Design, Step I: Sketch and Swatch

Thanks for all of the interest in following along with this design! I’m starting this while finishing up a few loose ends on other projects, so today we’ll just talk about the pre-knitting stages: Sketching and swatching.

Usually I’m inspired by either a yarn, some portion of the figure I want to highlight, or both. In this case, the yarn came first. Berroco’s Blackstone Tweed is a luscious blend of everything I like in a yarn: Soft fibers, interesting texture, a reasonable gauge both to satisfy myself and to make for a good design. (While at some point this year I’m going to bite the bullet and release a fabulous fingering-weight design, I understand that most knitters would rather have the project in their closets sooner rather than later.) I want to wrap myself up in this yarn.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking about doing a design that isn’t quite as cleavage-baring as most of what I usually like to wear. With some thought to incorporating some subtle curve into the design, I came up with this sketch:

Despite art not being my strong suit (understatement), I sketch a lot. I sketch to get ideas out of my head, and I don’t let myself spend more than 10 minutes on any one sketch. More than that, and I tend to overwork things. The final sweaters don’t always look exactly like my sketches–already I’m thinking that I’ll make this a long-sleeved pullover with thicker garter trim on the sleeves. Some of the sketches never see the light of day, because elements of the construction would be too cumbersome to release in a design (hello, non-steeked fair isle square neck!). But with this sketch, I think things will work out pretty closely.

The sketch provides me with the basic tools I need to figure out how the sweater will be constructed. But before my initial thoughts become more than nudges, I swatch.

I make big swatches. And I often try to make them a little mock-up of the front of the sweater (without waist shaping, so that I get a nice big area to measure). They’re almost always at least 6”x6”, and usually larger. This swatch saw me fiddling with the trim, and I also worked in a wide curve at the top so that I can later play around with how to work the cowl. I washed it just like I plan on washing the finished sweater, and I toyed with the wet swatch a bit, to get a feel for how much the weight of a finished sweater will stretch the gauge. (Todays’ answer: not much. This is a lovely light yarn.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on swatching, and how my relationship to it has changed since I started designing. It used to be that the swatch was a slightly dull hurdle between me and that finished sweater. I often read when I knit, so I have always dutifully swatched, but I never really delighted in it until I started designing. And I think this is why: For the knitter, swatching is something of a test. You need to work at swatching until you reach this magic row/stitch number set out by someone else. (And then hope it doesn’t change on you mid-sleeve.) But for a designer, there is no magic number. There isn’t even really any kind of goal. It’s shameless, no-strings-attached flirting. It’s an opportunity to get a little creative spark going with no downside if things don’t work out. It’s really, really wonderful.

I’m not sure what my point is here (or if I have one), but on general principle I recommend that you throw some swatching into your daily life. Not for a sweater, not for any reason other than to enjoy the feel of yarn through your fingers and playing around with stitch patterns. Think of it as a chance to use up all of those leftover balls and odds and ends, maybe?

Aaaanyway, between the swatch and the sketch, I have all the information I need to hammer out the basics of the design, starting with construction. Most of you probably know by now my undying love for bottom up in pieces construction. This will be a slight departure from that. Still bottom up, but since seaming tweed is one of my least-favorite things to do (twice as many ends to weave in, because I can’t just make extra-long cast on tails), I’ll be knitting this in the round to the armholes. The sleeves will also be picked up and the caps worked with short rows, and the cowl will be worked in the round. So all in all, only shoulder seams to fiddle with. I think that will also work well with the very clean lines I’m anticipating for this sweater. Understated but flattering, and easy to modify. At least, that’s the goal!

I also worked out something I like for the curved garter treatment at the hem.

Next stop: Cast on!

13 thoughts on “Design, Step I: Sketch and Swatch

  1. No I am going to get on my high-horse here 🙂 You need to unpick as we say in Australia (frog?) this post down to the 4th paragraph. There is a massive mistake about art not being your strong suit! Take it out and repeat this correction x 100 🙂 for magic results “I love design and have learned how frequent sketching improves my work. While I do these drawings quickly I aim to communicate my design ideas so that others know what I am trying to achieve and can share their perspective. I have come to understand that that is the power of drawing”.

    Phew – now your post is correct, your pattern beautiful and you have modestly and truthfully paid respect to your considerable talents 🙂

  2. Just curious about your seaming in tweed comment – why can’t you leave longer tails and use them to sew up?

  3. So far, so… wonderful! And thanks for confirming that seaming tweed is a challenge. Makes facing my beautiful Beaverslide (read: bloomed, mohair-blend tweed!) a little less crazy-making.

  4. I’m curious about the tweed seaming comment too!

  5. I really like your description of how your relationship to swatching changed when it went from knitting other peoples’ patterns to designing. There IS a lot of pressure in trying to get that perfect number that the designer got, and trying to reach this goal really takes all the pleasure out of swatching (making you feel like a loser when you knit 20 rows, figure out that your gauge is not “correct” and have to start all over). I think I should try “designing” just so I can feel the pleasure of swatching as you describe it. Thank you for this wonderful thought, it really resonated with me deeply…

  6. oooooh, can’t wait to see the pattern!!

  7. fascinating!

  8. Looks amazing. Can’t wait to knit one myself someday!

  9. I have a different relationship to swatching as a designer, too! It’s such a relief to work for the right *fabric*, rather than a specific number. Looking forward to more in your series.

  10. I can understand the change in attitude… I’ve started designing things for myself, because it’s so much easier to deal with the gauge and math once, rather than making your gauge and maths and sizing fit someone else’s. It’s almost like you have to do it twice. Once to figure out what you’re getting, then again to figure out how to fit that to the pattern in your hands.

    And I eagerly await the sweater pattern; all of my sweaters are fingering weight, knit on 1s and 2s. 🙂

  11. I can’t wait to see the finished sweater! I too hated swatching, but now that I’m dipping my toes into designing…shawls and scarves…swatching isn’t such a chore!
    Thanks for letting us peek into your design process.

  12. I love your comparison between swatching and flirting with the yarn! It’s so true, and what a great way to illustrate the harmless, no-strings-attached relationship you develop with a swatch rather than a full-on garment that you’re already invested in.

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