Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to Crochet 11: Understanding Gauge

(Yarn: Berroco Comfy Chunky in Goldenrod; Fabric: Heather Ross "Nursery Versery" for Kokka "Postage Stamp Cheater" in Yellow)

My mother and I both returned to knitting (and I was also learning to crochet) at the same time, about ten years ago. She was a new grandmother and I was hoping to become a mother soon, and the idea of little people around inspired us... I'm sure we weren't the first.

Anyway, I remember finding cute patterns and going to yarn shops to pick out a yarn and being completely bemused by the "gauge" references. I would hold a strand in my hand and compare it to another and if it seemed about the same I would go with it. Seriously. I had no idea what I was doing! One time I was working with a baby cardigan pattern and found a boucle yarn I loved but it seemed very thin so my mother suggested I double it. This is a good trick if you know what you are doing, but I didn't know the yarn's gauge to begin with and the result was a sweater that would fit a seven year old (Audrey is just now able to wear it).

For awhile I was content with these mistakes because I figured one of my girls would be able to wear what I'd made at some point. But I remember the day my mother called me excitedly after visiting a yarn shop. Some nice woman had helped her figure out the gauge thing! A whole new day dawned! I want to help you figure out gauge too. Because it is pretty essential to getting what you want out of crochet, or knitting for that matter.

Hooked? Click through to read all about it.

OK. How about some basic definitions first?

If you are crocheting washcloths, or blankets, or perhaps even scarves it may be that "gauge" doesn't matter. This is because if the final product is a bit different in dimension than what the pattern set out it won't affect it's functionality too much. (There are some arguments against this however, for instance, washcloths should have a certain density to the stitch to work well...) Most patterns you pick up, however, will include a reference to "gauge."

GAUGE: Gauge can be thought of as "thickness" or "weight," similar to the term as it is applied to wire, but it also refers to the density of stitches in a crocheted or knitted thing. In knitting and crochet, gauge is defined as the number of stitches and rows per square inch with a defined hook or needle size. Usually it's actually stated per 4"x4".  This "gauge" is what determines the final size of whatever it is that you are creating.

So, gauge is the result of the combination of yarn weight, and hook or needle size. But the person doing the knitting or crocheting has an influence on it too, because tension is the third element influencing gauge. This is why a pattern always includes gauge instead of simply a yarn and hook size: two different people using the same yarn and hook can produce different gauge swatches because of the way they handle the yarn. I for instance worked the yarn very tightly when I first learned to crochet and have since loosened up. And in another example, I have a friend who crochets very loosely and always decreases a hook size compared to what is called for to compensate.

GAUGE = # stitches + # rows within a 4"x4" square
GAUGE IS ACHIEVED BY: hook size + yarn weight + tension

Let's dive a little deeper into the elements of gauge...

YARN CATEGORIES: To make it a bit easier, yarn makers classify their yarns by their weight (otherwise thought of as thickness, or gauge). These weights are assigned a number from 0 to 6 and also have a corresponding name. The smaller the number, the smaller the gauge. Here is a brief summary of yarn categories:

• Cat 0: Lace
• Cat 1: Superfine or Fingering
• Cat 2: Fine or Sport
• Cat 3: Light or DK (double knitting)
• Cat 4: Medium, Worsted or Heavy Worsted
• Cat 5: Bulky
• Cat 6: Super Bulky

(Various sized hooks and yarns from my stash)

As nice and neat as those categories are, there is still quite a bit of difference between yarns that fall into them. Especially in the Category 4, worsted weight, in my experience. So the gauge definition of stitches per square inch is the information to rely on if you are trying to select the right yarn, but the categories help you get in the right ball park.

HOOK SIZING: Hook sizes are described in the U.S. using both a number and a letter, for example “I/9,” but elsewhere they are sized according to millimeters, which the U.S. has recently adopted. Helps to make it less confusing. Patterns will indicate the hook to use to make the project the size it was designed (although they usually offer the caveat of "or size to achieve the correct gauge").

Yarn labeling also includes a recommended hook size—too small and the yarn will be difficult to work (your stitches will be a bit pinched) and the "fabric" you crochet may be too stiff, too big and the result will be limp looking stitches. However, moving one hook size up or down is common to achieve the right gauge. You can find more information about hook sizing here. Also note that steel crochet hooks, used for working the finest yarns (think doilies) have a separate numbering system with higher numbers indicating a smaller hook size. Confusing, I know, but you only need to worry about it if you intend to work in a minuscule scale and I wouldn’t recommend that to start.

YARN LABELING: This is where my mother had her gauge epiphany. Thankfully, yarn labels usually include a little diagram describing the gauge one can achieve with the yarn with an appropriate hook or needle. Here are a few different examples. If you're really lucky, the label will include the gauge for knitting and crochet, but knitting gauge seems to be the default.

This Berroco label shows the crochet gauge on the left and the knitting gauge on the right. They state it a couple ways too: "3.25 sc = 1" and on the bottom and right side of the box, "13 sc" and "14 Rows" with a 10(J) or 6mm hook in a 4"/10cm swatch.

This KnitPicks label only lists a knitting gauge and does so per inch instead of 4" square: "5.5 sts=1" on #5 needles.

And, this Rowan label lists the knitting gauge only, but includes stitches and rows.

What do you do if the yarn you are considering for a crochet project only states the gauge for knitting? Compare the knitting gauge on the yarn specified by the pattern. You may have to look it up or find the yarn and check the label as the pattern may only list the gauge for the pattern rather than the gauge the manufacturer lists for the yarn. (I hope that makes sense. In other words, the pattern designer could have used a different hook size, or worked with a different tension, so that the gauge specified is different than what is listed for the yarn on the label.)
MAKING SUBSTITUTIONS: Patterns are designed for a specific yarn and it’s critical to use that yarn or a close substitute to get the right result. In addition to the weight of yarn, you also need to consider the fiber content as it will affect the drape, "hand" or feel, care, functionality and comfort of your project. Think about the difference between a sweater made with angora yarn and one made with a linen slub yarn. Or crochet washcloths, for instance, which need to be made with 100% cotton to be absorbent.
So, if you have fallen in love with a pattern but can't find the yarn it called for, or want to pick a different yarn to update the look (or upgrade the fiber, as I sometimes do). Here are the things to keep in mind:
  • CATEGORY: Start looking for a yarn of a similar category. So if the pattern calls for a worsted weight yarn, or Cat 4, start your search in that category.
  • GAUGE: Even in the same category the gauge can differ so to get a really good match look at the gauge diagram and see how similar the stitch and row counts are. (The stitch count is the most critical because usually patterns will tell you to crochet to a certain length so you can accommodate a slight difference in the row height.)
  • FIBER: As mentioned above, you'll want to be sure the fiber is a good match for your project. if you are making a baby sweater for instance you will want the yarn to be soft. The texture of the yarn--tightly woven or varying thicknesses or slubby or fuzzy--can make a huge difference too.
  • YARDAGE: Be sure to purchase enough yardage. Yarn skeins or hanks vary in the amount of yarn they include (often they are done by weight, such as a 50gram skein) so you'll need to check the yardage called for in your pattern (the number of skeins x the yardage per skein) and then look at the label for the yarn you're substituting and do the math. This often means you'll end up with some leftover but that's better than being short.
  • DYE LOT: I'll throw one more tip in here. When you're grabbing a bunch of hanks or skeins be sure they are all in the same dye lot (the number should be stamped on the label) so that there isn't a color variation in your project.

Now that you've picked the right yarn, there is one more thing you can do to be absolutely sure you're matching the gauge, and that is to create a gauge swatch.


GAUGE SWATCHES: Ugh. To be honest, I rarely make a gauge swatch! I am so impatient! I usually just check the gauge on the yarn to be sure it matches the pattern and then dive in and check my gauge a bit into the project. I've been pretty lucky. But, to be certain your invested time will yield the right sized result you should make a gauge swatch first and adjust the size hook you use on the project to a larger size if you created too many stitches within the 4 inches, or a smaller hook if you created too few. A pattern will often tell you how to create a swatch. It will tell you the number of stitches and rows and which stitch to crochet. In the example above I crocheted 20 stitches and 22 rows in single crochet to be sure I had a big enough swatch to measure 4"x4".

The gauge swatch on the left was done with an "I" hook and the one on the right with a "J" hook. Without even counting you can see that there is a difference in the resulting size swatch.

The next step would then be to count the stitches and rows within a four inch square and see how they compare to what is called for in the pattern. There are special tools you can buy to help you isolate a 4"x4" area for counting but you can also use a measuring tape or some kind of ruler. This transparent one above is pretty handy.

You may get the gauge right with your first swatch, but if your stitches are too dense you can try another swatch with a larger hook, or with a smaller hook if your stitches are too loose. If the correct gauge is somewhere between two hook size you can also will yourself to loosen up or increase the tension on your yarn to adjust.

If you master gauge you can be certain sweaters and hats will always fit, and you can even change the size of the project you’re making. For instance, I used the same baby layette pattern to make a newborn sized sweater and one to fit my three-year old daughter simply by substituting a larger hook and yarn.

Phew! That was a lot. But it's essential to understand gauge before you get too carried away. And once you know the rules it's easier to bend them!

How-to tutorials, patterns, giveaways, reviews and interviews to make certain you are smitten.

Click on the "HOH in Crochet" label or button to view all the content in this series.
Here's a quick list of all the "How to Crochet" posts:

How to Crochet 1: The Slip Knot
How to Crochet 2: Holding the Yarn
How to Crochet 3: The Chain Stitch
How to Crochet 4: The Single Crochet
How to Crochet 5: Seaming Your Work
How to Crochet 6: The Double Crochet
How to Crochet 7: Weaving in the Ends  
How to Crochet 8: The Half Double Crochet
How to Crochet 9: The Triple Crochet
How to Crochet 10: Working in the Round
How to Crochet 11: Understanding Gauge


Reinventing Nadine said...

Love this post! So useful! I am enjoying every post you write! Thank you for not hoarding such valuable advice.

Sandy said...

Is gauge the reason why sometimes I will be making a baby hat and it will end up an adult size?? That happens to me so often.

This was very good information to know. I have been crocheting for years and never do gauge swatches. Guess I should start :(

Giovanna said...

Thank you!

CBH said...

Brilliant, fantastic post. Thank you so much. So much information, this must have taken such a long time, but you've written it in 'plain English' I actually understand the whole 'guage' thing now. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


Pam4003 said...

Hi just wanted to thank you for creating this series of posts. I'm new to crochet and as a result so forgetful with various steps etc when I put it down. I have a great teacher but she's not at home with me every night so you are my invaluable resource and unlike others I've looked at so very easy to follow, so thanks! I hope you'll continue with other steps I get the feeling there's lots of newbies out there like me! Your great!

wagsmeows said...

That was so well done. The best teachers are those who actually know what it looks like to those who don't get it. She started from my Point A and walked me visually to point B. Brilliantly done.

Unknown said...

I actually understand gauge now.! Thanks!

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