Monday, February 10, 2014

Swatching is overrated

I started a sweater. It's one that I've been thinking about for a good while - not just back-burner thinking, mind you. It's more like the yarn has been stalking me, begging to be knit into this sweater. But the quantity of brain cells I burned while trying to decide if this is the right pairing of yarn with pattern - well, it's just ridiculous. (Is this pattern too hipster? Is that pattern too bland?  Is the yarn to variegated? Should I forget cables and knit two stockinette sweaters with my abundant yardage? What if I just scrap the sweater and knit another blanket? What if I kept this pattern and substituted that funky-colored yarn I have?)

All this time I've been holding on to a particular yarn (a sweater quantity of olive green yarn from Briar Rose Fibers) and a particular pattern (Timberline from the Brooklyn Tweed Men's Collection). You know what pushed me over the edge? Imagining how delicious the ribbing and subsequent cables would feel as I slipped my hand into the sleeve cuff.  Yup. That's my brain. Working in a nursing home has trained me to celebrate the small pleasures in life.

I finally started a few days ago. I made a couple of half-committed swatches - one in stockinette and one of the main cable pattern. Both were knit flat. These seemed close enough that I could charge forward, so I did. (cue tense theme music)

My worries about fit and colors and pattern perpetuated as the ribbing grew, only to vanish as the cables began curling up the base of the sleeve. Delight replaced uncertainty, and I settled in for the pleasant journey up the sleeve. I was even in such a good mood that I didn't mind being tricked into starting a sci-fi TV series marathon; usually I like my TV shows to have an ending. Scratch that; I hate TV shows because they don't end nearly as soon as I think they should. Then again, marathoning a television show is a great way to ensure a large quantity of dedicated knitting time, even if it's not the highest quality of focus.

I knit up a fair distance to my elbow in the first few days, and it was looking pretty nice. Yesterday I ripped out everything, having tried on the sleeve and measuring the cable patterns and realizing I was clearly under my earlier gauge. I had been using the same exact needles, but I wasn't knitting the same way.

The conclusion I have arrived at is this: why waste my time swatching, when I know I'm probably gonna rip everything out anyway?  I mean, when I swatch, I knit one way, and when I knit the actual project I may knit a very different way. Swatches are overrated. Swatches are faulty. They're very helpful, but they can be misleading.

Okay, I know I've done my share singing the praises of the swatch, and I also know I did some lazy swatching. On the other hand, I do think a sweater -- knit in the round, bottom-to-top -- might just as well be swatched by simply starting the sleeve, and embracing the great possibility that the first attempt will either be ripped out or set aside as a swatch.

Oh, and one more incentive to ripping out the sleeve had to do with color. The morning prior to ripping I was sipping coffee and reading some fascinating passages from Barbara Parry's book, Adventures in Yarn Farming. At one point she describes the process of hand dyeing yarn. Reading this passage gave me a new appreciation for the hard work done by hand dyers, and it gave me new insight into how and why those beautiful hanks of yarn dyed together in the same vat will almost certainly have variations in color, no matter how brilliant the dyer.

As I went to rip out the sleeve, my curiosity was piqued. I retrieved the second skein and wound it. The colors were more pronounced in variation in this skein, and I bit the bullet and wound all the remaining skeins. The yarn label has a reminder on it: “be sure to work alternately from all your hanks to achieve an overall blend of color.” I will now heed that warning -- not alternating two ends of the same ball, nor striping two balls together all the way up a sleeve; no, I will switch between all six hanks throughout the entire sweater.

As you may see in the photos, it reads very differently when all six skeins are incorporated. One thing you cannot see is the pooling that formed as the previous version grew, and I intend to keep it that way. Now that I am taking the control into my hands, I can add a lighter or darker skein as I see the need arise.  It looks more mottled, but I expect the effect to look more even in the long run.

A random musing:
After reading "Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins, I'm inclined to think that if he was a knitter/ yarn dyer, he would be delighted by the uneven nature of dye striking wool as a natural expression of divine beauty. 

And here are a couple knits I recently finished for friends during my radio silence:

Fish hat #8, resized for a baby... well, he'll grow into it!
Yarns: Koigu, Colinette, and Hedgehog Fibres, plus some grey and black leftovers. It's a nice way to combine some scraps, and I'm loving that Koigu colorway. Don't be surprised if I make something else with it soon.

Pattern: Glam Shells
Yarns: A unique and lovely BFL/silk blend yarn I obtained at Flying Fibers yarn shop in Landisville... I think it is hand-spun and dyed by Irina Lawrence. 
For the grey, I used Nature Spun Sport; I added the color contrast because I hoped it would add a bit of extra class. It also conveniently helped me sidestep having to worry about yardage.

Happy knitting, folks!