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Tension Squares - Are They Really Necessary?

Posted on October 22 2017

If you had asked me 12 months ago whether I bothered with tension squares I would probably have said 'no'. Usually I cannot wait to get on with a project and the process of knitting a square just to check my tension seemed a waste of time. What a difference a year makes.......!

So, what has changed? Well, basically, whereas previously I used to stick to familiar yarns and so I knew that I usually had to go down a needle size to get the correct tension, these days I am trying out lots of new yarns in different weights and fibres and have subsequently discovered, the hard way, that tension squares really do save a lot of time and effort in the long term.

When did my epiphany moment occur?.....I was designing a sweater in the beautiful, soft Falkland Aran from Debbie Bliss. I was just about to start on the second sleeve, having finished the front and back, when I thought that I had better check the sleeve length was correct. I gently soaked and blocked the knitted sleeve to discover, very quickly, that my sleeve had grown by at least 6 inches! The softness of the wool combined with my loose tension proved pretty disastrous. Still, on the positive side, I had well and truly learnt my lesson! My next attempt in this lovely yarn was swatched and I actually had to go down a couple of needle sizes from that recommended on the ball band to get the correct tension. The final result was the broken cable pattern sweater shown below. I will be selling the pattern, designed especially for Falkland Aran, as soon as I have finalised the design for larger sizes.If you had asked me 12 months ago whether I bothered with tension squares I would probably have said 'no'. Usually I cannot wait to get on with a project and the process of knitting a square just to check my tension seemed a waste of time. What a difference a year makes.......!

So, what has changed? Well, basically, whereas previously I used to stick to familiar yarns and so I knew that I usually had to go down a needle size to get the correct tension, these days I am trying out lots of new yarns in different weights and fibres and have subsequently discovered, the hard way, that tension squares really do save a lot of time and effort in the long term.

When did my epiphany moment occur?.....I was designing a sweater in the beautiful, soft Falkland Aran from Debbie Bliss. I was just about to start on the second sleeve, having finished the front and back, when I thought that I had better check the sleeve length was correct. I gently soaked and blocked the knitted sleeve to discover, very quickly, that my sleeve had grown by at least 6 inches! The softness of the wool combined with my loose tension proved pretty disastrous. Still, on the positive side, I had well and truly learnt my lesson! My next attempt in this lovely yarn was swatched and I actually had to go down a couple of needle sizes from that recommended on the ball band to get the correct tension. The final result was the broken cable pattern sweater shown below. I will be selling the pattern, designed especially for Falkland Aran, as soon as I have finalised the design for larger sizes.
My advice then, no matter how desperate you are to get on with your next project, is just take some time to knit up a tension square and I have attached a 'How to Knit a Tension Square' pattern which makes a neat square for measuring. Some, very organised ladies, tag their squares with the wool/needle size/tension achieved and keep for future reference - I have yet to get that organised! The alternative is to keep the squares and make them into a unique blanket.

Every knitting pattern will tell you whether you should be measuring the tension over stocking stitch or over a specified pattern. The important thing to note when knitting a square is to ensure that it is larger than the measurement required for checking the tension. i.e. if the tension is 22 st and 24 rows to 10cm (4in) then add extra stitches and rows to knit a square 30 st by 30 rows.
Once the square is completed it should be lightly steamed or pressed before measuring. There are various ways to measure: the simplest way I have found is by using the Addi Gauge; an alternative is to measure the distance (usually 10cm/4in) with a ruler and mark with pins before counting the stitches and rows in between the said markers. It is recommended to use a solid ruler rather than a measuring tape as some of these can stretch with age. Embarrassingly, one of my tapes is so old it has not even got metric markings on it!  

Personally, I am mainly interested in the number of stitches in the width and do not worry about the number of rows to the required tension instead, I just knit until the correct length is reached. The number of rows to a gauge can be important if the pattern is determined by 'rows' rather than length. If this is the case, you can work out the equivalent length e.g. if a pattern says knit 50 rows and the tension is 40 rows to 10cm then each row is 10/40 = 0.25cm and therefore 50 rows = 50 x 0.25cm = 12.5cm.

The number of stitches in the width is important: 
too many stitches to 10cm indicates that you knit to a 'tight' tension and you need to change to larger needles or your project will be too small;
too few stitches to 10cm suggests that your tension is 'loose' and you need to change to smaller needles otherwise your project will end up too large.

I am sure that the majority of you are already well aware of swatching but for those of you who, like me, never really bothered with the process I can only reiterate: if you take the time to complete a tension square before diving into your project you will almost certainly save yourself potential frustration and failure in the long term. Alternatively, you can always design your own patterns and then you dictate the tension!

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