As I wrote the title of this blog it occurred to me how many applications tension has as a word. My Facebook memories this morning included Tash giving Elliott a snack before we ventured in to the wonder that was H&H Cologne. Doing a major trade show with a toddler created some tension! Then there are the anniversary memories of the 2020 lockdown and my concern about catching the train in 2022 when we were at peak Omicron. And this past week has been hard as the impacts of public sector job loss is increasingly felt and the sheer petty cruelty of the cuts to carer support for families living with disability.

Fair Isle colour work in green, coral and white

Hibernating feels like a bit of a thing. I am past half way on the body of Eunice, am onto the second sock of my train knitting, my Peach and Amaretto jam “experiment” is definitely worth repeating and last night I discovered there is this thing called a seatbelt port pillow which I will be making today (and which is so freaking obvious after someone on Threads mentioned it as a good gift for someone starting chemo, it shows how bad my chemo brain was last year that I didn’t google it then)

Hot cross buns cooling on a wire trivet

Yesterday I had my first non working Friday for a couple of weeks and as well as getting more of Eunice done, I decided to experiment with the dough making function of our breadmaker and in the absence of my oldest bread making book defaulted to the Donna Hay recipe for hot cross buns. I have a family reputation for not allowing hot cross buns until the week before Easter (which Nick has broken this year to my youngest son’s consternation) and I was decided to put the bread maker to the test for the first prooving. It took a bit of figuring out as our breadmaker is fussy about ingredient order. But ended up being spectacularly successful – as it was an experiment they have glaze but not crosses.

Fine blue wool thread wound around white card lying on blue tights

Someone I follow on Instagram (?) has a mending March and I have decided there are a couple of mends I want to do before the end of the month. One is the back pocket of my favorite jeans leggings which has given way at the bottom and the other is to darn a significant hole where I had to cut a brand new pair of winter tights out of a boot zip last year. I had a bit of a miracle find of some vintage haberdashery in Jet’s in Greytown yesterday of a card of French wool repairing yarn in about a close a navy as I think I am going to get. So that is also on my Easter week agenda.

But onto Tension – the exploration

A few weeks back on a Facebook group someone asked how they could improve their tension, which lead to a lot of comments and suggestions about all the things that can impact tension (or gauge)

I have been musing about that since and had a couple of chats about it at Unwind as I thought it could be an interesting theme topic for the year. I will confess right up front that I am one of those knitters who am very swatch resistant. But the “science” of all the things that impact tension appeals to me so I thought if I took it gently it could end up as a useful resource next time someone asks a question like that.

If you look on the label of many yarns there is typically an indication of the number of stitches and rows that yarn will knit up over (typically) a 4 inch/10 cm square at on the indicated needle size. A good pattern should also have the same indicator of number of stitches and rows per 10 cm that the designer used when creating the design. Not all designers specify a needle size – most suggest one, but there are designers who say choose a needle to achieve that gauge.

From memory – someone correct me if I am wrong – tension is the English/European term, gauge is the US term

attribution: probably my Mum

I am going to list a number of things that spring to mind when I am thinking about what could impact a tension/ gauge swatch. Please feel free to comment if you think I have missed something.

The yarn

  • The most obvious is the yarn weight which is also the most deceptive – knit five different swatches of different brands of apparently the same weight and they are all likely to be different. In Aotearoa the most cited example is the DK (double knitting) relationship to American worsted weight where on paper worsted should be a heavier yarn but in practice it is closer to our typical weight DKs.
  • The yarn type – different yarn types of the same weight can have a different gauge when knitted, both due to the yarn itself and how the knitter handles the yarn. This can be both fibre content and how the yarn is constructed.
  • How the yarn is wound – mainly as it impacts how freely the yarn feeds as you knit. One of my most disconcerting experiences I had with tension difference was knitting two at a time socks where one ball was hand wound and the other wound on a winder. This can also include a ball of yarn getting semi trapped under a chair or in a bag so the yarn isn’t travelling smoothly.

Yarn plus needles plus gauge plus pattern also have a huge influence on pilling

The needles

  • Again the obvious and closely related to my favorite topic is needle material. It is fairly generally known and widely accepted that needle material particularly wood and metal impact on tension but I suspect the increasing range of metal and wood types plus the acrylic outliers may also make a smidgeon of difference particularly with some yarn types and weights.
  • Circulars versus straights – I know this makes a difference to my tension. I am not sure if this is because I learnt to knit and established my knitting style on straights but I know I still knit faster on straights (and speed also impacts tension). I am not sure where DPNs and short tips fit in this spectrum.
  • It’s probably worth adding is an outlier – cable length with circulars. Again it is a freedom of stitches moving.

The pattern

  • If a pattern has a significant section of texture or multiple yarns, there is likely to be an alternative gauge for the patterned section. That is because as soon as you start contorting yarn you will change the tension.
  • The fabric that the pattern aims to create also influences the tension the designer will suggest. The tension for a lace shawl in fingering/ 4 ply weight is always going to be different than the tension for a pair of vanilla socks. But related to that there is also (for want of a better word) a cultural sense of what an appropriate gauge is for a knitted plain fabric. Which means a New Zealand knitter might find the suggested gauge of an American pattern a touch softer than our traditional garments.
  • There is a slight overlap here which segues into the next point – the designer’s gauge is theirs, and on occassion may be unique enough to be difficult to achieve

The knitter

  • First up will be knitting style/ technique. English versus continental is an obvious one here but even within that stitch makes a difference. My K1 P1 rib tension is rubbish whereas I get a very even stocking stitch fabric with my backward knitting purl.
  • Your knitting mood – what happens if you are knitting fast, when you are being interupted frequently, when you are focusing on your knitting or multi tasking. At a talk I went to with Amy Herzog she talked about being aware of our environment when we are swatching and then during our project. She said we needed to swatch long enough that we were in the flow as our tension would be at its most relaxed and if we are having difficulty maintaining tension in a project consider the context. Certain television watching or the just one more row in the car before picking someone up can tighten our stitches.

Other factors

And then there are the other factors, the size of our swatch, how it is blocked (or not) – I am sure I will think of the others.

So that’s my this year challenge – feel free to comment if I have missed something or you have thoughts.

In the meantime – my book recommendation:

A Kind of Shelter: Whakaruru-taha
An Anthology of new writing for a changed world

edited by Witi Ihimaera and Michelle Elvy

I am not going to say I have read this entire book because I haven’t. It is an anthology and I dip into it every now and then. I bought it having read an excerpt in Spin Off (Patricia Grace’s Whakarongo) which I loved. The easiest way to describe the contents is the back blurb “this luminous hui between 68 writers and eight artists features poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction, painting and photography, and korero about decolonisation, indigeneity, love, family, climate change and more. It is a book to return to time and again” There are stories and poems I have read several times and some I have not yet got to, there are pictures I am drawn to and revisit and some not so much. I actually had to order my copy (with thanks to Mrs Blackwell’s Village Bookstore but I have also seen it in New Zealand collections in independent bookstores more recently.

This was a collection born out of our Covid sheltering in place so as we mark another anniversary of that first lockdown it seems the right choice for this week.

2 thoughts on “Musings about tension”

  1. Hello Sonja

    I wonder if you can help?

    I have just rooted out very nice pure wool I bought years ago. It was described as Scottish Borders DK, white with a green strand. It is quite hard to the touch. I cannot get the tension correct.

    I made a swatch as usual and cast on stitches for the required width of 22”. I checked the stitches per inch were the same as the swatch and correct for the width and carried on. After completing the rib of 3” I found the width was 24.5”. How could that be? Is it something to do with the thickness of the thread or size of needle 4.5mm?

    Any ideas please?

    Sent from my iPad

    1. Hi Iris – hope you get this (have had a busy couple of weeks and only just saw your comment) Firstly was your swatch a good size least 40 stitches by 40 rows.Assuming this is pure wool and is not superwash, did you wash your swatch? I know with Brooklyn Tweed Shelter washing actually makes the stitches tighter after washing.Secondly is 22 inches the size you are making for – a garment size to fit 22 inches will be bigger as it needs to include ease. Also the way I am reading this your rib tension matched your swatch? Also assuming the swatch is based on stocking stitch checking it against a rib tension is not going to be correct. Hope those suggestions help.

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