On sizing with needles

In the knitting world there are different ways of changing the size of the thing you are knitting. In general, we expect knitting patterns to include more than one size, or if not multiple sizes then at the very least some form of guidelines for modifying the size if necessary. Most of the time this happens by changing the number of stitches and possibly also the number of repeats of a particular stitch pattern involved in the garment.

However, occasionally you will encounter a knitting pattern which accomplishes a change in sizing by changing the needle size, and maintaining the same (or, mostly the same) pattern instructions otherwise. The effect is that the number of stitches stays the same, but the gauge – and thus the size of the finished object – changes. This approach is less common, and I know that some industry guidelines actively discourage it. In general, I would argue that it is not an ideal approach in all situations, but I am quite in favour of applying this technique in certain instances. My Viper Pilots sock pattern as well as my 14 Karat sock pattern (pictured below), both used this technique, and the glove pattern I’m about to release this week (sneak peek below) also uses this method. The socks I’m working on for Elinor’s Socks Revived contest will likely also employ the changing-size-by-by-changing-gauge technique. I thought I’d take a moment to explain why I use this approach in some scenarios.


First, let me say that I don’t think this is an ideal approach for all garments. Sweaters or knee socks or other garments that need to be fitted to a large portion of your body should absolutely come with a variety of size instructions and this is best accomplished by changing the number of stitches. Changing the gauge in both row and stitch may not accomplish the exact proportionalitiy you want.

However, if we’re talking about relatively small garments that are going on your hands and feet, there’s a better likelihood of still achieving good proportional fit by changing gauge. By changing needle size you can easily achieve a better fit in circumference, while still maintaining the freedom to adjust length as needed. For example, in both the Viper Pilots and 14 Karat socks, I still include instructions to work the charted pattern until X inches before you wish to start the toe – this still accommodates a variety of foot lengths. The same can be said for gloves.


Using this approach also allows you to maintain integrity of the stitch pattern being used, without having to add or remove stitches. This is important for patterns which would become quite visually different with a change in stitch number, and when there is no obvious repeat of a motif.

Still, the main reason I like to use this approach – for socks in particular – is to conserve yardage. I have size 11 feet and I am extremely mindful of that fact when I select sock yarn for my own socks or for my designs. You will not find me using sock yarns with yardage less than 350-360 yards per 100g(ish) skein, and in fact i’m much more comfortable if that number is closer to 400 yards than anything else. My sock yarn stash reflects this.

Essentially, if you have big feet and are worried about having enough yarn left to do the socks you want at the length you want, the easiest way to add more worry to that equation is to increase the stitch count. More stitches use more yarn. I’m pretty comfortable up to about 72 or even 74 stitches in circumference on a sock, but upwards of that number I get pretty nervous. If you can achieve the same size difference of adding 6-8 stitches over 2.5mm needles than what you would get by simply increasing to 2.75mm needles, then I’m going to go for the needle change if it means the sock will fit me AND it will still look good and meet my yarnly needs. (The socks below are two separate sizes, worked using exactly the same pattern instructions – the difference is one needle size.)


Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, but Glenna, if we change the gauge how do we know we can still use the same yarn? Well, sometimes you don’t. You may well have to use a different yarn from what the original pattern sample uses. (I will often make suggestions when I do this). When it all comes down to it, I do not see this as a problem.

Many yarns are versatile and will accommodate a slight gauge change without too much trouble. This is, incidentally, why I tend to prefer the moderate fingering weight area – not too light, but still squishy. Yarns like Tanis Fiber Arts fingering weight, Madelinetosh Tosh Sock, Dream in Color Smooshy, Sweet Sheep Tight Twist, Fleece Artist merino sock, these all come to mind in this category. Many yarns will allow a slight change in gauge and still look good at either gauge. If you change the gauge drastically enough that you need to jump an entire category – i.e. from fingering weight up to sport weight, or sport weight up to DK, then that’s possible, too.

Whether or not you are using the same yarn as the pattern sample, you still have to ask yourself the same questions about whether or not you are getting the gauge you want. And the modern knitting world we live in has So. Much. Yarn. We have a lot of options if we want to change the yarn – and if it’s worth it to you to knit the pattern the way you want, it’s worth taking the time and effort to find the right yarn.

This has been today’s knitterly ramblings from my brain. Catch you again next time, with yet another pattern release! I’m on fire, I tells ya. On fire.


  1. I believe our grandmothers changed sizes like this often.

  2. Pretty gloves! πŸ™‚

    Glenna, how do you feel about using different needle sizes to *shape* garments (like sweaters) without actually using decreases to do so? I’ve seen a couple of patterns that suggest this, and it sounds logical enough. Please note I’m not looking at using a pattern like this any time soon — I’m just looking for opinions. I get like this with new fiber skills, this obsessive needing to know *every* *thing* about how it all works. Even if I can’t possibly understand it yet. Which is why I love hearing about your design projects — understanding how things are designed goes a long way towards understanding how they work in construction.

    Rambling off, now!

  3. ooooh more pretty twisted stitches! I don’t often do much sizing on socks. I just pick something near 60 stitches and needles near 2.5mm and then go. (I also rarely check my gauge on socks…) But it’s a good thing to think about.

  4. Val Champ · ·

    I am new back to knitting after 25 years and do this all the time with socks..LOL

    I use Blue Moon STR lightweight with any size needles from 2.0 mm to 2.5 with really good results, sometimes even within the same sock…a short row heel in the 2.0 mm size won’t fit but the 2.25 needle will, and you can’t see the difference.

    I really have to get some of that Madelinetosh sock yarn tho..everybody talks about it.

  5. Thank you for the thoughts. I also have largish feet (sz 10.5), so I completely understand where you’re coming from on the yardage issue. I had never thought to try working a sock on a larger needle, though, and have always tweaked the pattern to accommodate more stitches. That’s a lot of math sometimes, and not very fun.

  6. Thanks! Very informative post! My husband has size 16 feet in mens, and I learned the hard way to check yardage before committing to socks with certain yarns!

  7. Nice socks & gloves. I do use different needle sizes to change the gauge for my socks.

  8. I like that you suggest changing yarn to get an appropriate fabric at the larger gauge.

    Because the main thing that worries me about changing gauge to change size is that the fabric will be different.

    And for socks, a stiffer fabric wears better. I hate darning. And i also hate spending the time (and money, good quality yarn ain’t cheap) knitting my own socks to have them wear out too quickly.

    More should be written about this relationship between gauge and the nature of the fabric produced. Because you can GET different gauges with the same yarn by changing needle size but that doesn’t mean those gauges are appropriate for the use you want to put them to.

  9. Jennifer · ·

    I love your patterns and I’m really glad I found your blog because it’s nice to find a designer that knows not everyone’s feet are size 8 and smaller.

  10. Linda B. · ·

    I’m with JoVe. I like my socks knit at a tighter gauge to increase their longevity. If I need a larger size, I’d rather use a slightly heavier yarn than change needle size.

    I started making the “Snickets” socks using STR lightweight, and 2.0mm needles, and I’m sure they could stand on their own, but using a larger needle size would make them too large. I’ll have to use the yarn for another sock pattern.

  11. Luckily for me, I think, my gauge runs a little big, and so I can make a sock pattern meant for 5s on a set of 4s and the fit is right and the knitting gets firmer rather than looser. So the needle change, which was suggested by my instructor, works well for me. At least so far!

  12. Sarah JS · ·

    My last 3 pairs of socks I changed to a larger needle size for the leg portions. Works a charm for my feet – snug foot and not-too-tight leg.

    I also agree with knitting the foot at a tight gauge for longer wear. Takes me long enough to knit a pair, I’d like to keep them in use as long as possible!

    Thank you for the thoughts on needle sizing.

  13. What beautiful socks. I’m looking forward to the release!

    The whole gauge thing still freaks me out. It’s the reason I knitted scarves for so long,

  14. Laurie – I haven’t tried this step on purpose (other than the normal way of using a smaller needle size for cuffs and buttonbands), but I think it could have nice applications for things like waist lines, or to achieve a snug sleeve fit at the elbow or something like that. For a decorative and purposeful touch πŸ˜‰

  15. Brenda – thanks for that reminder πŸ˜‰

  16. Glenna: That is exactly how I’ve seen it used — waist shaping. Just have to check umpteen sources before I finally go and make up my own mind about … well, anything. πŸ˜‰ Thanks for the input!

  17. Rhona in Montreal · ·

    Glenna, interesting piece. Particularly since I just finished knitting 2 pairs of Cookie A’s Vilai using Tanis Blue Label, but sizing down by using 2.00mm needles. The finished products fit the recipients perfectly, but this is definitely the last time I attempt a pattern based on K3tog and SSSK with this combination of yarn weight and needles. I used nickel plated DPN’s and they actually bent from the force to get these stitches done! But other than this one difficulty, I do love Tanis Blue Label and understand your decision to use it on a regular basis.

  18. […] Most thoughtful post on sizing […]

  19. I have to complement you on your knitting blog. You have one of the nicer ones. There are so many out there that are just down right plain and boring. Your socks and gloves are really nice. I’ll be glad when I am able to knit at that level of skill. I am on the cusp of being an intermediate knitter. Anyway, your excellent work ( the blog and knitting) is greatly admired.

  20. this post is perfect, I too have size 11 socks and am terrified on starting super complex lacey cute socks only to find they’d fit someone smaller. AM MOTIVATED TO TRY NOW.

  21. mary ann linsell · ·

    I’ve had a hard time finding the “go-ahead” with what I want to do; there is a gorgeous pattern in a NORO book I’ll soon be working on; already ordered the expensive yarn, but the pattern is only written in sizes M/L. It is NOT a pattern where stitches can be removed, since it is a set of intertwining diamonds. It’s a boxy stlye, but the medium will be just too large, so I want to try and go down a needle size. It calls for a 6 and I’ll try a 5 instead. Any comments or suggestions?

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