Updated: Jul 12, 2020
Okay, ….I KNOW - nobody likes doing swatches to check gauge before starting their project, and for those that actually do make swatches, I have discovered a great number don’t block them before checking gauge – Eeeek! I get it, you want to just jump right on in and get that fibre and colour gratification, sense of achievement and everything to be rainbows, right? Well, I want that when I dream up a new design in my head too, but if I take a drive down that crazy inspired road, (and I have been guilty of this when I first started designing) it isn’t going to be pretty – no rainbows in sight…
WHY SWATCH AND BLOCK?
1. The first thing is to check gauge:
When I design a garment, I choose a yarn and stitch pattern for the main fabric of that garment, make a swatch, block it (we will get to how further down the page), and assess if it’s going to be good enough for the purposes of my design. Assuming it is, then the GAUGE (number of stitches to 10cm of fabric, and number of stitched rows to 10cm of fabric) is the basis of the rest of the design and pattern. Lots of math is applied to figure out how many stitches and rows go where to make my finished garment turn out like my idea, AND fit sizing guidelines.
So, it’s pretty important that your gauge matches the gauge specified in the pattern if you are wanting your finished garment to match all those finished garment schematic measurements, and thereby end up with a garment that fits like you expect.
If your gauge is tight (more stitches and rows per 10cm than specified), your garment will turn out smaller, so you will need to increase hook size.
If your gauge is loose (fewer stitches and rows per 10cm than specified), your garment will turn out larger than expected for whatever size you are making of the pattern, so you will need to decrease hook size.
How your gauge comes out with your first swatch will then help you choose how much to go up or down in hook size to achieve said gauge for swatch number 2 (which again is blocked and re-checked). Yes, yes, I know you don’t really want to repeat the whole process, but my advice is don’t proceed with the pattern until you have demonstrated correct gauge…. Really)!!
If you are 1-2 stitches out on stitch gauge (ie. pretty close), then change up or down by 0.5mm hook size and go again. If you are well off the mark, then change up or down hook size by 1.0mm for the second swatch.
TIP: Bear in mind that the shaft of the hook is sized to a certain mm thickness, and it should be the shaft of the hook determining loop size for general fabric stitching. If you scoop too much in your “pulling through the stitch” hooking action (lifting the handle very high so the hook tip goes downwards), you can inadvertently tighten each stitch immediately after you pull the hook through. I think it’s because the resting loop position between stitches is sitting on the narrower hook diameter of the neck/throat region instead of the shaft, and your tensioning hand holding the working yarn automatically takes up the slack. For these tight crocheters, they will increase hook size and not really change gauge much. If this seems to be a problem for you, be mindful when you pull through loops on the hook, to pull the hook back at a flatter angle – more along the length of the hook shaft, and avoid tensioning after your stitch.
If the garment in question is designed as “oversized” (which means the finished garment has around 15 or more cm of extra circumference relative to the body when worn, or “ease”), then I suppose one could argue gauge isn’t super-critical, but standard fitting garments will have around 5-10 cm ease and if your gauge is tight and you just carry on anyway, then no rainbows for you…
2. The second thing is to check how the yarn behaves when washed (which is what wet-BLOCKING kind of is really):
All textiles have chemicals applied during manufacture, and so when you wash your yarn, its characteristics change a bit (or maybe sometimes a lot!) as those chemicals are removed. Now if you never want to wash the garment you are making (…errrr?) then maybe don’t block, but otherwise, block, block, block!
I have another blog-post all about BLOCKING here, (so have a quick look if you like and come back, but there is more info down this page too). By blocking your swatch, you might find that gorgeous yarn you’re so excited about using isn’t colour-fast, becomes too dull, becomes too fuzzy, or felts easily. Maybe you want to review your yarn choice before proceeding (wink face).
You might think your gauge is too tight just looking at it as you crochet, but might actually find it is on-point after its blocked. How much things naturally stretch when blocked will be influenced by both the yarn and the stitches, hook size, and if the fabric includes flo (front loop only) or blo (back loop only) stitching. Depending on these factors, the fabric might elongate quite a bit in one direction and not in the other. However it “moves” with blocking, I have to factor that in to my garment’s final schematic measurements.
The Nishio Sweater fabric is actually a good example of this. With all my blocking of Scheepjes Our Tribe, I have found the fabric goes from springy and a bit stiff as worked, to soft and relaxed (a bit looser) when wet blocked - which is great for final drape of the garment - and its definitely factored in. For the particular stitching technique used for the main fabric of Nishio, the fabric barely changes circumferentially around the body/bust when blocked, but it stretches quite a bit along the length of the bodice and sleeves.
In fact, the finished Medium sample seen in the Scheepjes YARN 8 Bookazine that my nephew is modelling in the photo above was approximately 10cm shorter in the bodice and 7cm in the sleeves before blocking as compared to after. So as you make that sweater, if you hadn’t swatched and blocked it, you might be thinking it seems a bit short and maybe be having a bit of a panic - but IF your blocked swatch matches the specified gauge, then you can trust it should all work out.
I can hear you all say – If I use yarn for the swatch, I worry I won’t have enough for my garment! Maybe I should swatch a few rows, then undo it, but that means I can’t block? …As just discussed, blocking the swatch is just as important as making the swatch, which leads me to this question:
IS THE YARN ALLOWANCE FOR SWATCHING INCLUDED IN THE YARN ALLOWANCE SPECIFIED FOR EACH SIZE OF THE PATTERN?
Across industry, I am actually not certain about the answer to this question but I believe the answer is no.
For my Peppergoose self-published patterns though, I have recently started to be specific about this, and say “X number of balls (for whatever size), plus 1 ball extra for swatching and “just-in-case”. Having a bit extra yarn in the same dye-lot as your order is never a bad thing. Glad to clear that up!
BUT ISNT THAT SWATCH JUST A WASTE OF YARN? WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH IT AFTER?
I recommend you label it with a safety pin style stitch marker and write the hook size you used for it in permanent marker (you WILL forget otherwise), and store it away for future reference. You could also add a label that describes the basic stitch pattern you used too. Any other left-over yarn from your project you can confidently use for other things, but if you hang on to that swatch, not only do you have reference information, you also have a small amount of yarn that exactly matches your project, has been treated the same way as your project, that can be unravelled to use as patching/mending yarn for your project should the need ever arise! Definitely not wasted! …I think I even see a rainbow.
SO, HOW TO SWATCH?
Some of my patterns (like Sashiko Happy Coat) give specific swatching instructions, but most won’t. Unless a pattern does give specifics, then what you do is first check the notes on gauge to see how many stitches and rows per 10cm (or sometimes it’s described in terms of number of pattern repeats per 10cm, particularly if it’s a lace fabric).
Let’s talk fabric made up of rows of stitches rather than lace pattern repeats. The goal is to make a piece of fabric about 15cm by 15cm so you can measure the gauge across 10cm in the centre of the fabric, NOT from an edge. Do NOT make your swatch 10 x 10cm as it will not represent gauge properly.
Because 15 cm = 1.5 x 10cm, you want to multiply the stitch and row numbers by 1.5.
So as an example, let’s say the pattern says:
“20 sts x 18 rows to 10cm over Main Fabric Patt using a 3.5mm hook, after blocking”
If 20 sts should come out around 10cm, then 1.5 x 20 sts = 30 sts should approximate 15 cm when blocked if your stitch tension is bang-on, so using the specified hook size (3.5mm), I would start my tension /gauge square with 30 sts, or maybe 32 stitches, and work 1.5 x 18 = 27 rows of whatever the “Main Fabric Pattern” is described for the garment. (Depending on the main fabric pattern, maybe you will need an odd or even number of stitches, so read a bit through the pattern first).
In any case, that should make a big enough swatch so you can measure gauge from the centre of the piece. THEN BLOCK THE SWATCH however the finished garment is going to be blocked. Look at the “To Finish” section of the pattern for details. It might say “wet block to schematic”, or “wet block, then steam block to schematic”, or just steam block. You get the idea. This should be whatever the designer has done to finish their sample and is the basis of the schematic diagram provided, so your swatch needs to be blocked the same way.
READY FOR SOME REAL-WORLD APPLICATION?
I am going to use my Mum’s swatch for her Sashiko Happy Coat as an example of a swatching journey. Her colour palette is shown here:
So here goes:
MOTHERGOOSE’S SWATCH SEQUENCE:
Because my coat pattern gives specific instructions for how many stitches and rows, Mum has worked to that specification with a 5mm hook as described in the gauge notes, using 2 strands of Scheepjes Our Tribe in the lustrous colour 988 Generosity, offsetting the colour gradient between the two strands of yarn to minimise stripeyness in the fabric and enhance the blending of multiple colours.
The desired blocked gauge for the Sashiko Happy Coat is 15 sts x 14 rows to 10cm over dc flo crochet using a 5mm hook.
Photos below are after wet-blocking. Mum had already wet blocked her swatch because she is totally on board the swatching train:
Stitch gauge is 19 sts to 10cm (4inches), and its easiest to count each of the unworked loops to count the stitches between the “0” and the “4” inch markings on the rule. Note the gauge rule is sitting in the mid-section of the fabric. (Do not measure gauge from the edge of the fabric).
Row gauge is 16 rows to 10cm, and its easiest to count rows by the unworked loops as well because on either side of the fabric they will occur ever 2 rows. So looking at that, you can count 2,4,6,8,10,12,14,16 rows between he “0”and the “4” inch markings on the rule.
So this is too tight, and a fair way off, so Mum reached for the 6mm. This swatch weighs 25 grams.
I am going to show you before and after blocking photos for this one to show the whole deal. Prepare to be amazed! (Okay, maybe I am overstating things, but hey, I am passionate about blocking nowadays…)
Photos below are before blocking, crocheted with a 6mm hook. (Remember it wasn’t close to gauge, so I advised Mum to increase the hook size by 1mm). I wanted to see a different colour, and since LILLA 2 REGAL was such a popular vote for favourite suggested colour palettes, I thought why not do swatch 2 with that: So this is worked with 2 strands of Scheepjes Our Tribe in 978 Lilla 2.
Stitch gauge is 17 sts to 10cm, and Row gauge is 17 rows to 10cm and weighs 27grams.
Note how the corners curl in. The yarn is holding tension and feels springy thick and stiff. I measured the whole piece at 19.5cm across the stitches and 19cm across the rows.
And this photo shows just how well it drapes:
Err – it doesn’t. It looks like it’s been to the hair salon for a curling session – I WISH I had that much lift in my hair!! I hung it with the ridges going vertically as it does in the finished coat. But it’s clearly not the way you want a garment to hang right now. Can you stand the suspense? Can you wait to see what it’s going to hang like when it’s blocked!!?
ON TO THE BLOCKING:
Tepid/warm water into Laundry tub, with a splash of laundry detergent or hand soap or wool wash – any of these things act as a wetting agent so the water can penetrate the otherwise fairly resistant merino fibres.
Once detergent is dissolved, plunge in the swatch. Hold it under the water a bit, giving it time to start soaking it up.
Note the water is only lightly sudsed in this pic, and the fabric is blotchy – lighter colours are where the water has not penetrated and in the darker sections the water is beginning to get in. Without agitating it as such, maybe turn it over, reposition and hold it under the water a bit until its weighted down by the water.
Then go have a cup of tea (and cake if you like – hey, you deserve it - you have made a swatch and are blocking it)!
This one is a banana choc-chip cake with caramel icing and yes it was yummo! Leaving the swatch in the water to soak for around 20 minutes is enough time to really let it relax, but it’s no fuss if you leave it a bit longer – you don’t want to rush eating that cake. Digestion is important!
Rinse the swatch in tepid water to remove the detergent residue, and bunch into a ball in your hands to squeeze out some water but don’t wring or twist it. Then lie it flat on a folded towel, and roll it up in the towel then press on the rolled towel (again, don’t wring or twist it) to squeeze out the majority of the water.
Next, lay it out flat to gauge, tugging gently on the edges of the fabric to make it properly flat, and stroke it across the stitches and rows as necessary to place it as almost a square, making the fabric match gauge as seen here: At this point the whole piece measures 21cm across the stitches (was 19.5 before), and 22cm across the rows (was 19 before).
I don’t use pins for this or anything, it just lies like that in a warm spot until its dry. I don’t care about direct sun for a short while – at least it will dry faster. Once its dry, wet blocking is “complete”.
And now for the kicker: The funny/great/frustrating thing about merino is that its elastic, and even though you laid it out to gauge and it was perfect, when it is completely dry, it will end up a smidge smaller again. Once completely dry, the measurement across stitches (which started at 19.5 and went to 21), finished up at 20.5cm. The measurement across rows (which started out at 19cm and went to 22cm), finished up at 21cm.
Once dry, the final stitch gauge snuck back to almost 16 sts per 10cm, and the Row gauge narrowed a tiny amount to 14.5 rows per 10cm, but this is OKAY (phew!) because the steam blocking at garment completion will take it the rest of the way. As long as you can lay it out wet to gauge without having to pull hard to move the fabric into position, then the steam blocking does the rest. (Bear in mind as well, that any long garment will stretch more under its own weight when it hangs on the body, which is particularly relevant for the Sashiko Happy Coat).
For cotton and merino blend garments (and therefore their swatches), I ALWAYS wet block AND steam block. I would normally do both to the swatch before checking gauge, and to the garment at the end of the project, but for the Sashiko Happy Coat, the pieces MUST be wet blocked before the slip-stitch embroidery (also known as “surface crochet”). Why? Because of this:
Photo below is how the fabric relaxes and drapes after wet-blocking: VOILÁ - AWESOME, RIGHT!!???
Look at that smoooooothe sleek line! Ahh, it’s like a sigh of relief! (Hair-straightener alert). Are you amazed at the difference?
For the coat to hang well, the tension of your future surface crochet needs to match the flow of the wet-blocked fabric and still retain a bit of stretch. You could not possibly achieve a well-draped garment trying to embroidery the bouffant curled hair-do we had before! Your slip stitches would be applied matching this stressed out tight fabric, then would sag between the embroidery when it was finally blocked. (Thunderclouds and crochet hooks thrown on floor ...and nobody wants that).
So I do describe that specific sequence in the pattern. Each fabric piece relaxes to gauge or almost gauge with the wet blocking. Then work the slip stitch embroidery to match the flow of this wet-blocked fabric and still be able to be stretched a little over the embroidered areas. Then assemble the coat pieces, and once the coat is complete, steam block it in sections (refer again to the BLOCKING post here for details of how to steam block), and finally attach any buttons. Then do a happy dance, share your pics with the tag #sashikohappycoat or even send me pics!!
A FINAL WORD ABOUT SWATCH 1 AND SWATCH 2
What has been the overall effect of increasing the hook size by 1mm? It’s NOT the same in stitch height as it is for stitch width – this last photo shows Swatch 1 laid on top of Swatch 2, making the bottom right corners flush.
They are the same number of stitches and rows, same yarn, same person – the only difference is 1mm of hook size. So if when you swatch your row gauge is close, but you stitch gauge is not, then its not close enough.
See how good swatching is? Wasn’t that satisfying to get control of the fabric, and now you can work through your project without freaking out midway because it seems too short or something? Yay, right?
I am obviously passionate about this aspect of making, though I confess it wasn’t always so. I learned the hard way, and write all this so hopefully you don’t have that frustration. I am getting off my soap-box now and will cross my fingers that this post has motivated you to swatch and block with confidence for all of your projects!
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As always, happy stitching!!
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