I'll admit, I used to be one of those crocheters that never made a gauge swatch or checked my gauge in any way, shape, or form before, during, or after working up a project. However, as I started to design garments, I realized the vastness of my mistake. 🤦🏼♀️ So, to start, let me strongly state...
GAUGE IS SO IMPORTANT!
I also want to emphasize upfront that, although gauge is a small note of guidance by a designer in a pattern to help you more accurately work up a project, it is more importantly a skill that requires practice and development by anyone who crochets - just like any other crochet skill.
Gauge is quite a loaded topic, so I just hope I can do this topic some justice, and provide you with some helpful information around it. There's a lot to cover here, so let's get going.
What is gauge?
Gauge is essentially just a reference of measure. It contains the measure of 2 things: stitches and rows. Stitches measure the width of the gauge and rows measure the height of it, and those 2 things together typically equate to a square swatch of a particular size in inches. So...
# of stitches x # of rows = size of gauge swatch in inches
20 sts x 22 rows = 4"
Why is gauge important?
Because items that require gauge are handmade, and the maker of that item varies from person to person, a number of variables can impact the final result of the item. So, it is important to have some form of standard of measure to help each person's project turn out as close to the designer's sample as possible.
Factors That Impact Gauge
As I just mentioned, there are a number of different variables that impact a person's gauge. This can include:
yarn fiber content (wool, cotton, acrylic, etc.)
yarn weight (fingering, worsted, bulky, etc.)
maker's tension (how loosely/tightly they hold the yarn)
maker's geological location
how long a maker has been crocheting
maker's comfort level with a pattern's techniques or stitches
time of day
how the maker holds a hook
shape and/or size of a maker's hands/fingers
how the maker is sitting (or standing) while crocheting
type of hook used (ergonomic, straight, shape of hook tip, etc.)
material of the hook (wood, plastic, metal, etc.)
mood of the maker
how focused the maker is (distractions, tv, music, etc.)
how physically tired the maker (or their hands) is (are)
if the project is worked laid on a flat surface or held up in the air
how/when/if a project is blocked
and literally any combination of any of the items above
This is probably not even an exhaustive list, but it might alert you to a number of variables (or combination of variables) you never even thought about before that do impact your gauge on a day to day or even moment to moment basis (because we're only human, after all), so this is why being aware of your gauge before, during, and after your project is so important.
What happens if you don't match the designer's gauge?
1. Your project will turn out a different size.
The designer uses the gauge to create the final dimensions of the project (whether it's a pillow or a sweater, etc.), so if you're not meeting the designer's gauge, your project will likely result in a sweater that is either too small or too oversized, or a pillow cover that doesn't fit over the pillow form intended for it to fit over.
2. You may end up with too much or too little yarn.
Gauge also plays a roll in yardage. Not a direct roll, but an indirect one. Gauge determines size and dimensions, so it also therefore impacts the number of yards required for a project of a particular size. So if your gauge is off, the size of your project will be off, and the amount of yarn you use for your project (versus the recommended amount given by the designer) will also be off. If you're anything like me - or know anything about dye lots - you reeeaaally want to avoid playing yarn chicken with your project.
3. Your project may not look like the designer's project.
Most likely, you purchased the pattern because you liked the representation the designer gave of it - the way their project turned out and the pictures they presented of it. If your stitches, final result, fit, dimensions, etc., don't appear to look like the designer's sample, and you're quite disappointed with the outcome, your gauge likely had a big part in why that is. I've seen a number of reviews where customers left negative feedback about the outcome of a crochet project, not understanding exactly why their's looks so different from the designer's, and essentially blaming the designer for a poorly written pattern as a result. Not that designers don't make mistakes (we all very much do!), but if you were able to successfully make the item, and it just didn't turn out as you had hoped, look at your gauge skills. Pattern outcomes are very much hinged on them!
Take the time to make the swatch and meet the designer's gauge. It may seem like a hassle upfront, but it will save you loads of time, confusion, and disappointment down the road. Additionally, it's a great way to build and learn great crochet habits and skills.
Are there circumstances where gauge isn't important?
Yes. There are a few instances where gauge isn't particularly important. Blankets are one of these instances, because the success of their outcome isn't strictly anchored on gauge. If you don't gauge, yes, your blanket might turn out a little longer/wider or shorter/narrower than the designer's, but it shouldn't make or break its intended usage or final result. Other examples of instances where gauge might not be as important are dishcloths, towels, ornaments, wall hangings, coasters/trivets, rugs, etc. When in doubt, I recommend swatching for any project a designer provides a gauge note for.
How To Meet Gauge
Okay, let's get into the nitty gritty of how to actually achieve gauge, along with a few tips and tricks that might help you along the way.
STEP 1: Look over the pattern.
In general, this is just a good practice and place to begin when approaching any project. As I mentioned above, gauge isn't just about the number of stitches and rows. I don't believe this information in and of itself leads to a successful gauge. You also need to be familiar with other information provided in the pattern, plus be very in tune with and aware of your own crochet habits and practices, and how all that impacts gauge. Unfortunately, the only way to figure this out and allow it to become intuitive second nature is through practice and experience.
For example, I know I hold my hook in an unconventional way, which often makes my tension tighter than some crocheters. I know I tend to crochet some types of stitches a little tighter or looser than others. I also have a preference for slightly more compact stitches. Knowing all this, I can look at the pattern information and determine a few things. I usually have to consider going up a half or whole hook size compared to what is indicated in the pattern. Or, if I'm making a garment, sometimes I'll plan to make the next size up based on my knowledge of my own habits and preferences versus what I see written in the pattern. It's important to note, however, that before I make any of these potential adjustments, I always follow the designer's gauge instructions first.
STEP 2: Select your yarn.
I'm singling out this pattern detail as a whole step, because I think it's truly that important. Looking at the yarn the designer used for their sample is a great indicator of what yarn you should be selecting for your project. If the designer used a cotton yarn, but I want to use wool, that can have a huge impact on my end result. Additionally, I need to consider how the wool reacts to wash and wear versus the cotton. Not to mention blocking! Whether you are going to block or not makes a huge difference, as well. Many types of wool will stretch significantly when blocked or washed, so even if you meet gauge before blocking, your item may end up much larger after blocking. Cotton, on the other hand, usually has much less stretch to it when it is washed and blocked.
In addition to fiber content, yarn weight is another important detail. There are many categories of yarn weight (for example, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7...where 1 is the lightest/thinnest and 7 is the heaviest/bulkiest), but not all yarns put into the same category are 100% equal and interchangeable (due to fiber content, ply, etc.), so this can sometimes make it difficult to substitute a yarn in a pattern if you're not familiar with a number of various brands and styles.
Let's say the pattern states to use a category 4 yarn (this is typically also considered a worsted weight), and the designer specifically used Red Heart Super Saver. You, however, decide to use Lion Brand Jeans. Both of these yarns are considered category 4 worsted weight acrylic yarns, but Red Heart Super Saver is less soft and slightly bulkier than Lion Brand Jeans, and they both block very differently, so your gauge and end result with each yarn will be very different.
So, I highly recommend learning to understand yarn fibers, along with yarn brands/styles and their characteristics. Especially if you're a beginner (or even an intermediate), using the exact yarn the designer used, or one that has characteristics as close to the one the designer used as possible, is a strongly recommended way to go.
STEP 3: Make a swatch.
Using the gauge and hook indicated in the pattern, work up a swatch. Sometimes the designer will provide a gauge pattern if the swatch is a little bit more elaborate. Other times they'll just tell you what stitch to use for your swatch. One thing I highly recommend is making your swatch larger than the gauge.
For example, if the designer tells you the gauge is 20 sts x 22 rows = 4", don't make your swatch exactly 20 sts wide and 22 rows tall. Instead, make it a few stitches and rows larger than indicated. In this example, something like 26 sts x 28 rows, and measure within the margins of your swatch. This eliminates the edges and turning chains, which can sometimes throw off your gauge when measuring it.
STEP 4: Measure your swatch.
You can measure your swatch width and height with a couple of different tools:
Swatch Ruler | These are essentially square viewfinders you place over the top of your work to measure your stitches and rows. I personally don't care for these too much because of the way they cover up your work. I feel like I never get it set on top of my work just right, but I know a lot of designers and crocheters who use them.
Seamstress Measuring Tape | These are the long flexible measuring tape tools. I find that because they are flexible, they can measure inaccurately if you don't hold them down properly - they either don't lay flat or you can tug on them too hard and they stretch ever so slightly, throwing your measurement off.
A Standard Ruler | This is my personal tool of choice. I prefer a 12-inch metal ruler with a light cork backing. It's really solid, lays flat, doesn't slide around, and the lines are often marked better and more clearly than on a cheap wooden one.
When measuring your swatch, lay it on a flat, hard surface - not a couch, rug, etc. A smooth, flat surface will allow the swatch to lay naturally. A textured fiber surface can grip the swatch, which can tug it out of it's natural shape and give you an inaccurate measurement. It's also important to measure to the very end of the stitch on the left side of your measurement to the very end of the stitch on the right side of your measurement. If your measurement comes out in the middle of a stitch, don't assume it's "close enough" and start your project. You'll be surprised how much of a difference a seemingly small 1/4 or 1/2 of a stitch makes in the overall size of your finished project. Depending on the project, it can add an inch up to several inches to the final result.
If, after you measure your swatch, you meet the designer's gauge, you can continue to start working up your project and skip to Step 6. However, if you do not meet the gauge, you'll move to Step 5.
STEP 5: Make Adjustments.
If you have more stitches and rows than the designer's gauge, your project will turn out too small. Try one of these adjustments to help spread out your stitches:
Use a larger hook.
Ease up on your yarn tension.
If you're using a wooden or bamboo hook, try a metal or plastic one instead.
If you have less stitches and rows than the designer's gauge, your project will turn out too big. Try one of these adjustments to help you get more stitches per inch:
Use a smaller hook.
Increase your yarn tension.
If you're using a plastic or metal hook, try a wooden or bamboo one instead.
If you meet the gauge width, but not the height, try these adjustment tips:
Make no adjustment | Depending on the project, it can often be more important to meet the gauge width than the height, allowing you to add or subtract rows as you work. Reading over the pattern, looking at the design details, or reaching out to the designer to ask can help you determine whether this is an option.
Adjust your yarn tension | If the height is taller, try increasing the tension slightly; if the height is shorter, try easing up on the tension slightly. Sometimes adjusting your tension slightly can be the adjustment you need to meet height while leaving the width relatively the same.
Try substituting another yarn | If the height is slightly taller, try a yarn in the same weight category that feels/looks slightly thinner; if the height is slightly shorter, try a yarn in the same weight category that feels/looks slightly thicker.
If you meet the gauge height, but not the width, as mentioned directly above, you'll need to at least meet the gauge width to attempt to move forward with your project. So, depending on whether you are under or over gauge, refer to the adjustment suggestions above.
If you meet the designer's gauge, but the stitches are too "gappy" or loose, and you would prefer they be tighter, try these suggestions:
Substitute a yarn in the same weight category, but one slightly thicker in feel and appearance; start with the same hook and adjust from there.
Substitute a yarn in a weight category one size up that is slightly thicker in feel and appearance; start with the same hook and adjust from there, preparing to potentially move a half or whole hook size down.
If you meet the designer's gauge, but the stitches are too tight or compact, and you would prefer they be looser, try these suggestions:
Substitute a yarn in the same weight category, but one slightly thinner/lighter in feel and appearance; start with the same hook and adjust from there.
Substitute a yarn in a weight category one size down that is slightly thinner/lighter in feel and appearance; start with the same hook and adjust from there, preparing to potentially move a half or whole hook size up.
STEP 6: Start your project and check your gauge as you go.
Once you successfully achieve gauge, you can begin your project. It's important to continue to check your gauge as you go (just like you did in Step 4) to make sure your project stays as even and consistent as possible.
I know this is a lot of information about gauge (I told you it was a loaded topic!), and I sincerely hope I haven't overwhelmed you, or hindered you from considering to take the time to gauge for a project. Instead, I hope you now understand why gauge is so extremely important, and how much it shapes and impacts the outcome of a project. I think you'll find that as you practice, build, and master the skill, you'll be even more proud of and happy with the projects you complete. Happy gauging, friend!