Stratum part 2: swatching

So, swatching:

I have, a little reluctantly, come to accept the importance of swatching. I say “reluctantly” because like all devotees of immediate gratification, when I decide I want to cast on a project, I WANT TO CAST ON THE PROJECT. I also tend to knit more to get a finished object than for the sake of enjoying the process, and a swatch is not a finished object that gives me pleasure. But since I’ve been knitting mostly sweaters, the amount of time and effort that goes into a sweater pretty much demands that you swatch. I don’t really mind erring on the side of something being too large, since I don’t favor the sweater girl look, but of course that’s when, absent swatching, the sweater invariably ends up too small.

I’m still probably not the world’s most responsible swatcher, though. My swatches are often a little too small, I tend to swatch knitting flat even when I’ll be knitting the sweater in the round, I’m lazy about even counting row gauge, and I can’t guarantee I don’t fudge the numbers (I’ll definitely measure in three different places and pick the number I like best). For my Dalyla sweater, I swatched on metal needles and then knit the whole thing on wood ones (from a completely different brand) because when I cast on the length of the metal needles just wasn’t right.

However, I do at least wash the swatch. Because before I knit a whole sweater, I really want to see what’s going to happen to the fabric once it takes that nice bath. And washing swatches is so much less effort than washing whole sweaters, and swatches dry quickly, too. (Well, here, everything dries quickly!)

For Stratum, swatching was a little different: not only did I want to figure out my gauge, but I needed to see all my different color possibilities together.

I had decided that for the main color, I was going to use a lovely gray hand-dyed sock yarn by Knitting Rose Yarns. I bought it at a yarn festival on a snowy spring day in Taos, NM, without any specific project in mind, but I had figured four skeins of fingering weight would be enough to make something wearable.

(That particular yarn festival makes me laugh because I was living in Albuquerque at the time, and I can’t remember where I saw the notice of the festival, but I did, and thought, “Great! A lovely scenic drive to Taos, good food, and an afternoon wandering through yarn stalls and the like!” So the weekend came and I got in my car and drove the couple of hours up to Taos. I made my way to the town center and was surprised at how little traffic there was and how much parking was available. I parked, got out of the car, went to the venue…and there was no yarn festival. I had got the date wrong. Thankfully I was too early, and the correct date was the following week. So I ate some fish tacos at the Taos Diner, then turned around and drove home, and came back the following weekend, when the clear sunshine in Albuquerque gave way to snow flurries up in Taos, but it was all a lot of fun anyway.)

Ahem. Where was I? Oh, colors. The options for the stripes were Cephalopod Yarn’s Skinny Bugga in Hawaiian Bobtail Squid (a variegated green-purple mix); a reddish-purple tonal sock yarn that I’d bought at a different yarn festival in Taos; and Madelinetosh’s tosh merino light in Georgia O’Keeffe (a greeny-black). I didn’t have enough of the light gray (tosh merino in Astrid Gray) to use for the stripes, but swatched it anyway out of curiosity.

Then I used the iPhone filter to switch the photo to black and white, to check the contrast.

 photo 1 (5)

I think the monochrome trick is everywhere now, but I learned it when I signed up for – though did not complete – Stephen West’s most recent Mystery Shawl KAL, Color Exploration. That pattern uses four colors and there was very helpful discussion in the Ravelry group about how to choose colors with sufficient contrast to work together in a finished object, including the tip about checking how they look in black and white.

(I got really excited about the KAL and bought yarn and bought the pattern and cast on and enjoyed the first clue or so, and then I got bogged down in the brioche stitch section and remembered that I really don’t ever wear shawls and frogged the thing and made a t-shirt with the yarn instead. It is a lovely lovely shawl, though, and the pattern was great, and the Ravelry group dedicated to the KAL was very friendly, so I highly recommend the whole thing.)

Back to my swatch: the Astrid Gray (which I wasn’t going to be using) is sort of tolerable, the Georgia O’Keeffe is very high contrast, and the Taos purple is at least clearly a different color, especially in the darker places. But the Skinny Bugga was a wash, and in fact, I’m fascinated at how much it drops out of view entirely. The green and brown tones offer some decent contrast, but the dominant blue-ish purple is virtually invisible.

You can see the same thing happens with the narrow stripes – the Georgia O’Keeffe pops (though it’s mostly hidden in the folds at the top), the purple Taos is fine, and, again, the Skinny Bugga almost vanishes.

 photo 2 (3)

The leafy green is Tosh Mo Light in Leaf, which, oddly, seems to contrast more strongly with the main color in monochrome than it does in color; there’s clearly some kind of contrast going on, but it just didn’t work for me as an option.

(Also, the top of the swatch is so messy because I was swatching in the round to do the single stripes, and leaving big loops of yarn in the back rather than cutting. I really like Ysolda’s tutorial here.)

Now, clearly contrast is better than the stripes vanishing into the body of the sweater, but the Georgia O’Keeffe just looked too harsh and high-contrast-y to me. I was hoping to end up with slightly more subtle stripes (I don’t really need to emphasize the horizontality of this sweater), so I started by using the Taos purple for the stripes.


And that was…fine. (Please ignore the double row of purple above the garter stitch, which was an error.)

But I also have a couple of skeins of Georgia O’Keeffe from a different dyelot, which, like the skein I swatched, are a blackened-teal-green with hints of gray and brown, but are much lighter than the skein I used to swatch (which I had used because it was already wound and the other skeins weren’t and I’m lazy). And I kept wondering what those lighter skeins would look like.

So I gave in and wound one and did a teeny tiny swatch of single stripes, just to see how the colors worked, and decided that they looked much nicer – different enough to provide contrast, but a bit subtler. (This combo also received the spousal nod of approval over the purple.) So I ripped back the purple and tried again with the Georgia O’Keeffe, and ended up with this:


So onward I travel with Georgia O’Keeffe. I am still currently plowing through the A-line skirt, working the decreases that give it its shape (I was going to say “plowing through the miles of stockinette in the A-line skirt,” but then, the whole sweater appears to be miles of stockinette, so that didn’t seem a very helpful description. That’s not a criticism; I love miles of stockinette).

Although I definitely couldn’t have got this far without swatching, I am still very curious to see the how the sweater will look when finished. Between the difference in scale between a swatch and a sweater, the shape of this sweater, and the changing width of the stripes at the yoke, the final result still remains a bit of a mystery. Swatching definitely helped me eliminate the bad options, but I’m still not sure that the result is a good option, or just the best of the limited options I allowed myself. Pulling this all out of my stash means there’s no guilt about having spent money on something that might turn out wrong, so if it’s not what I want in the end, all I’ve lost is time. And the anticipation is fun.

3 thoughts on “Stratum part 2: swatching

  1. This post intrigues me so much – the photography is so interesting! I hate swatching as well and it is probably one of the reasons I don’t knit things that have to fit properly 🙂 I’m going to check out the forum for more the black and white stuff.


    1. The black and white trick really is nifty. I don’t really do a lot of color work, but I can see how it would be super helpful for people who do. The obstinate part of me wants to try to figure out a way to combine colors that don’t contrast while in black and white, just to see if it’s possible, but I’m sure I’d never get it to work.


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