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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 MDK 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.

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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!

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About The Author

Jillian Moreno spins, knits and weaves just so she can touch all of the fibers. She wrote the book Yarnitecture: A Knitter’s Guide to Spinning: Building Exactly the Yarn You Want so she could use all of the fiber words. Keep up with her exploits at


  • Another informative and wonderful article by Jillian!

  • The difference between stockinette and pattern was an eye-opener. And the lace differences were well-chosen.
    And, yeah, there is such a thing as tooo soft; just had a talk with my LYS owner about the difficulty of bringing in yarns with some durability and some texture other than just cloud-softness. I’ll have to special order what I want, even though she carries the rest of the line, because she can’t sell it.

    • I agree LizR! If I’m knitting a sweater to wear out to the barn when it’s 20F and windy, soft is pretty low on my list of important yarn qualities. A good sturdy wool sweater and a soft cashmere cowl, that’s the ticket!

  • Can’t wait for the next in the series. One question, how did you figure out the finished weight of the sweater from the swatch? TIA

    • I’m guessing she used the information on the ball band. Weigh the skein. How many skeins for her imagined 1600 yards? Multiply.

    • I’m loving this fiber info! I’m hoping you’ll give us clues so we don’t need to buy and swatch a dozen yarns to get it right. Thank you so much for your insight.

  • Excellent article! Timing couldn’t be more perfect because I’ve been swatching to get the correct yarn selection and gauge for 2 weeks now. I’ve been knitting for 50(!!) years and just learned about yarn weight/length ratio and how there is wiggle room (a “range”) that helps determine yarn interchangeability. You hinted at this when presenting the weight/length ratio in each of the yarn profiles. I hope you’ll discuss this more in the future (soon please!) as this information is new to many of us. My long time knitting friends had not heard of this either.

    • Barbara, in case you missed it, Jillian’s article on Grist is truly life-changing:

      • I’m new to this site and thought that I found the article of my “dreams!” And even though like many others, I found the information about trying the pattern swatches to be great, however, I am desperately looking for “TRUE” yarn-type substitutions. Unfortunately, I am allergic to wool, cashmere, linen (and many other fibers—the list seems to grow, although I have been able to knit with some yarns, just not wear them). I am slightly more experienced with crochet because I taught myself. I have taken (and made a) knitted sweater class. It was a while ago and my yarn choices were limited to a few 4- ply variegated cottons. It was awful! I’m ready to knitting a sweater again. I have seen a few easy patterns that I am dying to try. My LYS wasn’t any help, as everything was Merino, Alpaca, Cashmere, and/or some combination thereof.
        (I will definitely check out the yarn substitutions website, however, I really enjoyed this article with the photographs.)

      • Thank you, Kay!

  • Very informative and useful article about something all knitters wonder about! Thanks.

  • Great information! Another reason to swatch!

  • What a wonderful article! Clear words, clear photographs, such in depth “investigation”. Thanks a lot.

  • Thanks so much for your info. Thanks also for writing it in such a way to make it understandable for those of us who have been knitting a long time, but haven’t understood much about the hows & whys proper substitution.
    One request that will show my lack of yarn knowledge is this: I couldn’t remember the names of the yarns as the article progressed. Colors, though, I could have handled. Talking about the blue yarn as opposed to the white would have helped a lot! Thanks again!

    • Thank you for that suggestion! I write with the yarns and labels within easy reach, so I can double check, using color would be so much easier!

    • Agree.

  • Can’t wait to forward this to my Knitwits – our library knit and crochet club! The discussion last week centered around one member’s sweater, and how she swatched and got gauge, but the final garment was two sizes too small. Thank you for all of your wonderful insights, today and every day!

  • What a great article and discussion! Thank you so much. My question is this: we no longer have a lys, so how do those of us less fortunate than you, make yarn choices? I often rely on the designer’s yarn preference and go with that. Thank you again!

    • There is also a website called yarnsub that if you type in the yarn it will bring up a list of substitutions and give a percentage of how they match, it will also list how it’s similar and how it differs and how that could affect your project.

    • As an online shop, we try to suggest 1-skein projects so that knitters can sample yarns easily, as Jillian did here. It’s an interesting challenge to think about!

      • This was my question, too. How can I do all that swatching without buying three skeins of yarn that I don’t need? (Presumably, I’d use the fourth.)

  • Jillian, what superb research and lessons you share. I’d say we almost don’t deserve you, but then Max Daniels would be after me. Thanks for all you do for us, MDK.

  • Loved this entry. So clearly written and the pictures were clearer than words! Thanks.

  • Very interesting. But I’m left hanging…what yarn will you choose for the sweater!

  • Thank you as always. Looking forward to the next installment.

  • How do you know that a yarn will be elastic? Is swatching the only way?

  • Such a helpful article. Thanks so much!

  • The website, Yarnsub, is a terrific resource for substituting yarn. It provides comparative info on Guage, drape, etc!

  • Awesome article. I don’t do gauge swatches, may be one or two, I just start knitting. What I have read today has encouraged me to be more adventurous in trying out different yarns in different stitch patterns. Thank you and I’m already looking forward to reading more!

  • Great information! I really enjoy this website I receive on my phone…

  • Thank you! Such great and valuable information, as always.

  • I found this VERY informative. Living in Siwtzerland I don`t have access to all the „name brand“ yarns that most people use…and I really want to see and feel a yarn and not just order blindly off of the internet. And as for the Wizard of Oz…I had those SAME feelings growing up in Missouri

  • Love this post! How many times have I made a horrible mistake of substituting a yarn that ends up being wrong! Swatching in pattern is the gem I take away from this post—brilliant! For those who want to learn more, I recommend Carol Sulcoski’s Yarn Substitution Made Easy (paperback, 2019). There is so much good information and help in understanding why one yarn works and another will be a disaster in a given project. Find it on Amazon in paperback or on Kindle.

  • Fantastic!! Definitely will go back and read your articles.

  • Good refresher. I just completed a four month, semester class at my local community college here in San Francisco, California entitled Textile Analysis, Fashion 22. I enjoyed the class immensely, and thank you for another perspective on the study of textiles, becoming a “yarn detective”. Our swatch kit was the most enjoyable, where we learned to identify fiber, yarn, polyester, man made fabrics, etc.
    I will look forward to reading your posts.

  • So helpful. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  • I have knit with the ultra alpaca and love hoe it turned out. If I were knitting that sweater I would get a different color of that yarn and knit away.

  • Great info ! Thank you for sharing. I’m still navigating the world of knitting (2 years) and its amazing to see the differences yarn structure brings to the end results. I have so much to learn.

  • I have done some surprising projects when substituting yarn…it can be hit or miss at times…Deb

  • I’m like you, Jillian — I’m a sucker for all the mohair/silk blends, but knitting with them drives me nuts. Nevertheless, my stash holds quite a lot of it!

  • Most can not change the gauge they would naturally make, and then be consistent with the new unnatural gauge one is attempting to use. And it is hard to do such a thing when it is possible to do it.

    So learning a tiny bit of math is a good thing. If I know how many inches or cm or whatevers I want, I can knit a swatch in the pattrrn and then apply the math and get that many inches or cm or whatever. And maybe be patient and try knit needles slightly bigger or smaller because it does make more difference than you think it would.

    Your article is helpful.

    Multiplying by a fraction that is one is the easiest way to do the math. If I need and desire 27 inches and my actual gauge is 5 stitches per inches, then 5 x 27 = 135 stitches. Yes the texture changes so much when one substitutes a yarn. I did a project with alpaca style yarn and the thick and tun mess of the yarn was a bit if a trial. With such yarn, depending upon the stitch pattern, it might be necessary to use two skeins and switch off to prevent a thin area when both yarns hold thin or a thick area when the two yarns go thick. I like the silk but rarely use the silk. It makes a big difference when the knotting is done not English style of knitting but with a extra twist of the yarn. The yarn stitches will look like tadpole or ‘p’ liker shape rather than a upside down ‘u’ shape if you do not knit English style.

  • Excellent article!!!

  • I have a supercarder and can design and spin my own yarn to fit a pattern…I can card fibers into yarn to look like hand dyed or gradient, too.

  • I use a website––to help me with yarn substitutions. They discuss the properties of each yarn. I find it very helpful.

  • I love this article. Many thanks. Advice needed: A friend in California has asked for a shawl. I love the idea of a soft and squishy wool for a shawl but that won’t work for her climate. Does anyone have an opinion about going to all cotton? Mercerized” or not mercerized?

  • Wow, my mind just exploded! Living in northern Canada, getting the yarn a pattern calls for can be difficult to say the least. Thank-you, I have learnt so much from you!

  • This is a REALLY valuable article, especially for a beginner like me. It helps me to understand why two supposedly very similar yarns make such different hats (for example). Thank you so much!!

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