Swatching: Not just for size

A few days ago my friend and I went to WEBS, the mecca for knitters and weavers in these parts, to stock up on supplies for upcoming projects. Jennifer weaves and knits designer garments, and I have recently volunteered to knit a few things for family members, so taking advantage of the annual sale was a good opportunity.

While at the store I decided to purchase a little treat for myself – 100% lace-weight alpaca at a ridiculously low sale price. This isn’t the type of yarn I’d usually purchase, but the thought of a light, elegant shawl in super-soft yarn really appealed to me. Jennifer decided she wanted a new, easy-knitting project for herself, so she bought a set of 3 colors in the same yarn to make one also (her swatching experience is here).

I’ll admit something: I don’t often swatch before starting a project. I find that I can generally read a pattern, look at the yarn and needles it calls for, and know if I’m going to get the designer’s gauge or not. Even for something larger that has to fit, like a sweater, I’ll often just start with a sleeve and use that as my gauge swatch. For a hat I can get a good sense just knitting the brim. Or mitten cuffs – you get the idea.

But for this project (the Color Affection shawl by Veera Välimäki), even though I’ve made one before, I wanted to check my gauge because the yarn is so radically different than what I usually knit with, and I wanted to test the look of the colors in the stripes. I also discovered that I didn’t have the size needle the designer called for in the lace-weight version, and I wanted to check my fabric before diving in.

Test swatch for the Color Affection shawl
Test swatch for the Color Affection shawl

So, I did a little swatch.

From the bottom, we have:
#3 needles, yarn held single section. I don’t like this at all. There’s no consistent rhythm to the stitches. Looks like it was woven by one of those LSD test spiders.

#3, yarn held double section – dense, consistent, and smooshy and soft.

Then I went down to #2 needles, with yarn held single for some color/stripe testing. The fabric is more consistent than the #3 section but still has a Swiss Cheese texture. And, by the time I finished the swatch I wanted to throw it across the room. The thinness of the yarn and the #2 needles made this un-fun to knit (I think it’s the first time I’ve knit with a fine lace-weight yarn, which may not be my gig).

So clearly, the yarn-held-double-on-Size-3-needles option is the winner here. Of course that means ordering another skein of each color, but fortunately the sale is still going and the yarn is cheap. And it really is worthwhile to spend a little extra time and money rather than struggling with and despising a project that’s supposed to be a fun treat resulting in a lux garment.

Unfortunately some of the yarn I need is now on backorder so it will be a couple of weeks until I can get started on this project. I should be able to get a jump on some gift knitting in the meantime.

Substituting Colors in Colorwork

You found it – that perfect color work pattern. But the colors shown in the sample garment aren’t exactly your favorites, or the intended recipient likes orange but the original doesn’t have any orange in it. What to do?

There’s a lot of debate about color and design, not just in knitting but in all the visual arts, so there are any number of approaches that one can take. (I was recently inspired by Ysolda’s post on using color combinations found in nature!) However, not being a color expert, I have found the following two rules of thumb useful for substituting colors in a pattern:  1. Select yarns with a similar color relationship as in the pattern, and 2. Choose yarns with the same contrast as the original garment.

For example, a sweater I knitted over the winter is a modern Lopapeysa called Asymptote. I likeAsymptote sweater - greensd the colors of the original but wanted more blue.

If we look at a color wheel we can see that the original sweater pallet ranges from yellow-green, to green, to blue-green, which are all adjacent colors. If I want my sweater to have a similar feel, I need to make similar choices for a tone-on-tone effect. So, I decided to choose from the blue-green and blue color families, which are also congruent.

Color Wheel

Next, and possibly even more important, is contrast (also referred to a color’s “tone” or “value”). The human eye has more rods, or light receptors, than cones, or color receptors. That means that when looking at colors together, we notice the contrast between the colors most. Asymptote sweater - color

So when choosing yarns, it’s the contrast, or black and white information, that will help us see the pattern. But seeing contrast in yarn can be difficult when you are accustomed to looking at the color of the yarn. The solution is to convert the colors to their black and white values, and the simplest way to do that is to take a picture.

In the sample sweater, you can see that there are several different shades. But it’s even easier to look at a black and white version of the same image. To convert the image, I used a photo editor to transform from color to greyscale. Some programs might have this feature under a “filter” setting, and some smartphones have a built-in black-and-white option.Asymptote green - grey

In the black and white version you can focus on the contrast or values of the different colors. We can clearly see that the grey body of the sweater and the lightest green have a similar value, the mossy green is a shade darker, and the bottle green is the darkest shade. So to substitute, we need 4 colors with 3 different values.

To choose yarn, it would be easiest to shop in a store so we can evaluate the colors with our own eyes, in natural light. But Iceland is a bit far for me to travel just to pick out yarn. Instead, I can shop online and “take pictures” using the screen shot function on my computer, then convert the images to greyscale as I did before.

There are several online stores that sell the Icelandic yarn I want, but the one with the clearest images that I found was The Wool Sweaters. First, I put the light grey (#56) called for in the pattern in my basket. Then, I know I have to have a very light shade of blue, so I choose the Glacier Blue – the lightest shade they make. Since I’m sticking with blue and blue/green shades, I can use the original dark shade from the pattern, Bottle Green Heather, because it’s a dark teal and looks good with the Glacier.

Now to choose the medium blue for the “background” section of the yoke. At first, I’m thinking about a dusty blue to substitute for the dusty green of the Celery Green in the original. But they don’t really have a slate blue that compliments the Glacier color – some of the medium blues have a purple tone, and that doesn’t work with my color wheel choices of staying with blue and blue-green. So, sticking with the teal theme, I decided on Lagoon Heather, which is a medium shade similar to the Celery Green.

To see these together and evaluate, I go to my basket and take a screenshot of all the colors together. The hues look pretty good I think – complimentary in the tone-on-tone I was going for.

Yarn colors with light grey main color

Next, convert the image to greyscale to evaluate the contrast. Will the pattern show with these choices?


Yarn colors with light grey

Look at that!  The light blue and light grey are about the same shade, with the Lagoon in a medium value and the Bottle Green a distinct darker value. The pattern will show nicely with this combination.

Finally, one last complication: I would prefer a darker shade of grey for the main part of the sweater. But how will that affect the pattern? Will it work?

Yarn colors with medium greyYarnColors_medgrey_bw



Interesting. There’s a shift here – instead of the lightest shade being equivalent to the sweater body, now the medium shade of blue is equivalent. This means that the bands on the bottom of the sweater body and sleeves will pop out more (higher contrast between Glacier and the medium grey), while the background of the yoke and the main part of the sweater will blend together a bit more. Is that good or bad? It’s really up to the knitter. I’m comfortable having the yoke background and sweater body blend a bit, knowing that the main part of the design – the elongated asymptote pattern – will stand out.

One other note about knitting stranded colorwork: There is a dominance in this type of knitting that can greatly affect the way that different colors interact in a pattern. Others have written on this in more detail. Check out this post at Paper Tiger for a how-to and another great example from Beth BrownReinsel. I appreciate that the designer of the Asymptote sweater, Lars Rains, has taken this into account and designates which colors should be held dominant at each stage of the charts – it really makes a huge difference in the final outcome.

Speaking of which, here’s my finished sweater!

Asymptote_colorAsymptote Sweater - Black & White

I’d call this a resounding success – the colors are much more to my taste and the pattern still stands out well.

2015: The Year in Fiber

Elinya Shawl
Elinya Shawl

It doesn’t usually occur to me to look back on the year and summarize, but as I was updating my Ravelry project list I started scrolling to see what I’d completed and how that compared with 2014. Given that this was a crazy year (UK travel for training; Rick’s broken foot, surgery, and recovery; starting the new business), I was surprised by the output I’d managed.

By the end of the year I will have completed 17 projects, comprising:

  • 3 hats and 3 scarves (2 of each were sets)
  • 2 baby blankets
  • 2 baby sweaters
  • 2 cowls
  • 2 shawls
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 set “doll” accessories
  • 1 adult sweater (started 2013)
Striped Hat & Scarf Set
Striped Hat & Scarf Set

Not a bad haul, especially since the previous year saw 19 projects, most of which were small items. Clearly, knitting provides not just a creative outlet, but an avenue for stress relief and distraction during periods of intensity.

Another interesting comparison between 2014 and 2015 is my development in the craft of knitting itself. Last year there was a lot of experimentation going on. I developed 3 new patterns, tried a whole bunch of techniques for sock heels (some successful; some not). I tried my first set of mitered mittens; first sweater from a translated pattern; first (and possibly last) hat pattern from a drawing/cartoon. Many of these experiments turned out really well. A few projects I would go back and re-knit if I could, based on what I learned.

In 2015 there were a few new garment types (my first shawls!), but the sum looks mostly like comfort knitting: garter stitch or knit-purl patterns that were easy to power through in waiting rooms, in front of the TV with a glass of homebrew, or on planes and trains. Stripes were my new addiction, providing interest without a lot of complication. I also seem to have taken my knitting skill up a notch.

Striped Child's Sweater
Striped Child’s Sweater

My gauge looks more even and there is no mismatched symmetry between sets of sleeves or socks. Having knit a couple of pairs of badly mismatched socks, this is an area I’ve been trying to improve. Marking beginnings and endings of sections (the start of the decrease section on a sleeve; the end of the heel on a sock) helps a lot and is something I need to continue to do, and not abandon cavalierly when I think I know better.

Handspun blue yarn
Handspun blue yarn

And of course, there was the addition of the spinning wheel in the fall, and the resulting first skeins of yarn. I look forward to more home-made yarn (and a sweater knit from it!) in 2016.

Spinning: a new obsession

Some time ago, my mother took up spinning. She researched, practiced, took workshops, and tried to entangle me into her hobby too, by buying lovely hand-crafted spindles and eventually, my own spinning wheel. I tried spinning, off and on, for a couple of years, but it never really got hold of me, and eventually the wheel ended up in the back of the upstairs closet, along with a few bobbins of lumpily spun “beginner’s singles”.

Turns out, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy spinning, it’s that I had started with the wrong fiber (rough, slightly matted mill ends still coated with spinning oil) and, for me, the wrong wheel. Now, don’t get me wrong – the wheel I had was a top-of-the-line model and had many nice features. But it never felt right for me. Even as I’d practice and get more consistent at controlling my treadle speed and drafting technique, I always felt like I was fighting the wheel, teetering on the edge of calamity. It just wasn’t very enjoyable.

Then, my mother took a workshop with the esteemed and very experienced Maggie Casey (Maggie’s website), and got to try her new travel wheel, the Schacht Sidekick. Mom liked it so much, she decided to sell her old travel wheel and buy one. And then, one day at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, while we were demonstrating fiber crafts at the sheep barn, I asked the fateful question: “Hey Mom, can I try your new wheel?”

The effect was instant and powerful. Suddenly, I could spin easily, meditatively, calmly, and fairly consistently. Spinning was FUN! So, with mother’s generous approval, I sold my old wheel and bought a similar model, the Shacht Ladybug. It has made all the difference in my enjoyment of this new-to-me craft.

The main difference between the Schacht wheels and the Majacraft Little Gem that I started with, is that, because the Little Gem relies on a tiny drive wheel to turn the main wheel, you have to treadle very fast, even when using a larger ratio on the whorl. It was like trying to learn to ride a bike that wasn’t fitted properly, or that only had one high-speed gear. For me, the Schacht wheels just fit better, but it’s all a matter of personal experience. I tell friends and visitors at craft shows who are interested in spinning: the best thing to do is to try a lot of different wheels. The process is sort of like buying a car (spinning wheels are machines after all). You have to pick one that feels right, that’s comfortable to drive. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive or fancy model, it just has to work for you.

Ladybug spinning wheel, blue yarn and a sheepskin
Ladybug spinning wheel, blue yarn and a sheepskin

Anyway, I’m happy to report that after only a few hours on my new wheel, I was able to finish spinning singles that I’d started on my mom’s Sidekick, and then to successfully ply my first yarn. I must say that watching instructional videos by Judith MacKinzey and Maggie Casey was also tremendously helpful. Judith especially has a bit of a rambling style as an instructor, but the amount of information that she packs into those videos is well worth the price, and a repeat viewing (or four).

So, incorporating these two crafts (spinning and knitting) together, my first goal is to finish spinning this lovely blue roving (Potluck Roving – going out of production, unfortunately) and knit it into some kind of set (probably a hat and cowl, depending on yardage). Then, for the ambitious beginner, I plan to spin two bags of natural brown Shetland roving that I got from a friend a few years ago. The goal is to spin a similar weight to Shelter, which the pattern calls for (but, you know, soft) and knit this wonderful, semi-reversible (or styleable?) sweater by Veronik Avery. It’s going to take a while, but the journey should be fun.

Meanwhile, I was looking up tools for winding and storing handspun yarn (Judith says one should amass 40 bobbins so that you can spin lots of singles and then mix and match them up before plying, for a more even yarn). This is not financially possible for me, at $20-$40 per bobbin from the company that made my wheel, but then I found the Bobbins Up!, a plastic storage bobbin that attaches to an electric drill (of which we already own several) for winding [video review & demo]. It even has a whorl on one side, for use on a tensioned kate. Spinning may be one of the oldest crafts in the world, but modern technology rocks!