Swatching, it could be argued, is perhaps the most important task in the knitting process. A swatch tells you everything you need to know about whatever you’re hoping the yarn you’ve chosen will become: how it will wash, how it will wear, and what gauge measurements you have relative to your pattern. It allows you to experience your choice of yarn and needle, and make alterations before you’re elbow deep in thousands of stitches. Why then does it feel like such a chore to knit those squares?
Instead of approaching swatching as busy work that comes before the knitting, I’m trying to think of my swatches more as an entirely different project—just as important and relevant as what I’ll be making after they’re complete. To gain some insight into the mind of those who swatch, I chatted briefly with Sandy Barnes, Shibui Knits’ self-pronounced Lover of Swatches.
Sandy began her love affair with swatches when she started working with Habu.
“I actually bought little cones, little quantities, of Habu yarns. I would keep them in a box and just get them out to see all of the different fabrics I could make. They were a separate craft project in and of themselves—I never knit anything big with them, I never made anything. I was just swatching to play with the fabrics,” she explained.
Swatching, for Sandy, is all about playing with fabric. When she began to think about the finished swatches as potential fabrics for her garments, the act of swatching became about the excitement of the yarn, combined with the act of choosing fabric (instead of constantly worrying about matching gauge.) Through teaching MIX parties, Sandy began to extend her love of swatching while sharing all the possibilities of Shibui with shops and other knitters.
“I had a seamstress in one of the MIX parties come up to me afterwards, and tell me that I had revolutionized the way she thought about swatches,” she recalled. “She told me that as a seamstress, she fell in love with the fabrics first, and they told her what they wanted to become. Now, her knitting has become that way for her. She falls in love with the fabrics first, all of the textures that can be created in knitted stitches. Afterwards, she finds the right pattern, or has fun matching a pattern she loves to the yarn.”
It’s so important to remember that simple detail when applying yarn to pattern, of course. Swatching an inch in simple stockinette isn’t enough. Swatch in pattern. Swatch in the round. Swatch using your increases and decreases for the pattern and see if you’d rather use different ones. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but don’t get lazy and hurry towards your project blindly.
“Swatching is all about needle size, and yarn choice, and how it will affect everything in the end. Try different yarns, think about what you want the finished piece to be. Yes, it might be a cardigan, but what kind of cardigan? Choosing the right yarn at the right gauge can transform any piece into something new.”