Math Skills & Gauge Avoidance?

The other day at a knitting group, I brought up a thought that I had been mulling over for a while:  It seems to me that knitting small items, such as shawls, shawlettes, hats and socks, has surpassed knitting larger items, such as sweaters, dresses, skirts and jackets.  I admitted I based my observation on the knit items (1) I have seen worn at various fiber events, and (2)  shared at knitting circles and guilds.

Only one person – a young woman who regularly teaches knitting classes – seemed interested in this topic, and we had an interesting conversation.  I shared my guesses with her:

  1. The increasing cost of the yarns – especially the hand dyed and specialty dyed yarns – creates a prohibitive cost for making larger items.
  2. Too many knitters don’t want to be “bothered” with or don’t know how to fit larger items.
  3. A small project out of a gorgeous yarn can be finished fairly quickly and worn (or gifted) quickly.

The knitting teacher added one more guess:

4.  Gauge:  Many knitters prefer smaller projects where gauge isn’t as critical.

Hmmm … gauge is math-based … most knitters and crocheters are women … women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees and careers, … and there is a powerful stereotype that too many women quickly grab onto:  “Oh, I’m just not good at math.”  (Sadly, I heard that a lot from a lot of female students, and not just when I tutored algebra at an inner city high school.  I heard it routinely from both undergraduate and graduate female students.)

Yet knitting and crocheting are math-based!  So if you can knit and crochet, take heart:  You can knit/crochet your way to stronger math skills!  I will use Thor’s cardigan, a work in progress), as an example.

In order to get the perfect combination as well as a perfect fit, you cannot rush swatching and gauging.   Look for the right combinations of cables, stitches and sweater design that heapOyarnwill work well with your yarn for your selected project.

For Thor’s sweater, I chose to use Brown Sheep’s no-longer-produced Prairie Silk (72% wool, 18% mohair, 10% silk, 50g/88y/80m), which I overdyed.  I poured through many books of cables, knit many swatches in various gauges and stitch patterns, measured swatches and explored various sweater designs.

LarrySweaterSome of you will recognize the cables as one of Elsebeth Lavold’s designs, Bjärs Hitches.  Thor loves cables, but an all-over-cabled cardigan knit in Prairie Silk would have been overly warm – for where we live, at least.  Instead, each side of the cardigan has a mirror image of the cable.   I didn’t want to use a plain stockinette stitch in between the cables and decided ribbed garter.

I knit swatches for both Bjärs Hitches and the ribbed garter on different needle sizes until deciding on the size that worked best with both the cable and the ribbed garter.  In calculating the number of stitches I needed (after the initial 2/2 ribbing), I needed separate gauges for the cable and the body stitch.

The result will be a cardigan fully customized for Thor, one that he can wear for the rest of his life.  And every time I see him wear it, I will know all those hours of gauging and swatching were worth it.


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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32 Responses to Math Skills & Gauge Avoidance?

  1. Knit for You Designer says:

    I don’t have a problem with math. I started spinning my own yarn so I can make quality garments. I’m finding out now that spinning yarn only producing enough for small projects. A sweater takes about two and a half pounds of fiber at about $45.00. The problem is that I don’t have the patience to wait to spin the entire lot before wanting to make something. I’m a result oriented knitter. That is why I’m making small projects. What I have decided to do is continue buying commercial yarn to satisfy my urges in order to spin the lot needed for larger projects. 🙂


  2. Yes … and I think it not only helps one not be afraid of math, but helps us realize how practical and necessary math is to our everyday activities! Thanks for popping by!


  3. Vonna says:

    I found this interesting. Especially the part where MANY women feel they are bad at math. I know for a fact that somewhere around grade 9/10 I blanked out during math (things got too complicated real quick) and I just fell behind. As a result the rest of my highschool was spent barely getting through math courses. So I feel I am bad at math. However, I have noticed a dramatic increase in understanding when it comes to math since I’ve been knitting. I use to crochet but never bothered with gauge swatches.

    In short, I agree that these crafts and many others that require calculations, adjustments, sizing and the like can help you increase math. My reasoning is that if you enjoy it you put forth a greater effort to understand it even it takes more time to do so.

    Thanks for liking my post.


  4. cleo14 says:

    I don’t mind gauge at all, I just don’t have the attention span for a longer project… 🙂


  5. Thanks for popping by! Re appealing blend of art and mathematics, all of nature around us evidences that blend (think, e.g., Fibonacci sequences in nature) … so at some level maybe there’s a subconscious reason knitting attracts many of us … ? 🙂


  6. I’d add that it depends on “cheap” and what one values. That is cheap sweaters generally look cheap, don’t keep their shape well, and pill. They, simply, don’t last long. In this day of always wanting new things (no matter quality), that may be okay with a lot of people. But few things are less attractive than a gorgeous, handknit shawl/scarf etc. on top of an ugly saggy sweater. 🙂

    Re gauges, I understand your frustration. I tend to knit loose and have knit my share of sweaters on a US2-3 when the pattern calls for a 5-6! More and more I am simply choose to design my own so I get exactly what I’m looking for.

    But, as you noted, many knitters are uncomfortable modifying patterns, but I wonder how many have learned from an experienced knitter? Again, it probably goes back to comfort level, time, willingness to learn something new (not to mention size of one’s pocketbook!).


  7. ashlityre says:

    Perhaps knitters are making a specific kind of cost- benefit analysis. It seems to me that sweaters are quite cheap to purchase as compared to the cost of quality yarn and the investment of time. However, knit accessories, such as hats, cowls and scarves, remain relatively more expensive and limited in availability. It is quite hard to find affordable and appealing knit accessories.

    Also, attaining the gauges recommended in sweater patterns can also be a source of frustration that scares off knitters. I am working with a pattern where I dropped down from a size 6 to 2 needle and still the gauge was off. At that point, I felt I had to modify the pattern, rather than the needle size. Many knitters are not comfortable modifying sweater patterns.


  8. keiryberry says:

    Super post (and comments ) and I agree with all the points you make. I’ve even had conversations with other knitters who say oh I’m hopeless at maths after they’ve just adjusted their pattern successfully without realising they were doing math. It’s a mindset that sadly holds lots of people back. Interestingly quite a few of the knitters at our knitting group (me included) have careers in STEM. I love that knitting is a blend of art and mathematics and I’ve wondered if that is what appeals to others too.


  9. Yes it can be frustrating when you hit bumps and end up with surprises. 🙂 Something to keep in mind that one yarn worked on identical sized needles BUT from different manufacturers can result in a different gauge; your morning gauge may differ from your evening gauge (when you are more prone to be tired); fiber content in identical weight fibers worked on identical sized needles can result in a different gauge; your gauge as you knit longer (and get older!) also changes. Thus I gauge and swatch for every project – even if I’m knit with the same yarn, same size needles and same stitch pattern. Oh what fun! 🙂



  10. I know what you mean! My daughter – despite my encouragement and praise – decided she was “bad at math” after struggling with high school calculus (like many do!). But, as a college undergraduate in a program that required a several semesters of statistics, she discovered that she wasn’t “bad at math.” A few weeks ago I was helping my granddaughter with her “math” homework (she’s in kindergarden and working on number patterns), and I saw she was unconsciously doing multiplication in her head. Both my grandchildren evidence interest in working with math concepts, so I encourage that of course. When I cook with them, for instance, I demonstrate how we can use three 1/3 cup measurements in place of a one 1 cup measurement. And I’ve taught my grandson (8 yrs) to play 21 and am introducing the concept of odds. (I did the same with my daughter when she was little too.) We don’t play for money, though. 🙂 >


  11. caityrosey says:

    Yeah, I’ve heard weaving can use up handspun faster than knitting. I gave some of mine away at Christmas. So hard to keep up and stay in practice.


  12. I agree completely! Too much of life’s lessons and metaphors are designed around stereotypical male activities! After I explained the mathematical basis of, say, designing a sweater, colleague of mine who was a math professor started using that in one of her classes! >


  13. 🙂 I first took up spinning because I wanted to knit from yarn made by my own hands … and then I ended up with too much handspun so I took up weaving … at least it’s a fun and productive addiction! >


  14. All good points; thanks for adding to the conversation! I think your triparte knitting plan is a great idea … I tend to work like that too. In fact, this morning Thor said he hoped the v-neck part of the sweater wouldn’t allow him to get too cold … so now I’m thinking another “easy” pattern – a coordinating scarf to knit when I need an easy project. 🙂



  15. DK is such a great weight anyway! Today, as I’m almost up to where I will join sleeves, I am going to recheck my notes for making the v-neck of the cardigan (the shawl color and button bands will be added later) … and then start the sleeves. At least all the swatching is done, but the math is never out of sight … 🙂



  16. Good point. Perhaps schools should teach math through knitting & crocheting? (and baking, sewing, etc.) I vary between large and small projects, easy and more complicated.


  17. caityrosey says:

    I think I would view that as delayed gratification if I didn’t enjoy spinning.

    Also, I find the urge to spin is separate from my urge to knit. It’s not necessarily a contiguous process for me 🙂


  18. textileshed says:

    Awesome post! I actually have observed the same phenomenon and I am wondering if this is in keeping with everything else in our times – no time… too much effort… we want a quick fix…it’s hard to focus on something complicated. I knit mostly jumpers and cardigans and really do I swatch a lot – and often I feel (once the project is completed) that I did not swatch enough! Personally I don’t mind spending the time swatching and I now also work out my stitches and rows myself for my size even if I use a commercial pattern (I regret not doing it when the item doesn’t fit as well as it could) … though I am often itching to get going on a project and am tempted to rush this process. So the solution is: to have 3 projects on the go at any time: a. a jumper or cardigan (with all the associated pre-work) b. a small one to travel with c. a plain one for watching tv or chatting! how about that???


  19. kiwiyarns says:

    You are quite right. I have lost count of the time I’ve spent swatching and measuring and grumbling about how I’m never going to find the right gauge, yarn and pattern to match up! Probably why my sweater projects are not yet born. Perhaps that’s why a lot of Kiwi women knit only DK – they know their gauge and it won’t mess up! 😉


  20. streepie says:

    I have both small and large projects on the needles – as I a) like to take my knitting along with me, and 2) like the “instant” gratification of something small that is done quickly. And I like to knit big items (like cardigans and pullovers) because I can create unique items that fit me, and that I love to wear.

    However, you still need to get the gauge right on small stuff like socks and gloves (and hats!) if you want them to fit right. Swatching for bigger items is part of the knitting process – but I often find that my gauge on a swatch will be (slightly different) from the gauge of the larger piece.

    I’m a woman in STEM and also fairly good a maths – and I can still remember my husbands great-aunt trying to tell me (about 20 years ago) that her granddaughters were not good in maths because they were girls. When I pointed out that as I was also female and that did not stop me being bad a maths and science, she promptly said “but you – you are different” ;-). I hope that my daughter will turn out differently, too.


  21. jengolightly says:

    Hello! Very interesting post!

    I am currently knitting small items for a charity sale and I am finding it really hard to get the right fit even with gauge and the right materials.

    Last night I cast on some toddler mittens and they are wide enough to fit my 17 year old. I am going to ask my friends for measurements of their kids heads and hands and do my own patterns.

    If you are gifting or selling, you need fit, regardless of the project’s smallness.


  22. Deb says:

    I like your sweater knitting idea. It gave me my laugh for the evening.


  23. I never thought of the body image issue! Yet being able to design and knit your own sweaters gives you the power to create a garment that minimizes flaws and emphasizes all your good points! I served on a panel with a woman who, in her late 50s, was short and plump. But she dressed in a way that made anyone in the room take a double take – because it was so striking! Her use of colors AND fabric AND design. (She was also educated, intelligent, funny and nice.) Another friend of mine who, like many women, has body image issues, insists on wearing drab colors. That way, she explained to me, no one will notice her. I retorted: “Oh, they’ll notice you alright – but only as the woman in the drab clothes.” >


  24. Hmmm … you’re an avid spinner of your yarn before you pick up needles … so you don’t view that as delaying gratification? 🙂 (But I understand what you meant!)



  25. Knitting for five children – what ambition! And I think with the trick with “knitting sweaters for five children” is to knit two large sweaters and hand them down. 🙂 I remember, that even with one children, as a single mother working full time and going to school, knitting moments were to be treasured. And once finished my daughter generally refused to wear anything I knit for her – even though she picked the yarn and pattern. So maybe it was out of style by the time I finished? 🙂



  26. caityrosey says:

    What I meant was “sometimes a swatch does not tell you everything”


  27. caityrosey says:

    I would add another related idea. When I cast on a project for which gauge is not a concern it means that I get to cast on and knit right away, no waiting. And their is no anxiety about whether or not it will turn out the right size.

    With sweaters and other such gauge-matters items, there is always an element if anxiety, even when I’ve done a gauge swatch. After all, sometimes a swatch does tell you everything.

    So when I’m looking for a feel good project I’m looking for something that meets these needs in multiple ways. I’m looking for that instant hit of satisfaction, and I’m looking for something that does not cause anxiety.


  28. Deb says:

    I know I focus on small projects. Having 5 children to knit for, by the time I get through knitting 5 hats, two will have already lost them and it is time to start all over again. I can’t imagine constantly knitting sweaters for 5 children, I tried to do that when I had just two and that was tough. My last big project was a crib sized baby blanket knit in patterns with three colors of yarn, it took two years to complete.


  29. slippedstitches says:

    I think you are spot on about the lack of sweater knitting. I can’t tell you how many knitters and crocheters I have met who either will not or do not want to learn how to do the math to get a sweater or sock that fits. Another reason they give for not knitting sweaters is they don’t like the size of their bodies and don’t want to come face to face with their real numbers. So body image is another problem women have when knitting for themselves.


  30. I grinned as I read your comment, because I understand. I too generally have multiple projects on needles. I am not sure it is the gratification of finishing the small ones up quickly. I think I like to have multiple projects to choose from depending on my mood! 🙂 >


  31. Verónica says:

    For me, it’s about time and the gratification of an FO. For instance, as i worked on my son’s Hudson Bay blanket, which took a year, i would knit smaller items in between. The blanket became too big to take on a plane so the smaller projects kept my hands busy. While it might seem a distraction from the larger project, finishing a smaller pne was actually motivating to make progress on the larger.


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