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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

The pattern I want to make is Calligraphy by Norah Gaughan, from MDK Field Guide No. 9: Revolution. I want to substitute yarn because I want to knit with something besides merino.

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.

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The Contenders

Forge by Hudson and West

Fiber: 70% US Merino/30% US Corriedale

Draft: Worsted

Ply: 3-ply

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

Draft: Worsted

Ply: 2-ply

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

Color: Pine

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.

The Comparison

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.

This could come in handy!

Here’s how to save this article in your MDK account with one click.

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 jillianmoreno.com.

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67 Comments

  • This is so interesting, especially regarding drape! I wonder though, how many people would buy two expensive yarns just to swatch?
    I have a huge yarn stash and usually start with this and try to find a pattern that fits, but only very approximately!! Maybe I should be more thorough?

  • Great tips on choosing the right yarn for a project, and the right project! I fell victim to the ‘Mr. Darcy’ photography phenomenon when I purchased several books with knitting projects for babies when my granddaughter was a wee tike. I finally gave all of the books away when I realized that I had selected each book for the photos of adorable babies and not for the knitting projects.

  • Thank you for the grand belly laugh this morning, me and your laughing clown!
    i know that everyone won’t or can’t go into this much prep, but it’s a way of thinking and seeing and I’m so glad you keep encouraging people to go deeper. When it comes to the time and money a project requires, it’s so important to have a very good idea of where you’re headed!

  • Great explanation. You had me with the P&P photograph. Thanks

  • Another fantastic article! Watch out for Mr. Darcy!

    • Thanks this was so interesting and helpful. May I ask why do using metal or wood needles (of the same size I presume) make a difference. I can see how speed would differ but not result. Thanks!

      • I’ve heard that metal needles tend to make taller, narrower stitches, while wooden ones are shorter and wider. But your knitting may be different, of course!

      • A while back I read somewhere that one should always swatch with the exact same needles one plans to use. I used to swatch on straight needles, or long dpns, and most of mine are bamboo. My circular needles are knitpicks shiny multicoloured wood, much more slippery. I always ended up having a different gauge and it baffled me. I think the slipperiness or otherwise makes the difference.

        • There is less slip with wooden needles, which tightens up my gauge. Give it a try if you have both kinds of needles, it’s fascinating.

      • I wondered about that, too!

  • I am always full speed ahead on my projects. Thank you for encouraging a more thoughtful and measured approach.

  • Sometimes you have to cover the faces of the beautiful young models when looking at patterns. Sadly, you will not look like them when you finish your garment—which is not to say that you will not be delighted with your FO if you simply follow the practical advice listed here. Thanks, Jillian!

    • And the other advantage to looking at other people making the same thing on ravelry is you can see how that sweater looks on someone with a body type more similar to you own.

  • Jillian Moreno, I live for your discussions of yarn interchangeability! Building on your previous articles, I now have a better understanding of grist and projecting garment weight affecting feel and drape. You are the guru of yarn interchangeability! These gems inform my yarn selections. Thank you!

    • Well said! I agree wholeheartedly.

    • Ditto. Educational and hilarious. ❤️

  • Great article. I never considered the drape. Amazing.

  • Speaking of photos, here is my plea. Friends, please, please, PLEASE, consider posting a photo of you or a friend wearing your project on Ravelry. I find those photos so helpful when deciding if a garment will work for me (or whoever the recipient is.) I look for women with body types similar to me to judge whether a sweater will look good on me. I look to see how a shawl will actually wrap around someone’s neck. By all means, show off your lacework by spreading that glorious shawl out with light behind it. But take the time for another photo as well.Seeing items on real people (not just Mr. Darcy!) gives a much better idea of how a project will turn out.
    I know I’m guilty of not doing this, so I will do some photos today- it gives me something else to do while hunkering down at home. I’ll just have to be sure my husband doesn’t get my hair in the photo. I’m two weeks past my usual haircut.

    • Guilty as charged.

    • I agree!! The first thing I do, before buying yarn, is look at pattern projects on Ravelry. I need to see the projects on a variety of women, executed by lots of knitters. It doesn’t work nearly so well if the person isn’t wearing the project.

    • Before this is all over, we will look like homeless people. I predict men’s hairstyles will start getting longer, after this is over.

    • I look for those things as well, and am guilty of not posting enough photos of my own completed projects.

      • Raising a hand . . . guilty here, too.

    • I agree!!!! For example, cowls are gorgeous when held up and hanging down to see the length, but this tells me nothing about how closely it will snuggle up to the neck. If I have an accurate picture of the circumference of the cowl, I can adjust my cast-on count accordingly.

    • Yes, yes, yes. As I have browsed through the March Mayhem contenders, it has helped me so much to see the items being worn on real people.

    • YES

  • Very helpful, thank you!

  • Helpful AND hilarious! Thank you Jillian, I love your columns.

  • Thanks gives a beginning knitter more to think about when deciding.

  • I loved reading this…both entertaining and informative.

    And such a wonderful distraction from COVID-19.

    Thank you, Jillian. And thank you MDK.

  • What would you recommend for someone who is allergic to wool? I break out in a rash and red teary eyes when I knit or wear wool. That’s been my greatest struggle when knitting up projects.

    • Cotton, linen, silk, acrylic, even paper! There are so many more options now for non-wool sweaters. I guess i should do a post on that

  • The light bulb went on! Thank you so much!

    • Thanks, and I’d like another article evaluating, say, cotton yarns for this project – something for those of us who live in hot and humid areas.

      • It’s on my list of articles to write. There are some really interesting cotton and cotton blends with zero wool.

      • Ditto on cotton. I’ve knit several wool sweaters recently but, for the second winter in a row, it’s been too warm to wear them. No snow this year. Not even a good freeze. I’m considering cotton for the next sweater or two,,,I want to wear my knits!!

  • Loved your article and information. You remind us of the thought that goes into a successful ending. It is hard to take the time to investigate when a lot of us just want to jump into the project. I do hope you find a suitable plan for the stand up green tweed, it’s lovely 🙂

  • Please show us the sweater when it’s done. And let us see what you do with the other yarn. Both are beautiful!

  • I’m fascinated when I read your articles, and reread when I consider substitutions. I’m a much better swatcher than five years ago and seeing the results in my FOs. Thank you! This particular short sleeved cardigan is one I would love to make — but in linen or cotton. I hesitate when I consider the weight of the finished garment. Any suggestions? Also I would love you to address substituting fibre types some time in the future.

  • Thanks for another great yarn substitution article, and thanks especially for the tasty Mr. Darcy picture. A great way to start the day!

  • Jillian, you and your kind, the scientist/artists of the fiber world, guide us to become better at thinking as well as at creating.
    I’m new to knitting, and from reading MDK articles I now think of my projects as having a Beginning Stage, a Middle Stage and an Ending Stage. Each one has it’s own delights and challenges and there are many strategies to explore.
    So, I am learning to stay in the moment, pay attention, consider, think and not rush to the next stage. And the results are improving, slowly but surely!!!

  • Maybe this is a noob question, but is there a difference between “worsted” and “woolen”? Is it the kind/direction of twist, #of plys, or exactly what? Thanks for the great article!

  • No. 1 Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy – “swoon…”
    No. 2 Learning how to knit cables is on my list!
    No. 3 Is there a pullover version of the Calligraphy pattern? Not really a cardigan person.

    Thank you for the morning smile!

  • How cruel to tease us with the Wet Shirt and then not SHOW US THE PHOTOGRAPH. :-p

  • A great article! thank you for the content and the photos, which really helped tell the message! this explains why we need to swatch and test before we commit to a sweater’s quantity of yarn.

  • I want some yarm
    Canary LeBlanc
    aplusbabycrochet745@gmail.com

  • A very fun read, thanks!

  • I was surprised that yarn color did not enter into the decision making process. A short sleeve cardi is a warm weather garment for me so I’d likely lean away from dark fall and winter colors.

  • It occurs to me that one may not necessarily have to be a knitter to enjoy reading Jill’s articles. Plot, humor, images, the thrill of the chase, it’s all there.
    Many thanks for all of your information here and in past articles– and to MDK for providing us with another “Knitting University” class session.

  • I liked how you checked for drape. I’m always just smooching the swatch and that doesn’t really work. I too have knit too many sweaters that suited someone else because I wanted to look like the cute model. I hope you show us your finished sweater.

  • OMGOSH! My two favorite P&P scenes!!! ❤️

  • Wow, a case for swatching if I ever read one! Thank you, your information is always helpful!

  • Thank you! I am someone who doesn’t like to swatch and who often stops when my swatch is close enough, but not perfect. You have driven home visually why I need to change my ways. I always knew that, but it is helpful to see it so clearly! I love the clown face cup!

  • Thanks so much for this truly helpful article! Loved your suggestion of checking out what others have done on ravelry. If I’m lucky, I can see how a garment looks on someone close to my size and shape. That has often been the cause of my passing on a particular pattern or garnering the courage to try something I wouldn’t have considered before. It has proved SO helpful in deciding how to or if to substitute yarns. Thanks again – this one is definitely a “save:)!”

  • Great article…a real keeper! Thank you for sharing your knowledge & skill!

  • It is 3 in the morning and I can’t sleep.
    I love your comparison of the yarns.
    I now, however , can’t focus on anything but that creepy clown mug or flower pot or whatever it is!
    Yikes! LOL!

  • I love the laughing clown to illustrate drape. Thank you again for the insight!

  • In these trying times right now, your Mr. Darcy made me laugh. I’m learning so much about yarn and patterns from your article. Thank you for the great information! Stay safe and well!

  • Playfullness – A+, Outstanding, Above and beyond. Loved the clown illustration.

  • I loved this article for its depth. As s newish knitter I have not considered evaluating yarns in such s detailed way. But mostly loved your images: hunky
    honeys and the clown cup.

  • Jillian, I look forward to your analyses of all things knitting. I owned a sweater in the 70s similar to Calligraphy but in what I think now was a cotton/linen blend. It cost an arm and a leg, I was in high school and making 75 cents an hour, but I bought it, loved it, wore it out over several years! Now I’m wondering if I could recreate that sweater today? I’ll be knitting up swatches, thanks to your in-depth article.
    Your feelings about yarn mirror my own. Comparing fiber choices to hunky Pride and Prejudice heartthrobs make me giggle and remind me that I’m not the only one who swoons over delicious yarns…the touch, the texture, the color, the drape. My imagination really does go wild. And since yarn is more accessible than Colin Firth…
    Thank you for your love of knitting and your ability to translate it into such lovely prose.
    Hugs.
    Mopsy from Nashville ❤️

  • Loved the info! I will confess…I often buy yarn that’s on sale and THEN base my project on what type of yarn I bought. Hey if Mr. Darcy needs a potholder or a dishrag…. I’m his gal!!

    Seriously… Loved the laughing clown, really loved the beautiful tweed descriptions… Great read!!

  • Help,I am having trouble remembering what day it is and now I have lost an recent article about a little scale that you can measure your weight of your skein and then figure out how much you have left to help one when you are knitting socks to divide the skein,using up left over yarn,etc. Scale was small and a rectangle or square. Do you sale this little scale or know who does? It was $20.00
    Hope all of you are well and always look forward to your newsletter on Saturday..

  • I have been looking for an article just like this! This is THE only one I have found on the subject. This is a difficult discussion and I think a lot of knitters instinctively know how to substitute yarn but don’t know how to explain why. As an advanced beginner, I wanted to know how to correctly do this. Wonderful and useful article!

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