The first tip I like to share with my crochet students is one that starts with a “dirty word”…. it’s swatching! Most patterns include a little section at the beginning about “Take time to measure your gauge.” Many crocheters routinely ignore this, then use the stated hook even if substituting yarn. Here’s a secret: the designer is only telling you what hook and yarn he/she used, and what size stitches that made. It is NOT a magic formula, guaranteeing that if you use that hook and yarn yours will look the same. And then if you change yarns, even among the same stated “weight” of yarn, you move from “no guarantee” to “anybody’s guess.” You hold the hook and yarn differently, in a different set of hands with different musculature than the designer; your hook may be fractionally a different size, depending on brand; your yarn may be a different fiber. Even the same fiber content and same weight can be spun differently in different brands. All these differences make up the need for swatching.
If you’re substituting yarn, working a gauge swatch is a fun way to “get to know” the yarn you’ve chosen. If you’re using a different kind of fiber (e.g. acrylic, silk or alpaca instead of wool) it will behave differently: it will have a different amount of stretch or give in each stitch, which can affect the size and shape of the stitches. Even if you are using the same yarn as the designer, you are using YOUR hands, not his/hers! You are holding the hook and yarn the way YOU hold them. This will also make a difference in the size and shape of your stitches. When you swatch, you give yourself a chance to find out those differences before your project “looks funny.” I encourage yarn substitutions, and often substitute myself…. but there ARE some yarns that just won’t work to the gauge specified for some patterns, without changing the texture or thickness of the fabric too much for the finished object to look right. It’s best to find that out in a small square swatch, rather than after working for hours on a gift!
Swatching is definitely not wasted time. In addition to getting to know the yarn, you get to know your own stitches, and how they compare to the designer’s. For example, I tend to make taller, more slender stitches than most people. That means that it may take fewer rows than a pattern specifies, to reach the intended measurement. That’s FINE as long as I know it! Before I knew this fact about my stitches, I habitually made sweaters that had sleeves long enough for gorillas! Cuffs are great, but gee whiz, enough is enough! Now, I swatch and make note of the difference between my stitches and the designer’s and write myself a little note in the pattern, to remind me of changes I’ll need to make.
It’s also not wasted time if you are using the swatch to practice the “tricky” or new patterns of stitches that make up the texture. If you’re going to spend some time struggling with split stitches, working a bit and frogging/reworking it, it’s so much less frustrating if you can keep saying to yourself, “That’s okay, this swatch is just for practice anyway.” Then when you come upon those bits in the pattern, you are not slowed down by doing the first task of deciphering and experimentation. You approach the tricky pattern stitches with confidence, reading and executing the pattern more accurately. I usually swatch all pattern stitches I have not worked before, even if they are NOT the part of the pattern specified for measuring gauge. It’s a different kind of swatch and as useful as the gauge swatch.
Swatching is not a waste of yarn, because you can make both of the above swatches with the same yarn, frogging the first to make the second. When that’s finished, frog it again and use it in the project.
If we are crocheting because we love the act itself, rather than for efficient production of garments, then it seems natural that we would jump for joy at the suggestion that a bit of yarn can be productively used TWICE or even three times before it’s gone forever into a finished object.