The Swatch-Book Dilemma

swatch book A work of art? A practical reference tool? Something that ticks a box on a school assignment?

The swatch-book can be all three, and I want mine to be exactly that… but the request, last week, that we produce a swatch book with 20 samples of wool cloth and 20 samples of fashion fabrics for Friday has left me in a bit of a fluster …

In the real world, you see, the swatch book is first and foremost a reference tool. It should be bursting with samples collected for very real purposes. Over the years, my desk has been littered with hundreds of fabric swatches. I pick a few up pretty much every time I’m looking to make something. I’m sure I’ve had enough to fill ten swatch books – let alone one! And yet, (and here I admit something that I hope no-one important sees… ), do I, on this bright October morning, 3 days from Swatch-Book Hand-In Deadline have a single swatch of fabric, good to go? Absolutement pas.

Sure, I have fabric. I have a whole chest of fabric. But a swatch-book isn’t just a crazy patchwork of colour and pattern (I could rustle one of those up in moments). It should also be the ultimate resource – listing the type of fabric, the suppliers, costs, weight and any and every other relevant piece of information you can get your hands on. Cripes!

I can only think to explain the now very apparent absence of any swatches from my current sewing collection thus:  the sheer euphoria I feel at the completion of a garment is unfailingly followed by a slightly manic tidying session as I clear my desk/living-room floor/kitchen table, ready to start the next project. Anything small that could be counted as clutter ends up in the bin. And fabric swatches are very small. Ergo, I have no fabric swatches.

So I have to collect some more swatches (and we’ll come to that in a minute), but my current preoccupation is presentation. I know this isn’t a priority. But the Gal Can’t Help It! Such unnecessary distraction with the aesthetics of what is essentially a work-book reminds me of my GCSE days when my idea of creating a sketchbook was to make all my drawings on single pieces of paper (in case I should make a mistake) only to stick everything in at the end of term, immaculate, beautifully annotated, ordered not chronologically, but as I saw fit and about as far away from the idea of a working sketchbook as it was possible to get.

The hours and hours I spent on beautifying my work! Re-writing notes! Re-positioning images! Nothing but a time-consuming indulgence! And a pretty pointless one too, I can see now.

Yet here I am, ten years on, once again faffing with ideas on how to present my swatch-book rather than just getting on with it. I’ve become rather fixated with a few examples I’ve found on the net… massive volumes from the 19th century containing material with exquisite accompanying hand-written annotations… quite simply the most glorious things I have ever beheld! Oh! That I was taught to write like that! And Oh! That I could have a big old leather-bound book that looks tatty and worn and loved and undeniably romantic in-which to place my swatches! I just can’t bear the thought of a lever arched file or ring-bound sketch book after seeing such things of beauty. I confess I have even considered buying an old, beautifully bound novel, ripping out the contents (!) and affixing the cover to a blank book which will then contain my swatches. What a silly goose I am! vintage swatch book swatch 8f56537106da025a142231a9b129baab

 Glorious Swatch-Books!

But enough on aesthetics, the act of swatch collection, is far higher up on the priority list. Like I said earlier, I’m not unused to requesting swatches. Whenever I make something I always pick up a few. And when it’s just one or two, shop-keepers are usually obliging, helpful even. But sourcing 40 swatches in a week???!

Collecting such quantities of fabric samples over such a short space of time for the purpose of an assignment is something that, quite honestly, I dread. Because I hate to annoy people – especially fabric-shop people. And as soon as I ask for more than three swatches in a shop, I absolutely know I am doing just that.

And to be perfectly honest, I can understand why we students are subjected to a look of disdain when we start requesting bazillions of slivers of fabric that we will quite probably never, ever buy. There are over 70 people on my course alone. To have 70 people (plus all the other textile students of London, who no doubt have similar assignments) sniffing around your finest rolls of cloth, only to demand a seemingly endless number of samples is a big old waste of time and very tedious when there are serious customers out there wanting to buy real amounts of cloth.

I see the purpose of collating a swatch-book, I absolutely do – in fact I think it’s a brilliant idea. But going into a store and requesting a series of tiny fragments of cloth with no purpose but to tick a box on a school assignment just makes me feel uneasy and annoying. I have, as a result, come up with my own method for collecting samples for school.

  1. The majority of my swatches are now requested from internet fabric suppliers. Looks of disdain are hard to send via email.
  2. Everything I take as a sample from this day forth will be for a personal project. I have lots on the go… so many, in fact, that I feel I can quite legitimately collect a whole range and variety of fabrics without feeling even a moment’s guilt at requesting them.

Genuinely practical AND ticking a box. Oh, and I’ve just ordered a book for my swatches – and I have struck on an idea for presentation…


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