Swatch like your life depends on it

Swatching. Oooof. “Boooring” I hear you say. “I’ve never once prepared a swatch, and never needed to, so why should I start now?”
I hear you, I hear you.
So –  hands up – who makes a swatch every time they try a new yarn, or start a new project? *Hand goes up* Or at least, makes one most/some of the time?  In this week’s blog post I will try to convince you that tension swatching is a very informative habit to get into. After reading this you’ll know what you’ve been missing out on!

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My stack of swatches which quickly outgrew my grey yarn bowl


I have by now accumulated quite a selection of swatches. Some are not the normal 10×10 cm square, some are just 1 row in double crochet! The shortest one is only 3 chains I made with a short yarn sample I was given. Most of my swatches have a label attached to them recording what size hook I used, what yarn I was using, or even what the pattern or just the stitch is. Oh, and I recently started to record the date I made the swatch on the tag as well.

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Some swatches I created just to try out a colour combination. Take for example this *hideous* DK cotton apricot and yellow Merino wool (tut tut, never mix your yarns like that…Wendy Supreme Cotton Silk DK and Schachenmeyer Extra Merino – the yellow shade is now discontinued). Not only do they have a different texture but they have a different amount of stretch. And for those of you who have never made a swatch, the amount of stretch a yarn gives you can be an important piece of information you want to know about when you make or design a garment.

I found this out the hard way. I swatched, but I only focused on the type of stitch I was going to use, and the swatch in itself was much to small to give me any further information (drape, stretch, pilling etc.).  My first every garment I designed was a pink cardigan made in treble crochet using Sirdar Snuggly Baby Bamboo. The yarn itself is incredibly smooth to work with and nice and squishy. The treble crochet stitch I used in the design combined with the yarn made the garment very stretchy and sadly eventually impossible to wear. The sleeves would constantly slip off my shoulders due to the weight of the sleeve, its baggy design and the stretch of the whole cardigan, a product of the stitch and yarn chosen. I have yet to unravel the cardigan. And I will be sad to do so, but I will most certainly make another garment out of it. The colour is just too cheerful for me not to wear it.

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You can view posts about this cardigan on my Instagram account @madeandlovedbyMiriam

I don’t know about you but very rarely do I order the exact yarn recommended in a pattern. Instead I either use something from my stash or I order another yarn. And when I order another yarn for said project I tend to make my choice in this order:

1. Similar yarn weight
2. Similar yarn weight, and then I might also remember to look at
3. Same or similar yarn composition.

And here I have to admit – when I do check out alternative yarns on YarnSub, 9/10 times I don’t go with the suggestions from the website. More often than not this is because:

  1. Suggested alternative yarns I can’t easily purchase in the UK
  2. I have fallen in love with a particular yarn colour already and its not the type of yarn suggested in the pattern or by YarnSub
  3. Price was a deciding factor for me to chose a different yarn altogether
  4. I am stubborn and I think it surely won’t make that much of a difference to the end product if I use a different yarn
  5. I want to start working on this pattern this very minute, I don’t care and have this yarn at hand and therefore this will work out just fine.

Actually, that in itself can already be a very good learning experience – to create an item with the yarn recommended in the pattern and a second time, with a yarn of your own choosing. Comparing the two result would be very interesting. You will be able to see firsthand the difference in look, feel, durability, thickness, stretch, drape, pilling and other factors. In the absence of this (it sounds rather time intensive), we can create a large tension swatch!

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A selection of my swatches, the later ones all have tags recording size hook, brand of yarn, colour and sometimes yarn composition, #rows, #stitches, stitch or pattern used.

So you’re still wondering why you should create a swatch? Because of all this additional information you can gain…

Sizing

When making washcloths, bags or a blanket, using the same yarn throughout, small differences in sizing won’t matter that much as long as you use the pattern’s recommended size hook and yarn  – caveat : see below where I talk about your individual crochet technique – ask yourself, are you a Rider, Lifter or Yanker?

Patterns and balls of yarn on their label will give you recommended hook size, number of stitches, number of rows to achieve desired gauge. Since not many of us are the average Jane Doe size UK 10, 12, 14 etc but rather want the finished item to fit us, these recommended size hook, row and stitch recommendations play an important role being able to size your crochet garment to your body measurements. Some yarn brands give separate information for knitting and for crochet, but when recommended gauge is shown only for knitting use this as a starting point in creating your tension swatch. In fact, rows and number of stitches to achieve gauge are only every a starting point as we all have a slightly different technique.

To make this easier to understand, let’s assume a pattern for a crochet jumper gives gauge as 15 dc and 12 rows for a 10 x 10 cm swatch (4″ x4″). Let’ assume a jumper size medium has a bust of 40″. If you require only 14 dc stitches to create 10 cm width than the intended 15 dc stitches, this means for the same number of stitches instructed within the pattern to get bust size of 40″ you will make 10 more dc stitches, making the final piece larger than intended, and bust size will be much larger than 40″.

Conversely, if you require 16 dc stitches to create 10 cm width than the intended 15 dc stitches, this means for the same number of stitches instructed within the pattern to get bust size 40″ you will make 10 stitches less, making the final piece smaller than intended, and bust size will be much smaller than 40″.

  • When creating your tension swatch you want to use the same yarn, same pattern as you will use in the final piece.
  • Create a tension swatch larger than 10 x 10 cm (4″ x 4″) and measure the number of stitches and number of rows within a 10 x 10 cm area somewhere in the middle, away from the start of your tension square. This is because we tend to crochet tighter at the and and the beginning of a row and don’t relax into the pattern until a fair distance into the tension square. Deciding gauge for my Scheepjes crochet skirt I made a 10 x 10 cm tension square, as well as a much larger tension swatch. The number of rows and stitches differed significantly. The larger size will also allow you to see how the yarn drapes! See more on this below.
  • Half stitches also count!
  • Lay your tensions square out flat, preferably block it before you make your measurements, and count number of stitches and rows achieved per hook size within a 10 x 10 cm area
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Counting the number of rows – note how the ruler is placed  – ‘0’ is placed at the top of the stitch and marked with a pin. Here we count 21 rows.

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Counting the number of stitches in a row – again note how the ruler is placed – ‘0’ is placed to the left of a stitch and is thus included in our count. Half stitches also count! Here we count 18.5 stitches.

For the large tension swatch I used in this example I used a 4mm hook size using Scheepjes Stones Washed (colour 803) chaining 46 stitches (plus 1 turning chain) and 32 rows. In comparison, I made a tension square of exactly 10 x 10 cm using a 4 mm hook – this came out as 19 stitches and 20 rows, and therefore a significant difference between the two sizes of tension squares created.

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Number of stitches and rows required for 10 x 10 cm square at 4 mm hook differs significantly compared to the outcome achieved from the large tension swatch. Since I took this photo I have recounted the number of rows, which is in fact 20 and not 19 as recorded on the tag.

Drape

What drape are you after in your crochet garment? Are you substituting a different yarn with different composition than the pattern recommends? Are you designing your own piece? How does the tension swatch look? Is it stiff or soft and scrunchable? Is it easily folded or too stiff? What drape are you after? How would a certain amount of drape affect the look of your crochet garment? And with drape we mean: how loosely does it hang? Think loose folds.
Fibres that help achieve drape regardless of yarn weight are Cotton, Linen, Silk, Alpaca, Merino wool, Mohair, Angora Rabbit, Bamboo, Acrylic, Nylon, Polyester (depending on the refining process used), Tencel (A cellulose based fiber. Tencel yarn is soft, silky and very strong – wet or dry, it is stronger than cotton), superwash wool (the super wash process removes the stretch) and non-elastic fibers in general. However, wool and synthetic yarns will give less yarn drape in comparison to other compositions such as cotton, silk or a cotton/silk blend. Using a thinner yarn than the pattern suggests can give you more drape. Even Aran weight yarns give you drape, it just depends on the size of hook used with the yarn weight. Think Afghans – they have drape too! How much material is in a garment also defines the amount of drape. The type of stitch used can also affect the amount of drape created. Using a pattern which opens up will give the garment more drape. Crocheting looser than normal (use a larger hook than recommended for the yarn) will also give you more drape – remember tight crochet stitches give less drape – think Amigurumi, where the tight double crochet stitch gives the Amigurumi its characteristic stiffness.

Stretch

Does the tension swatch ping back into shape? Does the weight of the yarn lengthen your tension swatch? Is this desirable or not? Does it stretch a little or a lot? Hang your tension swatch for a while and check for stretch after a while. Before and after measurements will be helpful here. this is very a larger tension swatch will be useful.

Pilling

Rubb or carry your tension swatch around with you and observe the amount of pilling created by your yarn of choice. Does the skein of yarn have some nap? Is it fluffy? When you pull the fluff does it easily come away or is there some resistance? The more difficult it is to pull the fluff off, the less pilling will occur. In general, the higher the percentage of luxury yarns as part of the yarn’s composition the more likely your yarn will pill. Inspecting your yarn of choice closer, this can be helped with a higher number of plies as well as the amount of twist given to them. What do you observe?
The type of stitch chosen here will also affect the amount of pilling – the tighter your stitch the less pilling will occur.
Some pilling will naturally occur though. The best thing to do is to wash your tension swatch in lukewarm to warm water and throw in some wool wash. The warm water will swell the yarn, mingle and settle the fibres a bit more within your tension swatch and thus result in more permanent enmeshment of the fibres (this is what felting does, although we don’t want to go as far as this and felt our tension square!) and as a result won’t be easily disturbed by abrasion.

Feel

Block your oversized tension swatch – how does the blocked piece feel on your skin? Are the yarn fibres maybe too short and thus scratchy on your skin? Wouldn’t it be awful to create something and only after you find out its so scratchy you can’t bear to wear it? all this wasted time and effort..

Durability

What are you intending to use your crochet piece for? Block it and carry it around with you (similar with checking for pilling) and put the tension swatch through its paces – how does it hold up? How does the tension square look after you have washed it and/or blocked it? Did the colour run? Has its stitch definition changed?

Stitch definition

How is the stitch definition of your yarn? Is the amount of stitch definition observed desired for your crochet piece?  Does its stitch definition have a desirable or undesirable effect on the look you want to achieve?

Practise!

You get to practice the stitch of the pattern of course – is this a stitch you are new to? If yes, then you definitely need to practice it to get the stitch pattern’s tension to be repeatable and reproducible. If you come back to your UFO after some time you will have an example to recreate before diving back into your work.

Amount of yarn required

Once you have decided on your yarn and the size hook you will use, from the amount of stitches and rows for your gauge you will be able to calculate how much yarn you require to complete your crochet piece. If this is a wearable crochet garment, you want to be able to purchase the total amount of yarn needed from the same batch to avoid any colour changes between batches showing up in your final piece.

Colour pooling

You can check the amount of stitches per colour change per size hook to get colour pooling to occur. The magic happens when using a stitch as a multiple of two and the moss, or linen stitch.

UFOs and associated tension swatches

If you’re picking an UFO back up after some time, the benefit of having a tension swatch associated with each UFO means you can pick up your UFO again, re-create the tension swatch to get the same number of rows and stitches before diving back into your crochet work. This way you avoid having to frog a large part of your work when you realise that your tension is actually different from where you picked up your UFO again to your earlier work.
You might even consider re-doing your tension swatch if a few months have passed from the last time you worked on your WIP. This would still be of benefit especially if you had to amend your technique in order to get the correct row count to achieve gauge required, and let’s say you had to adjust your usual Lifter technique to a Rider in order to get the sizing correct. This adjustment and other information you could record on a tag attached to your tension swatch.

Our crochet technique differs between individuals, but boils down to this…

When it comes to achieving the elusive 10 x 10 cm tension square using a particular size crochet hook, people easily understand that going up or down a size hook adjusts the number of stitches per row. The 4 mm crochet hook has a diameter of 4 mm; the 7 mm crochet hook has a diameter of 7 mm, and consequently the stitch loop and our yarn-over is increased when we change up from a 4 mm to a 7mm hook.
However, more often than not, we struggle to achieve the correct number of rows within a 10 cm height and this often leaves us baffled. This is where the “Golden Loop” comes in and different techniques between individuals move into the spotlight –  those techniques have been broadly categorised into and are known as Lifter, Rider and Yanker in the crochet world.

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Same yarn, same size hook, same number of rows and stitches! Yet the three tension swatches are a different size. This is the effect of different technique, whether you’re a Lifter, Rider or a Yanker.

I’m am member of a number of Crochet Facebook groups, and time and time again people post videos of themselves showing how they crochet, how they hold the hook and the working yarn. There are so many different ways to do so, none right or wrong. As a result everybody has a slightly different tension when they crochet, they either crochet much looser, or much tighter, some fall somewhere in between. It helps to always keep this in mind when you swatch as it is how you can change your row count and match your technique to the required number of rows and stitches required for the pattern you are working on to achieve desired size. We already mentioned that the size of hook changes the number of stitches per row, but what impacts the number of rows in your tension square is the height of your stitches. The height of your stitch is decided by the height of your first yarn-over loop you pull through in your stitch – and this is called the “Golden Loop”.

The larger your first yarn-over loop you pull through as part of your stitch, the higher your stitch will be, effectively giving it taller legs. A taller stitch can also give your crocheted work more drape and more movement!

Have a look at the photos below to illustrate the different height in the “Golden Loop”.

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The first yarn-over loop shown here is a ‘regular’ size. The crochet hook “rides” on the top of the previous stitch.

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The first yarn-over loop shown here is much larger. The crochet hook is pulled up further “lifting” the first loop above the previous stitch.

Lifter

Lifts first yarn-over loop off the working row, higher than the crochet hook’ radius. Stitches here are taller – taller than the Yanker’s and the Rider’s stitches. There are some patterns which can call for an “extended double crochet” – to get extra height in the stitch and making it thus “less meaty” and give the work more drape and flow.

Yanker

Pulls back on working yarn after the first yarn-over loop has been made, making stitches shorter. Your crochet work as a Yanker will be much tighter and stitches are more squat. Yanker’s stitches are shorter than Rider’s stitches.

Rider

Keeps their stitches shorter and closer to the working row, with the size of yarn-over loop approximately equal to the hook size. The hook is mostly kept atop your work, hence its given name.

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Smallest tension square at the top is the size achieved using the Yanker technique. Underneath this, the next larger tension square is achieved using the Rider technique. The largest tension square below is achieved using the Lifter technique, where the difference in stitch height achieved is immediately obvious.

Here is also a great video demonstrating the difference in size of first yarn-over loops  between the Rider, Lifter and Yanker.

 

So there you have it. The tension square, or swatch as I prefer to call it as you should always measure gauge on a larger than 10 x 10 cm square, gives you information on number or rows, stitches, drape, texture, pill, durability, amount of stretch, stitch definition, let’s you practice a new pattern and provides information on correct amount of yarn to order. A tension swatch is much more than a humble square, instead it allows you to be more creative and learn more about different types of yarn and how they behave. Let me have any questions or comments or just say hi! I’d love to engage further with my readers and constructive criticism is always welcome!

Miriam XOXO

Thoughts around this blog post:

  • I use these tags all the time and couldn’t live without in my crochet work – I use them not just for my yarn swatches but I also attach them to handmade items and record washing instructions before I give them away.
  • I have to make something else with the Giroflee colour yarn again from DMC Natura – its such a gorgeous mustard colour!
  • I need to start prioritising the finish/look/drape of the crochet piece! And maybe start to use yarns suggested by patterns or alternatives suggested by YarnSub!
  • You get to fondle all your tension swatches and admire all the different yarns you have worked with in the past and remind you of past projects. And you have a record of some of the gorgeous yarns you have worked with and potentially have given items made away and have thus no other way of remind yourself of this particular yarn you really fell in love with.
  • This is a very long blog post! 3379 words long in fact 🙂

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