Why don't indie dyers swatch their yarns?

Oct 05 2017 Knitting

Why don't indie dyers swatch their yarns?

This is a question that indie dyers hear all the time: Why don't you swatch your yarns? 

Many people will say that swatching is important: it can give you an idea of how any given yarn will work up when you knit or crochet with it. However, there's a huge problem with swatches: your swatch will only look like my swatch if and only if: 

  • you use the exact same needles,
  • with the exact same stitch count,
  • with the exact same tension.

These three things combined will give you your swatch. As soon as you change your tension, your swatch will look different than mine. If you cast on one stitch more than me, your swatch will look different. If you use needles that are one size smaller or one size larger than me, your swatch will look different. And swatches can look drastically different the more you modify these things... which ultimately makes swatches kind of useless when you're using them to purchase yarn. They're absolutely useful in other contexts - such as planning out a project.

For tonal yarns, swatches won't be a big deal: there shouldn't be that much variation to begin with. But as soon as you start looking at variegated yarns, it's an entirely new ballgame. Tiny changes in your knitting can create drastic changes in the end result. We can see this in action using what's called a planned pooling calculator. This calculator allows you to enter The number of colors you have, and the amount of stitches for each color. So, you should swatch your work using the needles you plan on using for your project, with regular tension, in stockinette stitch. Then, you measure the number of stitches for each color, and enter them into the calculator. The calculator can then show you the kinds of patterns you will get when you cast on a certain number of stitches.

Let's try an example project. Say that the following things are true: 

  • We have three colors: Red, Cream, and Green
  • When we knit our swatch, we have: 
    • 10 stitches of red
    • 12 stitches of green
    • 8 stitches of cream
  • We plan to knit socks (so we will be knitting in the round)

So first, let's set up our colors:

Now, we can play around. Most sock patterns have you cast on anywhere between 58 and 64 stitches for your average sock, and you will work in the round. Let's take a look at 58 stitches: 

Not too bad, right? We're going to get a stripey effect going from the upper left to the lower right, at a somewhat shallow angle. Now, let's see what 60 stitches looks like: 

Isn't that something? All we did was add TWO stitches, and suddenly we have solid vertical stripes! Two tiny little stitches and suddenly our sock looks very different! Well.. what happens if we add two more stitches (for 62 stitches)? 

Suddenly our stripey effect is back, but it's going the opposite direction of when we had 58 stitches! So... what do we think happens when we add two more stitches, for 64 stitches total? 

Our stripes are much more angled and blocky than they were when we used only 62 stitches! 

Okay, so all we did here was play around with how many stitches we cast onto our needle. What if we change our tension? If my swatch ends up with 10 stitches of red, 12 stitches of green, and 8 stitches of cream, and your swatch ends up with 9 stitches of red, 11 stitches of green, and 7 stitches of cream - this means that I knit my stitches with a little more tension than you. Not by much, but just a tiny bit.

These look nothing like our previous swatches! And this is why most indie dyers don't swatch variegated colorways: it would be nearly impossible for your knitting to match our swatches! And this isn't your fault, or our fault - this is just part of the nature of knitting. So, what can you do instead of relying on swatches?

The first thing you can do is go to Ravelry and check out your yarn and what projects other people have made. This might give you a better "feel" for the yarn. The second is to remember these general rules of thumb: 

  • Long, solid sections of colors (often yarns with 3 colors or less) will often produce a more stripey effect, as you will have longer stretches of a single color
  • Short, solid sections of colors (often yarns with 4 - 5 colors or more) will produce broken little sections of color pops. However, you CAN get delightful patterns with short-sectioned yarn, but it takes more work/planning.

And just for giggles... here's our 10/12/8 tension with 241 stitches worked flat.