On swatching: redefining “useful”

Thank you for all your comments on the last couple of posts on swatching, I have really enjoyed reading your thoughts and the diversity of opinions ON SWATCHING.

Today I want to tell you the story of how the massive swatches which I use in my book and for my teaching came about.

Behold the very first swatch produced in preparation for my Quotidian Colourwork workshop held in Shetland in 2013. (Keen-eyed spotters will notice that it is a precursor to the more fulsome Bricks swatch from my book.)

BRICKS - KNITSONIK swatch #1
BRICKS – KNITSONIK swatch #1

You can see the swatch on the right hand side of the image; it is a perfect replica of its prefiguring and neatly coloured chart.

Neat and tidy chart for KNITSONIK swatch #1
Neat and tidy chart for KNITSONIK swatch #1

I finished the swatch and I looked at the swatch and I found that I did not like the swatch.

BAD SWATCH!
BAD SWATCH!

I was quite pleased with my colours and patterns and interested by how transferring my design from a paper drawing onto knitted fabric had transformed it.

swatch and drawing
swatch and drawing

However this swatch did not seem to me to be a useful teaching tool to bring to Shetland for the purposes of teaching my class. All the interesting ideas I’d had about palettes, patterns, and shading had happened inside my head where nobody else could see them and were nowhere to be found in the swatch. I had, I realised, concealed my creative process because I was gripped with THE FEAR of turning up to Shetland Wool Week with ugly colourwork and patterns that would horrify the incredible Fair Isle Knitters of the islands. So I had done my BEST KNITTING in this swatch. But it was not my most useful knitting, and I felt that this sort of swatch would not encourage comrades coming to my class.

In fact the more I looked at the little neat swatch with its fussy crochet-reinforced edges the more it reminded me of tightness and perfectionism – the enemies of all creative fun – and the more I wanted to make something that was its very opposite: loose and imperfect, revealing and celebrating creative knitterly process. A messy swatch both friendly and accessible and which – crucially – would yield really useful information afterwards if I wished to later transfer stranded colourwork motifs to garments. Because my other beef with this swatch was that it was like a little picture and didn’t suggest many ideas about how large and small patterns might be stacked or interspersed when arranged into the canvas of a garment, or how I might transition from one pattern to another. In defining what might constitute a more useful swatch, I thought about how I had made this first one, and about how I could change my approach in order to produce something more useful for teaching and learning. I also decided to confront THE FEAR and to shamelessly knit all kinds of things and bring all the results to Shetland EVEN IF THEY ALL TURNED OUT LOOKING HORRENDOUS.

Step 1 in facing off THE FEAR: end the tiny precious pencil drawings that take nearly as long to make as the knitting

expensive pencil drawings
expensive pencil drawings

I already mentioned that for my very first swatch I did lots of drawings prior to doing any actual knitting. I had spent £1.80 (almost the price of a ball of yarn) per pencil to get good quality pencils with which to try out different patterns and shading schemes because choosing from a large art range enabled me to select shades close to those with which I intended to knit. Even so, many of the shades performed differently in the context of the knitted fabric than they had in the pencil drawing, and I found that the temptation to fill every square in neatly and make perfect drawings was really stopping me from JUST GETTING ON WITH IT.

Step 2 in facing off THE FEAR: make a swatching system which can fit around real life

When I knitted my first swatch I spent many spare moments looking through photos of bricks stored on my phone. I looked and looked at the photos. I went out and looked at some of the bricks depicted in some of the photos. I tinkered with my pretty drawings.

When I was 100% happy with my ideas, I sat down for a dedicated few hours with neat pencil drawings in hand and assorted yarn shades at my side. I created a swatch that was exactly the same as my finest drawings, crochet-reinforced the steek, cut it open and blocked it, and bish-bash-bosh: the job was done.

I thought about how modular and luxurious each stage of this process had been, how unlikely it was that I might be able to take this sort of time over a second or third idea, and how it might all be streamlined.

What if looking at the stored photos on my phone, drawing down ideas in my notebook and trying them immediately in a swatch could all happen more “on-the-go”? What if I spent all the pencil money on yarn instead, and used whatever bic biro or HB was in my bag? What if I made looser, messier, faster drawings that would enable me to knit more quickly and see how ideas looked IN KNITTING rather than IN MY HEAD?

What about something more like this?

A REALLY USEFUL SWATCH
A REALLY USEFUL SWATCH

Step 3 in facing off THE FEAR: take risks because… it’s only a swatch!

I began to swatch in a more by-the-seat-of-my-pants way, and the more swatches I made in this manner, the looser and freer I became. I knitted swatches on the bus, at friends’ houses, here in the evenings in front of the television. Boxes with untidy balls and bits of yarn went around with me, and everywhere I was, folk would chip in with their opinions on what they liked and didn’t like in my swatching efforts. There was no designated special swatching time, the knitting just happened in and around everything else that was going on. I was, in short, JUST GETTING ON WITH IT. It’s nice to look back at the photos now of that swatching process, and quite life-affirming to think of how busy things were back then and how the swatches grew anyway – inch by inch, untidily, imperfectly – in my untidy, imperfect life.

I remember how overwhelmed I was when I started trying to knit from the A4074. “You ridiculous woman” I thought to myself, “you cannot turn 24 miles of tarmac into stranded colourwork, what were you thinking?!” Publishing deadlines were happening, things needed to be progressing, there was much to do. And I drove to the road to calm myself down, to try and think about the problem in another way. I took loads of photos; I got excited about the tarmac; and I then covered our living room floor with my photos and matched them to balls of yarn. I made a huge, huge mess which had to be tidied away later so we could, ahem, use the room again. All the balls were stuffed into a bag which went everywhere with me and caused much amusement in the pub or anywhere it appeared.

A4074 Creative Explosion
A4074 Creative Explosion

And when I made this chart in a rush of excitement about knitting chevrons, I felt I’d really moved on about a million miles from where I started with my fussy drawings which were all about looking pretty and impressing people. This was a working drawing, utterly lean and efficient in its workings, not designed to look good but to show me where each and every stitch in my knitting should go.

I love this messy drawing.

Working drawing
Working drawing

As I found time and time again, in actually knitting up this chart it became utterly different than it had originally been in my head and even on the chart on the page. Once repeated across the fabric, unantipicated shapes and rhythms began to appear. It didn’t look like chevrons anymore but a sort of bulky diamond.

bulky diamond road?
bulky diamond road?

But in the safe and swift workspace of the swatch, the concept could be reworked until it looked a bit more like the road. And I remember a long train ride in which poor Mark was forced to look at many photos on my phone of a fruitcake baked the day before so I could observe its details for my knitting. “Oh cruel woman!” he exclaimed, “how can you make me look at all these pictures when there is no tasty slice to eat?” to which I replied a bit obliviously “but please observe the beauteous darkening effects of caramelisation… I must use this darker shade and this lighter one in order to replicate it in my knitting!!!”

the much-matched fruitcake
the much-matched fruitcake
knitted fruitcake (but no actual fruitcake) on the train
knitted fruitcake (but no actual fruitcake) on the train

(Poor Mark.)

All of which is to say that I cannot imagine a more useful space for creative discovery than the swatch. It is by its nature an experimental space, and its diminutive size means it can be stuffed into a bag with biros, notebook, pencils (even a slice of actual cake) and knitted feverishly upon at all opportunities without the need to once refer to stitch count or decrease rate or shaping. For me this narrows the focus down to the concerns at hand; colours, patterns, shading… in a way that is really enabling.

I do like the suggestions that have appeared in the comments for my swatches to be used as table-runners or wall-hangings. However I feel that they are currently MOST useful being exactly what they are: swatches. If I sewed them together to make a big blanket, or used them as table runners, it would not be so convenient as it is currently to show them to comrades who come to my Quotidian Colourwork classes. I think of them as working knitterly documents, inspiration captured on the fly; I think of them as my liberation from the tyranny of THE FEAR and as a truly useful tool for JUST GETTING ON WITH IT.

And there are few things more useful to me than things which help with that.

Thanks again for your amazing comments; I will try and tackle the issue of cost/time that some of you have raised in coming days, I am really enjoying thinking about it.

YOURS IN SWATCHING,
Fx

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3 Responses to On swatching: redefining “useful”

  1. kathy says:

    Thanks for your further commentary on swatching and your process. This post really resonates, and especially your observation that the great, coloured graphs take so much time. And its knitting that I want to do, not colouring beautiful graph charts. I appreciate your inspiration and encouragement to dare to release tightness and perfection, and simply get on with it, and not get bogged down in making perfect, detailed, colourful graph charts first, or succumbing to other smoke and mirrors impediments to getting on with knitting.

  2. Susan says:

    Brilliant and right on

  3. Max says:

    I like reading about your swatch adventures. I feel for Mark and his being made to look at photos of fruitcake. What a great story!

    As for swatching itself and me, I have not knitted much fair isle in my life and always from patterns. I just need to check tension and the colours usually have to be chosen before I purchase them. So I am stuck with them. So maybe in the future, I will be required to do swatch intensively, but for now, I will just see what you say about it.

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