The Designer’s Swatch
It’s crocheter’s least favorite thing about starting a new project: the dreaded gauge swatch. You’re so excited about your new project that you just want to start already and don’t want anything — especially a gauge swatch that’s just going to be tossed aside later — to slow you down. But I am here to preach the importance of gauge swatches and why you really should be doing them, especially if you’re making something wearable in which size matters.
…Have I lost you yet? I promise you’ll want to read this. If you’re not already doing gauge swatches, this post will change your crochet life. Crochet designers live and die by gauge swatches. Why? Well let’s look at all the different things you can learn from a gauge swatch.
1. How big are your crochet stitches?
This is the most important function of the crochet swatch. Designers use this information to calculate how many stitches are needed to make, say, a sweater in size 1X. This is very helpful if the designer is only a size medium and does not know someone in size 1X to try the sweater on. Well that’s nice, but how does this information help you if you’re not a designer?
Just like how we are all different shapes and sizes, we all crochet with different tensions. There is no “standard” crochet tension. Designers are human, and tensions can also vary with the types of yarn you are using. The gauge swatch helps you to determine if you are making your stitches the same size as the designer and adjust accordingly. If you don’t take the time to do this important step, you run the risk of spending several days or weeks on a sweater only to have it end up too big or too small, and that is heartbreaking.
2. How does your chosen stitch pattern look with your chosen yarn?
A gauge swatch is an excellent way to get a sneak peek at what your finished project is going to look like. Designers strive to choose stitch patterns that complement the yarns chosen, and rather than going through trial and error with the actual project (that could be a lot of frogging!), it’s much easier to look at a small sample first.
Even if you’re not a designer, this could help you. Have you ever fallen in love with a stitch pattern on Pinterest and thought, “That would make a gorgeous scarf!”? Before you dive into your stash, just make a small square of the pattern in the yarn you have in mind to see how it looks. You may find that the yarn is too fuzzy to show off the stitch, or the variegation takes away from it. It’s better to discover this on a small square then after several rows on the actual project.
Not only that, but this is also the time to see how a certain edging might look with your chosen stitch pattern. Perhaps you had a certain edging in mind, but after working it on the gauge square you find that it’s too fancy for the stitch pattern. Instead of having to undo the edging from the entire project, you can just undo 4 inches.
3. How are you going to increase or decrease in your chosen stitch pattern?
The gauge swatch is an excellent playground for experimentation. Designers love to make wearables in interesting stitch patterns, but often wearables involve some sort of shaping. Stitch pattern instructions and charts often only show how to work the pattern evenly and will not give instructions for increasing or decreasing. Designers have to be a bit creative to figure out how they are going to work shaping into their chosen stitch pattern, and the gauge swatch provides the perfect opportunity for that.
Now you may be thinking that you never intend to design anything that complicated, so you don’t need to worry about that. But I can tell you for a fact that two beginner-ish crocheters I know have both asked me in the last couple of months how they would go about making a winter headband. This type of project, while quite simple, involves increasing on one end and decreasing on the other. If you’d like to make something a little less plain than single crochets, you’ll want to practice increasing and decreasing on your gauge swatch.
And one more point before you go home…
As famed crochet guru Lily Chin points out, the gauge swatch is like a mini version of your final crochet project. Treat it as you would the final product. If you plan to be able to wash the final project, you should wash the gauge square. And by all means, block that sucker before you measure the gauge! Blocking can make a huge difference in the final size of your stitches. If you’ve ever made a sweater that fit great when you first finished it but stretched to the max after washing (or maybe it shrank), it’s probably because you didn’t block your gauge swatch before measuring your stitches.