Life is like a Pile of Swatches



Actually, no. But right now my life IS a pile of swatches, so I thought now might be a good time to share some of my musing about these lovely, frustrating, unpredictable, beautiful, fantastic, miniature works of art.

Something that I did not fully appreciate until recently- is that there are different types of swatches.  In my world, they boil down to Pattern, Design, and Gauge.

Pattern Swatches
I have found that pattern swatches can be the one of the most inspiring tools in my designing. Most of the time I find myself making these when I have that creatively frustrated feeling when I'm stuck in one project, but don't have the materials or time to start a new project, but I really want to knit SOMETHING. So I pull out one of my stitch dictionaries and flip through until I find something that makes me curious. Then I grab a lonely skein of yarn from my stash, and go to work. I find that typically I can knit up a good 5x5" swatch in about an hour or so (or one tv episode).

I have gotten really fond of making these. I find that the process of learning a new stitch and seeing what kind of fabric it makes almost always gets the gears turning. By the time I'm done, I usually have a few ideas for how the stitch can be used. For example- I may decide that it would be too busy for a sweater, but would be great on a cowl.

Once they are blocked and labeled I add them to the Swatch Collection. Then when I want to design something, I already have a pile of real-life fabrics to consider.

Swatches that I find particularly inspiring go on The Board. Where I admire them and dream about what they will be one day.


Design Swatches
These swatches are miniature representations of design elements within a larger design. Perhaps I'm working out a raglan decrease, or a seamless set-in sleeve, or wondering how the armhole shaping will work with the stitch pattern. I think the best example of this is what I call The Triangle. It's a swatch for a sweater which starts with the rib, then the main stitch pattern, and then decreases or armhole shaping up one side. It gives you all of the basic structure in one swatch.
The Contrarian Knitter's beautiful example of a design swatch of Barbara Walker's simultaneous set-in sleeves.


Gauge Swatches
The gauge swatch is probably the first thing people think of when they think of swatches, but for me, this is the last swatch that I consider in the design process. I don't think I have to tell you all how extremely important gauge swatches are, and how you simply MUST make one AND wash and block it. But I can tell you how I learned to love the gauge swatch. Mostly because I make my gauge swatches pull double duty. Once they give me correct gauge, I use them as a fabric swatch for that yarn. This works well for me because I tend to have my favorite yarns that I use over and over. So when I am considering using that yarn for a different project, I can pull out the fabric/gauge swatch (even if I have gifted the final object) and reacquaint myself with it's feel, texture, weight, and OH LOOK- I already have a gauge swatch. Brilliant.

Now, that we've talked about the different types of swatches, it's time for the
RULES OF SWATCHING

1. Learn to love swatching.
If you do not love and respect the swatch, knitting will be much more unpleasant for you. If you think of swatches as miniature projects and a path to immediate gratification... you'll be alright.

2. Never judge a swatch until blocked.
When wool hits water, all bets are off. For better or worse, soaking and blocking changes the fabric. If you've ever seen a cushy rib fall flat or lace work open up and show it's beauty, you know this is true. Just wait. Give it a chance to show you what it's really made of. 

3. Swatches need labels. 
Pattern name, yarn brand, name, colorway, needle, gauge, where the pattern came from "Book Title, p 17" or "My own".  I write out the label as I'm casting on. That way I won't forget to do it, and it gives me motivation to finish it, even if I'm unimpressed.



Swatches are fun! And believe me- once you convince yourself that it is fun and not a chore, life gets easier and knitting becomes more enjoyable.

Do you have swatching techniques or rules that you follow? Do you only make gauge swatches or do you make pattern ones as well? What do you do with your swatches after making them? I'm curious how other knitters tackle these little squares.