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Zealana Possum Merino Chunky

The Swatcher's Manifesto

Hi, my name is Clara and I'm a serial swatcher. For the last 14 years, I've swatched almost every day of my life. I swatch in bed, I swatch at the kitchen table, I swatch on airplanes and subways and boats, in buses and cars, in doctor's offices and cafes, anywhere that provides enough physical space for me to hold yarn and needles in my hands.

Green Mountain Spinnery New Mexico Organic
"What's that you're knitting?" people will ask. "Um, a swatch," I usually reply. After an awkward pause, I have to continue, "I'm just testing the yarn right now, to see how it knits up and what it takes to destroy it. This isn't going to be anything." The conversation usually goes no further.

Alchemy Haiku
The concept of swatching is nothing new. As readers, we "swatch" a new book whenever we read the back cover or scan a few paragraphs inside. Musicians "swatch" when they practice their scales over and over again, just as ballerinas "swatch" by practicing their pliés at the bar.

Filatura di Crosa Superior and Nirvana
Swimmers "swatch" when they make their endless laps back and forth in a pool, toning their bodies and minds to the discipline. And at the Cordon Bleu, Julia Child "swatched" her onions, chopping mountains and mountains of them until her hands had mastered the movements.

Tilli Tomas Symphony Lace
For me, swatching is a daily meditation. With no final destination, I'm free to let my mind wander wherever it needs to go. I don't need to worry about gauge, or how much yarn I have left, or the fact that I still have to make two matching sleeves (groan) and I'm already tired of the project. No, swatching is entirely in the moment. It's about enjoying each stitch for what it is.

Elsa Wool Co.
When Yarn Whispers
But there's more. If you quiet your mind and tune into your fingers while swatching, you'll actually hear the yarn talking to you. "Too tight!" it might say, or "Ouch, those pointy needles scare me!" Or it might ask, "Hey, want to see me turn a cable? I can do it really well. Want to see? Please?"

Like drawing a bow across violin strings, as you move the yarn along the needles you'll feel different vibrations, hear different pitches within the fibers. One yarn may make prettier noises on bamboo, another might prefer steel. Without swatching first, you'd never know.

I may be exaggerating just a little, but swatching is that special time when the yarn gets to tell us what it can do. If we embark upon a project without ever swatching the yarn first, not only are we playing Russian roulette with our gauge, but we're taking a serious gamble that the yarn will get along with our hands, our chosen needles, and the rigors of the pattern itself. And when it doesn't, a perfectly good knitting experience is doomed to failure.

Louet Mooi
And yet for all its perfect qualities, many knitters find swatching to be drudgery. It is that nagging voice that stops you in the doorway and says, "Have you put on your coat?" when all you want to do is go outside and play.

If you can move beyond perceiving swatching as something keeping you from having fun, and see it as a grounding and rewarding experience in itself, I promise you—promise you—that the rewards will be many.

Great Northern Yarns Mink Cashmere
Waste vs. Woe
Some knitters view swatching as a waste of perfectly good yarn that could be used for something else. If forced to swatch, they'll knit a very small square until they get gauge, then unravel the yarn and cast on for their project.

We've all done this at one time or another. Such abbreviated swatching only tells us one thing: What gauge we got when knitting those particular stitches, in that particular needle size, using those particular types of needles.

Washing handknits
Washing and Wearing
If we don't wash that swatch, however, we'll never know how that yarn will actually wash or wear. We don't know if it will bleed, fade, shrink, or stretch, or if it will pill after just a few wears. Unless you plan on folding up your project and stuffing it in a drawer right away, you need to wash your swatch. Failing to do so would be like judging a bread recipe by its dough and never bothering to bake it.

Berroco Blackstone Tweed before and after washing
In fact, I recommend you knit not one but two swatches. One (such as the far-left one in the picture at left) will be your "control" swatch, which you can unravel and reuse later if necessary. The second swatch (the one in the right of the picture) will be the one you dedicate to attempted destruction—or, at a minimum, washing and rubbing to simulate excess friction.

Swatch Mitts
The Swatch Mitts
What's that you say? You still don't feel comfortable knitting anything that doesn't have a functional purpose? I've got the answer: With just a few extra stitches, you can knit two swatches that become a pair of simple, pretty fingerless mitts (shown here).

The pattern for Swatch Mitts requires just 80 or so yards of any worsted- or Aran-weight yarn. Because we tend to knit tighter in the round than when knitting back and forth on a flat piece, I've written the Swatch Mitts pattern with both options. You can knit the mitts flat or in the round, depending on what kind of swatching experience you need to simulate.

Do you have 110 yards of worsted-weight yarn for your swatching pleasure? Use it to whip up a pair of Maine Morning Mitts. Perhaps you're thinking of swatching a 120-yard skein of bulky yarn? Use it to knit a Hill Country Hat or perhaps a simple Shoemaker's Hat.

Another worsted-weight swatching idea for somewhat generous skeins: Make a quick feather-and-fan scarf. Feather-and-fan is one of my favorite stitches for swatching because it shows how the yarn depicts stockinette, yarn-overs, and garter stitch, three tests in one.

Any of those projects would take just a few hours to complete. When you've finished, you can either give it away as a gift or wash and wear it yourself. At the end of even one busy day of wearing mitts, a hat, or a scarf, you'll have a fairly realistic idea of how that yarn will behave.

Think of it: By giving swatching its due, you can experience the immediate gratification of a finished project and the satisfaction of learning about a new yarn. Not bad for a day's work, eh?

arrow What's your relationship to swatching?
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