If you've been in the store recently, you'll have seen my collection of swatches sitting on the big store table. These are the product of a rather nutty 2011 challenge to myself, to try and knit one swatch a day for the whole year. Surprisingly, I did manage to keep going for the whole year (minus vacation days, and a few days when I just forgot!), and ended up with 257 swatches - plus a handful of extra ones that came from project swatches, workshops, and other random knitting experiments.
Knitters tend to hate making swatches. You spend so much time picking a new pattern and matching it with the perfect yarn, that you really just want to dive in and start knitting (or crocheting) right away. I get it. I was like that too. Until the time that I knit a whole sweater, diligently blocked all the pieces before sewing it together, and then realized that my gauge was off and the post-blocking sleeves were about 5 inches too long! But that's another story for another day...
With these swatches, there was no project to hurry up and get to. Each swatch was its own project, with the general background assumption that I would eventually sew all the swatches together into one big blanket. For that reason, I tried to make all the swatches out of a wool, wool-blend, or at the very least an animal-fibre yarn. I was very consistent in that regard - the few swatches I made in cotton got turned into dishcloths. Which is funny, because I was equally inconsistent about making all the swatches a similar size, so that they'd be easier to sew together (that's the real reason the swatches are at the store, by the way - so they will sit there and stare at me, and remind me that they need to be sewn together!).
Making swatches is a great way to learn new knitting or crochet techniques, and to experiment with different ideas. If you want to get into designing knitwear, the swatches can help you find colour or texture designs that can be incorporated into your patterns. Stitch dictionaries like the Barbara Walker Treasuries or the Vogue Stitchionaries are a great resource for swatch pattern ideas, although there are also lots of online sources. I always love the look of sampler blankets, which are made from a number of different stitch patterns worked in squares or in stripes, and then sewn together and finished with a knit or crocheted edging. Make them all in one colour for a more classic design, or use a variety of colours and make a baby blanket. And this way you can have the fun of making all your (same-sized!) swatches and still feel like you're working toward an actual project. :)