How do you get the right size when knitting without a pattern if you are using a “new to you” yarn?
It’s easy to get the right size when you crochet, you just chain, wrap the chain around you, then stop when it’s long enough to fit. You can create a knit garment that fits perfectly too, all you need is a tape measure, a calculator, and the time to do a small swatch in stockinette stitch.
Stitches per inch (or centimeter), horizontal counting: Your swatch can be fairly small, so it doesn’t really need to take up much time. At the minimum, you can knit a square just over 2 inches by 2 inches (or ~5 cm. x 5 cm.) using the needles and yarn you’ll want for your project. The goal is to get the number of stitches per one inch. You want a little extra room around your counting space, because you want to count in the middle of the swatch. The top and bottom rows can pull differently, and the side ends can just be confusing looking. Make sure not to stretch the fabric at all when measuring, just let it lie in its natural state. (*See note below on margin of error and knitting more inches.)
For centimeter users: 1 centimeter is really too small a space to get an accurate stitch count, so it may be helpful to knit more centimeters, count the number of stitches in 2 or 4 cm., then divide that number by 2 or 4 (whichever you used), to get the number of stitches per centimeter. (*See note below on margin of error and using more centimeters.)
Stitches per inch (cm.) in the vertical: The swatch doesn’t need to be very tall, about 2 inches will do it, so you can count the height in the middle if you need it, also getting a number for vertical stitches per inch. If you’re knitting for someone else and have their measurements, this number is useful. If you’re knitting for yourself, you probably don’t need this number, except that it is a way to double-check your decisions. When knitting for yourself, you can generally just hold the garment up to yourself and see if it’s long enough, so in that case you don’t really need a count in the vertical. Most garments are knit top down, or bottom up, not usually sideways, so the horizontal number is the one you really need. (Though, of course, it could come up if you decide to knit sideways). If you are following a pattern using a different yarn, such that you need to recalculate all of your stitch numbers, this vertical number can be useful as using a different gauge can throw off the sleeve and garment length.
Once you have your numbers, (number of stitches in an inch horizontally, and number of stitches in an inch vertically if you need it), you just measure yourself or the body in question. Multiply your number of bodily inches by the number of stitches in an inch, and that’s how many stitches you cast on. Use the photo below, it shows where you need to measure, and you will have to increase or decrease in various places as you go to get to each new number of stitches. If you’re making a cardigan that you will wear over a bra and a long sleeve shirt, make sure to wear these items when taking your measurements, and keep notes on what you were wearing when you took the measurements so that you know if you use these measurements again later to make something else. Don’t pull the tape measure too tightly – we want good honest numbers that will give us good fit.
When casting on, be sure to leave yourself some room. I always add a few extra stitches to make sure my garment has some give. If it’s a little too big, you can still wear it, but clothes that are too tight can be annoying or unwearable. You know now how many stitches are in one inch, so you can decide if you want less than an inch of give, or a couple of inches of extra room
*Margin of error: You can just count the stitches (or number of rows) in one inch (or 2 or 3 cm.) somewhere in the middle of the small swatch, but you may end up with 3 and a half stitches, or 6 and a quarter stitches. (And that’s fine, your calculator can still do it for you.) But it can be hard to measure fractions of a stitch with surety. If you do a bigger swatch, then count the stitches in 2 inches, then half it to get your number of stitches per inch, you can get a more accurate count. (Same for centimeters, if you knit a bigger swatch, say 8 cm., then count the number of stitches in 4 cm., then divide by 4 to get your number of stitches in 1 cm., it is more accurate than just counting the stitches in 1 cm.) Knitting more stitches to count will decrease your margin of error, but of course takes more time, so you have to choose, time vs. the potential for error!
Here is an example of how to do it, with some bad art and some made up numbers for measurements:The gray lines show where people tend to be the biggest or the littlest, so these give us good places to know about in the horizontal. Hips, waist, bust or chest, shoulders, and neck. (You only really need “neck” for items that have high, tiny necks such as turtlenecks or mock turtlenecks. Remember the head still has to fit through it.)
The green lines show you where to measure in the vertical. Hips (or wherever you want the bottom of the sweater to be) to armpits, hips to neck, and length of the arm from the shoulder seam to where you want the sleeve to end.
The blue lines show you the circumference of the arm, which lets you know how big to make the armhole, and the width of the sleeves. Remember to leave some wiggle room inside, as tight armholes are very uncomfortable, and that the hand has to be able to pass through the wrist space.
The math, and casting on: If you plan to make a sweater from the hip upwards, and the hip line measures 40 inches around the person, you need 40 inches if you knit in the round. If you’re going to make a front and back piece, each piece needs to be cast-on at 20 inches.
If you knit a swatch with your chosen yarn and needles, and you get 6 stitches per inch, 6 st. x 40 inches = 240 stitches to cast on in the round; or for front and back 6 st. x 20 inches = 120 stitches to cast on. Remember to add a few extra stitches for your chosen amount of extra room.
Following a pattern using a different gauge: On a related subject, lets say you want to knit following a pattern, but using a different yarn, or on different needles. Then you may need to recalculate your number of stitches for every single thing you do, and as mentioned above, it may also effect the vertical. I did this recently, I made the Tilted Duster from Interweave Knits magazine (Fall 2007) using Caron Simply Soft yarn in Victorian Rose on size 8 needles. Their gauge was 4.25 stitches in 1 inch. Mine was 4.5 stitches in an inch. It doesn’t sound like much, but it did change the numbers. I went through and got the number of inches for the number of stitches they told me to do every single place in the pattern, then calculated how many stitches that would be in my gauge. A lot of calculating, but it came out nice! (I made a non-gauge related mistake, it said make the collar 5 inches but I kept thinking they said 6 inches for some reason instead, so mine is high, but I like it.) Here is an example: They said cast on 78 stitches. 78 stitches divided by 4.25 stitches per inch = 18.35 inches. (That’s their gauge). Mine is 4.5 stitches per inch, so 18.35 inches x 4.5 stitches per inch =82.57 (or 83) stitches to cast on.
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