I’ve always been simultaneously frightened of—and very much drawn to—substituting yarns. There are so many choices, and it can all go so wrong. It’s a lot like how I used to feel about watching the Wizard of Oz when I was a kid. It came on TV once a year. I felt compelled to watch it, but the Wicked Witch and those flying monkeys had me watching from under blankets.
If you’ve been reading along with my Mason-Dixon Knitting yarn journey, you likely know a bit more about yarn than you used to. In a second, when I start talking about fiber, woolen and worsted, ply, and grist, you’ll just nod your head sagely. Those things will then click into place in terms of making yarn substitutions that you like, and soon you’ll be substituting with wild abandon.
But before we reach that place over the rainbow, we need to do a bit of thoughtful navigation.
Gauge and Beyond
Imagine a sweater pattern that has a gauge of 5 stitches to the inch, knit in stockinette. This imaginary sweater is one of those oversized plain vanilla pullovers that I want to live in these days. For my size and preferred ease I would need around 1,600 yards. So, I went down to my LYS (Spun in Ann Arbor, Michigan) and pulled a few yarns that have a suggested gauge of 5 stitches to the inch.
The eight yarns piled in the photo above are all recommended for a project knit at 5 stitches to the inch.
Look at how different they all are, and there are many, many more I might have chosen. Clearly I need to look beyond gauge for a happy substitution.
Let’s get this out of the way before we move on: The most important thing in yarn substitution is gauge. If you want your knitting to come out the same measurements as the pattern you want to knit, you have to hit the gauge.
But just looking at those yarns that can all knit up to my target gauge, I can predict that the fabric knit from each yarn will look, feel and behave differently. Once again I’m here to tell you: It’s not you, it’s the yarn. A yarn that you love may not work how you want it to in a pattern.
I pulled four yarns to swatch as candidates for my fictitious stockinette sweater.
Left to right, here are my four yarns and their ball band facts.
Ashlawn Collection (cream)
- By Cestari Sheep and Wool Company
- 75% cotton/25% wool
- 250 yards/3.5 ounces /71 yards per ounce
- Needle: 7 US
- Gauge: 5 stitches per inch
Highland Worsted (gold)
- By Harrisville Designs
- 100% Pure Virgin Wool
- 200 yards/3.5 ounces/57 yards per ounce
- Needle: 5-7 US
- Gauge: 4.5- 5.5 stitches per inch
Ultra Alpaca (gray)
- By Berroco Yarns
- 50% super fine Alpaca/50% Peruvian Wool
- 219 yards/3.5 ounces/63 yards per ounce
- Needle: 8 US
- Gauge: 5 stitches per inch
Silk Cloud (blue)
- By Shibui Knits
- 60% Kid Mohair/40% silk
- 330 yards/.88 ounce/375 yards per ounce
- Needle: 7 US
- Gauge: 5 stitches per inch
Looking at just a strand of each yarn and their plies, they don’t seem interchangeable. They are spun differently, they are made up of different fibers, and they have different plies. These are big concrete clues that it’s not just gauge I need to look at when substituting. While the gauge matches, each one of these yarns will give me a very different looking and behaving sweater.
In the MDK Shop
Yarn as Yarn and Yarn as Fabric
Some of the things I look for in knitted fabric when I substitute yarns are:
Gauge—because I want it to fit.
Hand—because I want my shawls to drape, but I don’t always want my cables to.
Elasticity— because it keeps my socks up and my texture patterns springing back into shape.
Feel—because I like toothier, firmer yarns, but I don’t want them to prickle my neck. A lot of knitters want their yarns to be softer than soft.
Look—both the detail—the color and dye style, obvious spin style, heather or tweed, smooth or fuzzy—and the overall look: how the color plays out, stitch definition, how it looks as fabric.
Weight—because it will tell me if I’ll be wearing a sweater that can double as a weighted blanket. (Yes, another term for this factor is grist.)
Ease of knitting—because I’ve abandoned projects when the yarn was too splitty, or so fuzzy that it was hard to make stitches or rip out mistakes.
Durability—because it will keep my dog walking mittens from felting on the first block, and my kids’ sweaters wearable after a season on the playground.
Gauge for a pattern and weight of a yarn are factual, but everything else on the list above—even durability—has some wiggle room. For example: How much pilling can you live with? It’s up to you to decide what works and what doesn’t for the pattern you want to knit, and what you think is beautiful, useful, and wonderful.
Here are my four yarns knit in stockinette to about 5 stitches to the inch. I could use the same pattern for each yarn and the sweaters would fit and look similar to the photo of the pattern.
But let’s take a closer look. The big three yarn construction elements, fiber, spinning style (woolen or worsted), and ply will help me understand how the yarn will behave when it’s knit up. I can look at photos of other people’s knitting in a yarn I’m considering and get more answers too. But to make the best decision, only my own swatching will do.
Ultra Alpaca (upper left), is smooth and worsted-spun, giving it good stitch definition. The alpaca content does two things for me: It adds a little haze to an otherwise smooth knit, and it gives the fabric some drape, a little swing. On the downside for me, alpaca is warmer than wool. The weight of my sweater in this yarn would be 1.6 pounds.
Highland Worsted (upper right) is lofty and tweedy, two things I like in a stockinette sweater. I don’t like my stitches too defined, that would be too smooth for me. Not so great for me is that woolen yarns don’t have much drape, and at this gauge the fabric feels a little firm. A sweater out of this yarn at this gauge will look like a stiff box on me. The weight of my sweater in this yarn would be 1.8 pounds.
Ashlawn Collection (lower left) looks and feels like cotton, but the bit of wool makes it lighter and more elastic. Stitch definition is good and crisp and it feel softer than most cotton yarns. The yarn split a lot while swatching; I would need blunter needles to use this yarn. I’m not excited by the flat, matte look of this yarn in fabric. The weight of my sweater would be 1.4 pounds.
Silk Cloud (lower right). I love, love, love the fabric this yarns knits into, floaty and fuzzy, and so very soft. I like the open look at this gauge, but I almost sent the flying monkeys after it while I was knitting just the swatch. It was not easy to knit for me. The yarn is fine, and so fuzzy that it’s hard to see the stitches. It stuck to the wooden needles I used. A sweater knit out of this would have tendency to snag and stick to things. This reminded me why I usually hold a yarn like this with another yarn. The weight of my sweater would be less than 4.5 ounces. Sigh—it’s so good, and so not right. I have a big yarn crush on this yarn.
Which would I pick? None of these yarns knocks it out of the park for me, for my imaginary sweater. I’ll keep swatching with other yarns.
But I’m not through exploring the potential of these four.
Other Stitch Patterns
While I can hit 5 stitches to the inch in stockinette with these yarns, using the same needle size doesn’t give me the same gauge in pattern stitches, and wowza—the looks are very dissimilar. I swatched all four yarns in Broken Rib and Little Arrowhead Lace. What I quickly learned is, if a pattern has a stitch pattern in it, swatch in that pattern, even if it’s not called for in the gauge measurement part of the pattern. I’ve noticed patterns that contain a stitch pattern or two, but only call for a gauge in stockinette. Please see my skeptical face.
Broken Rib is one of my go-to stitches for gifts. It looks great and interesting in scarves and hats, and doesn’t pull in as much as a regular rib for sweaters and baby blankets. The rib pops in Ultra Alpaca and Highland, the Ashlawn looks a little limp and splitty, and the stitch pattern is almost illegible in the Silk Cloud.
Little Arrowhead Lace is one of those sassy, easy-to-memorize, purl-back lace stitches. Silk Cloud needs a smaller gauge. The combination of 3 plies and the fuzz of the alpaca, makes the lace in Ultra Alpaca seem closed and tight, more texture than lace; it may work better on bigger needles. Even though it’s also a 3-ply yarn, I really like the Ashlawn in this stitch pattern. It split less when I knit it, because I knit lace slower, taking more time to form the stitches. To my eye it looks crisp but not stiff. I’ve always liked the soft look of lace knit from a woolen-spun yarn like the Highland. The pattern is there, but it looks soft and relaxed.
I hope all of my swatching gives you insight into substituting yarn for your patterns, and I most sincerely hope it gives you another reason to swatch and explore the potential of your favorite yarns.
I’m not done yet. Next time: more on yarn substitution!