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An explanation of gauge and why it matters for crochet

Crochet hook and gauge swatch in pink leopard print


I know that the word alone can send some crocheters running for the hills. It’s one of those seemingly daunting concepts that puts many crocheters off making certain crochet projects.

I used to respond to instructions about gauge by saying “I don’t get it” and just kind of hoping for the best.

If that sounds familiar then you’re in the right place because in this post I’ll give you a simple explanation of what gauge is (in relation to crochet), why it matters and when it doesn’t.

Update: For those of you who prefer to learn from ad-free PDFs, I now have an ebook available which tackles gauge. It’s called ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about gauge but were afraid to ask’ and you can purchase it here.

It covers the content in this article as well as that in my post how to make and measure a gauge swatch.

What is gauge?

In simple terms, gauge is a measure of the density of your crochet stitches within the fabric.

The gauge measurement is given as the number of stitches and number of rows of your stitch pattern made in a specified area (traditionally 10cm / 4 inches in either direction).

You may see it written something like this:

20 sts and 16 rows over 10cm of half double crochet using a 4mm crochet hook.

This just means that for every 10cm of width, you will have 20 stitches (your stitch gauge) and for 10cm of depth / height you have 16 rows (your row gauge).

The hook size is important too because the size of hook you use has a big impact on the size of your stitches and ultimately your finished work. (More on this later).

Gauge is measured by taking a tape measure or solid ruler (my preference) and counting the number of stitches and rows in a 10cm or 4 inch square area of fabric.

If you want to learn how to make and accurately measure a gauge swatch read this post!

For avoidance of doubt the terms gauge and tension are used interchangeably in this post. Tension is the UK term and Gauge tends to be a US equivalent term.

Gauge and stitch patterns

If you’re working with a pattern that involves stitch multiples, such as a granny stripe, v-stitch or shell pattern, you may also see gauge written as a function of the stitch pattern.

For example it might read more like ‘5 shells and 10 rows over 10cm using a 4mm hook’.

In such cases the instruction for the stitch pattern should be clear within the pattern (either in the special stitches explanation or in the pattern itself).

Where a stitch pattern uses a larger number of stitches, such as a chevron or wave pattern, you may also see the length and height of a pattern repeat listed rather than the number of stitches in over a 10cm area.

For example, ‘1 pattern repeat = 8cm wide.’ This approach can make it easier to check gauge more accurately than counting stitches which do not sit in a straight flat row.

Does gauge always matter? (i.e. should I always make a swatch?)

Some purists may say you should always make a gauge swatch, but I’m a realist and know that’s not going to happen.

So this is my guide to when you really should make a swatch and when you can let it slide.

The rule of thumb I work with is that gauge matters if you are crocheting anything to a specific size, shape or yarn quantity; i.e., something that needs to fit.

The crochet project in question might be something simple like a crochet hat or pair of wrist warmers or something more complex like a cardigan or pullover.

Let’s say you are crocheting a sweater. The designer will add a section in their pattern telling you what gauge they used when they designed the sweater.

The instructions for each size of the pattern will be calculated based on the pattern gauge. So if you want your sweater to be the same size then you need to crochet with the the same gauge.

If the designer is working 20sts for every 10cm but you’re using a different yarn or crochet a lot more loosely and you make 16 sts in 10cm then your project is going to work out much wider than the dimensions given in the pattern.

This is why it is essential to check your gauge by making a swatch.

Yes, you can check your gauge once you’ve started (and occasionally it can make sense to do so), but if you’re not crocheting to the correct gauge, then you’ll have to start over.

If you’re crocheting something like a scarf then gauge is less critical to the success of the project because there is more flexibility in the finished size. Likewise if you’re crocheting something like a bottom up shawl, where you can just keep working until it’s the right size.

In situations such as this then, assuming I’m using a similar fibre and yarn weight to that listed in the pattern, I probably wouldn’t bother making a gauge swatch.

I’ve been crocheting long enough to know my average gauge for the basic stitches so I know if it’s hugely different to the designer’s. This will come with experience.

Ultimately, if my scarf is a bit wider than the one in the picture, it will still be a successful scarf, but if my sweater is twice as wide as the pattern predicts, it will be a less successful sweater!

Does gauge matter when crocheting amigurumi?

Amigurumi is an interesting one. I don’t see gauge as too important with these types of projects because it’s all relative.

However, if you want your finished ami to be the same size as the design then you need to stay on gauge.

You also need to make sure your stitches are tight enough that the stuffing does not poke through the holes. (I share some amigurumi tips here)

You may find that instead of a gauge statement on an amigurumi pattern, you will just see the measurements of a finished item. It’s pretty hard to accurately measure gauge on a 3d object, especially if it’s smaller than 10cm.

How gauge impacts yarn quantity

One other thing to note is that if you are not on gauge then you may use a different amount of yarn to that recommended in the crochet pattern.

As a designer, I calculate the yarn amounts based on the amount used at the stated tension.

If you crochet more tightly, then your finished item will be smaller and you will have likely used less yarn. If you crochet more loosely than the given gauge, then your yarn will not go as far. It’s this one you especially want to watch for as not having enough yarn and losing yarn chicken is no fun at ALL!!

Crochet gauge swatch
A gauge swatch with a wooden ruler placed on it to measure gauge.

What impacts gauge?

Gauge can be affected by many factors but these are the main ones:

Crochet hook size and gauge

The crochet hook size is normally mentioned in the gauge statement because it is a key factor in achieving gauge.

The larger the hook, the fewer stitches you will get in your 10cm / 4 inch area of fabric. A smaller hook will result in more stitches in the same space.

A larger hook requires more yarn to wrap around it’s circumference, takes up more space and leaves larger holes. These holes are proportionally required for heavier yarn – which is why the recommended crochet hook size increases with yarn weight.

You will often see a crochet hook size listed on a yarn ball band or label. Whilst this can be a helpful starting point, the recommended hook size is just that – a suggestion. More often you will get a knitting needle size with a recommended gauge for knitting only.

Some yarns are starting to give a gauge measurement in single crochet on the ball band. Even though it’s nice to see crochet represented, it’s not actually particularly useful in practice, so not something I take much notice of (It’s more important to match the pattern’s tension)

Some people even say that the type of crochet hook you use (wood, metal, in line vs tapered etc.) can impact your gauge as the yarn moves with different degrees of friction over the different materials.

You may think that a slightly different hook size would just add or remove one or two stitches here or there. That may seem like a small thing but one or two stitches off over the course of a sweater can change the finished size by a significant amount.

The yarn weight and gauge

The thicker the yarn you use, the fewer stitches you will get in your 10cm swatch. For example you may only get 8 sts in 10cm if you’re using chunky yarn whereas you may get 28 in a fingering weight.

The designer should tell you what yarn they used and, importantly, the yarn weight category. This post goes into detail on yarn weight if it’s not something you’re familiar with.

I always try to offer ideas about yarn substitutions in my crochet patterns, but it can be quite a subjective decision. I may use a double knit yarn for example, but even within that category, there is a lot of variation (usually based on what fibre you’re using).

If you don’t have access to the yarn suggested in the pattern, you should still be able to make a suitable yarn substitution. This article talks about what you need to consider when choosing an appropriate yarn sub.

If your gauge is right however, and you’re happy with the fabric look and drape in your swatch then you’re probably good to go.

Here’s a peek from many years ago (I had just got my cat and couldn’t stop taking photos of her!) when I failed epically at yarn substitution.

Theoretically the yarn was a similar weight to that given in the pattern. I used aran where the pattern suggested worsted – these two weights are often offered interchangeably, but aran weight is typically, but not always, a bit heavier than worsted weight. In this case there was a big difference.

I didn’t make a swatch, but I did make a hat fit for a giant… the one on the left is my second attempt with a better yarn substitution and it was still a bit big…

Big hat small hat and cat
This was the lesson which taught me to make a gauge swatch!! I added the brim in an attempt to save the giant black hat but it did not work!!!

Fibre content and gauge

The fibre content of the yarn can impact gauge too.

The way the yarn is spun and the properties of the fibre impacts the movement and friction between the stitches. For example, I find that I crochet more tightly with cotton than acrylic yarns of the same weight as cotton tends to have more drag as it pulls through my hands.

This is why you need to be a bit mindful if you are substituting yarn for a different fibre. Fibres all behave differently. Just look at your wardrobe to see how your wool sweater hangs compared to a cotton shirt.

Your crochet style

Here is where it gets a bit more vague but still important to consider.

There are many ways to hold your crochet hook and yarn which create different tensions and can impact your gauge. Some crocheters work very tightly, others tend to crochet fairly loosely. I am probably on the more relaxed side… unless I’m having a bad day!

It’s pretty hard to change your crochet style once you have built the muscle memory, so if you know you crochet super tight then you know you will probably need to go up a hook size as one way to counter this.

Other factors that influence gauge

Because it’s a human who is wielding a crochet hook, consistency of tension between different crocheters and even the same crocheter on different days, is going to be pretty hard to come by.

Even your mood can impact your gauge. If you have more tension in your body then this will transfer to your hook.

I even find that the way I sit can make a difference; my gauge can shift a little when I crochet on the sofa compared to when I crochet in bed. These days I tend to try and work on one project in the same spot if it’s a gauge sensitive make.

Familiarity with the stitch matters too. When you can work the stitch pattern without paying too much attention I find that I work faster and my gauge relaxes. Unless I am watching something really stressful on Netflix, in which case it may well tighten up.

The ‘it depends’ scenarios go on and on, so at some stage it’s helpful to just accept that gauge is always going to fluctuate, at least a bit. You can mitigate this by keeping track of it throughout your project. Stop every now and then and measure it to check you’re still on plan.

How to change your gauge

So you’ve crocheted up your gauge swatch, but it doesn’t match. Now what do you do?

The go-to way to change your gauge is to change your hook size. I would also double check the yarn weight you are using is suitable for the pattern you are using.

Alter your hook size to change gauge

If you go up a hook size then you will create larger and looser stitches, and a looser tension, so you will get fewer stitches in 10cm.

If you have more stitches than stated in the gauge then try using a bigger hook.

If you have less stitches than in the gauge swatch then this suggests you crochet more loosely than the designer. Try going down a hook size to make your stitches smaller. A smaller size hook will create smaller tighter stitches and a tighter tension.

If you change hook size too dramatically then the drape of your fabric is going to change, so in this case, you might want to change your yarn instead. For example. If you’re crocheting with dk yarn and swap from a 4 mm hook to an 8mm crochet hook, then your fabric will be much more open, with larger holes.

Yarn weight and type of yarn (smooth or fuzzy for example) contributes just as much to gauge as crochet hook size does, so it’s important not to look at these things in isolation.

Choosing the correct size hook is something that comes with experience, understanding your own style and a bit of trial and error! (Though using the wrong size can also lead to fun results – check out the 1000 stars crochet shawl pattern to see what happened when I used a 6mm hook with fingering weight yarn…)

Blocking your crochet

Your gauge can dramatically change when you block your work, or it can barely change at all depending on the stitch and fibre.

Some patterns give a gauge for a blocked and an unblocked swatch so make sure you are comparing like with like and use your swatch to get an understanding of how your gauge will alter with washing and blocking.

For this reason, blocking can actually be a bit of a hack to achieve the right gauge (but don’t tell anyone I said that!)

If you’re not familiar with blocking, it is the process of adding water to your fabric and pinning it out in the final shape to dry. (Learn why and how to block your work here)

Blocking is a way of getting rid of any curls or kinks in the fabric you have created and really highlighting the stitch pattern.

You may not always need to block your work but, for example, if you’re making a lacy shawl, then blocking will really bring out the pattern and make your work look finished and professional.

Blocking can make such a difference to the finished crochet fabric, that some patterns give both a blocked and unblocked gauge measurement. Be sure to keep an eye out for this in your crochet pattern.

What if your stitches gauge is correct, but the row gauge isn’t?

This is a trickier problem to solve and has a lot to do with your crochet style.

To adjust the row gauge in crochet, you need to alter the height of the stitches.

When pulling up the first loop after inserting the hook (this is called the golden loop), some people lift it up so they have a big loop and therefore a tall stitch, and some yank their working yarn tight, keeping the loop small and having a shorter stitch.

This part of the stitch contributes significantly towards your stitch height and how much space there is between the current row and the row below. It therefore impacts your row height and gauge.

I won’t lie. It can be tricky to change the height of your stitches, but it is possible to change it with practice. You can learn more about this, including how to change your stitch height using the golden loop method here.

You got gauge!

I hope that this overview had given you a useful, real world understanding of the concept of gauge / tension and how it works with your crochet projects.

There’s a lot if information here and I know it can seem overwhelming, but making a gauge swatch and checking you match the pattern you’re working with really takes your crochet up a level.

I promise it will save you hours and hours of frogging; I can say this because I have wasted those hours and hours and dearly want to stop you doing the same!

Making a swatch is also a really good way to get familiar with the stitch pattern you’re going to be working as well as with the yarn your using so it has added benefits which I talk more about in my article on how to make and measure a gauge swatch.

So go on, take that 20 minutes and get swatching – you won’t regret it!

Happy Hooking


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