Friday January 18th 2019

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The Truth(s) About Swatches and other news

Okay, if I’m being honest, swatches annoy me.

Sure, I know, they’re supposed to be wonderful and helpful and a learning and spiritual process, blah blah blah, but frankly, if I’ve got a pattern or idea in mind and yarn and needles in hand, what I really want to be doing is knitting the latter into the former. I don’t actually want to be knitting a square of a fabric up, washing it, blocking it, and hoping I don’t need to unravel it later if I need the yardage in it for the project.

But I still swatch, because I need to.

What got me started thinking about swatches was an excellent blog post today with an excerpt from an e-book, A Closer Look, by Rita Buchanan about spinning. It was sent round by Knitting Daily’s Kathleen Cubley as part of a post about gauge and substituting yarn. It had some good information, for instance:

“In the most basic terms, if you can get the right number of stitches per inch but have too many rows per inch, your yarn is too thin. If you can get the right number of stitches per inch but have too few rows per inch, your yarn is too thick.”


“With a substitute yarn, it’s not enough to match the specified gauge. You must also produce a fabric that feels right for the kind of project you’re making. A dressy sweater, for instance, must feel different from work socks, even though both can be worked at a gauge of 5 stitches per inch. Fabric that feels substantial enough for work socks is too bulky and unyielding for a sweater, while a supple, drapey fabric you’d love in a dressy sweater won’t hold up for work socks.”

All very well and good, all very useful, all things to keep in mind.

But what it doesn’t actually address (and, of course, what it wasn’t meant to address, so I’m not criticizing) is what we use swatches for.

The way I look at it, there’s actually three or four ways (or more) that we use swatches.

Firstly, if we’re looking at an existing pattern and have the yarn that the pattern was meant for, we use a swatch to figure out if our own knitting gauge matches the gauge the pattern was written for. If our gauge is off, we can try bigger or smaller needles to see if we can get the gauge and therefore get the size garment (or whatever it is) that we intend to get, or if it’s our row gauge that’s off, figuring out how to allow for this difference in the pattern.

Secondly, if we’re looking at an existing pattern and have a yarn we really want to use but isn’t the yarn the pattern was meant for, we’re using the swatch to see if the yarn is suitable for the pattern (Buchanan suggests starting with evaluating the thickness, density, firmness, weight, and shape retention of the swatched yarn), if it makes a fabric that is suitable to the pattern, and of course if we can get the gauge with it — and if we can’t, we start making adjustments to the pattern.

Thirdly, if we’re looking to experiment with a yarn, maybe we don’t actually have a pattern, we’re looking for what the yarn wants to be made into, a swatch can be used to try out different kinds of patterns (cables? lace? large swathes of stockinette or ribbing? texture?), we can experiment with looser or tighter gauges, different needle materials, different ways of finishing the end garment, etc.

Fourthly, we can use swatches to learn about our “fabric.”

I’ve been a designer and a seamstress almost all of my life, and I’m used to evaluating the fabrics I work with, sometimes without thinking consciously about most of it. I look at the drape, the movement, the weight, the thickness, the hand, and the fiber of the fabric. I evaluate how it moves on the bias, what will happen if I pleat it, gather it, what the ways of manipulating the fabric are for the given use to get the effect I want and expect. Thing is, as I used to tell students, it’s important to do this evaluation consciously, to get the full benefit of evaluating a fabric.

So, maybe I need to take my own advice.

As knitters and crocheters, we are making our fabric, but we don’t always evaluate it. How does the tightness or looseness of the twist affect the way the yarn makes a textured fabric? What does the fiber or gauge of the yarn mean as it affects the bias as well as the hang of the final garment? Does an alpaca laceweight knitted into this garment hang the same as a merino laceweight? Will the cashmere be too hot, should I use a cashmere blend instead? How will this fabric work in the garment I want to make, using the pattern I want to use?

Making swatches and evaluating them consciously can save a stitcher time, energy, and maybe even heartache. Most of us figure this out the hard way. (I certainly did and possibly still am.) And the more we do them, and the more we consciously evaluate them, the more likely it is we’ll turn out to be one of those expert knitters, those masters of knitting who can turn yarn into high fashion.

So. Yeah. Swatches are annoying. But if anybody hears me complaining about them in the future, remind me to take my own advice, okay?

(Do you have any other ways you use your swatches? I like the way the stitchers do who always make swatches 8×8. Not only do they have a really good-sized swatch to evaluate, they can then send them to charities like Knit A Square!)

I’ve hardly done any knitting at all, due to lots of driving and such (driving and knitting don’t really go together very well). I must get back to the samples. In particular, my sister’s lace jacket and a hanging for the Ely Wool Shop window. I have something planned that’s meant to be pretty spectacular…we’ll see if it really will be. It is in my head, at least. :)

I did start a new “brainless” summer knit project on Saturday morning in the wee hours — I’d met my sister at Imagiknit, and we spent rather a lot of money. (But most of it was on sale!) I scored 7 balls of Shire Silk in a pretty bluish tweedy grey and three balls of a pretty dark purple in a not-too-soft angora/nylon mix, perfect for Da Nieces, as it will wear better than plain angora and can handle not necessarily being taken care of a bit better.

I have been looking out for something I could make a very heavily modified Emmaline in (okay, basically what I want is the shape of the neckline and bust area and sleeves, and the idea of eyelets in the neckline, and that’s about it), but didn’t want something in quite that bulky a yarn, so thought I’d give it a go in the Shire Silk. I probably won’t be doing a fitted ribcage section, it would not be a pretty look on me at my current weight. Probably a very slightly gathered eye-letty lace skirt instead, with a matching finish to the sleeve. Here’s hoping I have enough yardage.

Here’s a few random pictures from my current road trip:

Which is what I’ve been doing instead of knitting…

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2 Responses to “The Truth(s) About Swatches and other news”

  1. Robynn says:

    I’m completely flummoxed by those who make swatches to a specified size. How do they *know* what size it’ll be *before swatching*???

    • Zina says:

      I know! I asked about that once. The knitter i was talking to said she could usually figure it out pretty closely, and so long as it was pretty close to 8×8, she could usually block it to the right size…

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