Designing With Yarn

large swatch and finished scarf project
Finished scarf and original swatch.

What’s ingenious about knitting is that you form a fabric with yarn and shape it to create a project. Hand knitting yarn is irresistible; it comes in brilliant colours, textures, and different fibers. Knitters know that a beautiful hank of yarn doesn’t always produce the fabric they are looking for. Designing with yarn is about making a fabric that suits the project, and is achieved by swatching.

I’ve written at length about the structure and properties of yarns and fibers, and that the combination of yarn and stitch patterns is the key component of the design process. Good yarn contributes to good design. The tool at the designer’s disposal is swatching yarn, the preliminary step to designing any project. 

Swatching is playing with yarn and needle sizes to find the fabric that pleases you, but also creates the characteristics needed for the project. Knitters approach this process in different ways, maybe you already have the yarn and stitch pattern in mind, but need to find the right project. Or maybe it’s the other way around, you want to make a particular sweater style, but need to choose the appropriate yarn. And then there’s the designer who plays with a mixed bag full of a variety of yarns and colours, and swatches them together to see where the wind blows.

Swatching Basics

Making swatches is the only tool the designer has for letting the yarn show you what it can do before you dive into any project. You can’t ask yarn to perform a certain way. Only by experimenting, and gaining experience working with a multitude of yarns, will you be led towards better success with your projects. Swatching also reveals a knitter’s idiosyncrasies and style of tension – loose, even, or tight.

Because all designers don’t approach their work in the same way, there are no set rules for swatching other than making a large swatch incorporating all the stitch patterns and any details like edgings that will make up the finished project. The larger the swatch, the more likely the knitter will relax into the process, and be more at ease when working pattern stitches, which affects the characteristics of the swatch.

There is much advice out there as to how large to make the swatch from 6in x 8in to 12in x 12in. The swatch should be large enough so that you can really see how the fabric drapes and feels. The classic 4in(10cm) swatch size in pattern instructions will tell you if the needle size is appropriate, but is not large enough to indicate how the stitches and fabric will behave in a garment.

If you’ve never worked with a yarn before, make the first swatch with the needle size indicated on the label, or what you think is the appropriate size. Make an educated guess about the number of stitches to cast on for the chosen stitch patterns. Repeat the process with a larger or smaller needle to see an exaggerated effect, whether looser or tighter. Keep notes on the number of stitches casted on, rows worked, stitch patterns used, yarn type and needle sizes for all swatches. If you’re new to designing, start with simple stitch patterns, garter stitch, stockinette stitch, or reverse stockinette stitch.

There is no proper needle size when designing, but you need to consider how the fabric is altered by the different needle sizes. How does the fabric look? How does the stitch pattern look? Is the fabric soft or stiff? Does it have drape and body? Ultimately, the stitch pattern and needle size should show off the yarn to its best advantage. The swatch should look and feel good, but be suitable for the project. Use the same needle type (bamboo, metal, etc.) for the project as you did for making the swatch. 

Finally, after you’ve made the desired swatch, it should be blocked. There are many opinions about blocking swatches, but I think they should be blocked before measuring gauge. Yarn relaxes when exposed to water, and will relax in the finished garment. Blocking the swatch will give you the true finished size and a more accurate gauge. A blocked swatch may also reveal that you don’t really like the finished result, and then it’s necessary to repeat the process with different needles or the yarn may not be the best choice.

Swatching with yarn and needles is the only tool available to designers to make a fabric that’s suitable for a project. Making a good swatch is a valuable resource.