Tension doesn’t have to cause headaches (or how to avoid disappointment 50 hours later)

Hello and as promised, welcome to a post all about tension.


Nooo, not the T word!

Tension has many meanings in modern life and while this one may not cause muscle spasm (although that depends on how tight you have knitted it!) it can cause headaches. I’m sure many of you have occasionally wondered after a huge time and financial investment, how come this garment that definitely said it would fit your bust size appears to have been created for a small child (or indeed, a giant).

Whenever I mention tension and tension squares in my workshops, the utterance gets met by a rolling of the eyes and a groan from my attendees. After all we have the yarn, we have the pattern and we are desperate to get stuck in to the knitty goodness that lies therein. The last thing we want to do is knit one or multiple samples before we can get going on the dream project. Believe me, I get that, but my counter would be, what is an hour or so of initial investment to ensure that the 50 plus hours of garment construction isn’t wasted. Tension explorations can be entertaining in themselves and once viewed as part of the project rather than an obstacle to hurdle are a habit well worth forming (honest!).

So why do we need to measure tension? The pattern has told us what it is, the ball band has confirmed that we have an appropriate yarn for this project, where is the problem?  It is useful to remember that the tension given on any pattern is that of the designer. They may have a very different knitting style and technique to yourself. One person’s 22 stitches to 30 rows on 4mm needles may measure quite differently to someone else’s, and our own tensions change depending on such things as needles (e.g. a metal needle might result in a different tension to bamboo due to the difference in friction), the weather, if we have had a stressful day, whether it is gin o’clock, etc etc.

Am I convincing you yet? Before you start any project where size matters take the time to knit a sample(s) in the main stitch(es) used in the pattern. Modern patterns use 10cm square as the standard measure of gauge (4 inches in US patterns). The way I tackle this is, using the stated pattern tension as a starting point, I get the needles I am intending to make the project with (as mentioned before, even if the needles are the same size they may not result in the same tension) and cast on the number of stitches to 10cm given by the pattern and then add some either side so that my sample is big enough for an accurate measure to be taken, away from the edges where tension is often different to elsewhere. Let’s say I was looking at a DK yarn with a stated stocking stitch tension of 22sts x 30rows, I would probably cast on 30sts. I would work the 30 rows plus a few more (ideally I’d do about 40 rows), again so tension isn’t skewed by cast on and cast off.

A good argument for having a number of projects on the go at the same time is that after creating your tension square you don’t rush to get the ruler out straight away. The square needs to be allowed to relax and settle as fresh off the needles can be a very different tension to after it has been washed/worn for the first time. So, ideally, the tension square gets treated to a care routine similar to that which the final garment will undergo. A gentle squish about in a bowl of warm water with a few drops of the washing liquid you use for your woollens, followed by a rinse and a gentle laying out on a flat surface (blocking mats or ironing board) to allow to dry overnight is ideal. If you really can’t wait 24 hours plus then you might get away with a damp cloth and a steam iron on wool to help the stitches to settle. Don’t force the damp fabric to conform to your measurements at this stage but let it find its own tension i.e. don’t measure and pin, gently smooth out and leave.  As you can see, having another project to pick up to keep those hands busy while you wait is a good distraction.

Right, let’s get down to the actual measurements. In the pictures you will see a sample square (not big enough I hasten to add!) on which I have measured 10cm across with a ruler (better than a tape measure for this because it is more rigid) and placed pins to mark this distance (there is a slight distortion on the left hand side of the picture which makes it look like the pin is 2mm in from the start of the measurement, please ignore this as it is due to the buckling caused by pinning and a slightly dodgy camera angle).


DK sample tension square

If I count the number of stitches between the two pins it comes out at 22. If I was working with a more textured yarn I would be wise to repeat this process at different places across the width of the sample and take an average of at least three readings. However, as this is a lovely smooth yarn, one measurement is possibly enough as the fabric is very even.


DK sample tension square

I would repeat the process with the rows, and in this case I get 31 rows. Be warned that half stitches (and rows) matter with tension squares and shouldn’t be ignored or rounded. Remember that you are working on a 10cm sample where half a stitch might not make a big difference. However, if you multiply that up to a sweater circumference for example, those half stitches will add up and could be quite significant.

If your measurements come out the same as the pattern instructions then it is all systems go. However, if they don’t then it’s back to the needle bag again and trying out a different size. If you have too few stitches then try a smaller needle. If you have too many stitches then try a bigger needle. And repeat……..

A final point about tension is a reminder that different stitches have different properties (and of course designers use this to shape knitted fabric). In the stitch sampler shown below, all of the stitches have been worked on the same number of stitches and rows and you can see from the result that they have varying tension.


Stitch sampler worked on 26stitches and 14 rows per stitch type.

In particular you can see from this that garter stitch is a much fatter stitch than the others shown, producing less height for its 14 rows and rib creates a narrower fabric for the same number of stitches (which is of course one of the reasons why it is often used at the base of sweaters, sleeves etc to stop them from sagging and bagging).

So, to summarise, tension squares are a good investment of your time. However, I shall leave you with a word of warning. It is also worth checking tension from time to time as you work through your project. The increasing weight of the work as you progress can change the tension (as can relaxing into the project and getting the hang of the pattern etc) so it is worth keeping a regular check on it. So while the square is a good start, it is only the guide to get you knitting. Monitoring progress is also well worth the time (not least as I know people who have mistakenly picked up the wrong needle part way through a project and not noticed until a long way down the line when they have realised that the garment size changed part way through).

I hope that this post has been helpful and/or encouraged you to think of your tension before you start your next project. Best of luck developing your new habit. You will thank me for it (you are welcome!).



The Importance of Ball Bands (or holding it all together and entertaining bored pooches).

This year I am introducing some short tutorial style knitting know how articles based on some of the questions that come up during my workshops, partly as a place of reminder and reference for those who attend the Knit Ins and also perhaps as an “Ah Ha” moment or a reminder for those more experienced for whom the collection of hints and tips might make their knitting life a little easier.

The first of these is all about that piece of paper that holds your ball of yarn in a nice neat bundle just before you rip into it to indulge in the yarny goodness held within. Yep, I’m talking about the ball band.


“What? Those bits of paper I steal and rip up actually have some use?”

While they all look slightly different due to branding etc, ball bands all have the same basic information displayed somewhere on them. Here is a typical example from Jamieson’s.


Probably the first thing you will need to know when searching for your yarn is what exactly are you holding in your hands? Somewhere on the band it should tell you what the yarn is made from, in this case 100% Pure Shetland Wool. This is very important information as different yarn types have different characteristics when knitted into a garment so if you are substituting yarns in a pattern, unless you use a similar type of yarn as the original design you might get a very different result e.g. drape, stitch definition, hold of shape etc. While not necessarily a bad thing as a design can be transformed into something new and exciting just by using a cotton for example in place of a wool, be prepared for a bit of experimentation first before investing in the entire garment.

The next thing I would be most interested in is the tension, and that is given on the band usually by a square grid with numbers along the sides. The grid tells you how many stitches and rows knitted in stocking stitch it typically takes to create a 10cm (4in) square of knitting using the recommended needle size, also given somewhere near by. Sometimes the name of the yarn will suggest what weight it is e.g. if it is a DK, aran or 4ply for example but often the tension and needle size is your clue to this. In the example I have given above, the 3.25mm recommended needles and tension of 30sts to 32 rows suggests to me that I am dealing with a light 4ply as these numbers fall within the usual range for that yarn weight. Now of course these tension numbers are just a guideline. We all have our own unique tensions when knitting and one person’s 30/32 on 3.25mm can measure quite differently to another persons as can the same person using metal needles versus wooden ones etc. So, the numbers give you a guide but unfortunately you still need to work your own tension square before you can safely embark on a project. A post dedicated to the joys of the tension square will be coming shortly.

Other important information given on your ball band is the weight of the ball and the approximate length of yarn in a ball of that weight. When knitting a pattern it will tell you how many balls of the yarn it uses to create the various sizes. In the example I have shown above, these balls are 25g each. Thicker yarn such as DK and aran will usually come in 50g or 100g balls. Hand dyed super special skeins of yarn will often be non standard weights but will be labelled. The length of the yarn is especially important if you are substituting yarns as 25g of a wool such as Shetland goes a lot further than 25g of, say, a cotton which is a much heavier yarn. The moral to this story is if you are not using the yarn recommended by the pattern do check the relative meterage/yardage as you might find that you need an extra ball to that given by the pattern instructions.

If you are buying more than one ball of yarn, the dye lot reference is another important thing to check from the band information. The colour will usually have a numerical reference (805 in this example) and often will have a name too (here it is Spruce). As balls of yarn are dyed in batches a slight difference in colour can occur between batches which might not be visible when holding two balls of yarn together but may show in a sweater front if a ball from a different batch is started part way up a front. To prevent this happening to your treasured hand knits, a reference number is given for each dye lot (here it is 8714) so you can ensure when you are buying your multiple balls that they have all come from the same batch and will all knit up the same colour.

Lastly, somewhere on the band should be care instructions i.e. how to wash, press and generally look after your item knitted in this yarn. These are standard symbols and can be found easily by searching on the internet. For the Spindrift example working down the columns we are told:


So lovely knitters, the ball band is your friend (and not just because it stops your yarn getting tangled up in the bottom of the project bag) and it is probably best not to let the dog steal it and rip it up as you may need to refer back to it at a later date. Try and keep at least one for the project you are working on and put it somewhere safe just in case you need to check some of the information again at a later date.

I hope that you have found this post helpful and will join me next time when we discuss the joys of the tension square.  Until then, happy knitting……..