By Sandi Rosner
If you want to duplicate the look and feel of the sample garment you fell in love with in a photograph, the surest route is to use the same yarn. But sometimes that just isn't possible. Perhaps the yarn called for in the pattern has been discontinued. Maybe you're on a stash reduction campaign. Or maybe the original yarn is simply out of your price range. Whatever the reason, the time will come when you need to substitute yarn. In this article, we'll talk about the ins and outs of choosing a yarn other than the one specified in the pattern.
The first factor to consider in choosing an alternative yarn is gauge. Just about every contemporary pattern will specify the number of stitches and rows per inch/centimeter for which it is designed. If you don't match this gauge, your piece will not come out the size specified in the pattern. Now for a shawl or a throw, this might not be a problem. For a garment that is supposed to fit, it is critical.
Gauge Your Options
Successful substitution—especially for a sweater or other item that is sized to fit—starts with a swatch. (I wrote in detail about swatching and measuring gauge in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue; you can find that article here.
Luckily, most yarns can be worked in a range of gauges. Try a larger needle for a looser gauge, or a smaller needle for a tighter one. Don't rely too much on the yarn label. You may think that all yarns labeled DK are the same size, but they're not. Yarn size standards are loosely defined, and each yarn manufacturer is free to use whatever classification they choose. Worsted weight, in particular, is a term applied to a broad range of yarns. Not all yarns labeled worsted are the same.
These three yarns are all labeled as worsted weight but they are not the same.
The gauge recommendations shown on yarn labels are also, at best, just a starting point. I often find I prefer working to a tighter gauge than the yarn manufacturer recommends. Make swatches and measure for yourself.
Sometimes you have your heart set on using a certain yarn for a certain pattern, but you can't match the gauge. Should you go ahead anyway? That depends. Are you willing and able to re-work the numbers in the pattern so you get the size you need at the gauge you've got? If this sort of math is not your strong point, do you know someone who would be willing to do it for you? Check with your local yarn shop; they may be able to provide this service to customers for a fee.
I've often seen comments from knitters who try to compensate for a gauge mismatch by using the pattern instructions for a larger or smaller size. Beware this sort of advice! Garment proportions do not remain the same from size to size. Picture two women you know: one a size extra-small, and the other a size extra-large. While their sweater circumference may differ by 12" / 30.5 cm or more, their shoulder width will only differ by about 2" / 5 cm. Using instructions for a different size to accommodate a different gauge will likely result in an ill-fitting sweater, because it will be proportioned incorrectly for your size.
So you've made your swatches, and you are able to match the pattern gauge with your proposed substitute yarn. Don't stop there! Spend some time critically evaluating your swatch. Remember, when we knit we are making fabric, usually for clothes. Do you like the fabric you've made?
Is it too loose? Unless you're knitting a lace pattern, you probably don't want to be able to see through your knitting. Fabric knit too loosely is vulnerable to snags, and garments made from such fabric are likely to sag out of shape.
Is it too tight? Unless you're knitting a handbag, you probably don't want your knitting to stand up by itself. While durable, fabric knit too tightly will be stiff and unyielding. Spend some time studying your pattern for clues about the fabric in the original piece. Look at the photograph. Does the garment flow and drape? Does the collar stand up? Does it look thick and chunky, or light and airy? Does your swatch match those qualities?
Find whatever information you can about the original yarn. Compare the fiber content. If the sample was knit with a linen and rayon blend, you're going to have a very different sweater if you use a superwash Merino wool. I once designed a sweater using a cotton-and-elastic blend yarn. It was entirely ribbed, with cables nipping it in at the waistline. I got a message on Ravelry from a knitter who was very disappointed. She had knit the design in a cotton and silk blend, and it was saggy and loose. Without the elastic in the original yarn, she had no hope of duplicating the sample sweater.
That doesn't mean that you can only substitute wool for wool, or cotton for cotton. Just be aware of the trade-offs. The wool sweater will be lighter in weight, warmer, and more resilient. It may be too warm for your climate and may require extra care. The cotton sweater will be cooler, and will likely be machine washable. It may be prone to stretching out of shape.
Consider the degree of stitch definition shown in your swatch. If you were drawn to your pattern by intricate textured stitch patterns, you want to be sure your alternative yarn shows those patterns off. A mottled tweed or brushed mohair will tend to obscure your stitchwork.
I recently finished knitting Olivette as a treat for myself. The original yarn, Schulana Sumerino, is a tightly twisted, multi-ply extra-fine Merino wool. While I would have loved to knit my Olivette with this yarn, I had a bag of Lorna's Laces Haymarket sitting in my stash. Haymarket is a loosely spun single-ply Bluefaced Leicester wool. These are two very different yarns which work to the same gauge.
The original Olivette has crisply defined stitches, and a smooth, almost glossy, surface. It is drapey, while retaining lots of bounce. My Olivette has a softer, fuzzier surface. The individual stitches are less clear, and the cardigan leans more toward cozy than polished. It is a very different sweater, and I love it.
Olivette's stitch pattern in Sumerino.
Olivette's stitch pattern in Haymarket.
Take your pattern and swatch in hand and ask yourself this question: Will you wear and love this garment made from this fabric? If the answer is no, move on to another yarn and pattern pairing. If the answer is yes, pick up your needles and cast on!
Sandi Rosner is a knitter who wears many hats: designer, technical editor, writer and teacher. She loves the little details that elevate a knitting project from homemade to handmade. Follow her blog at www.knittinginwinecountry.blogspot.com.