Morale Fiber’s Field Guide to Crochet Gauge and Yarn Behavior

We’ve all been there.

Excitedly scoping a new pattern, picking through the stash for a suitable yarn for the project, dreaming up color schemes and envisioning your gloriously perfect new handmade thingamajig.

Except none of the yarns are the same weight as the pattern recommends. And you can’t find your 5.5 hook (check behind your ear). And your yarn fiber is wool, not bamboo. What to do?!

Gauge and Yarn Behavior for Crocheters

The number one question I get asked as a crochet pattern designer is “Can I use [X] yarn for this pattern? Do I need to change my hook?” And the answer to this question is always basically the same: Check your gauge!


Even if you have a passing familiarity with gauge, it’s about more than just how big your stitches are: multiple factors interact when it comes to how your crochet project is going to look & act with a certain yarn.

I’ve found from experience that it pays off to be familiar with those factors that influence how your crochet project is going to turn out: Gauge, Weight, Fiber, and Drape.

Crocheters who go forward unfamiliar with these influences may find themselves in another familiar, but less pleasant, place : halfway through a crochet garment that doesn’t fit and looks nothing like the sample pictures. An in-depth understanding of these Yarn Behaviors will help stop project mishaps before they ever start!

The following is a guide I’ve put together specifically for crocheters that deals with gauge and related yarn issues. I’ve tried to compile the major technical points of figuring out what yarns to use where, and draw heavily from my 20 years of mistakes…. But remember each crocheter is different and therefore every project is different. The absolute best way to master these aspects of fiber art is just to get a ton of experience at it. That being said, let’s get on with it!

What is Gauge and how do I check it?

We’ll start with gauge: what the heck is it already?

Gauge is the measurement of the size of your stitches with a specific hook and yarn. Another term used for gauge is “tension.” While gauge is not something you may have to deal with for hats or scarves very much, it becomes crucial when making garments like sweaters.

The most common question I get for my patterns is “Can I use (x) yarn for this project / Which hook size should I use?”

The answer to this questions is: Check your Gauge! Technically, you can make any pattern with any size hook and yarn if your gauge matches the gauge given in the pattern (there are other concerns but we’ll get to that later).

Follow these instructions to learn how to measure gauge for crochet projects!

Locating the Gauge Listing

First, look to the Materials & Notes section of your pattern which should be at the very beginning. The gauge or gauges for the project should be listed there. If there are multiple parts/yarns to the pattern you may encounter multiple gauge listings.

Above is an example from my Acanthus Top pattern, with the gauge listing circled in green
Here’s what an example of what the gauge might look like: “Gauge: 3 stitches and 3 rows = 1″ in hdc”

And here’s how that is interpreted:
“3 stitches” = the measurement, taken horizontally from a section of stitching, of how many stitches of the specified type fit within the given unit length (here in Inches)
“3 rows” = the measurement, taken vertically, of how many rows of stitching of the specified type fit within an inch or inches
“= 1 inch ” = the given unit length (commonly can be 1″, 2″, or 4″ although other measurements are possible)
“in hdc” = the specified stitch type for measuring the gauge

Sometimes for my circular crochet patterns, I give the project gauge as the measurement in diameter of the first few rounds – in this case the first small circle of the project counts as the swatch. The gauge portion of the pattern should specify how to measure if it does not use the traditional method.

Example of the first three rounds of the Lotus Mandala measured to check gauge – it’s correct!

Checking Crochet Gauge

Since every crocheter crochets differently – some looser, thinner, or tighter, or fatter – using the same size hook and yarn as the project calls for does not guarantee your gauge will be the same as the one listed for the project.

So now that the Gauge listing is broken down, how do we check it? To accurately check gauge and determine whether your tension is appropriate for the pattern, look again in the Pattern Materials & Notes section. The pattern will list a recommended yarn and hook size – you’ll need to start by using the recommended yarn, or at least a yarn in the same weight category, and the hook size listed in the materials section. With these materials, you are now ready to test your gauge by making a small sample piece of fabric called a swatch.

It’s very tempting to skip this part and move on to the project itself, which is not too dangerous for small projects like hats and scarves – but for things like large sweater coats, you better swatch out!

My Tunisian crochet sweater coat trifecta: The Shaman Coat, the Elf Coat, and the Priestess Coat

Testing Your Gauge: Swatching for Crocheters

1. Get the hook size and yarn recommended by the pattern gauge listing
Chain a length of 15-20 sts or long enough to accommodate whatever stitch or pattern being swatched (sometimes the pattern will give you direct instructions on how to make your gauge swatch). Some gauge guides say the swatch will be 4 inches, some recommend other lengths or stitch counts – your pattern may or may not specify. The main concern is the get a piece of fabric big enough that your hand becomes accustomed to the stitch design and starts to work regularly. This is also why the gauge reading is taken in the middle of the swatch, away from the top, bottom, or side edges – but we’ll get to that.

2. Begin to Swatch
The Gauge listing in the pattern should indicate what stitch or part of the pattern to use for a swatch sample. Here’s the sample Gauge from earlier:
Gauge: 3 stitches and 3 rows = 1″ in hdc
For this swatch, I would start with 20 ch stitches, then work 1 hdc in each chain stitch. Working in rows back and forth, I would create enough rows of stitching to make a solid square or rectangle piece. Seems like a lot of work, I know. But you can’t get a good gauge reading from a piece that’s only 5 stitches long!

3. Pin it Out
Once the swatch is complete, it’s time to measure. Before measuring, set out a soft surface (towel, cushion, or blocking mat) and use pins to uncurl your swatch out to it’s fullest size, evening the tension of the piece. Crochet stitching uncurls and loosens some after being worked, so if you measure your swatch without tensioning it first, you may get an inaccurate gauge reading.

While 4 sts / 1 inch doesn’t seem like that much of a difference from 3.5 stitches / 1 inch, small differences can really add up on larger projects. Get your gauge as close as possible to avoid mishaps later!

4. Measure it!
Get a gauge plate tool (the one pictured here is from my Addi Click knitting set, but they are sold individually by the hooks & needles in hobby stores) or a measuring tape / ruler and measure the stitches in the middle of the swatch. For our given gauge of 3 stitches and 3 rows = 1″, we should be able to measure 3 stitches horizontally at 1 inch, then 3 stitches vertically to equal 1 inch.

I did not achieve the correct gauge horizontally, because I have 4 stitches to the inch instead of 3.
But I got it right vertically!

Correcting Your Gauge

If your gauge is smaller (tighter), and you are getting more stitches and rows per inch (4 sts and 3 rows, for example, instead of 3 stitches and 3 rows. Which was what I got for the swatch pictured above) you will need to size your hook UP to create looser tension and bigger gauge to match the measurements of the project.

If your gauge is larger (looser) and you are getting fewer stitches per inch (2 stitches and 2 rows, for example) you will need to size your hook DOWN to create tighter tension and smaller gauge.

In the above picture, I have tensioned my swatch. And though I worked this swatch in the exact same yarn as the pattern recommends, using the same size hook, AND EVEN DESPITE THE FACT THAT I AM THE ONE THAT WROTE THAT GAUGE for that pattern, I still did not get it right. LOL! That’s gauge for you!

Sometimes you’ll end up with the correct amount of stitches horizontally, but not vertically (or the other way around). Messing around with your method can sometimes correct gauge errors that are just a little off. Try altering the tension of the yarn in your non-hook hand, or pulling up more yarn per stitch, to adjust errors in stitch height or make small horizontal adjustments. Additionally, different hook materials can affect your gauge – if you can’t achieve the right tension with a bamboo hook, try a metal one!

Besides switching your hook, it is also possible to change yarns to get a different gauge, although that happens less often – more commonly, people wish to use a certain yarn for a project and will switch hook size in order to obtain the correct gauge with the yarn they intend to use. However you go about it, adjust your ingredients according to whether you need a tighter or looser gauge.

And then yes, you’ll have to make another swatch and measure again 🙂

But it’s better than having to undo entire large projects because of gauge errors!

After sizing up my hook by one step (3.75 mm instead of 3.50 mm) and tensioning, I made a swatch with the right gauge horizontally of 3 stitches to an inch. My vertical measurement stayed the same.

One thing I recommend is to keep a stack of past projects’ swatches with the aim of creating a blanket/quilt/other scrap project with them. Having a future use for them makes them more appealing to actually do – and who doesn’t want another project on top of their new project? Haha!

Changing & Taming Gauge:

Let’s say, for the sake of insanity, that you actually DO want to change the gauge of an entire sweater project – you have a hook and yarn combo that makes a different gauge than the project and you’re determined to use it anyway. How do you get a garment that still fits? You have three options:
1.Try to make a different size (if multiple sizes are offered)
2. Just try it anyway and totally wing it changing the pattern willy nilly to fit your size needs, accepting that the result might be utter failure with no recourse (my favorite method).
3. A Lot of Math.

So much math is involved in #3, in fact, that I can’t lay out a general plan here in this Field Guide, but if you would like to start learning how the mathematics of gauge goes into planning the size and design of a crochet pattern, check out some of my free pattern resources. I try to periodically design stuff that’s really open-ended, with the intent to lead others to customize and experiment with whatever they have available – here’s two I’d recommend!:
Basic Armwarmers Tutorial
Basic Bralette Tutorial

Finally, there ARE times when you don’t have to worry about checking gauge at all: when you don’t care if the project comes out exactly as big as the pattern specifies – blankets and home decor projects are good examples.
That’s the conclusion of the Gauge-specific portion of this Field Guide, but if you’re curious about the other important Yarn Behaviors, read on!

An oldie but a goodie : The Partial Shades T-Shirt Yarn Plant Hanger

Yarn Weight – Meet the Standards

Yarn weight is one of those things that seems like it should be simple. Especially in the United States, we’re used to seeing one of 8 little numbers on the yarn label which generally tells us what different yarns can work for the same project. For instance, if you have a crochet pattern that calls for a #4 weight category yarn, most people will go to the store and pick any yarn they like that has a #4 on it.

This yarn label has lots of info – the weight is shown on the little skein pictogram as “5” for #5, also called Bulky, weight yarn.

Except experienced crocheters know that not every yarn in the same weight category is going to act exactly the same. Take my favorite rogue #4 weight yarn – Lion Brand Shawl in a Ball – and compare to a regular cheapie #4 weight acrylic solid:

They look totally different. And you might guess that they work up pretty differently, too:

And that’s why yarn labels also contain some other important information besides the general numbered category (which doesn’t even exist on some non-US yarns): The length of the skein in yards/meters, the weight of the skein in ounces/grams, and the fiber content.

Yarn Density

The length/weight information tells something important about the yarn that the numbered categories don’t directly specify – how DENSE or heavy the yarn is. That’s how our favorite rogue manages to be a #4 weight yarn the same as this acrylic – because the Shawl in a Ball is denser, and so the yarn is as heavy per yard/meter as the bigger sized yarn. And since yarns are categorized by weight, the Shawl in a Ball has enough weight per length unit to get a #4 label even though it is thinner than our acrylic #4.

Wraps Per Inch

While the apparent thickness of the yarn strand usually stays similar throughout a single numbered yarn category – several of these bulky #5 yarns for example – there is another metric that can help determine if your yarn is right for your project, and that’s something called Wraps Per Inch (WPI).

Three yarns of different fibers and plies, all labeled #5 weight

WPI is measured by taking a small object (a ruler is choice, a pencil works great too) and wrapping a strand of yarn as neatly and evenly as possible around the object. The wraps are then measured to see how many wraps can fit within an inch of space – which gives a better idea of the thickness of the strand than the weight categories do.

Here’s a handy WPI and yarn weight chart from Ravelry!

You can totally test WPI yourself at home, which I have done a number of times to help determine what weight my recycled sweater yarn was.

Fiber Content

Different fibers have different structures and densities, and yes, fiber content will definitely affect your project – and for more reason than just how you wash it. Fiber densities effect grams per yard, so a thinner yarn made of heavier fiber may be in same weight category as fatter yarn with lighter fiber – and the different surface qualities will change the way your project looks and acts.

Microscopic view of different fibers, image not mine. I’ve had this image in my media for so long I don’t know the original source, sorry!

There are so many more fibers and fiber blends available today than there were even 10 years ago when I started getting serious about my funtime hobby. I could most definitely do a full post on just fiber alone (actually I’ve done several in the past) but I’ll try to keep it fairly brief for now!

Fibers come in several general categories: Animal or Protein fibers (wool, alpaca, yak, etc) Plant or Cellulose fibers (cotton, rayon, hemp etc), and Inorganic/Man-made fibers (polyester, acrylic, polyamide, ect).

Although it may not be the first thing you compare when substituting your yarns, fiber content does matter – especially if you need to know how the finished piece will behave over time. A heavier-fiber yarn (such as cotton) substituted in place of a lighter fiber yarn (such as acrylic) will result in a project that might be a lot heavier overall than the designer intended, causing problems such as stretching and warping.

The Lotus Duster, size Large


Conversely, a project that is designed to depend on the heaviness of the yarn for it’s overall look (such as the Lotus Duster, pictured above) might not be quite as flattering to wear in a yarn that is extremely light and does not exert the right amount of downward pressure on the garment. (I mean in my opinion it looks great no matter what but… 😉 )

Not to mention wool, and whether or not your project will shrink and felt in the wash!

An ancient photo of half-felted wool that I messed up when dyeing – it did turn into a nice shawl, though!

In addition to weight, fiber also contributes to the traction or slipperiness of a stitch – extremely soft and slippery fibers like silk will not create a lot of friction or resistance when rubbing together, so any stitches made with silk yarn will settle and stretch out to the maximum that they can in a finished project – where a stiffer, rougher yarn like wool (especially if it’s lighter too) will not ‘spread’ so much.

Of course, in considering what yarn to use, where you’ll wear it makes a big difference too. Cotton, bamboo, and silk are wonderful fibers for delicate next-to-skin projects, like the halter top below made with bamboo/silk blend. I had to keep the tension tight for this project so that the stitches in the slippery soft fiber wouldn’t stretch out too much, resulting in wardrobe malfunctions 😉

From my Basic Bikini Cup guide

Yarn Ply:

Ply refers to the structure of the fibers within the strand of yarn – a ply is one strand of raw fiber spun together, and a yarn may consist of many plies or only one. Yarns with several plies tend to be strong and can be easily pulled back out (frogged) from stitching. One ply yarns (like RH Unforgettable) provide a gorgeous stitch definition but are weaker and will pill/tangle more easily when unraveled.

These yarns from top to bottom are multi-ply (I don’t know how many exactly but more than 4), 2-ply (in the middle) and 1 ply (chenille yarn on bottom)

Ply, combined with fiber type, will affect the density and elasticity of the yarn too! When finding yarns that will easily create the same gauge as your intended project, it can be helpful to match the ply types of the yarn. For this reason some UK yarns will list the ply on the label (like we saw on the Ravelry standards chart).

Since ply isn’t talked about that much in crocheting, how about a for instance?

My Elf Coat uses DK (#3) weight wool as the recommended yarn. I searched high and low for a suitable DK weight yarn substitute available in US hobby stores (King Cole Riot is a UK brand yarn). The closest I could find was Red Heart Unforgettable, a worsted (#4 weight) yarn. As mentioned in the pattern, they do produce slightly different gauges with the same size hook, but RH Unforgettable works better as a substitute than other #4 yarns might because Unforgettable is a one ply yarn just like the DK weight yarn.

If you are very interested in the structure of yarn plies and the ways that different yarns are designed and constructed, you should check out my blog posts about spinning. There’s no better way to take your hobby to the next level than to learn to make your own yarn!

Drape:

Ah, drape. Drape is the creature of the night, the hidden amalgamation of all the yarn behaviors discussed above. How could I not love something as mysterious and dramatic as drape, which is how a piece of fabric hangs or flows over a surface?

The flow of the fabric depends first on how easily the stitches can move around within it – stitches with lots of space in between them may have better movement and can wrinkle and ruffle more when handled or hung – pieces with stitches very tightly packed and no space in between will be stiff and less flow-ey.

The Lotus Duster pattern uses thin, cotton yarn and a proportionally large hook to create stitches with tons of room to flow around
The Post Stitch Pixie Hat pattern uses thick yarn, a relatively small hook, and tightly packed post stitches to create a structured bonnet with almost no floweyness

Through the years I have found that people, whether they are beginner fiber artist or not, DO instinctively perceive drape even though it can be hard to define. When I read about how a crochet piece doesn’t match the project image, or when I see crocheters struggle to recreate a specific part of a pattern that just “doesn’t look right” even though the gauge and stitches are correct – that’s drape.

But it’s not just about the closeness of the stitching – you can get the correct gauge for a project and still not achieve a good drape.

If your yarn is not the same or similar fiber content, your drape can be off – remember talking about smoother yarns like silk stretching and settling more? That’s drape, too.

And yarn weight, in which some yarns are weirdly heavier or lighter per yard than others in the same category, due to fiber content? You guessed it! That affects drape too.

And you might have some suspicions about WPI – the amount of space a certain size yarn takes up when wrapped around an object (such as a crochet hook)… Whaddya know! Drape!

The Flower Child Pullover has a medium drape, the openwork mesh combines with sturdy #4 acrylic to create a sweater with both swing and structure

The good news is, drape can be tamed by being familiar with all the yarn qualities and behaviors we’ve been talking about in this post. If that lovely sweater you’ve got your eye on making calls for yarn that’s 50% bamboo and 50% cotton, now you’ll know that choosing a 100% acrylic yarn will change the way that project looks or maybe even fits. And you can either decide to look for a yarn that’s a closer match, or decide you don’t give a flip and will make it with whatever yarn you have on hand and drape be damned (an extremely valid standpoint IMO).

Which brings me to the final portion of this programme:

Wrapping it Up

You’re armed. You’re ready. You’ve got your massive, exuberantly curated folder of crochet patterns. You’ve got your yarn and your backup yarn and your secret backup yarn (it’s hidden in the trunk of the car). You’ve got your hooks (except for that damn 5.50 CHECK THE COUCH)…

And you’ve got all this information about how to best make material choices based on gauge, weight, fiber, WPI, ply… yikes! That’s a lot to consider now, and maybe it can be a bit overwhelming. After all, a lot of hobby crocheters make it their whole hobby careers not worrying about most of this.

And that’s perfectly fine. I wanted to create this Field Guide for other fiber artists who might have wondered the same things as me, and for those who just can’t get enough of weirdly specific fiber science (also me). The important part is to have the knowledge, so that you can make your own decisions. As a very famous and favorite quote of mine runs, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

If you’re a beginner crocheter who came here to learn about gauge and got sucked in, congratulations on making it this far! I can’t believe you’re still reading this! Anyway, dear beginners who need a starting point: just start with the gauge aspect of Yarn Behaviors, following the procedures for checking gauge by swatching. The rest of these considerations will be picked up and intuited over time 🙂

After all, the majority of what I’m presenting here is information I’ve slowly gleaned through experience. Experience and a whole buttload of mistakes – because while none of us like to make mistakes, we simply can’t grow and learn without them. So whether or not you apply all the information in this post, I truly hope it’s helpful on YOUR fiber art journey, whatever you make of it.

And as always I am here if you have questions and I love to talk shop – if I don’t have answers, I can at least offer advice ❤

Thanks for visiting! See you on the next yarn safari…
-MF