• Michelle

Yarn Substitution Mini-Series, Part 1: All about the yarn

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

There are many conversation threads in different parts of the Knitting Community at the moment in relation to Yarn Substitution. And while these conversations are sometimes fraught, mostly because knitting is very dear to people, as a teacher it helps me know what people really want to learn so I am thrilled to write this mini-series on Yarn Substitution. I have just covered these topics as part of the Knit School masterclass, Finishing School so I’m going to share some of the detail from it.

This is a BIG area of knitting so I’m going to cover it in three posts:

  1. In this post I’ll share all the things to consider and look out for when substituting the yarn in a pattern

  2. In the next post, I’ll cover what swatching is, how it relates to gauge and your options if your gauge doesn’t match the pattern and

  3. In the final post, I'll cover some Knitting Maths to get you started

I am going to avoid going into too much detail as each of those subjects on they are vast but hopefully it will give you somewhere to start!

The following are some of the many things to consider when choosing a substitute yarn:

  • What is the pattern telling you?

  • Yarn Colour

  • The item being knit

  • Yarn weight

  • Meterage/yardage

  • Yarn composition

  • Yarn Construction

What is the pattern telling you?

Patterns have varying levels of detail but good patterns will provide you with all of the following that are relevant.

The yarn used to create the pattern

At the very least it should tell you the brand, the yarn line and how many balls/skeins you will need. It may also include the fibres (composition) of the yarn, meterage/yardage per ball/skein and meterage/yardage required for each size in the project. Missing details can often be found on the brands own website.

The gauge of the pattern & the stitch and needle size used to achieve it

Gauge is the patterns way of saying ‘If you knit a piece of knitting with the same yarn and needles as the designer and they are the same size, you are more likely to get the garment shown in the pattern’. It is also saying ‘here is the number of stitches and rows that were used to calculate every stitch count, row count, increase, decrease etc in this pattern’. It’s a lot from what is usually just one line.

Note: Pattern gauge for a yarn may be different to the ball band gauge of a yarn. You’ll see in the post on swatching what this is important.

The size of the garment at different points

This is useful because if your gauge is different to that of the designer, the number of stitches and rows in the pattern becomes less important and the size you are aiming for becomes more important.

It is important to look at the different stitch patterns in the project as knitting a swatch stocking stitch doesn’t matter if there isn’t any stocking stitch in the garment

Schematic from Simply the Simplest Sweater

Stitch patterns

It is important to look at the different stitch patterns in the project as knitting a swatch in stocking stitch doesn’t matter if there isn’t any stocking stitch in the garment!

Once you have been through the pattern, gather all of this information into a format that you understand. Sometimes when it’s in a pattern, it can be really intimidating/confusing.

Yarn Colour

You are probably thinking surely not but the truth is that even though you might think you are just changing the colour, there are considerations when knitting in a different colour yarn to that used in the pattern. Some colours may be too busy or too dark for some patterns. Swatching the stitch pattern in a garment is a great way to tell if you are going to lose your detail in the colour.

Everything else about colour is personal. Don’t let people tell you what colours to wear, if you like it, wear it : )

TLYC Lacey Socks look different when knit in a dark variegated yarn and then a paler yarn

The item being knit

Some yarns may not be suitable in all circumstances. It may be their weight, construction or composition that make them unsuitable or a combination.

A few things to think about:

What is the item? Who is the item for? Is there a particular technique that is being used? What if I use a cotton in a fair isle pattern? Will a really fluffy mohair work for cables and lace? It is worn, how is it worn? When and where is it worn? How it is used? How much use will it get? How will it be washed? Will the yarn wash in a way that will suit what it becomes?

Just some ideas to get you started and remember, there are no rules that say that you can’t make big fluffy cable and lace mohair sweater for wearing in bed (I feel I need this) and wash it in morning dew once a year! The only 'rule' might be not to make washcloths, designed to be knit in cotton, out of wool … yuck ; )

As a knitter I am happy to knit all sorts in all sorts but as a yarn shop owner, I am boringly practical!

Yarn weight

Yarn weight refers not to the physical weight of the yarn but to the thickness of the yarn. There are a number of standard weights, the Yarn Craft Council have a good table of detail available here, and there are also more decorative yarns which may not fit into any of those categories.

Yarn weight is usually detailed on the yarn band. Yarn weight contributes to the size of your stitches and rows, the finer the yarn, the smaller the stitches and rows and so on. However, just because a yarn is in the same standard weight of a yarn being used in a pattern, it does not mean that it is a perfect substitute. In the following image, all three swatches have the same number of stitches and rows, were knit on the same needles and are all listed as Double-knitting!

Swatching, it is quite useful


Once you know the yarn weight, a useful method of determining how close a match your yarn is is by the meterage/yardage of the yarn. A yarn with similar meterage/yardage (and the same composition and weight) will often be a relatively good match. You will also need to know this when calculating how much yarn you need.

Yarn composition

Yarn composition refers to the fibres that make up the yarn. There are so many fibres, natural and manmade to consider; wool, yak, mohair, alpaca, llama, cotton, linen, acrylic and nylon.

Each fibre gives the yarn different characteristics which will impact many aspects of the knitted item including how drapey it is, how warm and how well it will wear. In the swatch image above, the three DK yarns are mohair, acrylic and cotton and all have very distinctive characteristics.

Yarn construction

In addition to being different weights and in different fibres, yarn can be spun in different ways. Some yarns contains multiple strands that are twisted together. These yarns are said to be plied yarns. Other yarns are very gentle spun and are a single strand of yarn. Yarns in this category include roving and singles.

There is a lot of detail in composition and construction. A great place to start is in the books of Clara Parkes and the blog of Louise Scollay. To take an in-depth look at different yarns, fibres and combinations, may I also recommend visiting bluefaced.co.uk. Bluefaced is a site run by Chester Wool who are one of the largest suppliers of un-dyed yarns to hand-dyers in the UK. You might not be able to touch the yarns on their site but the pictures are really good and you can clearly see the difference between the different yarns.

So what do I do with all of that information?

Understand how your yarn and the yarn in the pattern differ based on all of the factors above and if you want to proceed with your yarn choice and then SWATCH LIKE YOUR PROJECT DEPENDS ON IT. Or don't. Swatching is optional. Many knitters have knit many beautiful projects without ever swatching (not counting a lifetime of sweater sized swatches of course ; ))

Swatching will tell you if you need to change any of the details in your pattern to get the size of garment in the pictures and how much of that yarn you will need (mostly). That’s all. No magic. Honest.

In the next post I'll talk about swatching, what it is, how to do and what to do if your swatch gauge doesn't match the pattern.

See you soon!


If you are going to be doing some yarn substitution, I have created a Yarn Substitution Worksheet that provides a summary of the above and provides space for all the detail the pattern is giving you. Sign up to our mailing list to get a copy and also a copy of our Project Tracker.

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This is intended only to be gently teasing. I too am mostly a garment sized swatch knitter at heart xx

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