Gauge is the number of stitches per inch and the number of rows per inch you need to get when stitching with a particular weight of yarn and a specific crochet hook.
Because the hook size stated in the pattern instructions is just a suggestion, and because each crocheter handles the yarn slightly differently, gauge can vary from person to person even when they are using identical hooks and yarns. Crocheting a proper swatch at the beginning of a project saves both time and money. Learning why and how to make a proper swatch is a crucial step toward enhancing a crocheter’s confidence and ability to make a successful project every time.
WHAT IS A SWATCH?
A swatch is a small sample of crocheted fabric made in the same yarn and stitch pattern you intend to use for your crochet project. If done properly, it can provide a wealth of information and save you time and money. “Swatching” is the verb that describes the process of making the swatch. “Gauge swatch” and “swatch” are often used synonymously, but it is important to think of a swatch as more than just a way to measure gauge. So, this article uses the term “swatch” exclusively to get you in the right frame of mind.
Why bother doing a swatch at all? Why not just start stitching and see what happens? A swatch can give you a lot of useful information before you start your project. Sometimes the information you get from a swatch will determine whether or not you will continue with the project as written, make adjustments or even abandon the project for something totally different. Learning the pitfalls of a project from a 4- to 6-inch square swatch can save time and money in comparison to finding the same hazards after working a much larger piece.
HERE’S WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
The standard way to write the gauge information is as follows:
20 sts = 4 inches; 20 rows = 4 inches
The part of the gauge statement that is important to you is the measurement of 20 sts and 20 rows over four inches, or five single crochet stitches and five rows per inch. If a pattern calls for more than one hook size, only one of the hooks will be used to get the stated gauge. If this is the case, the gauge will be written as follows:
Size H hook: 20 sts = 4 inches; 20 rows = 4 inches
Let’s look at an example of what may happen when you work to a different gauge than that given in the pattern. Let’s say that you are using a sweater pattern that calls for 12 single crochets = 4 inches, or 3 single crochets per inch, and you want to make a sweater with a finished bust measurement of 44 inches. If you start stitching and you get 3 1/2 single crochets per inch, your finished sweater will be 37 1/2 inches around, or 6 1/2 inches too small! If you worked the same sweater with a gauge of 2 1/2 single crochets per inch, the finished sweater would be 52 3/4 inches around, or 8 3/4 inches too large! You can see that being just half a stitch off per inch can make a huge difference.
Can you see that it makes much more sense to take the time and effort necessary to match the gauge at the beginning of a project than to find out your gauge is off after hundreds of stitches have been worked?
If you plan to wash your finished project, it is best to wash your swatch too, as gauge can change dramatically after washing. Some yarns will shrink or stretch out of shape after washing, and some colors will run. Many crocheters have been disappointed to find that their red-and-white striped afghan turned into a red-and-pink striped afghan after its first wash.
YARN CHARACTERISTICS/ DURABILITY
Make observations as you stitch and after you wash the swatch. Does the color rub off on your hands? Does the yarn make you sneeze or break out? Does it shed? Does it pill or stretch?
Try abusing the swatch a bit. Put it in the bottom of your pocketbook or your child’s backpack. Take it out after a week and examine it. Is the fabric going to stand up to its intended use?
The fabric that is produced when the yarn is crocheted to the gauge given in the pattern is what the designer considers to be the perfect tension for that particular yarn for that particular project. The fabric will have a certain “hand” and “drape,” which are characteristics that describe how the stitching feels and how it hangs.
For example, a stuffed animal is usually worked to a tighter gauge than a sweater since the animal’s fabric needs to be tight enough so that the stuffing will not show through or fall out. A sweater worked with the same yarn in the same way would probably be so stiff that you wouldn’t want to wear it.
If you are planning to make a garment that will be worn next to the skin, do the “underwear test.” Wear the swatch next to your skin for a day.
There is more than one type of stitch compatibility. In this case, stitch compatibility has to do with the relationship between the stitch and the stitcher. When you’re trying out a new-to-you stitch pattern, a swatch can help you decide if you want to complete the project. Is the stitch pattern too difficult? Is it too boring? Is it neither, but just annoying to work?
Even though you are just beginning a project, you need to begin thinking of finishing. What kind of edging will this project have? Where will the edging be worked? How will the project be put together? What size buttons do I need? Work out bugs and practice seaming and edging on the swatch before moving on to the finished product. Work the button bands on the swatch, then take the swatch with you to purchase the perfect button.
If you do not work to the same gauge as the instructions, you may find yourself running out of yarn. Pattern instructions give the amount of yarn used for that project in a certain size in the given gauge, so while you may not be worried about finished size, you should be concerned about having adequate yarn to complete the project.
Don’t be discouraged if a swatch turns out to be a disaster. Swatching can be a trial-and-error process. If your swatch doesn’t turn out well, don’t think of it as a mistake. Think of it as a learning experience.
WHEN SWATCHING DOES NOT MATTER
You’ve read this far, hoping for a hint that swatching really doesn’t matter. You’re in luck. There actually are a few instances when a swatch won’t help. A swatch wouldn’t help in the following instances:
- When making small objects with relatively large yarn — a swatch would be as big or bigger than the actual finished project. Examples: Christmas ornaments and small home decor items.
- When you have plenty of yarn, you don’t anticipate laundering the item, and when the finished size doesn’t matter.
A FINAL WORD OF ADVICE
A swatch is important, but don’t make the mistake of relying on it completely. Sometimes stitches will become more relaxed as the stitcher learns the pattern. Measure your work as you progress in case the gauge on a larger piece changes. Also, weight and gravity may do their work on a larger piece, resulting in a different gauge.
- Swatch in the stitch pattern called for in the gauge information. Don’t assume that plain double crochet will yield the same gauge as a double-crochet-based stitch pattern.
- Whether or not you decide to use the yarn suggested in the materials list, you need to swatch using the exact yarn in the same color that you plan to use for your project. Different colors of the same yarn may work up differently. Use all the colors together in the same proportion that the project requires.
- Use the same hook that you plan to use for you project. Hook styles and sizes vary, even within a particular size. Don’t assume that your gauge is the same with a size G Susan Bates hook as with a size G Boye hook.
- After you have worked a few rows, measure over at least 2 inches to see if you are in the ballpark. If you realize your gauge is way off, you’ll probably need to change hook sizes. Start over with a different size hook and a new swatch — don’t change hook sizes mid-swatch.
- Make an adequate-size swatch. The thicker the yarn, the bigger the swatch must be. Your swatch should be a minimum of 4 inches square for any fiber but the thinnest cotton thread. For cotton threads, a 6-inch square is more accurate.
- Work in the same direction required by the project whether you are working in the round or back and forth in rows. Most people get a different gauge when working in the round.
- As you work, make sure to jot down notes of how many stitches were on your beginning chain, how many stitches are in the width of your swatch and how many rows or rounds you have worked. Note yarn name, color and hook size and brand.
- Label your swatch with this information, even if you have a fantastic memory. Small hang tags are great for this purpose.
- Relax! Your gauge may change as you become more comfortable with the stitch pattern. Just stitch at a comfortable tension — don’t try to change the tension to match a given gauge.
- Pay attention to your beginning edge. Sometimes you will need to work the foundation chain with a larger hook. Practice on your swatch until you are happy with the result. It is much easier to correct the problem on your swatch than to try to fix a too-tight chain on a finished project.
- Allow the swatch to rest for a half an hour, and then measure and take note of your “before” gauge. Sometimes gauge changes after washing and blocking. Making a note of the gauge right off the hook allows you to compare the “before” and “after” effect of blocking. The “after” gauge is the one that matters for the final fitting, but if it is substantially different from your “working” or “before” gauge, you may be nervous about the finished size of your piece. If you have made note of the changes that will take place, you can reassure yourself as you work that the working gauge is indeed correct.
- Treat the swatch the same way you plan to treat your finished item. If you plan to wash your project, wash your swatch. Use the same washing and drying method on the swatch that you plan to use on the finished product.
- Block the swatch.
- Use a ruler, yardstick or tape measure.
- Place the blocked swatch on a table and place the ruler on top of the swatch. Allow the swatch to lie as is. Do not rearrange it to make it fit the gauge you want.
- Do not measure edge stitches as they can be distorted.
- Measure at least 4 inches worth of stitches. Some rulers are not accurate between the end and the 1 inch mark, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Measure across as many stitches as possible. Count the number of stitches and divide by the number of inches for your “per inch gauge.” Round to the nearest hundredth of an inch. For example, if you count 17 stitches over 6 inches, it is approximately 2.83 stitches per inch (17 ÷ 6 = approximately 2.83). If possible, take the same measurement elsewhere on the same swatch and compare the two. If they are different, take an average. Note your findings.
- If a row gauge is given, repeat the above step, measuring in the other direction.
- Now look at your notes. If you have too few stitches per inch, make a swatch using a smaller hook size. If you have too many stitches per inch compared to the instructions, make another swatch using a larger hook size. For example, if the pattern calls for 12 sc = 4 inches (3 sc per inch) and your swatch measures 3 1/2 stitches per inch, increase one hook size and make a second swatch following all the rules outlined above.
- If you have trouble getting the right gauge because it seems to be between two hook sizes, try switching hook brands rather than sizes.
Once you are satisfied that you have determined the correct hook size to give you the gauge in your yarn, make a note of it. If you need to put down the project for a while or need to use the hook for a different project, you don’t want to have to go through this process again!