Reasons for swatching

Following yesterday’s post on swatching and your thoughtful comments, today I am reflecting on why we swatch.

Reason no. 1: checking your gauge before knitting a garment

A gauge swatch is normally worked prior to knitting a garment. If your gauge (sts and rows per inch) does not match that specified in your knitting pattern, all the dimensions of your finished garment will be off. Unless otherwise instructed, when I am swatching for a knitted garment I create a 4 x 4″ gauge swatch plus garter stitch border. The garter stitch border stops the edges from rolling when it is time to measure the fabric, and washing and pinning out a small test piece reveals how the fabric behaves when it is blocked. I use 100% wool yarns in nearly all my projects and have found that this beauteous living stuff is often transformed through blocking.

When I first started knitting I avoided working swatches because I was always impatient to start knitting The Thing, but as time has gone on I have become increasingly appreciative of this initial step. I like what I learn about a yarn as I swatch with it. For me the real magic of swatching was first made apparent in Deb Robson‘s rare breed wool class at UK Knit Camp. Deb presented swatching from a diverse range of sheep wools as a sort of wine-tasting in yarn. I was transfixed. We learnt a lot from knitting simple squares in wool from different sheep breeds and discussing each one as we went. I am still struck by the potency of this tiny library of ideas – the rare breed wool swatches as beautiful records of learning and also as latent potential for designing future garments.

Rare breed/breed-specific swatches from Deb Robson's class at UK Knit Camp
Rare breed/breed-specific swatches from Deb Robson’s class at UK Knit Camp. The top swatch shows – from left to right: Galway, Black Welsh Mountain, Zwartbles, Hebridean, Gotland, Soay, Border Leicester, Blue-Faced-Leicester, and Wensleydale yarns; the bottoms swatch shows – from left to right: Cotswold, Manx Loughtan, Norfolk Horn, North Ronaldsay, Herdwick and Whitefaced Woodland yarns

Clara Parkes – self-confessed serial-swatcher – summarises the feeling I had that day just perfectly:

If you quiet your mind and tune into your fingers while swatching, you’ll actually hear the yarn talking to you. “Too tight!” it might say, or “Ouch, those pointy needles scare me!” Or it might ask, “Hey, want to see me turn a cable? I can do it really well. Want to see? Please?”

Like drawing a bow across violin strings, as you move the yarn along the needles you’ll feel different vibrations, hear different pitches within the fibers. One yarn may make prettier noises on bamboo, another might prefer steel. Without swatching first, you’d never know.

However many knitters do not enjoy this initial meeting… it’s a drag that gets in the way of making The Thing rather than a pleasurable getting-to-know-you time spent with yarn.

Objections to swatching for the sake of swatching include the complaint that a gauge swatch is not “useful” after it has yielded the necessary intel on gauge and yarn character. Solutions include making small projects instead of a simple knitted square. These can yield all the same information as a gauge swatch but they have the added bonus of being wearable (useful) afterwards. As Donna Druchunas pointed out yesterday, Elizabeth Zimmerman recommended working a hat to check gauge before commencing on a sweater…

"I like Elizabeth Zimmermann and Meg Swansen’s idea of making hats for fair isle swatches. Even the one I am hating right now on Instagram I will finish and someone will get a lovely warm hat for a gift. In fact, my mother has already declared that she wants it. I don’t always swatch for color choices though. Sometimes if I’m just making a small project like mittens or socks, the project is the swatch and I can rip it out and start over if I’m not happy with the results" - Donna Druchunas and her current hat/swatch
“I like Elizabeth Zimmermann and Meg Swansen’s idea of making hats for fair isle swatches. Even the one I am hating right now on Instagram I will finish and someone will get a lovely warm hat for a gift. In fact, my mother has already declared that she wants it. I don’t always swatch for color choices though. Sometimes if I’m just making a small project like mittens or socks, the project is the swatch and I can rip it out and start over if I’m not happy with the results.” Donna Druchunas and her current hat/swatch

…an idea echoed in the beautiful peerie-sampler hat knitted by Kate Davies and the wondrous Fair Isle sampler hat designed by Mary Jane Mucklestone…

"While the palette I chose is perhaps too muted to be successful, and while the crown shaping is certainly not quite right, I really learnt a lot when knitting this hat: about colour behaviour and placement, and about the relationship between colour and pattern." Kate Davies
“While the palette I chose is perhaps too muted to be successful, and while the crown shaping is certainly not quite right, I really learnt a lot when knitting this hat: about colour behaviour and placement, and about the relationship between colour and pattern.” Peerie Sampler hat by Kate Davies
"Mary Jane Mucklestone likes to knit hats as a way to experiment with color combinations and Fair Isle patterns."
“Mary Jane Mucklestone likes to knit hats as a way to experiment with color combinations and Fair Isle patterns.” Fair Isle Sampler hat by Mary Jane Mucklestone

…the thrifty logic behind these “swatch projects” (swatchets?) can be applied to many other small garments such as these lovely swatch-mitts designed by Clara Parkes (I do so love how these mitts resemble, in every way, the simple detailing of a good honest gauge swatch).

"Swatch Mitts, designed to give you the full swatching experience while also producing a simple, useful pair of fingerless mitts" - Clara Parkes
“Swatch Mitts, designed to give you the full swatching experience while also producing a simple, useful pair of fingerless mitts.” Swatch Mitts by Clara Parkes

One of the reasons for including the fingerless mitts and legwarmers patterns in the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook was that knitters who do not enjoy swatching for its own sake may use the canvas of these garments as a space for experimentation.

"I’m pretty pleased. I can see my original inspiration source (the rowan tree, bark and berries) in the finished mitts, and they are so nice to wear! :-)" - Røn - Fair Isle Swatch becomes wristwarmers by BirtheP
“I’m pretty pleased. I can see my original inspiration source (the rowan tree, bark and berries) in the finished mitts, and they are so nice to wear! :-)” – Røn – Fair Isle Swatch becomes wristwarmers by BirtheP
"I’m too impatient and thrifty to just make a swatch (superwash and acrylic isn’t recommended for steeking, something I’ve not yet quite got the courage to do anyway) and thought I ought to make something wearable." - AMAZING May-inspired mitts, designed and knitted by Lucy
“I’m too impatient and thrifty to just make a swatch (superwash and acrylic isn’t recommended for steeking, something I’ve not yet quite got the courage to do anyway) and thought I ought to make something wearable.” – May-inspired mitts, designed and knitted by Lucy

So if you are swatching because you want to knit a garment, there are plenty of ways to make the swatch wearable afterwards. I personally think that I take more risks in my knitting when I am not worried about how it will look ON ME but who can deny the sense of adventure and fun in the Peerie Sampler Hat? The Fair Isle Sampler hat, or Donna’s lovely current WIP as swatches that are also accessories?

If reason no. 1 for swatching is obtaining the right gauge for knitting an existing pattern, then several comments yesterday were about swatching as a crucial tool for designing a new one.

Reason no. 2: to test out ideas for designing a garment

When I swatch, most often for garment design these days, I use it as an opportunity to explore aspects of the pattern. If I want to know how the neckline will work, I make one on the swatch. If I wonder how this yarn will handle a steek, I give it a try. My swatches are rarely square or rectangular, but they are really valuable tools for getting from idea to garment.

Meredith Shepherd

I could not do without swatching – but my swatches form the basis of me calculating a pattern rather than me working from someone else’s pattern. I like looking at my swatches – they tell the history of a design – where I changed things, where I went wrong, where I went right.

Karie Bookish

It’s so self-evident that swatching is integral to garment design that I feel I need not spend too much time talking about that!

However I have noticed that amongst designers, the urge to make swatches wearable seems less important than amongst knitters making swatches in order to knit garment patterns. I think this is because often the most direct route to understanding a neckline, a stitch pattern, gauge etc. – is to just knit that bit, and as quickly as possible, liberating time for designing, calculating, pattern grading etc.

I follow several knitwear designers on instagram and one thing I greatly enjoy is spotting swatches there as working documents of creative process.

Left my swatches drying in the sun while I went for a walk. Perfectly dry when I got back :) more future vests

A photo posted by Ysolda Teague (@ysolda) on

student's work • stranded #knitting • #jamiesonandsmith

A photo posted by Rosa Pomar (@rosapomar) on

…both reasons cited so far involve THE GARMENT as the key object of swatching. Indeed when I was working on my book I had a protracted debate with the amazing team over at Ravelry about the possibility of including KNITSONIK swatching instructions in their pattern database. I proposed that my book contains very specific instructions for making a swatch, and that swatches made using the KNITSONIK system are presented as finished objects in their own right, yet I received the same response over and over and over again:

A swatch is NOT a finished object.

I ventured that in certain contexts maybe a swatch COULD be viewed as a finished object (a teaching tool? a knitted sketch? a note in colours?) but it didn’t matter; the rules are apparently writ in stone. A swatch must always lead to something else (what do you do with the swatches once you have made them?) probably a garment (have you thought about making garments that incorporate ideas from your swatches?) in order for its true purpose to be realised (are there any proper garment patterns in your book or is it all just swatches?).

wonders of electricity mitts - one of the garment patterns included in the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook
wonders of electricity mitts – one of the garment patterns included in the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook

I understand the rationale of why the KNITSONIK swatch instructions are excluded from the Ravelry pattern database, but I’m raising it to illustrate how deeply embedded the idea is that swatches are always, always created in relation to “useful” (wearable) objects.

Must it always be so clear cut or can I propose a murky midway path? Can the swatch be simultaneously a useful reference for a future garment AND a precious record of knitterly thought, a THING in itself?

In my book I wanted to give swatching its own space. I wanted to celebrate knitted swatches as records of knitterly thought;

“You are devising a wonderful personal library of ideas and building skills for understanding palettes, patterns and shading. These are all skills which will prove invaluable when you wish to apply your ideas to existing garment patterns, or to either of the accessory patterns provided at the end of this book, but the bottom line is: take your time and enjoy the adventure.

Although you may be tempted, there is no need to unravel your knitting. It is a document of your journey and the sections that you dislike are very useful references for what works/doesn’t work. When you are finished, your whole swatch will be an amazing reference for future projects.”

– KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook

behold, the swatch!
behold, the swatch!

Writers and artists have been creating similar things forever in the form of notes and sketches… just as every swatch I knit may not end up becoming a finished garment, not every note that was written became a novel and not every sketch became a painting. Yet the shadows of notes and sketches underpin all the amazing novels and paintings in the world and this brings us to reason no. 3 for swatching.

Reason no. 3: to discover patterns and shading sequences in stranded colourwork and to get better at designing stranded colourwork

For me the impulse to translate something into stranded knitting does not always coincide with a fully-formed idea for a garment. How many times have you seen a field, a sunset, a mountain, a tree and thought “I could knit from that”? For some of you who are lucky, maybe this initial burst of inspiration leads instantly to the whole picture for a fully fashioned garment, but for many of us including me it is often a more vague proposition… exciting, but perhaps not immediately suggestive of a certain sweater shape or shawl. I believe that vagueness and openness is not to be feared and that if the ultimate end goal is to have a sweater or a shawl that speaks deeply of the bricks, the field, the sunset, the mountain, the tree, then perhaps the next step is not to draw that sweater or shawl but to look at your inspiration source.

LOOK!
LOOK!

To look at bricks. The field. The sunset. The mountain. The tree.

Looking at my Walnut Tree to inspiration for stranded colourwork
Looking at my Walnut Tree to inspiration for stranded colourwork

The swatch records that looking. And to me the swatch is a much more immediately actionable proposition than the sweater or the shawl which might come later when the colours have been found, when the patterns have been created and when the shading sequence has come right. I feel liberated by the prospect that I can just cast on and start playing, and whenever I am working on a swatch I find the fabric which I am making gives me better ideas for a finished garment than I have ever gained through looking at trees and sunsets. For me the swatch is also a comforting talisman; a solid and tangible reminder that a garment is achievable!

The fruitcake swatch - the biggest one in the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook
I will wear cake one day!

You might think that – given my artistic background, my metaphors of notebooks and sketchpads – it might be better to remove the word “swatch” from the KNITSONIK process altogether. I did think about whether to use a different term such as “colourwork sketch” or “colourwork study” but I was worried that using words from the art world would alienate knitters who might otherwise really enjoy partaking of the KNITSONIK process. “I can’t draw!” “I’m no good with colour!” “I’m not artistic” are expressions I often hear from knitters whose amazing knitting always says otherwise so I stuck with the word “swatch” because it’s familiar, because we are used to reading swatches as documents of tension and proof of concept before we knit garments, and because it’s still technically right since I do plan to eventually apply many of the patterns in my KNITSONIK swatches to garments. For this reason I also present a mathematical rationale in the book for a specific swatch width and stitch pattern widths; to enable patterns to be fitted to the dimensions of a garment at a later (undefined) point.

So perhaps my concept of swatching only differs from the first two in terms of the timescales involved and the openness of the creative brief. My KNITSONIK swatches were all deliberately created without bearing end garments in mind but with common denominators which make them easy to apply to garments.

Brenda Dayne's magnificent application of "The Wonders of Electricity" swatch to her bespoke yokes sweater method
Brenda Dayne’s magnificent application of “The Wonders of Electricity” swatch to her bespoke yokes sweater method

I found it extremely helpful to give swatching its own space like this, which is why I share my method in the book. I have also found that swatching has made me a more prolific and fearless knitter. Impulses to design things based on X, Y or Z no longer languish at the back of my mind until I have the time to work out a garment project; they get worked into swatches while they are fresh.

But it is really interesting to read about how – for some of you – the prospect of swatching colourwork without a definite end garment in mind is somewhat uninviting;

I liked the legwarmers and mittens as some examples on how to use what you discover through swatching in actual garments. I would love more insights from you on this. I admit that I have not yet come to swatching as it’s own end product in my mind.

Karin

Compared to sketching, actually knitting a swatch is very time-consuming. The last time I swatched an original design, I went through about 30 pages of grid paper before settling on two options and beginning to knit. I can’t imagine taking the time to knit ALL those pages worth of thinking!

Mackenzie

I hope that some of the amazing patterns by others which I have shared above – and indeed the templates which I have provided for making mittens and legwarmers in my book – provide inspiration for those of you who really want to be able to wear your colourwork experiments! And I also hope that some of you have been liberated by the concept of just busting out a swatch without a definite garment in mind.

Thank you so much for your wondrous comments and insights – I love reading them and thinking about what you say, and I really welcome and value your input. Hope you’ve enjoyed this post,

YOURS IN SWATCHING,
Fx

Incredible Fair Isle swatches by Wilma Malcolmson, AKA Shetland Designer
Incredible Fair Isle swatches by Wilma Malcolmson, AKA Shetland Designer
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2 Responses to Reasons for swatching

  1. Alison says:

    I can’t remember where I first heard this idea, but I love the idea of swatching as ‘knitting foreplay’. It gives you a chance to get to know one another before making a commitment to a full project. You get to know each other’s likes and dislikes and how you will work together.

  2. Cathy says:

    I knit lots of swatches, not just for color but also for texture. As you stared from Clara swatching allows me to listen to the yarn and see what fabric it wants to make.

    I rarely knit gauge swatches because I find mostly I knit looser on the garment than in a swatch. Therefore swatches “lie”.

    I’ve taken many of my swatches and sewn them together into a blanket. I love looking at the blanket and remembering where the swatches came from and, if they lead to garments, which one.

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