I can't think of 5 letters that can evoke more stress in the mind of most crocheters then the word "gauge". We've all seen it written in patterns, and we all know that it is something we should check, but it is so much easier to ignore it. Really, all we want to do is relax and crochet. Then when our project turns out to be any size, other than what we intended, we do what every good crocheter does...we cast all blame on the pattern and the designer. I know that I'm guilty of this and I'm sure that I'm not the only one, so I thought that I would take a few minutes to talk about gauge (also known as tension). Hopefully, this will take away some of the mystery and fear.
First off, what is gauge? Simply put gauge, or tension, is your guide as to how tight or how loose the designer crochets. Each of us is unique. Not everyone holds their yarn the same, or crochets the same. Some us crochet loosely while others of us crochet tightly, and for some of us our gauge is dependent on our mood. When we are happy and relaxed our gauge is loose, and when we are upset or tense our stitches are tighter then normal. The gauge is added to the pattern so that you are able to match your gauge, or tension to the designers. If your gauge is different then the designers then not only will this affect the finished size, but it will also affect the drape and feel of the fabric.
Now, comes the question...how do you check gauge? Before you start your crochet project you will want to work up a small test swatch. You want to know how many stitches and rows you are getting in a given measurement. Often, the designer will suggest a 4" (10 cm) square, but it is best to work up a few more stitches and rows then the gauge instructions recommend. This will ensure that you get a accurate measurement. Also, be sure to use the yarn weight and hook size recommended, and to follow all instructions regarding blocking and pressing. After you have crocheted your test swatch as directed, lay it out on a flat surface and using a metal or rigid ruler measure the length horizontally across the square. Mark the length with a pin at either end as shown.
Next, take the same measurement vertically across the square and again mark with a pin at either end.
If you are measuring the gauge over a pattern of stitches then the same principle applies.
Now, count the number of stitches and rows between the pins. If you have the same number of stitches and rows, as the pattern suggests, then you can proceed with your project. If you have more stitches, this means that you crochet tighter then the designer, and if you have less stitches you crochet looser.
The next question is, how do you match your gauge to the designers? We have found that the simplest way is to change your hook size. When a designers adds the hook size to a pattern this is meant to be used as a guide. There is no hard and fast rule that this is the hook size that you should use. The most important thing is to make sure that you are getting the same gauge or tension as the designer. If the designer crochets tighter then you do then this would mean that you would need to choose a smaller hook, and don't be alarmed if your hook size is drastically different then the hook size called for in the pattern. I'm a fairly loose crocheter so for amigurumi I've been known to use a hook as small as a 3.00 mm to a 3.50 mm (E) using a worsted weight yarn, whereas someone else may achieve the same gauge as me using a 5.00 mm (H) crochet hook.
Another way to match the gauge is to try holding the yarn in a different manner. If your stitches are too loose you can try wrapping the yarn around your ring finger as well as your little finger. If your stitches are too tight you can try not wrapping the yarn around your fingers at all. You will need to make up a new test swatch for each trial, but it is well worth the effort as it will help you to successfully finish your project and ensure that you have something that you are proud of and able to enjoy for years!
If you are interested in further information on gauge and garment design, Kim Guzman is a designer that I admire and an expert in the field. If you are ready to tackle a garment then I would recommend checking out this post by Kim: Problems with Gauge