September 7th, 2011

Rookie Mistake: yarn substitution

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We’ve all been there, you see a sweater you love, but the colors aren’t right. The yarn is right but the price is wrong, or unavailable, or just not what you had in mind. We are no stranger to yarn substitutions and no stranger to mismatching yarn to patterns!

We’ve covered gauge considerations, but one largely overlooked detail is fiber content. This can dramatically affect drape and style of a garment. A garment made from crunchy wool, will look much different in 100% alpaca, or 100% cotton!

I think the yarn sub rule deserves a motto: “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. Yes, you can make that cabled sweater out of cotton, yes you can make a throw rug out of cashmere, yes you can make a bathing suit out of mohair…but should you?

Dena, our Ecommerce marketing manager, had a few things to say about the subject, “I had been knitting less than a year when I started this Vogue sweater. I knew gauge was important, but had not yet learned how to substitute yarn in a pattern. I thought if I got the right gauge with my new yarn selection, then I made a good substitute. But it turns out that subbing 1 strand of Misti Alpaca Chunky and 2 strands of Cascade Indulgence is not a good sub for 1 strand of Rowan Big Wool and 1 strand of Rowan Kidsilk Haze…unless you work in an office that is 45° F.”

To avoid this familiar pitfall I’ve gathered up some helpful hints:

First, consult a pattern’s original yarn suggestion. What is the fiber content? Does the designer note what other yarns may be a good substitution and why?

Secondly, pay attention to the style of the garment. Is it drapey, cabled, structured, loose or fitted? A structured garment will need a more structured fiber and likewise for less structured garments. A jacket is usually one for a crisper fiber as well as a good vehicle for very warm winter fibers. Whereas, summer garments are generally made with cotton or cotton blends meant for breathability.

Wool is traditionally the fiber with the most elasticity, meaning it will retain its shape, bounce back and resist stretching compared to other fibers. Bamboo, cotton and other plant based fibers have little to no elasticity, meaning once they stretch there is no coming back. Some of this can be sidestepped by choosing a blend or accommodating with a slightly tighter gauge. If the pattern is designed with less elastic fiber choices the designer has likely taken this into consideration.

The plies of a fiber refer to how many strands of yarn are twisted on itself. More plies equal more durability in most cases. Also, you will want a plied yarn for cables as it boosts stitch definition. Not to say that single plies are not useful or desirable, but it helps to know that high friction areas (such as the heel of a sock) are better behaved with multiple plies.

The recipient is another strong factor to keep in mind. A turtleneck pullover in alpaca on a warm blooded person could be a disaster, as alpaca is a very warm fiber reserved for colder weather. Likewise, a delicate fabric on a rough and tumble child would be heartache. Many knits for families and children are wisely offered superwash fibers for their durability in wash and wear. Also, if someone is fussy about scratchy fibers, this is one to wrestle with before casting on!

Clara Parkes is the undeniable master in knitting fibers (don’t hesitate to check out her website and publication Knitters Review for yarn information). She’s created a great resource in The Book of Yarn which is a handy tool for choosing and utilizing the right fibers. Her follow up book The Book of Wool is a great supplement. (Keep your eyes peeled for her new publication, The Knitters book of Socks coming out in October).

Trust us when I say we at WEBS have learned the hard way and we can only hope you learn from us. Don’t hesitate to ask us for help along the way!


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2 Responses to “Rookie Mistake: yarn substitution”

  1. goldi 316 Says:

    Excellent info – and not just for knitters.  This applies to “hookers” too!  And I second the recommendation for the Book of Yarn.

  2. Link Love for Crochet Blogs | Crochet Concupiscence Says:

    […] WEBS. Great advice this week about yarn substitutions. […]

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