Sometimes I feel confident enough of how a lace pattern I’m designing will look that I just go ahead and start knitting it in my regular lace swatch yarn. (Harrisville Shetland, if you’re curious. I have a cone of it – well worth it, though I have to wash the spinning oil out of the yarn before blocking.) I usually have to make minor adjustments along the way, but years of knitting lots of lace (both other people’s stitch patterns and my own) have taught me a lot about how it’s likely to look.
(Practicing with samplers and making lots of projects is definitely the way to go. It also doesn’t hurt to read up on what other people have to say about lace design. The book I’ve learned the most from is Knitting Lace, by Susanna E. Lewis. )
Other times, I really have no clue how things are going to work out, and so I pull out my rough draft sampler, pictured above. This is a new element in my workflow this year, and I think it’s here to stay. It’s like a long scarf, only with jaggy edges (from binding off or adding extra stitches when I start a new pattern). I’ll knit a few rows and if the pattern isn’t working out, I’ll stick in a couple of plain rows and start over. If it just needs minor adjustments, I’ll make them until I’m satisfied, and then I’ll get out the Harrisville and knit the final swatch, to be labeled and kept. Usually, the final swatch is two or three repeats wide and two or three repeats high.
When I run out of rough draft yarn, I’m thinking of treating the rough draft sampler as the source of yarn for the next rough draft swatch, unraveling it as I knit. After all, I’ll have the final swatches as an archive.