News 4 reasons to knit a tension square

Published on April 5th, 2015 | by Angie


4 Reasons to knit a tension square

The knitting of tensions squares is the subject of heated debate in many knitting circles. Here are 4 consequences of not knitting the hotly contested tension square.

4 Reasons to knit a tension square - learn more at LoveKnitting!

1. Too big.

4 reasons to knit a tension square - read more on the LoveKnitting blog!

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I once met a crafter who knit a sweater large enough to house her entire extended family and half of her hometown, all because she didn’t knit a tension square. ”I followed the pattern exactly,” she said, though her tension was all wrong. She didn’t realize her mistake until it was too late, and the giant sweater smothered her and half of Iowa.

2. Too small.

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You spent months knitting Uncle Harry a traditional fun Christmas sweater for the annual family gathering, but your tension was all wrong and now all of the kids are posting this picture on Instagram. Uncle Harry says he’ll never live this down at work. Save Uncle Harry’s dignity. Knit a tension square (especially when knitting for other people).

3. Holey knitting, Batman.

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Sometimes we skip the tension square because it’s boring, and we know our personal tension – too loose, too tight, we can make adjustments! But it’s too late for adjustments when you’re halfway through the front of a sweater and you have to face the fact that blocking won’t fix the fact that your cabled fisherman sweater looks like a lacy openwork summer top.

4. Existential despair.


despair in knitting - knit a tension squareImage source: Tumblr

After spending countless hours knitting a garment for ourselves or a loved one, realizing that it doesn’t fit can be heartbreaking. Frogging an intricately cabled sweater can make a knitter want to use their needles as bonfire kindling and leave the yarn to the cats. I know a knitter who buried his needles in the backyard and left them there for 6 months after a particularly traumatizing situation involving an intricate lace panel cardigan that was 6 inches too short.

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How about you, knitters? To tension square, or not to tension square? That is the question.

About the Author

Jack of all trades, Master of Netflix and video games. A musician by passion, a gamer by choice, and a crafter by chance: I write about knitting and crochet, design fun patterns, and blog at GamerCrafting!

Last updated: April 7th, 2015.

31 Responses to 4 Reasons to knit a tension square

  1. Linda says:

    I have found over the past couple of years that I need to knit a tension square where for years before there was never any need. Although my knitting style has not changed it appears modern patterns and wool just don’t knit up the same. Is it just me?

    • Elsbeth says:

      No. Things are not as they should be. Patterns are odd. Especially now that we have access to so many on the internet, Pinterest, etc. I’m not complaining BUT I got one from a well-known site not long ago and was inundated with updates. What was the designer thinking of? Sorry, I ramble.

  2. Kalli says:

    I have noticed that even the guide squares on the yarn wrappers aren’t always an indication, but the yarn itself is so different – 8ply cotton and 8ply acrylic and 8ply wool just sit differently, some of them spread out and settle into the stitch to cover holes and some of them hew together and stay tightly twisted no matter what. Unless you are using the exact same dye lot as the person who made the pattern in the same conditions on the same needles, there will be differences. For example, if it is humid and warm and you are knitting with 100% wool chances are the wool will absorb some of the moisture from the air, if your needles are really sharp the wool might split more easily, the dye might have changed slightly and add a bit more weight to the wool so it hangs more.

    But that is what makes knitted things unique and made with love.

  3. Barbara says:

    I always do a tension square, but the actual knitting never has the same gauge.

    • Claire says:

      My problem too! I started knitting myself a cardigan during the winter. My tension square matched the pattern dimensions perfectly. I got to halfway up the second sleeve before I noticed that it’s all too wide! So the autumn will start with flogging followed by re-knitting! Fortunately I really like the yarn and pattern.

  4. Jenny says:

    Always for jumpers, cardigans etc (and I wash them per the ball band’s instructions); never for scarves, shawls or gloves. I use the squares for coasters afterwards.

    • Yvonne Dunmore says:

      That is brilliant Jenny. I never thought of using the squares for that. Thanks for the tip.

  5. Fiona Jayne says:

    What to do with all those squares? I’m thinking… what about sewing up a blanket?
    From now on I will faithfully knit a tension square!!

  6. mandy says:

    I did my square and worked out my tension. I knit a very intricate, aran weight sweater and all was grand till I washed it ! I now have a big dress. Yes I washed my tension square but I did not allow for the weight of the yarn. Maybe I should have knit a bigger square. Another lesson learnt.

  7. Kathy Swift says:

    I help run a knitting group in Southampton and I can’t seem to get through to the ladies how important it is to knit a tension square. I knit very loosely so I always knit a tension square first and always find I have to reduce the needle size for the project I want to knit.

  8. Sue says:

    It depends on the project. If I absolutely have to knit a square I will. However, I don’t wash it. I know, I know…bad girl. I just want to start the new project so much I throw caution to the wind. I don’t have leftover squares because I frog the tension square…yes, another no/no.

  9. What do I do if my stitch per inch is right but the rows don’t match up or vice versa? Which is more important? This happens to me when I do the test square (when I do them)! Also, I’ve found different types of needles (metal, wood etc.) Makes a difference.

    • Angelina says:

      Hi Denise –

      It can depend on the pattern, but generally if your rows aren’t exact, it isn’t a crisis. Much easier to shorten or lengthen your average garment than it is to have an incorrect width! For example, if my tension square is right according to stitches but a bit too short with rows, I’ll adjust the pattern by adding a bit more ribbing to the bottom, or increasing the number of repeats in a chart, etc. Does that help?

      Happy knitting!

  10. judith turner says:

    I have never knitted a tension square in my life and I am in my 70’s BUT coming back into knitting after a break of 20 yrs I find the choice of yarn frightening and very hit and miss where tension is concerned so I only knit shawls and scarves now! Where are all the ply yarns? Chunky doesn’t tell you anything so annoying and while I am having a winge – metric please! Imperial is long dead where I live so if the rest of the world could take note – life and knitting could be much more pleasant!

    • evie says:

      Don’t get me started on inches and crap…Never heard of it before I moved to this country jeez

    • Linda Galloway says:

      Have never knitted a tension square. Simply don’t understand how anyone could spend time knitting a project without realising well before the end that the size was so wrong. Have never produced a garment that was wildly wrong in the tension.

      Have been knitting for 60+ years, initially only in DK and 4ply, wool or bri-nylon (all that was available, really). Now thoroughly enjoying lace weights, fingering etc. in silks, bamboo, cotton, mohair blends etc.

      Always work in inches – have no idea what a centimeter looks like, but can “see” 4 inches in my mind.

  11. wendy leigh-bell says:

    I always knit a sample, but seldom does it reach the dimensions of a square. (Impatience) One of the best reasons for doing the sample is when you wish to use a yarn that is considerably different in guage from that used in the design. Years ago (1984) I did the math and followed the large size directions for a fine guage pullover which I still wear from time to time and always receive compliments. Angelina we are no doubt kindred spirits, usually have my knitting in my music bag or back pack in the days when I still hiked in case there is a break at choir rehearsal or the hike! ‘Course I have it in the car for sanity’s sake during hold ups.

  12. Jean Armes says:

    What on earth is frogging?

  13. Monica says:

    Yes, please always do a tension square., and keep it. Baby blankets, bedspreads or charity will all be consumers of the squares. When I have an assortment of squares I choose a colour then pick up stitches along one side, turn and cast them off. Repeat on each side. When you come to sewing them together the stitches won’t show, and a row or two round the whole will finish it all off elegantly

  14. Patsy says:

    I have never knit a tension square, and as usual, I have 3 knitting projects on the go. Two of them I know will be fine, but now I feel really anxious about the third, & biggest (and most nearly finished one). With only the second sleeve of my husband’s cable sweater to knit, plus making up, how will I live with myself if it’s all wrong? ??? Eeek!

    • Linda Galloway says:

      Think you should have measured it against your husband before now. Mine is used to being asked to “hold out your arm” while I check sleeve length.

      Pattern sizes are only a guideline – make garments to fit the intended wearer.

  15. Kay says:

    I’m still new to knitting and am often overwhelmed by all the different yarn weights, and what goes best for what pattern. When I started knitting June 2014, the lady at the shop sold me 2 skeins of a silk blend, printed out a shawl pattern from Ravelry, sold me a set of Knitters Pride Cubix interchangeable needles – and said I’d have no problem with it. I think she had a couple of $35 hanks of yarn she wanted to sell and I was gullible. Worked on it for a while and got discouraged, so I switched to dishcloths to fine tune my tension and learn different stitches (it’s just a dishcloth so it’s okay if I mess it up).

    Fast forward to this summer: I unraveled the shawl and started over. What I’m making now looks SO much better. I still did the cast on stitches a bit too tight but I think by adding a border it will be alright.

    One main question that I have is this: where do you find a chart (and does one even exist) to know which needle to switch to if you need to match the gauge? What’s the rule of thumb for this? For example, if the pattern says “size 8 needle or size to match gauge”, how the heck am I supposed to know which needle to switch to? Do I just start over with a size 7, then try a 6, etc. until I get it right? Is there a tried and true chart – i.e. use a smaller needle for smaller stitches or larger size for larger stitches? HELP!!!

    • Anne says:

      If you have too few stitches, go down a size in needles(i.e., from an 8 to a 9, the needles get thinner as the number goes higher and vice versa). If you have too many stitches go up a needle size (i.e., from an 8 to a 7).

      I don’t think I’ve ever needed to change up or down more than one size in 40+ years….

  16. Mary Wolf says:

    I’m surprised that people get to near-completion of a garment before they discover it’s too large or too small. I have always had that difficulty with tension mentioned above – one dimension is fine, the other not – so I measure as I go along – a bit obsessively, I’m afraid. I also do that because what might be OK in a tension square seems to acquire a new life when it’s part of a bigger garment – AND, if I get more tense or more relaxed, so can my knitting!

  17. Kathleen says:

    Many local yarn shops or craft stores will collect your gauge squares and someone will join them into charity projects such as blankets or scarves.

  18. Barbara Armstrong says:

    This is in response to Kay’s questions. In the U.S., and obviously if you are using metric measurements for your needles, the needle size gets bigger as the number gets bigger. The reverse is true only for the U.K. If you need more stitches to the inch, use smaller needles. Larger needles will give you fewer stitches to the inch. And yes, you just need to experiment to get the gauge you want. In my 30’s and 40’s, I tended to knit to the gauge indicated on the yarn wrapper. Now, in my 60’s, I usually have to go to a needle two sizes smaller to get gauge. Swatches, including ones larger than the suggested 4 inches/10 cm., are indispensable for items that need to conform to expected dimensions. Also, wash and block your swatch, especially if it is a lace pattern. I attach labels to remind me of the exact yarn, needle size used, number stitches cast on, and resulting gauge measurement. I use those little white tabs with the strings already attached for these notes. I have also started adding information about cast-on and cast-off methods so I can replicate nice results later. Enjoy your knitting!

  19. Kay says:

    Why does no one ever mention yardage in this debate! If your knitting an extra row and not too worried about the fit, all those extra rows per 4inch square are going to add up, and you WILL run out of yarn, those who say, ‘but my pattern said six balls and I needed seven’, I bet this is the reason why. Conversely with to much yarn purchased when not doing enough rows. Important when the yarn is discontinued!

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