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Swatching Colourwork

October 23, 2018

Swatching for colourwork is a little different than swatching for any other type of project. There are a few more things you want to know, especially if you are embarking on a larger project like a sweater.

This post is part of a multi-part series that covers the Strange Brew colourwork yoke sweater recipe! To get the Strange Brew recipe pattern (it’s written for 3 gauges, and includes 25 sizes from baby through women’s and men’s 4XL) click here.

This colourwork tutorial series will cover:

We’ve broken the colourwork sweater tutorial into 10 parts. Start at the beginning and work your way through – or just jump to the technique you need help with!

  1. Introduction
  2. How to choose your size: find the right size for you.
  3. Choosing yarn for colourwork: which yarns work best in colourwork.
  4. Swatching for colourwork: a few different ways to swatch specifically for colourwork.
  5. Developing your custom sweater concept: where to place that colourwork
  6. Gauge in a yoke sweater: understanding where it matters
  7. Using the FREE Anthology pattern: a great way to try out your concepts
  8. Applying colour to stranded motifs: time to experiment!
  9. How to design a Strange Brew yoke: using our Strange Brew recipe to turn your inspiration into a woolly work of art!
  10. How to plan a steek in a Strange Brew sweater: prefer a cardigan? Learn how to plan a steek.

And many other topics too! There will also be posts highlighting some great sweaters that were designed using the Strange Brew sweater recipe pattern.

Different methods of swatching for different purposes

When swatching for colourwork you want to figure out your gauge, but you also want to trial out your yarn and test your colour combinations. If you are designing your own yoked sweater from our Strange Brew recipe pattern you will also want to test out your motifs.

Looking for more basic swatching and gauge info? Check out our intro to swatching tutorial here.

When swatching for your Strange Brew sweater you want to find out:

  • What is your stitch & round gauge?
  • Are your colour combinations working?
  • Do the motifs you have chosen look the way you hoped?
  • Is this a yarn you want to knit an entire sweater in?

In this post we cover several swatching methods, each of which give you different sorts of information.

Five Swatching Methods:

Before we get started: Don’t knit a 2” square back and forth and think that will give you a good idea of your gauge. If this is your method, just skip the swatch! A 2” square knit differently than the final garment isn’t going to tell you anything.

There are no knitting police, if you really don’t want to swatch that’s a-okay with us, just be ready for a bit of tinking!

To check gauge for any of the Strange Brew sweater patterns or accessories it is most effective to swatch in the round. A knitters gauge when knitting often is different from that of purling, which means that a knitter’s stockinette in the round is often different gauge than stockinette knit back and forth in rows. Given that seamless sweaters are in large part knit in the round, this is the condition that you want to emulate with your swatches, and we have a few suggested methods.

Knit a tube and cut it:

For this kind of a swatch, cast on enough sts for at least 6” of fabric and knit a little tube. Once the tube is complete, cut it vertically up a single stitch, then wet-block it flat. For this swatch I worked a portion of a yoke wedge design.

What it’s good for: This swatching method will give you useful information about your gauge in stranded colourwork and show you how the colour and motifs you have chosen are working together, as well as allowing you to test increase or decrease methods. A tubular swatch like this one can also be a low-pressure opportunity to try steeking, in preparation for working a steeked colourwork project. Check out our in-depth tutorial on steeking here.

Carry the yarns across the back:

For this swatching method you must use either DPNs or circular needles. Cast on and knit 1 row, do not turn your work. Slide the stitches to the other end of the needle so the right side of the work is still facing you, and the yarn is on the left side of the work. Knit the next row. Draw the yarn very loosely across the back of the work in between rows.

What it’s good for: If the swatch is made large enough (6″ of width at a minimum) this method can give you an indication of your gauge in stockinette in the round, and your gauge in stranded colourwork in the round. However, we tend to use this method in smaller swatches intended to simply trial out motifs and colour combinations, because it can very quickly show if an idea will work, with hardly any investment of time or yarn.

Knit a ‘Useful Swatch’:

The Mountain Mist hat makes a great swatch for the sweater!

One of our favourite ways to swatch for colourwork is to knit a hat – this way you don’t waste a single stitch! Hats don’t really take much longer than a proper swatch does, and are far more useful. A colourwork sweater isn’t exactly a small undertaking, so when swatching, you might want to go big or go home!

What it’s good for: If you knit up a hat you will have an excellent idea of your gauge in colourwork (as good as it gets without actually knitting a whole sweater). The other bonus is that you can take your yarn out for a spin. Wear your hat for a week and you will really know how the yarn will stretch and wear. A hat or cowl has quite a bit of room for trialling motifs and colour combinations too… So this swatching method ticks nearly all of the boxes.

Fleet Hat

The free Anthology pattern makes a useful swatch simple. It’s a recipe for a hat or cowl, just plug in your motifs and swatch away! 

Download the free Anthology pattern and check out the Week Of Colour blog posts to find the charts we used in creating this family of swatch hats!

Swatching on the Fly:

Sometimes, you just want to get started already! So here are a couple of methods that allow you the satisfaction of casting on, but give the opportunity to check for gauge and test out patterns as you work.

Use a Sleeve as a Swatch:

This is the start of a sleeve swatch.

If you are knitting a sweater from the bottom up, you can just start with a sleeve. After working ribbing and a few inches in stockinette or pattern in the round, stop, and wet block the work on the needles.

I use the magic loop method, so I just leave the long circular needle in the work, but if you’re using DPNs you will want to remove the needles and place the stitches on hold on waste yarn.

After the sleeve in progress has dried, you can measure gauge. If it is not as desired, you can make a needle size adjustment and simply continue, or rip back to the the ribbing and try again with a different needle. More on this method here.

What’s it good for: This method is great for checking your gauge in the round; either the stockinette or colourwork gauge, or both. It can also be useful for testing motifs and colour combinations, although if you find you dislike the result, it might mean ripping back to the cuff or cast-on to begin again.

Swatching ‘on the needles’:

While working on the Almanac pattern Emily tested motif options by swatching on the needles. She worked back and forth on 4 pattern repeats, a total of 32 stitches wide. This gave enough of an indication of what the pattern would look like to be useful, without taking too much time.

When designing yokes, Emily loves using this quick and dirty swatching method. While designing, you start with a plan, but it can change so quickly! To trial the next set of patterns or colour combinations, you can knit back and forth on a small number of stitches, right in the middle of the work. Take a photo and draw the chart of what you are doing as you work, so you don’t lose that information. Then once you’ve decided which ideas you like, and which you don’t, you can simply rip that small section back, and proceed in full rounds.

What it’s good for: This is a quick and useful method of trialling motif and colour combinations, and checking them against the context of work already partially done. This method isn’t very useful for checking gauge, because it’s worked back and forth, and because you’re already part-way through the project, so you are hopefully confident in your gauge and needle size choice already!

Wash and Block your Swatch!

Once you have created a beautiful swatch (by whatever method you have chosen), make sure to wash and block it too. Having put in the effort of making a piece of knitting that will tell you something about the finished product, don’t skimp on the last step! Many yarns change a bit with blocking and you really want to know what that change will be. This is most critical for swatches that will check for gauge, and less important for quick swatches that are simply intended to trial motif and colour combinations.

If you are following along in our Strange Brew blog series we have now armed you with a few methods for swatching colourwork. Next we will be talking all about colour palettes and motifs so pull out your stitch dictionary (we have some recommendations here) and a rainbow of yarn, here comes the fun part!

More colourwork from TCK:


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Wyant permalink
    October 31, 2018 10:42 am

    I have for many years wanted to figure out color work, but I am not brave enough to try. I keep track of you folks, but have not been able to do as much knitting since I had a stroke, though I am back to doing everything I had done before – just have to relearn it. HAHA I would love to try this tutorial. Thanks for your many posts.

    • November 1, 2018 8:47 am

      Good luck relearning knitting, I hope it is a pleasure! One stitch at a time :)

  2. Patty permalink
    October 23, 2018 1:32 pm

    Okay. A question here. Why cut a steek swatch when the sweater is in the round. Why not do let’s say a cowl, throw in some patterning and knit. Wash and measure gauge. Steeking is useful if you are going to make a cardigan (you don’t have to purl, and you are doing the sweater in a circular manner). If it is a traditional pullover, you wouldn’t use a steek. Also would you not get a weird gauge? the yarn will do its magic by relaxing after washing and blocking. I would think the cutting the steek swatch would decrease the tension of the yarn thereby fooling with an accurate gauge measurement. Shouldn’t your swatch be done in the same manner as your sweater? I think a cowl or sleeve would be a better way to measure your knitting. I am interested to hear people’s response.

    • October 23, 2018 1:51 pm

      Hi Patty – Good question. Steeking the swatch means I can make a smaller swatch, but have a larger area to measure gauge over. If I knit a 6″ tube I only have 2.5-3″ to measure across, but I would much rather cut the swatch open to measure across 4 or 5 inches for a more accurate measurement. The important thing is whether or not the swatch was knit in the round, not whether the final product is round or flat.

      Steeking would certainly give an accurate measurement at the center of the swatch. It might be a little off at the edges but a round swatch will be a little off at the join.

      A steeked swatch IS done in the same manner as your sweater. It is knit in the round, just like a round pullover.

  3. October 23, 2018 8:58 am

    Thank you so much for this free pattern and this great collection of motifs, a fantastic way to try out colorwork and have fun with swatches.

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