There are three different schools of gauge, or finding the right number of stitches and rows to create an appropriate fabric. First, there is the gauge specified on your pattern. Second, there is what we could call personal gauge, or the way that you obtain pattern gauge by your choice of size of knitting needles, yarn selection, and the way that you knit, either tighter or looser than the archetypal knitter of that pattern. Third, there is what I call comfort gauge, which is the confluence of yarn choice, needle size, pattern, and your style of knitting so that the work is pleasurable, smooth both physically and mentally.
For me, there is a vast cavern between personal gauge and comfort gauge. Although I am hitting the pattern gauge of the Snap Cardigan dead-on by using size 8 circular needles and Malabrigo wool, I am struggling each stitch both to assure myself that I'm on the right size needle and to finesse the stitch so that it feels comfortable. Looks good, but doesn't feel so good to knit:
Knitting should be enjoyable, right? It should have a flow and a smoothness, so that your brain has enough to occupy itself, your arms and hands and fingers stay loose and relaxed, and the completed fabric has a good balance between structure and drape.
Full disclosure: I didn't do a gauge swatch for this project. That means working up a fairly large sample of the fabric as a test ground; the idea is that you should be working out the gauge bugs before you start on the big, and more invested, project. But I'd used this yarn before and I felt lazy. I am way too product-focused, so I took out my old gauge swatches, found the Malabrigo examples, and extrapolated from there. Ooh, bad knitter! As a result, the sleeve ribbings are on size 7 circulars and the body of the sleeve on size 8, because I'd realized that size 7 was too tight for this sweater.
A few things happen as I knit. I believe that I knit more tightly as I go along. And, more significantly, I knit more tightly across longer areas of the garment, so that what is comfort gauge on the sleeves almost always feels too tight as the gauge for the back.
There are a few solutions available to me. First, I could do a gauge swatch. Second, I could try working the fronts on size 9 needles and see how that feels. That's what I've started, but it looks too loose and floppy and feels mushy as I knit.
And my brain keeps fussing: too loose, too loose, now you'll have to rip out the sleeves and all that you've accomplished on the back and rework it. Shhh, I'm trying to knit. Or third, I could soldier on with the current choice of size 8 needles, accept that this won't be the most comfortable knitting that I've done but that the result will be great - a soft, warm cardigan of burnt orange with Concord grape details (read a paean to the Grape here!) - and try to push through.
Any thoughts on your gauge solutions, send 'em my way. I'd love to hear how other knitters find the place where the pattern gauge and personal gauge become comfort gauge.