On swatching: have your say!


At Woolfest the weekend before last I found myself feeling profoundly grateful to my swatches.

For those of you unsure of what I’m on about, I mean the fringed, knitted rectangles that I produced in the course of writing the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook. Each one is a kind of case-study for The KNITSONIK System in action – a test piece of knitting exploring a design palette, patterns and shading based on a different everyday inspiration.

My swatches work super hard whenever I make a public appearance. They are handled and pored over and examined and admired and touched by everyone with an interest, and comrades who backed the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook often remark that they are excited to see them “in the flesh”.

I am really proud of them.

I am not proud because I think they are amazing examples of knitting, but because they are so, so useful. I would go as far as to say that they are the most useful things I have ever knitted. For there is nothing more practical than one of my swatches when I am trying to explain how patterns for stranded colourwork might be found in the everyday world. When someone asks about this process, I simply pull a swatch out of the pile and explain each section – where I began, where I ended, what worked and what didn’t, and the learning achieved along the way. We often talk about which bits people like and don’t like, and sometimes I even get advice on improving sections which I was unable to resolve by myself.

Swatches from the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook
Swatches from the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook

In workshops my swatches are invaluable for showing different ways of tackling problems when trying to translate a sunset or a holiday photo into stranded colourwork. And in including them in my book, I aimed to demystify what it means to graft away at an idea and to make the process of trial and error accessible to all. Each swatch is shown with text boxes explaining what worked well and what did not work well; the mistakes are shared for all to see, both in the book, and in my actual swatches. With my book, I wanted to pass on everything wondrous that I discovered through my own swatching process, and share my blueprint with you.

This was one of the swatches in which I encountered many frustrations - especially around the use of green and blue together!
Here is a spread from my book showing one of the swatches in which I encountered many frustrations – especially around the use of green and blue together

It is a testimony to the quality of Jamieson & Smith 2-ply Jumper Weight yarn that in all their public appearances none of my swatches have frayed or pilled; they remain as good as the day they came off the blocking board.

I am clearly a huge fan of SWATCHING!

Some of my KNITSONIK swatches, from left to right The A4074 Road; Sloes; Fruitcake
Some of my KNITSONIK swatches

…but lately I keep being asked related questions about my swatches:

“What do you do with the swatches once you have made them?”
“Have you thought about making garments that incorporate ideas from your swatches?”
“Are there any proper garment patterns in your book or is it all just swatches?”

…and comrades in the KNITSONIK Ravelry group have made some really thoughtful comments about swatching:

“I’m too impatient and thrifty to just make a swatch”
“Perfectionism was the biggest factor stopping me starting my swatch and continuing with it”

These interactions have made me think hard about swatching and when I started to write about it, my post quickly ran into hundreds of words.

There is clearly much to say! For some people swatching to find colourwork patterns is a costly and extravagant use of yarn and time; for some, swatching has no point without an end garment in mind. For others, the barriers to swatching are psychological; the concept of making something that doesn’t look very pretty or keeping mistakes in is an affront to knitterly pride. And then for folks like me, swatching is the palace of dreams in which all fun can be found.

I think there are some interesting ideas to tease out here concerning knitting’s relationship to art; about form and function; about the concept of “what is useful” and about the creative purpose (and point) of swatching. Rather than dive into a massive post with ALL THESE IDEAS, I’m commencing a series ON SWATCHING.

I would really love to hear your thoughts and comments so that I can address them in this series. Have you ever knitted or would you ever consider knitting a glorious colourwork swatch to discover your own patterns and shading schemes? Do you think swatching is a mahusive waste of time/extravagance? What are your thoughts on keeping mistakes IN your swatches to which you might later refer? Do you like to finish your swatches so that they are all lovely and neat when they are done, or are they purely a functional exercise to be ripped out as soon as they are complete? I want to know what you think!


The fruitcake swatch - the biggest one in the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook
The fruitcake swatch – the biggest one in the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook

19 thoughts on “On swatching: have your say!

  1. i love swatching! Like others who’ve commented, I have found that the biggest obstacle to color work swatching is the yarn in various colors that I would need. Sadly, none of my LYS’s carry j&s, so buying a ball each time I visit is not an option. I would love a club where I could pay for a couple of mini-skeins a month. It would be even better to pay once a month for a set time, then get all the yarn at once to save on shipping. I love Sally’s idea of a Knitsonik yarn club.
    I have many swatches of lace and cables. I finish them with garter edges and careful blocking. Some of them I hang in my knitting corner as inspiration, or to remind me of an idea I had. I am one who will swatch just to play with a new yarn. I only unravel them if I’m desperate for the yarn to finish a project.
    Thanks for starting this series. I will be swatching using the Knitsonik method- my inspiration is a nearby meadow which I have photographed extensively- once I gave acquired the yarn, which is an ongoing process.

  2. I have not got to the point of colourwork yet, but looking at your pieces in your book and in person is very inspiring. I’ve yet to find my inspiration, but when I do, if I am happy with my swatch I would plan to have it framed. I think these swatches are pieces of art and deserve to be seen. Another possibility could be to turn the swatches into small cushions.

  3. I never used to swatch and then I became a convert.

    You learn a lot about your own knitting as well as the pattern you are trying out.

    One of my most memorable swatches was one in lace, for a shawl that really didn’t need a swatch for sizing. However, I found that by making a swatch using a variety of different needle sizes I was able to pick the needle that made both the pattern and the yarn shine.

    Would I have been happy with mediocre had I not known any better? Probably. But I’m way happier that I put in the extra time to get the most out of the pattern and the yarn.

    Now for what I do with them? For now I store the swatches with the patterns and have a small reference for my personal use. They are fun to look at, to squish and to use as personal teaching tools for future projects.

    I have never considered a swatch a waste of my time. That is what finally made me realize they are worth doing. Plus, if I ever need to repair a garment I know I have a lovely swatch I could rip into to fix it. 🙂

  4. What I would need for swatching is a big stash of yarns that kind of goes together (at an affordable price 🙁 I noticed that heathered yarns are easier to mix than very solid ones but I might be wrong.
    If you ask me what I’d like to win…it’s the whole range of Shetland 2ply.
    Designing (as in the knitsonik system) is also a long time process for me. I have to immerge myself in the colors, sounds, smells of the place I want to transfer in the colorwork.
    I did it once with memories of a chilhood home put in mittens. I was completely surprised by the number of comments and faves I got on Ravelry.
    You book is truly unique because, there is more than just colors in the swatches. There is a deep connection with places.
    Like in my favourite blog post by Kate Davies : http://katedaviesdesigns.com/2014/04/14/made-things/
    “craft work as preserving time…”
    Happy swatching and thank you for your book!

  5. I am one of the comrades who loved seeing your swatches ‘in the flesh’ at Woolfest 🙂

    In my crafty endeavours, I do find that I am considerably more motivated when I have a project in mind. Though I love knitting, spinning, weaving and dyeing for themselves, I suspect there is a bit of a psychological block about doing it just for the fun of it. My work ethic finds it a bit self-indulgent, I think, doing something just for the joy of doing it, especially when there are chores to be done. In the same way as many people keep a dog to give them a reason to go for walks, I find that when I am working on a project (by which I mean a finished object that has some use), whether it’s for me or for someone else, then it seems less selfish to be spending the time and I am more likely to ‘give myself permission’ to spend the time crafting.

    I am a fan of the Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook, in which Lynne recommends knitting all your swatches, of any and everything, as a tube the size of your lower leg. Any swatches that you like can then become socks; the book shows you how to insert a heel if you have a swatch long enough to make the foot and leg together. Lynne even makes all her swatches in one long tube, then subsequently may decouple segments that she likes and turn them into socks. As I read in the Knitsonik workbook about knitting pattern and colour swatches in the round, I was already wondering whether, if they weren’t cut and flattened, they might still be useful for the Knitsonik purposes and yet could become the legs of socks…

    I haven’t yet undertaken my first Knitsonik swatch, but I know I will be making them the size of my lower leg, and if I do find I need to cut and flatten them, I will probably come up with some scheme by which they can be joined together to make cushion covers or something…

    After reading the Knitsonik workbook I did wonder whether to buy myself a large range of single balls of J&S yarn to create a library of colours to use in swatching. The colour range is so enormous, the expense of buying even one ball of each colour is daunting, not to mention the storage required. (And like many crafters, I already have a significant stash…) In some of the swatches in the book, several similar shades were tried to find just the right colour combination – is this practical for all of us? Even more so if we don’t have J&S up the road!

    I do colour testing for stranded patterns on the computer, which reduces the number of colours I’d need to try in the flesh, but even so, for a swatch such as those in the book one might need 10-14 different balls of yarn before homing in on the 6 or 8 colours that would be used in a final object.

    So for a first project, one might need to spend perhaps £40 exploring one’s palette, before deciding on the colours to be used and buying jumper (or whatever) quantities of those.

    Once one has a library of balls for swatching, the barriers to experimentation would be reduced, of course.

    Perhaps we need J&S to offer ‘Knitsonik Swatching Kits’, where we can buy 5g of 20 different colours, or 10g of 10 different colours, for a tenner…

    And/or a J&S / Knitsonik yarn club, where we can pay a tenner a month for a year for samples of 8 different colours each month and have 15g of every colour in the range by the end of 12 months…

    Have any local knitting groups clubbed together to buy the whole range, and then split them? Or hold the lot and sell samples as required?

  6. I love your swatches, too, Felix! And the book. But I haven’t had time yet to really delve into it.

    I swatch when I’m starting a new project, but since I’ve only been knitting my own vanilla socks for quite some time, it’s been awhile.

    It would be a matter of time for me because I’m a very slow knitter. However, when I attempt to use your method (and it IS “when,” NOT “if”) I will definitely enjoy the swatching process because that will be the whole point! And maybe someday I’ll sit down with a pile of little leftover yarn balls and create a pattern using your book, and it does sound very enjoyable. I’ll probably hang my little creations all over the house to show them off.

  7. About Knitsonik: I’m perfectly ok stopping after knitting the swatch. Because that’s what I wanted to see. What the colors did, and, how the initial sketch could be conveyed. I’m not really a knitter’s knitter. I’m barely a knitter of any kind ;). I joined the pomegranate swatch group after reading your book. I was intrigued by the concept of abstract knitting! Still am, I think it’s brilliant! So, for me, knitting the swatch was an exploration of something wholly unfamiliar, a creative mind romp.

  8. I will always swatch if I am starting a ‘big’ project. I don’t design my own patterns but can rarely rest with the suggested colours/yarns and always make some changes. I did Marie Wallin’s Orkney cardigan a couple of years ago in J&S Shetland instead of the recommended Felted Tweed and so did two colour swatches – they were essential to my final colour choices as well as tension checking. It’s on my Ravelry page.
    I do feel more secure about launching into a project if I’ve checked tension as well.
    Last year I joined all the swatches I made over the years into a (small) blanket. It brought lovely memories of old garments now worn out or given away. Also, it was a big reminder of how hard I had worked to learn 2-handed colour knitting. There were loads of tiny strips of fair isle and intarsia projects that I’d given up on, started another, persevered until now, multi-colour knitting is my most joyful fun activity. I’d forgotten how hard I worked to master it!

  9. My early attempts at choosing colour combinations would have turned into huge disasters without swatching! I learned from trial and (much) error that without enough contrast between colours in the same row, the patterns don’t stand out. My usual inclinations toward subtlety had to take a back seat in colourwork.

  10. You are actually asking several questions in the one question. You are experimenting with design and color and yes, it is immensely helpful to swatch and learn as you knit how it works. Some people are anxious about swatching, because one has to spend a fortune to purchase the yarn for a particular pattern. Then to use some of that to make a gauge swatch terrifies some folk. I am a consistent knitter, and I only gauge swatch when I am making a garment. I rarely gauge swatch for a hat, gloves, or socks. I almost never gauge swatch for a scarf. So perhaps change your wording a bit and say they are experiments. I have your book, and I like the concept of looking at things around me and seeing pattern and color. I have “experimented” a bit with some stash yarn and I have played a bit with color. I also think about how I can dye that color I am seeing.

  11. I’ve always had the problem that I think of ideas that I’d like to knit up quicker than I can knit full projects, and by the time I’d finished a current project, I’d have forgotten what I wanted to try, or lost the sense of why I was so excited by it. Then I began making little swatches of my idea that captured it’s essence. The swatch then gets unceremoniously stuffed into a basket, where it can languish for weeks, months, years… Until I decide to have a rifle through and all my ideas are there waiting for me, good, or, erm, otherwise!

  12. 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.

  13. I love that you love swatching and I can see why your color swatches are so valuable.
    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.

  14. I love the idea of swatching – especially as you show us in your book – but there are a couple barriers for me.

    1. I don’t know which yarn to choose as my default working & swatching yarn (it seems like that would streamline the process and make it more spontaneous and fun. I hate waiting for shipping when I’m excited about a project!). How many years of knitting did it take you to settle on J&S ?

    2. 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!

    I do LOVE Donna’s suggestion above, that swatches could actually be a hat. I never thought of that!

  15. I never used to make swatches at all…luckily my tension seems to be pretty ‘normal’, so I never had any garment disasters through lack of a tension swatch.
    However, I’ve recently started doing tension swatches having made some of Kate Davies’ designs and reading that other knitters got wildly different tensions from her…and not wanting to mess up her lovely patterns! I actually bother to wash and block swatches for these patterns…usually I would rip back if I bothered to swatch.
    I veiw finished tension squares as annoying clutter though, as they have no purpose and none of mine would work sewn together as a blanket etc.

    However, my finished Knitsonik swatch is completely different… (Once I had got over all of my mental blocks and actually made it that is!) Currently it is hanging in my little knitting nook…I have also though of using it as some sort of placemat or table runner, so functional as well as decorative! I definitely like looking at it enough to display it. (Still not finished and trimmed fringe…but I have a bad habit of not finishing projects properly..)

    As for designing with a garment in mind, I definitely want to use the patterns I have come up with in a garment of some sort…I think it would be really satisfying to wear something I’ve designed myself! But I wasn’t really thinking of how the patterns would work in a garment whilst I knitted the swatch…now it’s finished, however, I am.

    I seem to have rambled for a while…and used ‘however’ a bit too much!!

  16. 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 he results. (I could do that on said hat but in this case I just don’t care enough about the specific project to bother.)

    Also your rectangular swatches could be used to make patchwork quilts or coats or pillows or bags — all kinds of things — that would be utterly amazing. As they stand with the firinge sides left on, they’d be beautiful table runners.

  17. 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.

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