- To determine gauge: This is the most common use for making swatches. I find it especially beneficial when I am using a new yarn (or even more importantly my own handspun yarn), and I want to see what needle size gives me the best hand to the fabric made from the yarn. I typically knit to recommended gauge on the ball band, but it is still nice to test out different needles to see which one gives the fabric the best look and feel. I always knit my projects to the gauge that looks best for the yarn I am using rather than to the recommended gauge by the designer. If the gauge that the designer has suggested is important to the overall look of the design, I will find a yarn that works well at that gauge rather than to try to make the yarn I have match the gauge (for example, if the design call for bulky weight yarn, it is probably best to use it since the bulky yarn might be providing the trendy look of the garment). Yarns will tell you what they want to be knitted into if you make a swatch, which brings me to my next point below.
- To determine project choices: If you are like me, you probably have some yarn in your stash. I haven't accumulated a large stash, but as a result of having left-over yarn and yarn that was intended for a particular project in which I may have lost interest, I do have some yarn that needs a project. This is where swatching can be really fun! I begin to get ideas for projects to choose for different yarns in my stash, but I first make a swatch to determine gauge and to be sure I like the look of the pattern in the yarn I am choosing. Sometimes, I find that the yarn doesn't look as good as I thought it might in a given pattern, so it is back to the drawing board. This process can be inspiring since it challenges me to think differently about the yarn and gives me a good excuse to pull out books from my collection or to peruse Ravelry in hunt for the perfect project. I love this stage of knitting more than any other. The photo below illustrates the process I use and the way that a certain yarn can look a lot better in one stitch pattern than another:
The top row of swatches (2) were made to test out the yarn (Brown Sheep Nature Spun in Chuck Berry) for Lisa Lloyd's Staghorn aran sweater from A Fine Fleece. The first of the two is a swatch I actually made for another pattern choice before I changed my mind and decided to try Staghorn; however, it used the same cable motifs (XO and Staghorn), so it gave me a good indication of what those motifs would look like in this yarn. The other swatch is the filler stitch for Staghorn (double moss). After making these swatches, I wasn't loving the look of either of them in the Chuck Berry colorway. This yarn has a beautiful, deep color, but there is no tonal variation. I had envisioned Staghorn in a yarn with some heathering or subtle tone changes. So, I decided to try another swatch for another pattern. The result is what you see below the first two swatches -- the central motif for Lisa Lloyd's Halcyon Aran. Isn't it stunning!
I am pleased with the result of the yarn for Halcyon since that design seems to have a sharper, crisper look to it that is highlighted well in a yarn with one tone. I had also seen an example on Ravelry in a deep red that made me realize how nice this design would look in the Chuck Berry color I had. As you can see, swatching really paid off in this instance, and it was also a very enjoyable process. I felt like I had conquered a challenge since this yarn had been on may hands for several years. It was the left over yarn from an afghan I made and for which I seriously over bought extras. Swatching saved me from running out to buy more yarn and gave me the satisfaction of being able to knit from my stash.
And now for the last use for swatching:
- To test out you own designs: I have done very little knitting of my own design over the years, but I do like the challenge of creating something entirely my own. It is definitely something I want to spend more time on in the future (maybe once the kids move on and I regain some free time!). If you intend to do any designing of your own garments, though, swatching is essential. It helps you to test your ideas, test the yarn choices you make, and to figure out the math needed to calculate the design. IF you are considering doing your own designing, I recommend this great book by Deborah Newton, Designing Knitwear, in which she writes a dissertation on swatching!