victorious wool

Swatching Prowess, Part 1

Victoria Burgess

Swatching. We’re told to do it. We’re told to knit, wash, block, let dry, unpin and allow final adjusting before measure swatches for every knit and crochet project. Yes, I did just write, “unpin and allow final adjusting.” I have seen that suggested. Then there’s the hang test where you clothes pin the swatch to see how gravity will pull the fabric. Its not that I don’t affirm all of those steps, I readily do. Its the way more and more steps creep in to delay the part we actually want to get to that can feel frustrating.

I often see the advice that you will be saving time by being more precise in your preparations and won’t hit major problems if you swatch first, then knit. That’s always been the case in my experience. I think a bigger issue is that somehow our knitting community has a collective feeling that knitting is suppose to be easy and fun. That its a pleasure based experience and shouldn’t be frustrating or difficult. But you’re taking string and making it into a fabric while often shaping it to a body, expecting it to fit just so. That’s not a simple thing, made more complicated by the unique shapes of all of our bodies. 

Further, the making of clothing was historically for necessity not pleasure (there are exceptions). But now we’re able to get cheep, fast fashion, clothing anytime of day, in innumerable styles, shapes, and colors. They often don’t fit us but ready-made clothing is massively available. 

Making your own items or making things for loved ones is dipping back into a history of techniques and skills that are no longer necessary to know. If we expect to DIY than those skills will have to be relearned. That’s the awesome part. The part that swatching helps us regain. 

Prowess: skill or expertise in a particular activity or field. Synonyms: skill, expertise, mastery, facility, ability, capability, capacity, savor faire, talent, genius, adeptness, aptitude, dexterity. 

I’m using prowess because it sounds like goddess and power together, summoning images of strength and wisdom. Often the modern day image of knitting is a granny in a rocking chair making potholders. I love the contrast that prowess brings to that granny image. 

The prowess of knitting knowledge became big for me years ago when I struggled to read knitting patterns. Knitting my first sweater made me very aware of how little I understood about stitch count and increase/decreasing. Writing patterns now I’m often reminded of that first sweater and how I couldn’t get why it had to be written so confusingly. Why so many abbreviations, why the weird ‘rep last two rnds, 10 (12,14,18, 20) more times’ stuff? How many rounds was that, how many stitches should I have? What I lacked was the prowess and what I needed was experience. After years of knitting and reading patterns I now know that I was learning the skills necessary to have a fuller, broader understanding. Designing my own patterns, my own garments, something I’ve wanted to have the prowess to do for a long time, is possible because I took the time to learn those skills. 

Where swatching comes in to this is the abundance of fibers, needle types and construction methods we have at our fingertips (ooh pun!). Not to mention knitting methods and techniques. If you begin to see yarn as coming from living things (sheep, plants, silk worms, etc) it makes sense that its not a static, plastic strip that won’t be altered for thousands of years. Natural fibers breathe, stretch, metaphorically move. We use this ‘living yarn’ to form fabric that lives, garments that live. Knitting a swatch gives a knitter the prowess to know more about how a fabric will behave, how it will move. Swatching can become more than a box to check on the way to knitting bliss. It can give us back the prowess of knowledge that has been kept alive even at a time when some don’t even think it matters. 

It matters to me very much. I believe it matters to to a whole lot of people. 

There is so much more to say about swatching, so much more to learn. I like to say I’ve become a student of swatching, of gauge, of blocking. I’m constantly thirsty for more knowledge, for more of people’s experiences. I'll share more of my own swatching experiences in Part 2.