Raise your hand if you always use the yarn the pattern recommends? Anyone? Anyone? Buehler?
Yarn can be spendy, and sometimes we need an alternative that fits within our budget. Other times we simply can’t get our hands on the recommended yarn, or just prefer to work from our stash. Whatever the reason, knowing how to make a successful yarn substitution is a superpower. Let’s talk about how to get it right.
One — The weight-to-yardage ratio
I’ve talked about this before here and here, but there is more to yarn substitutions than simply swapping out a worsted weight yarn for a worsted weight yarn (ditto for all other yarn weights). First, determine the weight to yardage ratio and look for an alternative with similar numbers. For example: If the pattern recommends a fingering weight yarn with a yardage of 400 yards in 100 grams, you’ll want to find a yarn that is close to that range. Some fingering weight yarn can be as light as 480 yards in 100 grams, so you’ll want to take care to choose something closer to the same range as what the pattern recommends. If it were me and the pattern yarn was 400 yards/100g I would try to find something in a range between 400-420 yards in 100g if possible. (Key differences in yardage/weight ratios can also have a significant effect on gauge and yarn consumption, so this is important for many reasons.) If you decide to go with something quite different in yardage/weight from what the pattern suggests, be sure to snag an extra skein of yarn just in case.
Two — Superwash or non-superwash?
The washability of the yarn you use goes far beyond how to care for the finished garment. The characteristics of superwash can mean a dramatic difference in the finished fit, drape and size of your garment, so take a minute to investigate whether the recommended yarn is superwash or non-superwash. I’m not saying you can’t deviate on this, but – in order to be successful with your garment – you must account for the way the washability will affect your project, and adjust your knitting accordingly. (You can read more about this topic in the two posts I linked above in #1.)
Three — The fiber family
When you’ve narrowed down the weight range, you’ll next want to look at the fiber family. Wool, silk, cotton, baby alpaca, acrylic, hemp, cashmere, animal fiber, plant fiber… Fiber has a personality and a destiny to fulfill, and it’s going to do that on your needles. As with the other points in this post, you aren’t locked in to using only the same kind of fiber the pattern recommends, but you DO need to consider the qualities of that fiber and make sure your substitution will help you achieve results you’re happy with. Will it drape? Will it be sturdy? Will it show stitch definition? Will it work for the style of the garment? Most designers choose a particular yarn for the way the qualities of that fiber partner with the design concept; if you want predictable results, you’ll want to do the same when making a substitution.
There are thousands of yarn options in the world, and potentially hundreds that might work for the pattern. As a designer, I can’t possibly list every yarn that might work, nor would I feel comfortable listing a range of yarns that I’m not necessarily familiar with using. Some designs are created in partnership with a specific company, and in these cases, I make a commitment that their yarn is the one and only option featured in the pattern. Plus, making a substitution has a lot to do with what’s available to you and what’s within your budget. I could provide a list of 20 yarn substitutions, but you might find that none of them work for your needs. Then what? I would rather teach you how to navigate yarn substitutions on your own – that’s the best way to make sure you can use the yarn that’s right for you.
Making “the right” yarn substitution might seem like a superpower, but it’s a skill you can learn and you’ll get better at it the more you do it. Remember to swatch for gauge to make sure your substitution will give you the finished fit and drape you intend, and – as much as it pains me to mention this – know that there are exceptions to every rule: you may be able to get the right gauge and drape from a yarn that defies all the rules. So if you’re reading this and find yourself thinking, “I never check those things and my projects always turn out perfectly” – great. You have a natural superpower. But if you’re wary of making substitutions, and frustrated with unpredictable results, this is a great place to start.
The more you stretch and work your yarn substitution muscles, the easier it gets. You can do it.