” 

Like I said, it’s a bit of a mystery. You might hear the terms “tight tension” and “loose tension” and this is where I think maybe together we can come up with different words for “tight” and “loose” because it’s not really a tight tension and it’s not really a loose tension.

I do Professional Finishing workshops and *spoiler alert* I get people to do tension squares and 50% of the people on a workshop will get the gauge/tension to what it’s “supposed to be” and 50% don’t. So in reality, for some people, tension/gauge never comes into their life, and for others, it will. 

So, what is tension/gauge in knitting? 

Briefly, it is the amount of stitches per 10 centimetres/4 inches that determine the size of something. The stitches determine, for example, the width of your garment.

If you’ve found that your garments never fit, that they’re too big or too small, that might have – and there might be other explanations – but that might have something to do with how many stitches to 10cms that you have – that’s the tension, the gauge. 

It’s not, though, about how tight you knit or how loose you knit. So you might look at the fabric that you’ve knitted and say, “Well it doesn’t look tight “ or “It doesn’t look loose”. 

No, it won’t, it will look perfect, it will look beautiful, you’ve knitted it. It will look good. 

It is the amount of stitches that differ to what the pattern says.
For example, if you’ve got a pattern that says 20 stitches per 10cms, you might have a yarn that gives you 19 stitches to 10cms. That means your garment, or whatever you’re knitting, will be bigger. If you have 21 stitches instead of 20, your garment, or whatever you’re knitting, will be smaller but it doesn’t mean to say that the 19 stitches looks loose even though it is a looser tension.

And equally it doesn’t mean to say that the 21 stitches looks tight even though it’s a tighter tension. 

It’s just that those stitches are more than what they should be and the other one is less than what it should be. That’s why, sometimes, it can be confusing because you think, “I’m not a tight knitter, I’m not a loose knitter.” No, you’re not, it’s just the yarn you’ve chosen is creating that tension/gauge. 

It could just be that on those needles, that’s what you get. I used to, like some knitters who pop into the Skipton studio, thought that you couldn’t change needle size – “If the pattern says 4mm and the yarn is DK then 4mm is what I shall use.” I remember the first time when I realised this wasn’t true. It was about 25 years ago, I worked with a fabulous knitter and she would use 3.25mm needles for DK whereas I was using 4mm, and I was like, what?! You’re using 3.25mm needles for DK?! It blew my mind. But when I looked at her yarn and her fabric it looked exactly the same as mine. In fact my knitting looked tighter, yep on larger needles than her, so I tried out even larger needles – 4.5mm and it looked better.

So, yep, sometimes knitters do have to use different size needles to what it says on the pattern and that for some knitters that is another thing that blows their mind. I think that is why you’ll find some designers who will not tell you the needle size on their patterns, just give you a guide and there’s pros and cons for that. I still keep the needle size in on the patterns I design at this present moment in time although maybe that will change in time, who knows!

If you watch my video about tension at around 6.50mins I show you a collection of tension squares which have all been knitted with DK weight yarns and with the same amount of stitches and rows. They all look fine, you wouldn’t say any of them are tight or loose, they’re all a nice fabric. I would recommend having a look because it is easier to show then to write

But you can see that some have a tighter tension than others – they have the same amount of stitches but a tighter tension than the larger ones. It depends on which DK weight yarn you use, it might be tighter than the pattern says. So even though they have the same amount of stitches, in comparison some have looser tension than others and some have tighter tension, even though none of them are tight or loose and that’s where it’s important to get the right tension – not what it looks like but how many stitches. Something else that comes into play is yarn amounts which I think I might mention in another blog post. 

So that’s what we mean by tension and hopefully that is helpful for people and clearing up a few hiccups that we might have had

Article by Jane