Rules for Feeding the Stash

Friday, July 17, 2020

On Yarns and Substitutions

I hear A LOT from people who love specific patterns but can't afford the suggested yarns. I get it! I started knitting when I was a broke college student, and even now I have very little discretionary money because I have crazy high medical costs. Yarn is expensive! Yarn is especially expensive once you start shopping for garment quantities, and even more so if you're plus-sized!

Some designers use affordable yarns, and some designers make multiple samples or try to recommend different yarns across a variety of price points. This is incredibly helpful and generous, but a lot of designers just don't have the time or capability to make multiple samples, and if we get yarn support for a pattern, oftentimes we simply can't recommend other yarns.

Yarn support exists to mutually benefit designers and dyers. Dyers provide yarn for a pattern sample, either for free or reduced cost, and in return the designers promote the yarn alongside their pattern. Ideally, people who like the pattern will then buy yarn from the dyer, and people who like the dyer's yarn will buy the pattern from the designer. In an industry with incredibly narrow profit margins, these relationships can really help give each small business a boost.

Sometimes yarn support is a casual agreement between two friends in the industry. Sometimes there is an actual, binding contract between both parties. Either way, a designer can't just take yarn support and then immediately start promoting another yarn—it's not ethical, and it hurts the dyer, who took a financial risk by providing the yarn support in the first place.

So say you've found a pattern that you absolutely HAVE to knit, but the suggested yarn is out of your budget. All is not lost! No matter what, you can ALWAYS substitute yarn, and it's not difficult to do! I personally have used the suggested yarn for a pattern only once or twice, and I can get pretty adventurous with my yarn substitutions, but here are some basics:
  • you want to be able to get gauge
  • you want to mimic the properties of the suggested yarn (CAVEAT: sometimes you might want to use a totally different fiber to get a whole new look, but this is beyond what I'm covering here)
You always have to swatch to be sure you're getting gauge, but you definitely want a yarn that is very close, if not identical, in weight to the suggested yarn. Now, words like "fingering," "DK," "worsted," and "super bulky" are close to meaningless. Sure, there are recommendations about what yarns fit in what category, but I've worked with plenty of yarns whose categorizations I firmly disagree with.

The real trick to yarn weight is wpi, or wraps per inch. To calculate wpi, take the yarn and wrap it around a ruler until you have filled one inch with no gaps in the yarn. The number of times you wrapped the yarn around the ruler is the wpi.

"But what if I don't know the wpi of the suggested yarn??" Well, that's why I have another trick for yarn weight. It's not quite as precise as wpi, but it gets you pretty dang close: yardage per gram. I've seen "worsted-weight" yarns with anywhere from 180 to 260 yards per 100g, and there's no way they'd be appropriate substitutions for one another. But if the suggested yarn is 220yds/100g, there's a lot of yarns that offer the same yardage for that weight.

When I'm substituting, I usually allow a grace of 10-20yds per 100g (so, if a suggested yarn is 200yds/100g, I might still substitute one that's 215yds/100g)—that difference doesn't affect the wpi too much. Now, some fibers weigh more than others, which is why this method is less accurate than wpi, but it works a lot more than it doesn't.

You can also try holding two or three strands of a thinner yarn together to get a thicker yarn! I've successfully held two fingering-weight strands together as a substitute for worsted weight. Again, the trick here is to swatch. If you want to knit a DK or worsted-weight sweater, but the yarns in your budget don't have the colors you want in those weights, check out fingering or lace-weight yarns to see if you can double up strands to create a one-of-a-kind substitute!

Of course, you always have to swatch your substitution yarn to make sure that 1. you get gauge, and 2. you like the fabric you're getting at that gauge. I can knit a sport-weight yarn at a worsted-weight gauge, but the fabric is going to be pretty flimsy, which we probably don't want. I could also knit a bulky-weight at a worsted-weight gauge, but that fabric would be so stiff and dense it'd have almost no drape. So. Always swatch.

(This is a do as I say, not as I do. If you want to be like me and skip swatching sometimes, you must be prepared to rip out a lot. If ripping out all the time sounds like no fun, get used to swatching.)

The second factor to consider is the properties of the fibers in the yarn. Alpaca behaves very differently from cotton, but also merino wool behaves very differently from, say, Peruvian wool. Superwash wool often (but not always) behaves differently than non-superwash. Eventually, the more you play around with different yarns and fibers the better you'll be at determining what works where. I love substituting fibers, and I've knit several sweaters that called for a sturdy wool yarn out of majority alpaca blends instead to get very different garments.

When you want a close substitution, you want as close a match to the individual fiber blend as possible. For example, if a suggested yarn is a blend of 80/20 wool/nylon, I'm going to look for yarns with 15-25% nylon to be a close match. If a yarn is 50/50 wool/alpaca, I definitely want at least 30% alpaca in my substitution yarn.

Now, some blends are going to cost more, even from more affordable retailers. If you want a merino/cashmere/silk blend, it's going to cost more than a 100% merino yarn. If you have the money for it, by all means, buy the blend! Yarn is not only a source material for finished items, it is entertainment and leisure, and we're allowed to spend money on it! But if you don't have that much money in your budget, you can absolutely substitute a 100% merino yarn, or a 10/90 cashmere/merino and get gorgeous results. Again, always swatch to be sure you are getting gauge with your substituted blend.

Now an extra tip: if you have questions about substituting yarns, ask your local yarn store! It’s literally their job to know different yarns and to be able to help you find what you’re looking for. They know a lot about all kinds of yarns, and even if they don’t carry the suggested yarn they’ll know what properties to help you look for based on the weight and fiber content. They can also tell you how different fibers and blends will behave in case you’re looking to use a completely different yarn than the one recommended.

My own LYS is an hour away, so I know this isn’t a convenient option for many people, but most of the time you can reach out via email—especially if you already have a relationship with your LYS owner. LYS owners are experts on yarn, and they want your project to be a success, so definitely take advantage of them if you can!

I sincerely hope these tips help you feel more confident about substituting yarns—and remember! You can always substitute with something completely different, it just might yield a slightly different finished object. The real trick is to always swatch so you know how your substitution yarn behaves, and that will help you predict how your final result will turn out!

**I did not mention acrylic yarns because I personally don't have much experience with them, but there are fantastic acrylic options at numerous price points, and they can act as substitutions for many fibers and blends—be adventurous and remember to swatch!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this out. You've provided thoughtful guidance on a common challenge and focused on what can be accomplished. Thank you for being a beacon of positivity, and keep up the great work!