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how to: substitute yarn

May 4th, 2010

More often than not, when I get questions about my designs, they involve yarn substitutions. With the wide variety of yarns available both online and in LYS, it’s not always practical (or desired) to use the same yarn I did when originally designing the piece.

Emerald - version 2

For example, the Emerald Cardigan – a pretty popular pattern since it was published in 2006 – was designed to use a gorgeous chunky yarn from Sheep Shop Yarn Company, sadly no longer in business. (Incidentally, I also used the same yarn for Lattice. It was one of my favorites to work with; sturdy and soft and hard wearing.)

Just for the purposes of example, let’s say you’d like to knit yourself an Emerald. You’ve decided to knit the Large size, with a finished chest measurement of 43 inches. You can’t find the yarn originally used, so you’ll need to make other plans.

How do you know what to buy?

Effective yarn substitution is more than numbers; it’s about making informed choices about the fabric and fit of your project.

STEP ONE: Understand What The Pattern Recommends

Before doing anything else, take a good read through the pattern to make sure you understand what was originally used – and why. Not paying proper attention to the designer’s original choices can make your finished project turn out drastically different than you’d envisioned.

  • How much yardage do you need for your size?
    Luckily, this information can be found in most patterns. For the L size, the pattern says you’ll need 12 skeins, each with 90 yards, for a total of 1,080 yards.
  • How much does the yarn physically weigh?
    This may seem like a strange question to ask, but it can have a great impact on the finished garment. A heavy yarn makes a heavy sweater with, generally, a lot of drape. A loftier and more lightweight yarn may be just as thick, but will feel puffier when worn.

    The easiest way to determine yarn weight is by dividing the yardage by the skein weight. In this case, 90 yards divided by 100g, or 9 yards per gram.

    Don’t worry about matching metric values (meters, grams) to imperial (yards, ounces). You just need to obtain the ratio when comparing to the yarns you might want to use.

  • What’s the fiber content and ply?
    Fiber content affects things like wear, stitch definition, and drape. Emerald uses a 100% wool yarn. If you tried to substitute a 100% mohair yarn, such as Lorna’s Laces Heaven, it could absolutely be knit to the same gauge. However, you’d have a very different garment.

    The character of the fabric is also influenced by the type of ply. A single ply yarn may be softer, with a slight bias, while a multi-plied yarn will have more crisp stitch definition throughout.

  • What can you learn from the photography? From the pattern’s notes? How does the design dictate the yarn?
    Designers, including myself, often like to include notes about yarn choice. Does the design need a lot of drape? Is it meant to be sturdy and structured? Does it need a certain amount of stitch definition, as for cables and lace, that might necessitate a smoother yarn?

    In the case of Emerald, it’s probably best to pick a yarn that can show the simple cables around the yoke. But since the cables are simple enough, some texture or color would be fine.

  • What gauge is called for?
    This particular pattern specifies a gauge of 3 stitches and 5 rows per inch.
  • Does the gauge differ at all from what’s expected for the yarn?
    Some patterns are intended to be knit loosely, others densely, all depending on the fabric the designer has in mind. A designer might use a worsted weight yarn at a loose gauge to give a loose garment incredible drape. Conversely, knitting a yarn firmer than expected gives structure and stability to socks, purses, and outerwear. Assuming the pattern’s gauge is given in stockinette, comparing it with the ball band gauge can help you choose the right thickness of yarn to work with the pattern as intended.

    If the yarn is no longer available, you might need to do some research to figure this out. Do a google search for the yarn name and brand, or look on ravelry. Try to look for information pertaining to the yarn itself, and not other patterns knit with the yarn.

STEP TWO: Picking a Yarn

Once you have a good handle on what yarn was used – and why – you can start looking into suitable alternatives. If you want to knit the garment as closely as possible to the original, try to find the yarn that’s the closest to the original one used. If the original yarn is a fairly simple one, such as Cascade 220, it’s easy to find almost perfect matches packaged under different labels; Plymouth Galway, and Brown Sheep Naturespun Worsted are nearly identical.

In the case of specialty yarns, it can be more challenging. Sometimes ‘close’ is good enough. For example, Malabrigo Chunky is also a multi-plied wool yarn, a little lighter at about 10 yards per gram, and slightly lighter in recommended gauge at 3.5 sts per inch. However, it has a similar look and feel in terms of both texture and coloring. The kettle-dyed semi-solids will be similar to the original yarn, and showcase the cables nicely.

But what if you want to make a deliberate change in the yarn? What if you need a different fiber content for allergy or care reasons? What if you’ve got a great yarn in your stash and want to know if it’ll work? What if you do want to knit Emerald out of mohair? No problem! Regardless of the yarn you choose, you’ll want to work through the following questions.

  • Will the gauge work?
    Unless you’re a freak math genius, you’ll want to avoid refiguring most patterns to use a significantly tighter or looser gauge just to make your yarn work.
  • Will the texture and color pattern work?
    Avoid heavily textured or variagated yarns if you want to be able to see complex stitch patterns. I have yet to meet a knitter who would pair a rainbow hand-painted boucle with an Alice Starmore cabled pullover.
  • Will the fabric work?
    Technically any yarn can be knit at any gauge. But will the resulting fabric be something that benefits the design? Think about fiber content, thickness, and weight when you imagine the results.

STEP THREE: How Much Do You Need?

Determining quantities can often dictate yarn choice as well. Sometimes the yardage required for my champagne dream yarn places it well out of reach of my beer budget. But often, I find that I can justify a splurge when I know what to expect.

In the past, it was common to substitute yarn based on the grams or ounces required in the pattern. Patterns even listed the yarn requirements as such; 600g of yarn for a pullover, for example. Whatever you do, avoid the instinct to buy based on the weight or number of skeins required. Instead, for knitting, always, ALWAYS buy based on yardage. 100 stitches worked with the same gauges of yarn will use similar yardage, but may weigh different amounts depending on fiber content and the style of the two yarns.

To figure out the number of balls or skeins you’ll need, take the yards specified for your size and divide by the number of yards per ball or skein of your substitution, then round up. Remember, extra yarn is always preferrable to not enough yarn.

STEP FOUR: Confirming Your Choice

Making a gauge swatch is so much more than just determining the proper needles. When substituting yarn, gauge swatching can also tell you whether you’ve made a good decision. If the yarn’s already in your stash, you’re in luck. Simply pick up some needles and start swatching. If it’s a new yarn, you’ll need to either take the plunge and buy for the project, or just get one skein to try out.

While you work your squares, pay careful attention to the fabric growing from your needles. How does it feel in your hands? How does it look? Is it too dense, too loose or just right? Could you envision the design worked in this yarn? Do you have any concerns?

When you’ve finished the swatch, be sure to measure the gauge BEFORE blocking. Some yarns grow a lot after blocking, and having the pre-blocked gauge can help you while you work on the project. Then, give the swatch a thorough blocking.

The idea behind blocking for gauge is to predict how the garment will behave after its first washing. After all, you don’t just want it to fit when you cast off; you want it to fit forever. I cast off, then wash the swatch as I would the finished garment. Once it’s thoroughly dry, I can then measure the gauge as well as check out the finished fabric, making sure it still works well with the structure of the design.

If the pattern also has texture portions, such as cables or lace, it can help to do a second swatch to see how the substitution showcases the stitches, especially when working with multi colored yarns. But, remember that hand painted yarns change their patterning based on the number of stitches. So, you’ll only really know how the colors pool or stripe when working the same size as indicated in the pattern.

Conclusions

Now that I’ve written nearly 2,000 words on the subject, I feel that I should remind you that it doesn’t have to be this hard. Substitution can be as adventurous as you want, but it all comes down to the three questions I asked in Step 2:

1. Will the gauge work?
2. Will the texture and color work?
3. Will the fabric work?

After you’ve swatched, if your gut says “nope” to any of those questions, you’re better off picking a different pattern for the yarn, or a different yarn for the pattern. After all, we knitters are blessed with exploding queues and overflowing stashes, as well as a million ways to acquire new yarn to feed our habit.