Those new to knitting and crochet may be surprised at what an integral role math plays in both crafts. When designing a garment, the overall shape, dimensions, size and drape are based entirely on math. To make a knit or crocheted pattern, you need a strong comfort level with some basic math. But don’t worry… it can be fun!
As I like to say, the only kind of math I enjoy is knitting and crocheting math! Let’s take gauge for example. Put simply, gauge is the number of stitches you have per inch with a particular weight yarn and its corresponding needle size. You will also find gauge information on the ball bands of yarn that tells you how many stitches you get per inch and what size needles to use. Patterns will list a stitch and row gauge to help you determine if your yarn and needles are the right weight and size for the project. If your gauge is the same as what the pattern calls for, that means your finished project will end up meeting the dimensions determined by the pattern.
So, gauge is essentially an invariant standard that enables you to change your coordinate system or measuring framework (e.g. from inches to centimeters to pixels to finger widths) and still get the same exact end product when you’re all finished.
This gauge concept permeates math and physics. Physicists use the concept of gauge to transform the coordinate systems they use when measuring the positions and speeds of tiny particles trillions of times smaller than you and me. They have a gauge that enables them to say that the particle they saw over here is the same particle they later saw over there.
Einstein actually became famous for inventing a gauge. A key part of his general theory of relativity, published in 1915, invented a gauge that lets two people in very distant locations prove that they are looking at the same exact part of space, say, a particular planet. The gauge tells one person how to transform his coordinates to look at the planet from the perspective of the other person. Without the gauge, the two people could never prove they were looking at the same planet.
It’s the same with knitting. Without the gauge, two makers of a beautiful cowl could never prove they made the same exact cowl!
Thankfully, our equations are much simpler than Einstein’s. We don’t need to learn differential calculus and linear algebra. The main thing we need is good old fashioned discipline. Let’s say you are making a cowl and you want to skip starting with a gauge swatch. I admit I’ve done this before — and it can be safe to do…sometimes. But that is a topic for another article!
For our purposes, let’s just say the gauge for the cowl pattern is 3 sts to the inch with a super bulky weight yarn. The finished circumference for the cowl is 23 inches and you are to cast on 69 sts. But instead of using a super bulky yarn, you want to use that beautiful worsted weight skein of yarn that’s been hanging out in your stash for who knows how long. The band on the worsted weight skein says the gauge is 5 sts per inch. Now, if you are knitting a garment that needs a certain fit — like a sweater, hat or socks — you always want to do a gauge swatch.
Without a gauge swatch you can end up with a hat that won’t fit over your head or socks that won’t stay on your legs. But this is just a cowl and we decided to wing it, remember!?
Let’s get back to our knitting math. So, if the ball band on your yarn says the gauge is 5 sts per inch, how many stitches do you need to cast on in order to create a cowl that is 23 inches in circumference? The math is simple, just multiply the sts per inch by the desired circumference. In this case 5 x 23 = 115. Well done. You just did knitting math. Einstein might not be very impressed, but I am!
As your knitting and crochet skills improve, the difficulty of the math you encounter will increase as well. Maybe that cowl you were knitting has a heart-shaped lace pattern repeating in the center. It can be a challenge to make sure there is both vertical and horizontal symmetry in the pattern. Thankfully, you have the gauge (and your trusty knitting math skills) to guide you as you knit, yarn over, and k2tog your way to a perfectly balanced lace pattern.
Alas, if only we had a gauge for life! When I am feeling overwhelmed, it just feels like everything is out of balance. This can happen when the priorities I place on my physical health, time with my family or my emotional well-being, are not symmetrical. When trying to regain balance in my life, I often look to the ancient text, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda. The sutras are a scholarly text outlining step-by-step how to practice yoga. There are 196 threads of wisdom, aka sutras. One of the guidelines to practicing yoga poses is found in Sutra II.46, which states that a yoga posture is to be both steady and comfortable (Sutra II.46 Sthira Sukamasanam) . Similar to that lace pattern in your cowl, you want a posture to be open and balanced at the same time.
In yoga, we strive to find the center, where we can be both strong, and easeful. So, if you are in a downward facing dog pose, you should breathe with ease, finding it to be a strong and flexible posture. If you find you are struggling to catch your breath, or are shaking and can only think of the discomfort of the posture – then it is time to come out of it and breathe. There is no need to force it. Over time you can build up your strength and find the balance you seek. Eventually you will be able to hold a posture for an extended period of time while breathing deeply and with ease. This is when you will feel the full mental and physical benefits of the posture.
It is like learning lace. You begin by knitting two together and then making a yarn over, creating simple eyelets. Then you may eventually find yourself working with an ssk, yo, skp, and so on. Simply begin where you are, and don’t try to jump ahead. So the sutras act as a kind of gauge for my life. They help me translate whatever it is I’m experiencing into a coordinate system that I can understand. And, usually, once I truly understand whatever has me out of whack, it tends to melt away if I give it enough time and follow my gauge.
Finding balance in our knitting and our bodies is something many of us strive to do. That imaginary cowl you are knitting in your head could consist of anywhere from 1,500-5,000 interconnected stitches, and we use a pattern (and our math skills!) to achieve symmetry within the design, letting the gauge be our north star.
Our bodies alone have 600 muscles interconnected with fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue that attaches and stabilizes the muscles. And how do we find a place of balance and ease in our bodies? Through practice and patience. Patterns are written against a backdrop of symmetry, so that the various increases and decreases mirror each other. In yoga classes, we try to do the same. We hold postures for the same amount of time on the right and left sides to create symmetry in our body. As with our knitting, we will always make the occasional mistake. We may drop a stitch or blow off yoga class for a night of Netflix. But the pattern and our yoga sutras will always be there to help guide us back to a place of balance and ease. Like Einstein, as long as keep our gauge near, we’ll always be able to find our way back home.
ABOUT THE Author: Liza Laird
Liza is a spinner and knitter of wool and a lover of handstands. Liza started knitting at the wee age of 8 and hasn’t stopped since. She received formal yoga training in her early 20s in NYC as a 500 HR Registered Yoga Teacher and an 800 HR Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist. She taught at studios for nearly a decade in NYC and Boston, including Yoga Works and Harlem Yoga Studio.
Liza leads yoga retreats worldwide in places including Bali, Thailand, Italy, Peru, and locally in Vermont and Texas. She also hosts workshops on yoga and knitting in the eastern United States when she’s not taking care of her husband and daughter, Tom and Isa, or her dog, Cosmo.