Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

EDITOR’S NOTE: This month Jess highlights one of the most fundamental reasons a knitter might knit a swatch — as the basis for a coming design!

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

I’ve been working on a design for awhile. As I figure out the specifics, it’s kinda secret – okay, it’s totally secret. But while I can’t tell you what exactly it will become, I do want to share a big part of that development process with you, which begins with (you guessed it) a swatch. Actually, a lot of swatches.


When I come up with a knitted garment idea, it’s usually a conflation of several sources – inspiration I see on Pinterest and Instagram, as well as objects I see in the world. Sometimes, these might be actual garments or fabrics that spark an idea of how those elements could be executed differently. Other times, I find architectural elements, pattern and nature to be just as informative. I’ll collect a bunch of photos on my phone, in Pinterest, in my head – a vision board would be ideal for this – and then start sketching.

In designing this piece, I have a vision of the kind of fabric I want to create and work with. Imagine a woven fabric, smooth but a little nubbly. The fabric is stiff enough to provide some structure, but still retains a soft drape that will relax against the body. The yarn will be cream-colored (I’m clearly on a neutrals kick) and crisp to show some stitch definition. The right yarn also won’t have too much sheen, instead veering to a matte finish. To achieve that kind of look and weight, I imagined I would need a fingering or sport-weight yarn executed in some kind of slip-stitch pattern. I took a look in my stash to find some likely yarn contenders.

Now, to be clear, I’m not a professional knitwear designer. I don’t make a living from designing knitting patterns, and to date, I’ve only published one, the Beach Tank. So my creative process and approach are completely my own and informed by my knitting experience, conversations with established knitwear designers, and some math and common sense. They don’t reflect any “right” or “wrong” way to design a knitting pattern. I’m relatively new to this, so if you design your own knitting patterns (professionally or otherwise) I’d love to hear what your own process looks like in the comments!


Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

TN Textile Mill: OUR yarn
I began swatching with the truly gorgeous OUR yarn, a mulberry silk noil yarn from Allison of TN Textile Mill (formerly Shutters & Shuttles). I fell in love with the texture and palette of this sport-weight yarn when I first spotted it on Instagram, and couldn’t get it out of my head. Over the summer, I ordered a few skeins to have on hand, and once this design began to come together, I reached for it immediately.

This might sound overly poetic, but this yarn feels organic and alive in your hands when you’re knitting with it. I feel that way sometimes about some wool yarns I’ve come across (the Hudson Valley Fibers yarn from my Rhinebeck post checks the box), but other cotton, silk or plant-based yarns I’ve worked with don’t always have that quality. I think it’s a combination of color, texture and some unpredictability in knitting that reminds you that you’re working with a product of a living, breathing organism. And those silky nubs!

When developing a stitch pattern that mimicked the look and feel of a woven fabric, I turned to the woven transverse herringbone stitch pattern of my previous Churro post, as well as the chevron pattern of Michele Wang’s Abbott (which I finished knitting earlier last year) for inspiration. I wanted to try a slip-stitch that I hoped, in scale, would look unrecognizable as a knitted fabric. On size US2 needles, I cast on an even number of stitches and worked the following:

Row 1 (RS): *Knit 1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front; repeat to end
Row 2 (WS): Purl
Row 3: *Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front, Knit 1; repeat to end
Row 4: Repeat Row 2

The result, unfortunately, was a no-go. The yarn didn’t have the density and structure I’m after, and the stitch pattern looks like a bunch of dash marks across a field of stockinette. With my next attempt, I would try a yarn with a little more elasticity, so it would form a tighter fabric more easily. I would also try slipping stitches on every row, not just on the right side.

. . .

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

Shibui: Staccato
Next up was another yarn I had in my stash, Shibui’s fingering-weight merino-silk blend, Staccato. Unlike the subtle sheen of the silk noil in OUR yarn, the silk in Staccato shimmers a little more brightly, likely a result of its tight, worsted-spun quality. When I held it together with Wool and the Gang’s Shiny Happy Cotton for my all-white beach tank, that shimmer was a perfect complement to the matte look of the cotton. Time to try it on its own.

On size US2 needles, I cast on an even number of stitches and worked the following:

Row 1 (RS): *Knit 1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front; repeat to end
Row 2 (WS): *Purl 1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in back; repeat to end

I was pretty thrilled with the result, which got much closer to the woven look I wanted. But then I had this idea – what if I were to create a knit fabric on the bias? I think that concept bubbled up from some of my adventures in sewing earlier last year, specifically A Verb for Keeping Warm’s Tendril Dress, which is sewn on the bias. I haven’t sewn this dress yet, but I remember conversations with my grandmother about this pattern and the ripple effect that a bias drape could lend a garment. Sounded intriguing. Here’s what I did:

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

Cast on 2 stitches on size US2 needles.

Row 1 (RS): Increase 1 stitch by knitting front and back (KFB), Knit 1 (3 stitches on needle)
Row 2 (WS): Purl 1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in back, Purl 1
Row 3: K1, KFB, K1, KFB, K1 (5 stitches on needle)
Row 4: *Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in back, Purl 1; repeat from * once; P1
Row 5: K1, KFB, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front, K1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front, KFB, K1 (7 sts on needle)
Row 6: *P1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in back; repeat from * until 1 stitch remains; P1

It looks pretty messy, but here’s the gist – I increased 1 stitch at the beginning and end of each row on the right side, and alternated slipped stitches on the right and wrong sides to create a hatched, or woven look. Once the swatch became as large as I wanted, I began decreasing at the start and end of each right side row with K2tog or SSK, instead of increasing with KFB. Ta-da! A square swatch, knit on the bias.

There is still some tweaking to do, particularly on the edging. (Do I try a garter stitch edge? Or maybe finish the edges with rolled stockinette? Jury is still out.) But I feel like I’m really close to what I originally envisioned. The other plus was that the wrong side (lower photo) is just as beautiful as the right side (upper photo) – looks like a pebbly seed stitch knit on the diagonal. But I still wasn’t sold on the yarn. The Staccato has the fullness and stitch definition I was dreaming of, but the fabric didn’t look as matte as I hoped. I did some research and bought a skein of one more yarn to try.

. . .

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

Purl Soho: Linen Quill
Karen has gushed about Purl Soho’s Linen Quill before (here, here, oh, and also here), and I’m proudly adding my name to the Linen Quill Fan ClubTM. This fingering-weight blend of highland wool, alpaca and linen is remarkable. It has the elasticity of wool, the softness and halo of the alpaca, and the structure and subtle wiry quality of the additional linen. I loved knitting with it, and love the final swatch even more.

For this swatch, I followed the general slipped-stitch bias pattern above, but played around with the edging throughout, so you’ll see some irregularity on the edges in the photo. I also opted for Oatmeal Gray colorway, which on Purl Soho’s website looks like a scuffed-up cream (in the best sense), but actually is more of a true, light heather gray than a cream. For my final swatch, I’ll likely pick up a skein of Linen Quill in Heirloom White and give it a try. The only downside of this yarn is that it doesn’t have the same linear definition that the Staccato has, so I’m still undecided between the two. Do you all have a favorite?

At this rate, the pattern will be available in 2020… stay tuned!
Jess Schreibstein

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: Latvian cheer

23 thoughts on “Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

  1. Love your process and I think you will achieve success, my vote is for the Shibui, The Linen Quill has a halo due to the alpaca – giving it a fuzzy look.
    best Cynthia

  2. a great post. I find it interesting how different stitches make the yarn look so different in the Shibui. thanks for explaining how to do that bias swatch.

  3. I love, love, love Linen Quill, but with what you’ve shown us here, I like Staccato much better. The stitch definition is amazing. The sheen of the yarn doesn’t show in the photos, so I can’t speak to that.

    I’ve done something similar in the past when I wanted drape and structure to combine, and used a soft, cotton crochet thread with lace weight merino, holding both yarns together. I wish I had a photograph so you could see the effect. The yarns worked up really nicely together, almost like a woven twill. Maybe combining yarns is the answer?

  4. The Linen Quill looks softer, maybe drapier? But the stitch definition looks definitely better on the Staccato. So, I guess it depends on what the final garment you are contemplating should look like. Both swatches are beautiful!

  5. The stitch definition in the shibui looks incredible. I’m working on a button band in the staccato and I adore it, but understand what you mean about the sheen. It would have to be the right piece to work as the full fabric. Too bad Quince doesn’t have a cream in tern! Can’t wait for the big reveal, 2020 or whenever :)

  6. My vote is for the Staccato, even though there is a sheen (which can’t be seen in the photo). I like the crispness of the stitches in it much better. I might have to try that stitch on a big, snuggly wrap I am dreaming of. I really enjoyed learning about your process. Thanks for another great post.

  7. I’m with Staccato. I love how the stitch looks on the diagonal, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a whole sweater designed on the diagonal – maybe a skirt? – totally intrigued.

  8. So it looks like I’m the only one in the Linen Quill camp. I like the impressionistic quality of the fabric and it looks lovely and drapey.

  9. i really like the shibui staccato. perhaps test it out in pebble? i love the wrong side of the shibui sample, it really reminds me of twill weaving and i love it’s neutral simplicity. have you thought about trying isager? i’m quite in love with their alpaca 1 which is a lace and i hold 2 strands together. it halo’s very slightly and is incredibly hard wearing and non pilly for an alpaca yarn. i really cant sing it’s praises enough.
    from speaking with yarn makers you’ll definitely want something with a nice tight twist to define those bumps which you already know!

    so excited to see what these swatches turn into!

  10. Jess, I find it interesting that most of the Linen Stitch work I see, like yours, is so different than mine. Mine looks truly woven, with no slipped stitch holes. Is that because I knit closely? Holes or not, I LOVE Linen Stitch, and am in the process of (designing and) knitting a Linen Stitch cardigan now.

    I think your idea to do the Linen Stitch on the diagonal is brilliant! Whether fabric is knit or woven (with the exception of the linen used in the Tendril Dress, and the fabrics ‘ripple effect’ your grandmother mentioned), it has a very lovely way of conforming to the human figure.

    Shine or not, I am with the others about the Staccato. Great stitch definition! Like Cynthia Walat said, the Linen Quill looks fuzzy, which always gets my attention only because I don’t like fuzzy… or pilling. I would be interested in seeing what going down a needle size (or two) would do for the Our Yarn. Give it a try and let us know what happens… please. You have me hooked now!

    I am looking forward to your next pattern release… though it feels like eternity for 2020 to arrive.

    Best of luck to you on your journey with this project!

  11. I am a big fan of Linen Quill and also find that it doesn’t pill very much (at any rate, I wear my Purl Soho Pullover, finished about 6 weeks ago, at least twice a week and have not noticed any pilling so far). Even so, if you are going for a woven look, I think the Staccato swatch (especially the back) fits the bill better than either of the others. It also looks like it won’t be too stiff, either.

    I’m very curious to see what this will turn into!

  12. I’m near the end of a sweater I “designed”. While deciding on a stitch pattern to use, I created a long swatch of different candidates – if I had done it in a more tidy manner, I could have wound up with a scarf! Not only did I want a certain look, I also wanted a stitch pattern I enjoyed knitting since I would be knitting a lot of it. Ringwood was the answer. Re yarn selection, I went with the only one I found at Webs that was the right color – a ruby red – which was in Cascade 220 Superwash, not my favorite choice of yarn for myself. But I am pleased with how it is turning out, fortunately!

  13. I’m with you, I don’t think you’ve hit quite the right yarn yet for the look you’re going for. None of these swatches would satisfy me, either. If you’re going to go through all this swatching, I think it’s worth waiting for the yarn that really HITS it – you’ll be more excited and motivated all through the knitting of the sweater and much happier with the result. I’m a slow-at-the-beginning designer, too. I just can’t head out until I know that the foundation is right. It took me several starts before I got the exact look I wanted in my Weaverly Scarf (Ravelry), but it was worth it! It will be for you, too.

    One more thing, the stitch you are drawn to is very much like the Linen Stitch. I think that stitch looks even more beautiful in yarns with some variation in color so that the little bits of yarn slipped in front show up more. It’s a thought …

    Looking forward to hearing more about your process in developing this design. Keep taking your time – it’s all about the journey!

    Linda Hart (author of “Closely Knit”)

  14. This is so interesting!!! I’ve always hated swatching, but I feel like this and your previous posts have made it seem almost fun – an exciting part of the design process. I love Staccato the best out of your swatches – definitely looks like a woven fabric! The quill is beautiful but that staccato is just to perfect 💕

  15. Thank you for sharing your thought and design process.

    I am currently trying out the stitch you featured with the Staccato yarn (which I believe is called woven, or linen stitch) on a structured blazer, which I hope will give it a tweed-like look.

  16. Pingback: Swatch of the Month: Norah’s cables | Fringe Association

Comments are closed.