Yarn costs and swatching

Today concludes my series on swatching with some words about yarn costs. I shall reflect on yarn costs connected with swatching using the KNITSONIK system. You can browse the earlier installments of this series at your leisure; there are some wonderful comments that are really worth reading. I hope you have enjoyed the series!

On swatching: have your say!
Reasons for swatching
On swatching: redefining useful
On swatching: Frangipani Caterpillars
Money, Time and Swatching
Is swatching indulgent?

I want all the shades!

I often hear comrades saying they could get started on the KNITSONIK system and start swatching if only they could own ALL of the colours in the Jamieson & Smith range.

all of the colours!
all of the colours!

I am sympathetic to this desire – who doesn’t want ALL THE SHADES? – but it is also an unrealistic and unaffordable option for many knitters. If you want every single shade in the wondrous Jamieson & Smith range of 90+ 2-ply Jumper Weight yarns it will cost nearly £300 which is a big outlay for a project which may not result in something you can actually wear. But if you can afford this then I say why not? The yarn represents excellent value for money and the investment entails hundreds of happy hours spent playing with colour. To draw a comparison with another art material which might be purchased for exploring colours, buying ALL THE SHADES of J&S yarn costs considerably less than buying one tube of each of the 96 professional artist quality water colour paints produced by Windsor & Newton

However most of us can’t afford to make that kind of purchase on a whim. As Sally commented on this post, spreading the cost of the balls between many comrades is a brilliant way of solving this problem – if you are skint but really want ALL THE COLOURS and have friends in the same boat why not club together and make it happen? A warning though: when myself and my good comrades Alison and Rachel of Yarn in the City split 75 balls of J&S 3 ways for the Yarn in the City with KNITSONIK workshop, it took all 3 of us winding flat out for 3 hours. That’s 9 hours! I believe this labour adds more cost to yarn than it saves: it is difficult to make a ball of yarn that costs £2.85 cheaper by spending hours of your time splitting it into smaller quantities.

Splitting balls of yarn - hours of work, not including the extra hassle provided by an interfering cat!
Splitting balls of yarn – hours of work, not including the extra hassle provided by an interfering cat!

My inspiration source needs 4 million colours!

If you don’t fancy a 24-hour skein-winding party splitting balls of J&S you have a couple of other options; work from stash or buy new balls of yarn in a limited colour range that fits your budget. This gets tricky if you choose an inspiration source that is super complex with many hundreds of shades from which to choose, for example a photo from nature like this:

Beauteous, multi-shaded beech tree of joy!
Beauteous, multi-shaded beech tree of joy!

You could either use an online tool like Colors Palette Generator to edit the colours in your original inspiration source, of you could work from an inspiration source which is simpler and which inherently contains less shades.

Even edited by a computer, this contains many shades!
Even edited by a computer, this contains many shades!

The greatest number of shades used in a KNITSONIK swatch is sixteen which is the number of shades I used to explore my beloved walnut tree.

Working from nature
Working from nature
tasty walnut palette
tasty walnut palette

It would cost you £45.60 + P&P if you had a similarly complex idea on which to work. That is a lot of money to spend if you do not see any further use for the yarns after the swatching process, but considering that the swatch in which I used those colours weighs about 50g (i.e. the weight of just two balls of yarn) there is plenty of yardage left over for use in future swatches, or in a garment inspired by the swatch…

…and it is not necessary to use as many shades as sixteen; I was thrilled with the different ideas I was able to explore with just seven shades when working with Hops as an inspiration source. Seven shades costs £19.95 + P&P and there is yarn left over afterwards if you want to make legwarmers or other celebratory beer themed items. The huge difference between the Walnut Tree as an inspiration source and the Hops as an inspiration source is that in the case of the tree I was working from nature whereas with Hops I was working from a pump clip that had been printed with a limited number of colours.

Working from printed materials for inspiration - a much more limited palette
Working from printed materials for inspiration – a much more limited palette
Hops - a much more limited palette
Hops – a much more limited palette

Printed materials and especially packaging or advertising materials are excellent inspiration sources if you are on a budget as they often contain few colours – usually to limit printing costs. Working within a limited palette can be surprisingly rewarding. I was amazed by the differences created by working light on dark and dark on light in the swatch that I made inspired by my favourite beer, and then the legwarmers.

Hops - light on dark (swatch)
Hops – light on dark (swatch)
Hops - dark on light in legwarmers
Hops – dark on light (legwarmers)

Bev recently shared some amazing work on Ravelry created through looking at her favourite china bowls. I was really struck by how beautiful her limited blue and white palette was, and how much she was able to do working with a very simple pattern and a small range of lovely blues;

“I have a set of four white and blue bowls in the cupboard and every time I see the pattern around the rim it makes me think how suited it would be as a Fair Isle pattern”

Bev on Ravelry

"I have a set of four white and blue bowls in the cupboard and every time I see the pattern around the rim it makes me think how suited it would be as a Fair Isle pattern" _ Bev, who has been swatching her beautiful ceramic bowl and who is now making mitts!
Bev has been swatching from her beautiful ceramic bowl and is now making mitts!

Bev is working from cones in her stash – some of which are vintage and/or irreplaceable. Swatching in the KNITSONIK way – i.e. working a swatch in the round and then cutting a steek up the back – means that yarn used in swatching won’t be usable again. She seems to have worked out her yardages quite carefully and is cracking on with an amazing pair of mitts using the same shades that she used in her swatch, but this does lead to a final concern raised around yarn costs by some of you in the comments.

Yarn used in a swatch won’t be usable in the garment once a swatch has been steeked in the KNITSONIK manner

Another comrade in the Ravelry KNITSONIK group has created a very special but finite (and non reproducible) collection of handspun, hand-dyed yarns. She is worried that swatching with this yarn and then steeking the swatch will mean she does not have enough yarn for producing a finished object! Other comrades have limited (but fun) shades in stash… how can the most be made of these yarns? If you have special but limited yarn in your stash then you probably want to knit something beautiful with it (so swatching is a good thing to help decide how best to use the yarns together!) but you probably also don’t want to use up all the yarn in the swatch in case you need if afterwards for your garment project (so making a swatch with a steek is a bad thing).

In these special circumstances you could use the swift-swatching-in-the-round method laid out by Ysolda Teague here. You could use a smaller swatch-width (36 is good because it still contains many common factors) so that your strands will not be so long across the back. Using this method for the actual construction of your swatch the normal KNITSONIK ideas can be applied to seeing and interpreting inspiration until you find patterns with which you are truly thrilled. Make detailed notes on the charts, yarns and shades used for your favourite parts, take lots of photos of the swatch to later refer to, then unravel the swatch, check the yardages of your different hand-dyed shades and cast on YOUR PROJECT!

I cannot think of another way to get the very best out of limited stash using the KNITSONIK system but I really do think that casting on a swatch will enable you to find the best ways to combine your bespoke shades for amazing results.

A few final words…

I prefer not to frog swatches after working them because I am amassing a personal library which is far, far too useful for my teaching work for me to be happy to get rid of them. I also like working with Jamieson & Smith almost exclusively because each new swatch involves combining familiar shades in new ways and enhances my knowledge of the 2-ply Jumper Weight palette. In this way, each new swatch that I make adds to what I know about the shades, and sticking to this yarn adds value to every bit of it in my stash.

Mackenzie put this really well in her comment on this post:

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?

It took me a few years to decide on J&S as the ultimate colourwork yarn – others which I have tried include Alice Starmore’s 2-ply Hebridean yarn; (absolutely beautiful but there are really big gaps in the palette which make it hard for certain subjects…) and Jamieson’s Shetland Spindrift; (a lovely range of colours but I do not enjoy the handle as much as that of Jamieson & Smith). In the end what has sold Jamieson 2-ply Jumper Weight Yarn to me is that I have never found an inspiration source for which they did not have some wondrous matches… the yarn feels lovely when you knit it and blooms into a most forgiving and soft fabric when blocked, and the folks who run the company are some of the most talented wool-workers I have ever met.

Sandra and Ella - super amazing knitters of Shetland
Sandra and Ella – super amazing knitters of Shetland
Oliver Henry AKA The Woolman explaining how to sort fleeces during Shetland Wool Week 2013
Oliver Henry AKA The Woolman explaining how to sort fleeces during Shetland Wool Week 2013

In conclusion…

If you want to try out the KNITSONIK system but yarn costs are an issue, you can try any of the following;

  • Club together with comrades to buy some yarns and split the balls between you
  • Work from printed materials or other graphic inspiration sources that do not contain loads and loads of colours
  • Work a swatch using this method and then rip it out afterwards so you can use the yarn again in a project
  • Re-read this post for ideas on how to use garments as swatching projects in themselves
  • Splitting the balls between several of you - fun if you have not much money but plenty of time!
    Splitting the balls between several of you – fun if you have not much money but plenty of time!
    Working with an inspiration source that has few colours to begin with
    Working with an inspiration source that has few colours to begin with

    I believe the best way to get value out of swatching is to be consistent with yarn used so that every swatch adds to knowledge of a yarn palette; to finish swatches nicely and keep them as objects with ongoing value in a personal reference library and – perhaps most importantly of all – to share findings online and with other comrades so that we can all learn from each other as we go.


    3 thoughts on “Yarn costs and swatching

    1. FAscinating series of posts – it’s been a really thoughtful essay/exploration for those of us without the time/experience/inspiration to start something like this, or even just haven’t thought of it yet until you beat us to it.

      Thank you.

    2. I’ve loved this series – fascinating stuff. I’m a relatively new knitter so am a bit unconfident without a pattern to follow, but with a couple more projects under my belt would love to give swatching a try. Personally, if happy with my swatch, I’d display it in my home – or somehow work it into a sewn or knitted garment. That way I’d feel like the swatch was put to good use, as well as being enjoyable to make.

    3. Well, this has been a most enjoyable and informative series of posts. I’m trapped in a reindeer cardigan at present (and what use is a reindeer cardi if not ready for December?) or I’d start exploring swatches. I love the idea of buying one of each shade in J&S. It sounds wildly extravagant, but hang on, loads of blokes buy a Harley when they retire. My husband just today said he wanted to treat himself to a really good jazz guitar. You’ve put a naughty idea in my head Felix.
      Seriously though, if you can afford it, £300 (or £150 – every other colour?) is not a huge sum to spend on a hobby these days. When you think of all the hours we spend knitting it must work out at pennies per hour. (think of all those expensive bicycles/kayaks/guitars/motorbikes/cameras languishing in garages & attics).

      There’s another point about using up stash yarn. I have spent weeks trying to find the right project to use up some silk-mix yarn I bought in a sale. I knitted it up, pulled it out, tried again with about 3 patterns before I found a pattern that worked. Even now I’m not as pleased with it as I’d like to be for the time invested. This isn’t the first time I’ve struggled to find the best way of using up stash yarn and then ended up being disappointed. It’s too easy to buy a load of yarn just because it’s beautiful, or it’s a bargain – then it hangs around for years taking up space, making you feel guilty and ultimately not being as satisfactory as a project where you’ve planned and swatched in preparation. Have I got £300-worth of unused and wasted yarn in my stash boxes? Probably!

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