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Gauge is the gold standard in the knitting world. It's the way we communicate about the fabric we create. Very experienced knitters learn about the inconsistencies of gauge over many years and many knitting projects. Different fibres, needle materials, needle types, blocking, moods and other factors all have an impact on gauge. We create a swatch, we work towards the stitch gauge expressed as a number and yet even when we get the right number the project does not always turn out exactly the way we expect.
What exactly is going on?
Since I get to work with sample knitters I see what happens when someone is trying to match my gauge. I've had the experience of being able to take their knitting and feel the drape and stretchiness of the fabric they created with the same yarn and in the same gauge as mine. Different knitters create different fabrics even with matching gauge numbers. It seems to be especially noticeable on rib based fabrics. Sample knitters usually produce a much bouncier ribbing than I do. I suspect that this has to do with how a knitter tensions their yarn as I have a relaxed knitting style and a light method of tensioning the yarn strand between two fingers.
In the sewing world this difference in fabrics is addressed by the stretch gauge that appears in the photo above. The amount of stretch has a huge impact on the fit of a garment. A stretchier fabric requires less ease, and will move with the body and be comfortable to wear. Less stretch and you need a larger garment to be comfortable. It's easy to compare this between stocking stitch, rib and cabled knitting. However have you ever compared the stretch while swatching when changing needle size to get gauge? Give it a try next time you are swatching to help advance your understanding of fabric and fit.