Substituting Yarn: Look at the Design
When you’re looking for a yarn to substitute for a pattern, it’s not just the yarn you should be studying.
In order to get the right substitute, you have to spend some time really looking at your design. I’m focusing on sweaters here, but this process works for any project where you’d like to sub yarns.
First, look beyond the pretty pictures on the pattern. I get sucked into great knitting photography like I get sucked into that scene in one version of Pride and Prejudice when Matthew Macfadyen strides across the misty field.
I know the scene’s not in the book, but neither is Colin Firth in his damp shirt in the Jennifer Ehle version. Those scenes are so compelling they can convince me they are actually from the book.
And a great knitting photo can convince me that I want to knit a cabled angora maxi dress with ten inches of negative ease.
Take a Good Look
Look at the design in the clear light of day, beyond the misty Matthew Macfadyen styling and photography.
I look at a pattern in two ways: first I acknowledge the swoony part and ask myself, “What makes me want to knit this pattern?” and “What do I like about it?”
Then I make a second, practical pass and ask, “What design elements make up the sweater?” and “Are there things I want to change, downplay, or emphasize?” The answers help zero in on a yarn substitute.
Test Case: The Pattern
This pattern caught my eye right away because Norah and cables always get my knitting motor running, and because it’s a cardigan, my favorite sweater style. I’d never really liked a warm weather cabled sweater until this one! I fell for the youthful, exuberant vibe of the photo.
Starting the practical analysis, I think about whether I want to change the pattern in any way to make me like it more. Some considerations include: length of the body and sleeves, collar changes, adding bust darts, waist shaping, and/or pockets.
Furthermore I might ask, “Do I want the sweater to have more drape, or for the stitch pattern to have more definition?”
One easy change I wanted to make: swapping in the cable from another pattern in Field Guide No. 9, Elaine’s Capelet, for the Calligraphy cable. Because the cable patterns for the garments in Field Guide No. 9 are interchangeable, that will be a snap.
Practical considerations lead naturally to narrowing down yarn choices and a related set of questions:
Does the fabric need to be durable?
Does it need good stitch definition?
Does it need to drape?
How much of my skin will it touch and where?
How heavy will it be in my size?
Can the pattern take a textured yarn?
Can the pattern take a hand-dyed yarn? How complex a dye job–semi solid, speckled, variegated?
The Yarn Hunt
Before I hunt for my new yarn, I do a quick a quick evaluation of the yarn the pattern calls for: fiber, how it’s drafted (woolen or worsted), ply, and grist. I can see how those factors work by looking at the photos of the pattern sample. This helps me make a choice by moving toward—or away from—similar yarns.
Whenever I can, I buy contender yarns and swatch with them. When I can’t, I take a gander at Ravelry. Chances are someone has knit the pattern in one of the yarns under consideration.
At my local yarn shop, I picked two yarns. Get ready to laugh, because after setting out to avoid merino, one is 100% merino and the other is 70% merino. They are both beautiful and soft. I have been keen to try both yarns for a while now, so that swayed me in their direction.
I swatched them both, first in stockinette, then in my chosen cable patterns. I had to go down several needle sizes and change from metal to wooden needles for both, but I got the gauge eventually.
In the MDK Shop
Forge by Hudson and West
Fiber: 70% US Merino/30% US Corriedale
Grist: 235 yards ÷ 3.5 ounces = 67 yards per ounce
Gauge: 20 stitches to 4 inches
Needle: US 7/4.5 mm
Color: Barn Red
Weight of yardage needed for my size sweater: 22 ounces
This is a yarn I will use over and over again. The addition of Corriedale makes Forge a very clever blend. It’s soft enough to be worn at the neck, but the Corriedale gives it strength, durability, and less pilling. It changes the merino from feeling matte to having a little bit of slide, and gives it a bit of a glint. Three plies gives great stitch definition, without being too firm.
Lucky Tweed by Kelbourne Woolens
Fiber: 100% Merino Wool
Grist: 210 yards ÷ 3.5 ounces = 60 yards per ounce
Gauge: 15-17 stitches to 4 inches
Needle: US 7-8/4.5-5 mm
Weight of yardage needed for my size sweater: 25 ounces
Confession: This yarn is Mr. Darcy in the misty field for me. I have a bit of thing for tweed, but it has to be the right kind of tweed. It has to be a robust tweed: textural, with chunks of color, not tiny neps. Lucky Tweed is such a tweed. And it’s spun from merino, so it is soft.
Based on the label information, I wouldn’t have chosen Lucky, because I know I am pressing my luck getting it to shift gauge to more stitches per inch.
I did get gauge, and it made beautiful deep cables, with the extra texture of the tweed.
In stockinette, 5 stitches to the inch in both yarns works just fine. It’s the cables that make or break my decision. The swatching made it easy for me.
The cables in both yarns look amazing. The red Forge cables look carved from stone. The green Lucky Tweed cables are defined, but with surface texture, like stones with moss growing on them.
But they didn’t feel the same. I pressed my laughing clown friend into service to see how the fabric draped.
The Forge, even with its incredible stitch definition, still has some drape.
make your own joke here.
Lucky Tweed, on the other hand, does not drape at this gauge. At all. The cabled portion of this sweater would feel too stiff.
That makes my decision on which yarn to use as a substitute easy: Forge wins.
When you want to substitute a yarn for a sweater pattern, take time to review your pattern, and watch out for Mr. Darcy.