The Test Swatch

December 29, 2010

When a knitter begins a new sweater, it’s important to have chosen the garment carefully.  And it’s important to do a test swatch.  That’s when you knit a 4 x 4 inch square, using the needles and yarn you intend to use in your garment.  After you finish knitting the test swatch, you can tell whether you need to use larger needles or smaller ones to match the gauge (number of stitches and rows to the inch) of the pattern.  You can tell whether or not you like the fabric your yarn makes, which means you can switch to another and not waste a whole lot of money knitting something you don’t like or something that doesn’t work.  If you don’t take time to think about the project you’re undertaking, if you don’t take time to knit a test swatch, your sweater can wind up having knit something you don’t care out, or a garment can come out far bigger, or far smaller than you intended.  If you don’t choose carefully or you don’t knit a test swatch, you’re sure to have unfortunate surprises in the knitting as you go along.  You might realize you hate the “hand” of the yarn – the way it feels; you hate the look of the garment; and besides, it’s the wrong color.  Hours and hours of knitting wasted that could have been prevented with some forethought and a test swatch.

I can’t tell you how many knitters don’t choose carefully or don’t do a test swatch.  It takes an hour, perhaps more, to go through the slow and careful process of choosing a garment, the yarn and making a test swatch.  But many knitters just don’t take this time.  Instead, they grab a pattern, their needles and yarn and get right down to it, and start knitting away.  These are the knitters who plague storeowners and experienced knitters, asking for help to bail them out of a sticky knitting situation that they could have avoided.  Knitting teachers don’t understand why knitters are so impulsive. Nor do I.  Why wouldn’t you take a little bit of time to ensure that you love what you’re working on and that your work will fit you or will fit its recipient?  That all the time you spend will be worth it?  It’s a “fire, aim, ready” approach to knitting that dooms its practitioners to failure.

So…what kind of a writer are you?  Do you plunge into a project, like the knitters I describe, without stopping to figure out what you want to do or do a “test swatch” of your intended work?  Do you just get right down to it without understanding the most fundamental things you need to know about your work before you start putting in the enormous amount of effort it takes to bring a work to fruition? Like what it’s going to be about?  Or do you, instead, take the time to figure out a few fundamental things before you begin?

A few years ago, I worked with a writer who flitted from subject to subject.  He wrote about a childhood love; he wrote about a grown-up love; he wrote about his father; he wrote about a trip he took to Russia; he wrote about a terrible beating his father had given him.  And he wrote about all this in the space of about fifteen pages.  I kept asking him what he wanted to really wanted to write about, and he kept eliding my question.  Every time he came, he came with a revision.  But the revision just circled round and round again.  I finally told him that I wouldn’t work with him unless he could answer, in a straightforward way, and in very few words, the question “What is this piece going to be about?”

When I was in graduate school, I took several astonishingly instructive courses in how to prepare to write a major work.  One course I took was a seminar in which we spent an entire semester – yes, an entire semester – fine-tuning the subjects of our dissertations.  We’d come to class with what we thought was a good subject – “I want to write something about Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out” was mine.  And then the professor would start hammering away.  “Precisely what do you want to write about?”  “That’s too broad a subject.  Narrow it down.  Narrow it down still further.  Narrow it down some more.” “What research will you have to do?”  “Do you have the skills to do the research?”  “How long will it take you to do that research?” “Where will you have to go to find out what you want to know?”  “How many chapters will the work have?”  “How many pages will there be in each chapter?”  And, perhaps the most important question, “Assuming you finish the work successfully, when you finish the work, what will you have accomplished and will it have been worth all the effort?”

I was intimidated, frustrated, angry.  I wanted to grab my notebook, go to the library, and begin work.  I wanted to do research.  I wanted to write.  I wanted to write something wonderful and something important.  But I never stopped to realize that I had no idea what I wanted to write about, and that until I refined my project to the point that I could describe it to other people coherently, cogently, and fluently, I would be wasting a passel of time like those knitters.  I thought (like many writers) that my subject would emerge as I worked.  That it would announce itself to me.

I knew how to work.  I knew how to work hard.  But I didn’t know how to think about what to work on.

It took me a month or so to discover I wanted to write about Virginia Woolf’s composition of her first novel, The Voyage Out, based upon the extant drafts of the novel (they were at the Berg Collection in New York City and in England) and based upon what Woolf described about the process of writing this novel in her letters and diaries (these weren’t published but were available in two major archives).  And it took me some more time to learn that I couldn’t describe her composing process (an impossible task), I could only describe what she said about the composing process and the changes she made to the manuscripts of the novel.  So that my subject became “To describe Virginia Woolf’s revisions of The Voyage Out through a study of the novel’s extant manuscripts and Woolf’s own testimony in her letters and journals about how she wrote that work.”

But before I could begin the enormous work it took me to write my dissertation (which eventually became my first book), another course I took insisted that I “take a piece of the project and do it.”  That is, the course insisted that I do a “test swatch” of my work.  Doing this “test swatch” would teach me: 1) how long it would take me to do a certain amount of the research; 2) whether the research was doable and whether I had the necessary skills to do the research (it turned out I didn’t know how to date manuscripts and that I would have to learn how to do this if I wanted to stick to my subject); 3) how long it would take me to explain my findings in coherent prose.  Once I did this, I could make an informed judgment about whether or not my work would be successful.  As it turned out, I learned that it would take far, far longer to do the research than I expected; and that it would take far, far more pages to describe my findings than I anticipated.  But I learned, too, that the work, though very difficult, was doable.  And I learned that I loved doing it.  So, all told, the preparation for this dissertation took me two semesters.  But without it, I would have had nothing.  Or rather, nothing worthwhile.


What is your subject?  What do you really want to write about?  Take the time to decide.  Then take a very tiny piece of what you want to write about and do it.  You might learn, as I did, that it will take you far more pages to describe some tiny little moment that you want to recount.  And knowing that is invaluable.  For before you commit to a long project, you can narrow it down still further.  So that when you embark on the work, you will have ensured your success.



2 Responses to “The Test Swatch”

  1. Margaux Says:

    Junot Diaz wrote “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” as a very successful short story and then it turned into the Pulitzer-prize winning same-named novel. I imagine first writing a short story or poem can be an effective way of making a “test swatch.”

    As Louise points out, writers should want to make sure the material is something that interests and energizes them enough to make it through the long haul. Maybe if one “test swatch” doesn’t really work, you can save it anyway and perhaps combined with a different idea, that will form the basis of a novel. Sometimes one idea doesn’t really have enough in it to carry through, but two ideas blended together will have the sustaining power.

  2. sabrinall Says:

    Being both, a knitter for six years and a writer since I could hold a pencil, I must admit I have bad habits. My bad habits are more severe with knitting. I am one of the non-swatching people. I do, however, swatch my work as a writer. I write pages and notes that may never actually make it unto a page. Swatching comes in handy more so when I am writing an essay. I have a hard time staying on topic or even know what it is that I want to write about. Writing something out, a first draft (swatch) makes it easier to see where your focus is in the work. My bad habits lie in my narrative writing; it’s difficult for me to work everything out in one page. I will practice that more often.

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