I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told to sample, sample, sample. This is such great advice! But more often than not, we aren’t given the “why.” Why should we sample? It is assumed that it is a good idea. It can help you decide what will work for a project. But let’s dig a little deeper. Different reasons may require different types of sampling.
Some frequent reasons for sampling include:
- Gauge swatch for a project
- Get a feel for the qualities of the fiber or yarn
- Test how a yarn behaves in a particular stitch pattern
When we think about swatches, gauge swatches are usually the first to come to mind and their purpose is immediately recognizable. Gauge swatches are tools to help determine what changes we might need to make to our yarn or tools before starting a project to ensure that the finished project is the right size and has the right drape. Interweave has a great article on swatching by Deb Gerish.
Many patterns give guidelines for gauge based on a 4×4″ swatch and it is often recommended that you swatch in the design pattern you plan to use for the finished object.
Testing the Qualities of a Fiber or Yarn
In a rush to measure gauge, we often forget to examine some of the other important qualities in a swatch. Different fibers, fiber blends, and types of yarn will bring a number of qualities to a fabric.
- How stitches lay
- How color pools
The problem is, once you’ve bought or spun a sweater’s quantity of yarn, if it turns out to be not quite right for the project, you’ve already made an expensive mistake.
I encourage fiber artists to sample different fibers and different yarns with no project in mind. Create a swatch book and label everything. If it is a store bought yarn, list yardage, fiber content, weight, where you bought it, how much is costs, and any other details that may be important to future projects. If you are using handspun, note your ratios, YPP and WPI. The more information you write down, the more information you have to base future decisions on.
A swatch book gives you the opportunity to look at different fibers next to each other, different weights of yarn, different numbers of plies… It can help you determine what types of yarn to look at the next time you start a project and can save you a lot of heartache. It can also help you establish gauge, doing double work.
Testing Stitch Patterns
Swatches are also a simple way to get some practice in, especially if you are working with new stitches or techniques. Just as you can use swatches to test qualities of fibers, you can use them to test how those fibers and yarn structures behave with different swatch patterns. A swatch isn’t limited to stockinette. See what a single, a two ply and a three ply look like in a lace pattern. How do they compare?
We often forget that when we knit or crochet, we are using a specific set of muscles in our hands and arms. Not only is it beneficial if we warm those muscles up before starting a work session, but it is also important to work those muscles between larger projects. Have you ever picked up knitting after a long break and then been sore the next day? Swatching between projects can keep your hands in ready order.
What Do I Do with Swatches?
If you don’t make a sample book, you can always stitch your swatches together to make an afghan, scarf, or pillow cover. But you don’t have to resign yourself to scrap projects. You can also unravel your swatches once you’ve sampled and reuse the yarn. You could even dye your swatches and then unravel them for a unique hand-painted yarn.
I keep my swatches on the wall behind my workspace for inspiration and so I can walk up and feel samples as I’m preparing for any project. It