It’s a question that sometimes comes up in conversations. We all knit with different tension. But for those of us who find ourselves on the extreme ends of the tight/loose knitter spectrum, is it possible to retrain our hands to knit closer to a happy medium?
The answer is definitely yes, and I know many knitters who have done this. In fact, I myself used to be a very loose knitter, and deliberately tightened my tension around 2 years ago - so that the needles I use on any given project now are about .5mm larger in diameter than they would have been then.
But as a prequel, let me first say that being either a loose or a tight knitter is not in of itself a problem and in most cases does not mean that you need to retrain yourself to knit differently. It only means that the needle diameter you choose for projects will be consistently smaller or larger than what is recommended in patterns.
So for instance, let’s say a sock pattern recommends 2.5mm needles, and this recommendation is aimed at the ‘average’ knitter meeting gauge. If you are a loose knitter, you will need to go down to 2.25mm or even 2.00mm needles to meet gauge. And if you are a tight knitter, you will need to go up to 2.75mm or even 3.00mm needles to meet gauge. Again, not a problem. After some time knitting you will likely know how your tension compares to the so-called average, and pre-emptively start swatching with a needle size that is either a bit smaller or larger than what is recommended in patterns.
Individual difference in tension becomes problematic, only if your knitting is so much looser, or tighter, than the typical average, that you cannot source needles small enough or large enough in diameter to meet gauge for the pattern. For tight knitters this can happen with bulky knits. For loose knitters, this mostly happens with fingering-weight socks - which was the case with me.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I had actually never knitted socks out of ‘sock yarn’ until abut two years ago. Before that, I made socks mainly out of rustic wools, which were either DK or sportweight. When I first tried fingering weight sock yarn, I was unable to meet gauge on even the smallest needles available to me. Of course I could go down in stitch count and knit at a looser gauge. But experimenting with that confirmed that it was a bad idea. Socks must be knitted densely to be durable. If I wanted to knit a sock at a 35st gauge, with the needles available to me, I needed to tighten up.
This took willful practice, and was more than a little frustrating. I used 2mm needles, stainless steel and not overly slick. I cast on a 64 stitch sock. And then, knitting at about a third of my usual speed, I made a concerted effort to tighten my tension when working each individual stitch. I do not know how to describe the physicality of this in any greater detail than that. But the comparison that comes to mind, is trying to write smaller than is natural for your handwriting. Imagine you are working with one of those workbooks you get either as a child when first practicing your handwriting, or as an adult if you have ever done a calligraphy workshop. You do not focus on the sentence or even on the word, you focus on each individual letter and take care to make it the correct size and form. In the same vein, I focused on working each individual stitch, pulling tight on the yarn. It took a while to make that first sock! But by the time I got half way through the leg, tightening my tension did become more natural and I was able to speed up a bit. By the time I finished the pair, it became automatic and I was able to knit socks at a 35st gauge on 2mm needles.
Of course, retraining myself to tighten my tension affected my overall knitting, meaning that my needle size went up across the board. If in the past I had used 3.5mm needles to meet a 20st gauge, I now meet that same gauge with 4mm needles. And so on.
Funny enough, I still knit a bit looser than the average knitter. But again, that does not matter as long as I am consistent, and am able to meet gauge with an available needle size - which, happily, is now the case.