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Gauge Does Matter


Gauge Does Matter In Felting

By Nora J. Bellows

I was looking through some on-line forums this morning and came across several conversations about felted bags.  There was a good deal of frustration being discussed amongst the participants about projects that came out different sizes than those projected in the patterns.  Across the board, the participants were annoyed, even angry, that their bags turned out much bigger than they expected. 

All of the participants who suffered thus then mentioned various felting. . . ah, myths I’ll call them, as the mostly likely culprits for their over-large bags:

“I know gauge doesn’t really matter in felting”

Not so, not so! Gauge DOES matter in felting!  While your stitch and row gauge may not matter if you are not following instructions that predict that a bag (or what have you) will be a certain finished size, it absolutely matters if you are following a pattern and expect your project to be the size that the pattern announces.  Simply, a larger gauge means more yarn, and more yarn will not felt as small or tight as less.  Less yarn, smaller gauge, means a smaller finished project. 

An example where gauge (size) matters:  If you make one of my flowers with a double strand of Cacade 220 on US size 11 needles, you will get a different size than if you make the same flower on size 17 needles and use a chunky yarn such as Rowan’s Baby.  The fundamental difference is a difference of gauge.  Equally, if my friend Joanne is a relaxed knitter whose unfelted projects ALWAYS are larger than mine, even though we work on the same needles and with the same yarn, her felted projects will also likely be bigger simply because there is more fabric in her project.

What happens if you substitute yarns?  Let’s use my patterns in this example.  I call for a double strand of Cascade 220, a worsted weight 100% wool yarn.  Let’s say you substitute Cascade for another worsted weight yarn.  Regardless of whether the yarn you use is a double strand of worsted weight yarn, however, that yarn may felt quite differently than the yarn called for in the pattern.  It may have a different inherent weight and density.  It may have lanolin content.  It may be lighter.  It may be plied differently.  All of these differences result in differences in how the yarn felts.  Combine this with differences in your own knitting style, needle size, the violence of the wash cycle, how long you leave it in there, and whether or not you use a top-loader, and you can end up with a significant size difference.

Does this mean that substituting yarns won’t work?  Of course not, but it means that just as you need to go to a little extra lengths when you substitute yarn for a sweater, checking your gauge carefully, you need to do this extra checking with a felted project, too.  This means making sure that your unfelted gauge is the same, but, perhaps more importantly, check that your felted gauge is the same.  So, while you likely won’t need to swatch if you use the called for yarn and needles, you will need to swatch if you are using another yarn and another needle size than that called for in the pattern.

Not all felting yarn felts the same, even if knit to the same gauge.  I have tried a lot of different yarns in my felting and they each have different qualities.  Mountain Mohair has a soft, fluid, felt.  And you have to wait a bit for it to felt.  While a single strand of Manos on 11s might give you the same gauge I get in my patterns with Cascade, it often produces a larger end result.  These things are fine, even exciting, as I see it, but they must be approached with intelligence and patience.  As the Tao Te Ching so eloquently states, “Those who rush ahead never go far.”  Charge forward without checking your gauge and you may end up with a bag that is much larger or smaller than you expect.

“T______ told me that in order for something to felt well you pretty much need to be able to put your fingers through it before it’s felted.”

It is simply untrue that the unfelted fabric must be lacy and airy or it will not produce a good felt.  If this were the case, then that dense 100% wool sweater that was accidentally thrown in the washer should not have shrunk from a man’s extra large size down to a sweater that would fit a child (like a straight jacket, mind you).

The salient factor in felting is less the “air” around the stitches than it is the simple physics of wool.  Wool is hair that has a corkscrew shape to it.  The wool fibers create a felt because when they are agitated or harassed—as the washing process does nicely, or excessive pummeling with a broom, or walking on it, or dragging it over the ground, etc.—the fibers start to interact with each other.  Those little corkscrews start to wind up around each other and to pull themselves into little spirals.  That process, once started, really cannot be reversed (it might wear thin or relax a bit, but those little spirals stay wound around each other). 

Once you understand the physics of wool and the physics of felting, you can easily understand why “air” has little relevance.  In fact, what makes the felting process progress faster and tighter is proximity, surface area, and agitation.  This is why Fair Isle wool fabric felts tighter and denser than a single layer wool fabric.  Two layers of wool fibers have each other to work against and, thus, pull tighter together.  It is this same principle in action (though rather reversed) when the top of your bag flares.  Again, physics dictates this process.

“Two strands of yarn on a size 11 needle won’t felt well because there is not enough air between the stitches.”

If we accept the physics of wool and felting explored above, we can see the problem with this idea. 

(I mean, if this were true then we couldn’t further shrink an already felted bag.)  Combine this with our understanding of the workings of gauge, and we can see why going up in needles size would not only give you more “air” between your stitches, but would result in a bigger gauge.  This, in turn, will result in a larger finished project (and likely a longer felting time).

And while we are on the topic of what matters in felting, dye lot ALSO matters, most notably when you are knitting a solid fabric.  I have myself fallen victim to this myth.  Unless you are striping or (perhaps) working a Fair Isle pattern, it does matter what dye lot you use.  Dye lots can impact not only the color of the yarn, but also the quality of the felt.  If you’ve done much felting, you’ve noticed that some lots felt more tightly than others, some felt more furry, some take longer to achieve the desired density.  So, better to err on the side of abundance, I think, when picking yarn for your projects.  Getting that extra skein is like insurance.  You might fret a little if you didn’t use it, but you would really cry if you needed it and didn’t have it.