Annette Petavy Design – Newsletter April 2014 – Yarn substitution

This month I had an e-mail conversation with Sarah in Switzerland. She wanted to make the OXIXO jacket using another yarn than in the original. It’s true that while the wool from the French Alps that Nathalie used in her jacket is locally produced and very nice, it comes in only two colours, cream and grey. Sarah wanted to go for something more colourful.

Explaining to Sarah how I go about substituting one yarn for another sparked the idea to discuss this topic in the newsletter – so here we go!

If you are used to using the US system of yarn categories (fingering, sport, DK, worsted, etc.), it’s quite useful for substituting yarns. If you are making an accessory, such as a shawl, and you substitute a yarn with another in the same category and with the same type of fiber content (see below), chances are that your substitution will be successful. However, sometimes you might want to be more precise – or simply to understand why a yarn substitution you’ve already made turned out the way it did.

Length/weight ratio

The first thing I look at is the length/weight ratio. Yarns are generally put up in 50 g or 100 g balls (or skeins). For each ball, the meterage (or yardage) is indicated. This could be, for example, 85 m (92 yds) per 50 g (for a typical worsted weight yarn) or 400 m (440 yds) per 100 g for a standard fingering weight yarn. Generally, when substituting a yarn, you will look for a yarn with a similar length/weight ratio to the one used in the pattern.

This doesn’t mean that you will necessarily substitute a yarn with the same put-up. If the yarn used in the pattern comes in 50 g balls, you will perhaps use a yarn that comes in 25 g balls, 100 g skeins, or 250 g hanks, or any other quantity. To check if another yarn matches the length/weight ratio of the one you want to use, start with the yarn used in the pattern. Say it’s a fingering weight yarn at 180 m per 50 g ball.  180/50 = 3.6. You have a very nice yarn already, at 400 m per 100 g. 400/100 = 4.

Is that close enough?

We will want another indication to feel surer. We can get one from the gauge indicated on the ball band.

Indicated gauge

On the band or label of each ball or skein of yarn (or on the seller’s website), you will most often find an indicated gauge. This is almost always the gauge for 10 cm (4″) of knitted stockinette stitch, with the needle size indicated on the ball band. It is supposed to be a « normal » gauge for a « normal » knitter using the specified size of needles and the specific yarn. « Normality » is a very odd notion when it comes to hand knitting, but it’s still an indication.

This is not always directly correlated to the length/weight ratio discussed above. Depending on fiber content and the way a yarn is spun, two yarns with the same length/weight ratio can knit up to very different gauges. This is why gauge is an important point of comparison as well.

In our example above, the indicated gauge for both yarns might well be 28 sts = 10 cm (4″). In this case, if the fiber content is similar, you can be rather confident that the substitution will work out well, and that the shape and size of your project will be very close to the shape and size of the initial design. If, still using the same example, the gauge for one yarn is 26 sts per 10 cm, and for the other 30 sts per 10 cm, you will have to judge the importance of the difference for the specific project. If it’s a shawl or a scarf, or perhaps a loose-fitting jacket, it might work out just fine, especially if you carefully check your gauge before starting. However, if you want to make, say, a close-fitting garment, perhaps you should buy a single ball and make a swatch before you buy enough yarn for an entire dress.

Fiber content

When substituting yarns, the fiber content is also a very important consideration. Often, this has less to do with the possibility of getting gauge when making a swatch, and more to do with how your project will behave once it’s finished and put to use.

First, the « halo », or less romantically put, the « hairiness » of the yarn is an important factor. An obvious example is laceweight mohair yarn. Many mohair yarns are spun very finely, at around 1,000 m per 100 g, and sold in 25-g balls containing  200—250 meters of yarn. However, the fluffiness of the fiber makes it behave very differently as compared to a smooth laceweight yarn. You will need to work the mohair with a larger hook or larger needles to let the fibers « breathe ». The « fluff » of the fiber will still fill out the spaces between and in the stitches, to make for a cohesive fabric.

When I set out to work the sample for the Buttercream Shawl, published in the spring 2014 issue of Interweave Crochet, there was a mistake in the yarn order. I received a much thicker mohair yarn than planned. I still tried to work it with the hook size I had planned for. The lovely, soft, beautiful yarn I received turned into a matted, dull and rigid swatch. Letting fluffy fibers « breathe » is important! (And yes, I asked for another yarn and received a beautiful laceweight in replacement.)

Alpaca is another fiber that, depending on the way it’s spun, can be quite fluffy and fill in open spaces. When I worked a winter version of the popular Summer Breeze pattern in light fingering weight alpaca, I had to use a hook two sizes bigger than the one used for the laceweight bamboo version in the original. Still, the length/weight ratio of the alpaca is 275m/50g = 5.5, and for the bamboo it’s 300m/50g = 6. The difference is not huge. You could have expected the same size hook to work, or at the most one size bigger, but the « halo » of the alpaca needed more space to breathe.

Aside from the « fluffiness » of the yarn, the fiber content is also important as it influences the stretchiness and the « memory » of the crocheted or knitted fabric.

Wool is generally quite stretchy, and also has good « memory ». This means that it will most often return to the shape it was crocheted or knitted into after wear and/or wash. Alpaca, bamboo and silk are fibers that have little to no memory (in the case of alpaca, it depends a lot on how it was spun). They will have beautiful drape and flow, but once they are stretched out they will not easily return to their original shape.

If you choose the Fingerless Mittens for Spring pattern and want to make your mittens in a soft and smooth bamboo, chances are that even if you find a bamboo yarn in the right weight and gauge, you’ll be disappointed after wearing your mittens a couple of times. Fingerless mittens need to fit well around your wrist and hand. The ribbing around the wrist needs to stretch out when you pull it over your hand, and the body of the mitten needs to accommodate your movements. However, worked in a yarn with hardly any elasticity or memory at all, it’s possible that they soon will be much too stretched-out and floppy.

So, for a successful substitution, look for a yarn with a similar fiber content to the one used in the original design.

Substitute something different

Up till now, I have assumed that you wanted to use a yarn as close as possible to the one in the original design. However, the world of yarn would be a sad place if the only thing we did was to reproduce next-to-identical items. Sometimes this is what we want, but sometimes, we want to make something different.

Accessories that don’t need to fit in a specific way, such as shawls or scarves, are the perfect playground for this. I have seen beautiful versions of the Organic stole worked in laceweight yarns. Once, the crocheter used the same hook as in the original version but a much thinner yarn, adding repeats as indicated in the pattern. The result was a gorgeous, flowing stole. Another time, one of my French customers used the London laceweight yarn and a smaller hook. It made for a beautiful wool and silk scarf that looked almost woven.

You can, of course, also use heavier weight yarns than in the original design. If it’s a scarf or shawl, just remember to use a larger hook so that the fabric retains its drape.

Do you have questions or comments on the topic of subsituting yarns? Feel free to share them in the comment section below!

See you soon!


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