I’ve been doing a bit of swatching this week, toying with some design ideas and playing around with colours and options. Which is also a sort of professional-looking way of saying “I’m sitting in an indecisive mess of yarn,” but then, as Annie tells me, a creative mess is better than tidy idleness, so I’ll take it.
As I am wont to do, I’m looking at colour-work and twisted stitch cables. I have been wanting to start on some more sweaters of my own using these techniques, and finally have a bit of time to sit in the mess to do it. And then I remembered what both of these things have in common, which is how annoying it is to work them flat. Well, for me, at least. I know there are people who love doing stranded colour-work flat and don’t mind purling back in 2 colours at all, but me, I’d rather do it in the round and steek that sucker. Similarly, twisted stitch cables, or any combination of stitches worked as knits ‘through the back loop’, are a heck of a lot more fun on the knit side since purling through the back loop tends to involve mildly contorting your wrists. Ergo, I prefer it in the round if I can help it. (See: almost every sock pattern I’ve designed, ever.)
The simplest way to swatch for a project you’re going to do in the round is to do a full swatch in the round, say on DPNs or a small circular needle. Or, as knitters like Elizabeth Zimmerman and others with a voice of experience have advocated, knit a hat. It’s more useful than a swatch in the long term, and bound to fit someone when it’s done, and then you have both a hat and all your gauge information in one fell swoop. Of course, this also means taking the time and yarn quantity required for a full in-the-round undertaking, which you may not want to commit to at the time. You might actually just want a flat swatch’s worth of time and yarn. So, then, this is when you break out the ‘speed swatch’ approach. I did a whole mess of these back when I was deciding on a colour-scheme for my Venezia pullover, though at the time I didn’t know that’s what they were called and just sort of thought of them as ‘a sort of cop-out way of swatching in the round but not really.’
What you do here is cast on enough stitches to get you a decent amount of fabric – say, 5-6 inches worth – onto a circular needle, and as you work through the swatch, when you get to the end of a row you just slide the whole works back to the front of the needle sort of like the carriage-return on a type-writer. (A circular needle is both flexible in the middle and pointy at both ends, which is why this works. Circular needles: not just for circular knitting any more!) The effect is that you are only ever knitting the Right Side of the work, so you will get a gauge reading similar to what you will actually have when knitting in the round, since knitting in the round will also only require you to work the Right Side.
The other effect is that the wrong side of your swatch will look like a big ol’ mess, since every time you start back at the beginning of the row, you leave a trail of yarn behind.
Once you’ve done the amount of swatching you feel comfortable with, you cast off as per usual, and then get out the scissors and snip those yarny strings at the back, and then you have a flat swatch. Provided your swatch is not 100% non-wool, the strands will not unravel at the sides very quickly and you’ll be fine.
This also works well for just plain stockinette if all you want to do is avoid the process of going in the round – say, for a sock. DPNs would work well enough in place of a circular needle, if they’re long enough to handle what you want to cast on.
When you’re done, there is naturally still the question of what to do with the swatch once you’ve finished it and gotten your gauge reading and had your way with it and don’t need it any more. But everyone likes knitted coasters, right? I thought so.