Is swatching indulgent?

Following on from yesterday’s post about barriers to swatching today I want to address this idea:

It is indulgent to swatch creatively rather than to spend that time making wearable garments

Creative practice is often viewed as an indulgence. But why is this? Why are practical skills that artists spend decades acquiring through art college, further education, higher education and paid commissions viewed as fripperies? Why is it considered worthwhile to spend time knitting a sweater but indulgent to spend time studying and documenting your favourite tree or the wall around your garden? Is it because sometimes these activities are enjoyable? Because sometimes they are fun? But wait a second, is it not also fun to knit a sweater?

Making a sweater can be FUN!
FUN!

Is it because the value of creative exploration is less tangible than the value of a knitted sweater? A creative project is by its nature a search; an adventure. It might fail. It might not yield good results. It is definitely more risky than following a pattern. But does that make it less worthwhile, or just a different application of knitterly energy with different outcomes? When you sit down to knit a garment you end up with a garment. When you sit down to make a KNITSONIK swatch, the only certainty you have is that you will discover new things in knitting, see something you love in new ways, and learn more about designing your own stranded colourwork.

Obviously looking at your favourite tree or the wall around your garden will not keep you warm in the physical way that a sweater might, but I would argue that these activities perform imaginative functions that are as important as making garments. I will never downplay the significance of the sweater or the scarf as expressions of meaning, but it’s hard to imagine that knitting a garment can deepen your understanding of your favourite trees or wall in the same way that looking at them might.

Happily the two are not mutually exclusive and can be combined for adventures in creative exploration and useful garment production. For example I had the pleasure of meeting Helen at one of my workshops in Shetland last year where she was wearing a most glorious Fair Isle sweater (please click through to Ravelry and shower it with hearts for it is amazing).

After coming to the workshop she made a swatch inspired by her dry stone wall…

Helen's dry stone wall
Helen’s dry stone wall

“This wall surrounds my garden and I didn’t realise how many different colours there were in it until I started this project.”

…and then she created a beautiful vest, practical and warm – yes – but also full of personality, artistic flair, and the very spirit of that her dry stone garden wall.

Helen's gorgeous dry stone wall swatch
Helen’s gorgeous dry stone wall swatch

What I love best of all about Helen’s vest is that from a distance it appears muted and grey, but when you approach it more closely the many subtle and beautiful hues contained within it appear… just as in the wall itself. This specific and sophisticated chromatic effect is the product of careful observation; without practical processes of looking and swatching it is hard to imagine how this glorious design might have been achieved.

Helen's beautiful dry stone wall vest - go and give it hearts on Ravelry!
Helen’s beautiful dry stone wall vest – go and give it hearts on Ravelry!

Without that careful looking you could knit all day and not realise that there are hundreds of colours in a familiar wall. Creative process is about discovering and rediscovering the world around us and about celebrating our relationship with it. It is something we have felt compelled to do since we first daubed ochre and animal fat on cave walls. It is how we lay claim to the world around us, make our mark on it, make it a little bit more ours and in turn belong a bit more to it.

Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands) in the Santa Cruz province in Argentina - 13,000 - 9,000 year old statement on the importance of play and representation to human beings
Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands) in the Santa Cruz province in Argentina – 13,000 – 9,000 year old statement on the importance of play and representation to human beings

The ancestors literally laid their hands on the earth to mark their place upon it and I love those early cave paintings of hands for what they say about creativity and possession… about how creative play can imprint us physically onto the earth and it onto us. A good KNITSONIK swatching process feels just like that… every time I see my Walnut Tree I think about its purple-brown bark, its pink-tinged leaf-tips and all the other details which I discovered in the time that I spent swatching it. No amount of knitting garments – however warm and useful – could give me the same feeling of being somehow connected to my tree.

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

If you follow the instagram feed of my wondrous comrade Kate Davies you will know that noticing cherished trees is not an indulgence that detracts from the important work of knitwear design but part of the inspiration that feeds it.

That inspiration is crucial and when it has been found, practical steps may be taken to embed it into our knitting.

To me creativity is therefore not an indulgence; it fulfils a different role from knitting garments but not one that is less necessary, nor that is in conflict with the fun of knitting garments. More’s the better if the two can be combined and if things that are useful and everyday can be embedded with the visionary beauty and significance of special trees, cave paintings, favourite walls and other personal totems.

For me that starts with swatching.

LOOK!
LOOK!
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7 Responses to Is swatching indulgent?

  1. Mark stanley says:

    Surely in these times, for most people in the developed world, KNITTING is indulgent, never mind swatching?

    Good yarn is not cheap, your time is not cheap, you could buy garments for FAR less than it costs you to make them.

    But that misses the point. The reward, the satisfaction, the fulfilment of wearing a garment that is unique and made by your hand alone, surely that is the point?

    You are indulging a NEED to discover, be creative, expressive, original. Swatching is a map of your journey.

    Loving this series of posts by the way, really enjoying you lifting the lid on the inner world of a Felix :-) xxx

  2. Ühltje says:

    I still see my Grouse cardigan as one big swatch.

  3. I can’t really comment from a knitter’s point of view (anything more than a dishcloth and I’m out of my depth) but I do “play” when I’m embroidering or making quilts.
    Whether it’s looking at a favourite wall for swatch colour sources, or going on walks for embroidery inspiration, spending time building up your own resources to turn to when you design and create is never wasted time.
    Recently I made a pair of quilts for a commission and it took me nearly as long designing and playing around with colour (even going so far as to paint up some fabric papers so I could mess around with a collage patchwork first) to actually sewing and quilting the quilts (which took a fair while as they were sewn by hand)…but I know that it was only the time spent “playing” or “exploring” colour and pattern that enabled me to create the finished quilts in the first place.
    Time spent learning your craft, whether it’s gimping button-holes, knitting cables and lacey patterns, or time spent observing colour sources around us should always be seen as important as making the final garment/quilt/etc
    I totally agree with Mark, this is a wonderful series of posts and each time I read a piece I’m feeling all inspired to keep getting outdoors with some colouring pencils.

  4. Anne Thrall-Nash says:

    Your words about creative process have so much meaning for me at this stage of my life. Thank you for sharing

  5. Kathy says:

    Felix you are an artist, I love your swatches & how you represent the things you see around you in a beautiful piece of art that happens to use the medium of stranded knitting with wool as your paint palette
    K x

  6. susan says:

    love this post. this is exactly what I am dealing with: giving myself permission to create, and even sometimes call it art. Well at least its my art. Going form the Knitsonik method to “free style” knitting a landscape. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Besides, there is very little need for sweaters here in So. California. Re the effort and cost of swatches here in the California. No J and S wool down the street. The closest is Colorado. So the expense comes in buying multiple balls of color without seeing them. I did find some Sheltland wool grown in California with Elemental Affects yarn, sold in No Cal. A bit closer but still need to take a chance with colors. Luckily they were in person at the Vogue Knitting Show in Pasadena so I picked some up. They do blend well with the J and S.
    love and gratitude to you Felix. You are a knitting goddess.

  7. Joan Gavigan says:

    I take issue with the notion that swatching, designing, art, if you will, is indulgent, or superfluous to life. True, the vast majority of our fellow humans struggle daily to merely maintain enough calories to stay alive – a shame on the rest of us. But think about this:

    About 50 years ago, I was watching a television documentary with my father about the Holocaust. the most poignant, most achingly beautiful and the most painful part of the piece was not the stacks of skeletal remains of the poor inmates who didn’t survive. Such things boggle the mind. We cannot wrap our heads around this horror. No. What caused my father, still a relatively young man at the time who remembered WWII from newsreels and radio shows in his childhood, to break down? The little pictures drawn by children in the camps. Their parents, sometimes forgoing the little bit of food they had, traded their food for paper and pencil and crayon so their young ones could draw. And those drawings embodied the same childhood innocence that he saw in his own children. What do six million lives mean to anyone? How can mere numbers compare to the writings and musings from the emerging mind of Anna Frank holding us spellbound?
    Creativity, arts, music. These are necessary because they make us fully human, and I would venture (though many would not) put us in the path of the Creator Herself.

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