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!

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.

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