Choosing a Yarn

How do we choose the yarn for our projects? For me, more often than not, I find the yarn first and then find a project to match it. Sometimes, I’m lucky, and a pattern that has been floating around in the back of my mental queue leaps out as the Perfect Choice for a newfound yarn. But whether you start with the yarn or the project in mind, matching up yarn and pattern is critical to your knit.

Let me start by telling you about my very first project. It was a free tank top pattern I’d found online, and I read the materials section and determined that I needed 500 yards of a yarn that could be knit on a US 8 needle. Armed with only this knowledge, I set out to my very first LYS and enthusiastically selected a pink yarn whose ballband indicated it would be knit on US 8s. What I can tell you now that I didn’t know then is that the yarn I chose – for a tank top, meant to be worn next to the skin in the 100+ degree summer heat of Atlanta, GA – was a worsted weight, single-ply, 100% merino wool. Which is one of my favorite types of yarn, but it couldn’t have been a worse idea for this project, which I proudly wore a sum total of one, very uncomfortable, afternoon.

The main questions you should have when considering a yarn/fiber are: How warm will it be? What type of drape will it have? How much stitch definition will it provide? Fiber content is key! There are so many different types of fibers, and every one has its own unique properties that change the appearance, wearability, and durability of your project. If you are knitting a warm weather garment, such as my first tank top, you want to stick with cooler, lighter weight fibers like silk, cotton, or linen. If your project has a lot of texture or intricate stitchwork, you’ll want something with memory and less elasticity to give stitch definition, typically a wool or wool blend. If your project should be drape-y, like a shawl, you’ll want something with less elasticity like silk or a silk blend.

Wool – wool is warm, and has a lot of elasticity and memory. Wool helps a garment hold its shape, and it springs back after being stretched. There are as many types of wool as there are types of fiber, but most types of wool share these important traits.
Alpaca – wool’s favorite cousin, alpaca is one of the warmest fibers you can choose. It has an average amount of memory but very little elasticity – garments knit in alpaca and alpaca blends will hold their shape relatively well, but will be drapier than 100% wool and will not spring back much after being stretched.
Silk – silk holds warmth in but is also lightweight, breathable, and remains cool to the touch, making it an okay choice for summerwear. It has a good memory but virtually no elasticity – projects knit with silk will drape nicely, but can also get heavy and lose their shape if they are very large. For sweaters, a blend of silk and wool provides a nice balance to give structure as well as drape.
Cotton – the most breathable of the major fibers! Cotton is perfect for warm weather gear or summer-weight blankets, but keep in mind that it has no real memory or elasticity. Garments knit in 100% cotton can stretch and sag, making seamed knits a better candidate for these yarns.

How do blends affect these properties? If your yarn is a 50/50 blend, like SweetGeorgia Merino Silk Aran, each fiber contributes equally, giving what I like to think of as 50% of its properties to the final yarn. Using percentages to describe this is fairly inexact, but should help you to visualize if you’ve never touched or knit with a blend before! A 50/50 wool/silk blend will have shine from the silk, but will be about half as shiny as a 100% silk yarn. Likewise, it will have memory and elasticity from the wool, but only about half as much as a 100% wool yarn.

If your blend has a predominant fiber, like, your yarn will be mostly like the predominant fiber but will have some characteristics of the other contributors. River is a great example of this – a 40/30/30 blend of alpaca, silk, and merino, River behaves most like alpaca and has the warmth, hairiness (let’s call it wooliness!), and drape of alpaca. But the silk adds a dreamy softness and a subtle shine, and because of the wool content, River still has very nice stitch definition and elasticity.

Warmth should also factor into your decision about yarn weight, unless you’re knitting something that won’t be worn. A pair of gloves or mittens will be much warmer knit in worsted weight than fingering weight yarn, so you take this into account when deciding. I live in Georgia, so fingering weight gloves are eminently more practical than worsted weight gloves, which make a ton of sense during a New England winter. For those of us living in the warmer areas of the country, many popular sweater patterns will never get worn unless you swap out the worsted and bulky weight yarns for fingering and sportweight yarns. This requires some gauge conversion, but the result is well worth it – you’ll have sweaters you can wear 4-5 months of the year rather than the one week you’re traveling to New Jersey to visit your family.

Your other concern is what gauge you are wanting to knit. This is in many ways a personal choice, even with a specific pattern in mind. What gauge do you like knitting at, what size needles do you enjoy using, and how does the yarn you’ve chosen look at that gauge? If your head is spinning yet, you can understand why it’s sometimes difficult for us to answer someone who says, “I’m knitting a sweater, what yarn would you recommend?”

Every yarn comes with a gauge recommendation, but it is only a recommendation. There are many yarns that I prefer to knit at a different gauge than specified on the label. The only real way to know is to knit it up on various needle sizes and compare the fabrics you get. Knitting at a tighter gauge than recommended should yield a denser, more durable material with less drape and fewer holes – you’d want this for things like socks and gloves that are meant to insulate and be hard-wearing, or for stuffed toys where you don’t want the stuffing to poke out. Knitting at a looser gauge gives you a softer, drapier fabric, perfect for shawls, capes, even a luxe sweater.

I like knitting worsted weight yarn between 4-4.5 stitches per inch for sweaters; for me this is the perfect balance of function and form, with even durability to last several seasons and enough drape for my sense of aesthetics. I will knit these yarns at this gauge even when the label says to use 5 stitches per inch, which for me is often too dense.

And then, lastly, there is the issue of color. I will never deign to tell someone else what color their project should be, as this is entirely personal, but yarns tend to fall into three groups and I think it is always a good idea to pick a group before embarking on your final color decision.

Solids – I’m talking machine-dyed, 100% solid colors. No tonal variations, no hidden depth of color, just plain, old-fashioned red. Or black. Or insert your color here. Are these boring? Maybe a little. But they’re also practical, and sometimes they are exactly what the project needs. Intricate lace or cables often beg for this kind of simplicity in yarn color.
Semi-solids – These are the hand-dyed version of solids, and they are exceptionally lovely. Within one skein of red, you may find eight different shades, layered one of top of the other and always subtly shifting. These may include more than one color, but all will be in the same family and tone (for example, three different shades of pink). They can add depth to a lace project and are stunning in simpler stitch patterns, and even moderate cable and lacework. Most people will prefer this type of yarn for most sweater patterns, as you get the depth of color change without any pooling as in variegateds.
Variegateds – These are the anything goes yarns. They can be as mild as combining similar colors (pink, red, white) or wildly different colors (purple, yellow, black). Variegated yarns can be intoxicating in their skeins, but many an unsuspecting knitter has been dismayed to find their pretty yarn has rendered their complex stitchwork invisible. Variegated yarns love to be knit into simpler stitch patterns – stockinette of course, but also stitches such as seed stitch and reverse stockinette, which temper the color changes while still proudly displaying the yarn’s beauty. In moderation these can even work with very open lace patterns for the same reason.

Once you decide if you want your project to be knit in a variegated yarn, a semi-solid, or a solid yarn, your color choices become a little easier, and you can simply pick the color you like best within that range! There are also two other color categories that we hear about a lot, but to be honest I’m not sure what they mean – “baby” colors and “man” colors. Don’t let yourself be constrained by stereotypes – any color can be appropriate for a baby item; babies like bold colors too. And as for men, I think we all know there are as many types of men in the world as there are colors, so to label something a “man” color or “not a man” color seems insulting to men, to me. Now, a “Dan” color and “not a Dan” color is another story…

Yarn Substitution: Part One

Some of the most common questions we are asked by our customers are, “Can I make X out of Y yarn?,” “Can I use A color to make B?,” and the umbrella question that covers it all, “I’d like to make a sweater, what yarn can I use?” To which our answers are, of course, absolutely, and any yarn that you please!

Knitting, to me, is all about personal choice, and it has always been my general philosophy that the yarn and the patterns were simply there to give me the tools to make the things *I* want to make, the way that I want to make them. I knit for the pleasure of it. I knit because it’s relaxing to me. I knit because I love to watch the way the needles turn string into fabric, and because I love the way a yarn feels running through my hands as I knit it up. So I don’t knit anything I don’t want to (unless it is for a gift from someone very, very special – then, there are sometimes exceptions). I don’t really like knitting socks, so I don’t really knit socks. I love knitting sweaters, so I cast on for a new one practically every week. Laceweight yarn tends to make me crazy, so I don’t knit with a lot of laceweight, even if I want to make a lace shawl. A nice squooshy worsted weight pleases me deeply (plus, it knits up so quickly!), so I knit with a lot of worsted weight yarns.

So, how do you get it your way, even when the pattern is written another way? Issue the first: yarn substitution.

There are two kinds of yarn substitution. The one that I’ll talk about today is subbing in like for like. This type of substitution, I think, is much simpler – this is when you want a yarn that is the same weight as the yarn used in the pattern but don’t actually want to use the yarn in the pattern. If you are subbing in like for like, there are basically two key issues to consider:

Fiber content – Certain types of fiber have a dramatic effect on the way a yarn knits up, hangs, and wears (silk, cotton, I’m looking at you here). Silk, for example, offers a lot of drape and almost no stretch, while wool tends to be very springy with less drape. A sweater knit from a 100% wool yarn will be less drape-y than the same sweater knit from a 100% silk yarn, which may stretch and lose its shape. Even in a smaller category like wool, a superwash merino wool is typically a lot more densely spun and has less halo than something like a blue-faced leicester wool, giving the same garment knit with each yarn a different appearance. Unless you are prepared to modify your garment to combat differences in fiber types, it is usually best to stick with a yarn that has comparable fiber content to the yarn called for in the pattern.

Plied versus single-ply – If the yarn used in the pattern is plied, substituting a single-ply yarn will give you a garment with a more relaxed drape (after blocking) and less stitch definition. Conversely, substituting a plied yarn for a single-ply will yield a crisper stitch definition. This can be detrimental to patterns that utilize halo, such as the ever-popular Whisper Cardigan (Ravelry link). For the Whisper Cardigan, which was knit with a single-ply (Malabrigo Lace), if you substitute in a plied laceweight like Madelinetosh Tosh Lace, your stitches will show more crisply, making the sweater look almost gossamer from afar and possibly too hole-y up close. To avoid this, typically you’ll want to move up one yarn weight when subbing a plied yarn for a single-ply yarn (Tosh Sock, in this case, would be a better choice).

Substituting in plied yarns for patterns that call for single-ply yarns can also add durability if you are concerned about wear and tear on your particular project. SweetGeorgia’s Merino Silk Aran is a great plied substitute for Lorna’s Laces Lion & Lamb, for example, because it offers a similar yarn weight with similar fiber contents so the yarn’s look and feel will be similar. However, the finished garment will certainly have less drape in the SweetGeorgia, due to the plies, so it is something to keep in mind.

Keep in mind also that these are merely guidelines, and only apply if you like the way the designer’s finished project looks. If you like his/her version but think you’d prefer something a little different, small changes like fiber content or number of plies are an easy way to do just that without a lot of extra math. Or, if you’re like me, you always to knit a pattern in a yarn weight and fiber type that is totally different from the original pattern, and then you have to move to the second type of yarn substitution, when you just sub in the yarn you want to use and do the math to make it work. And that … is going to have to be a whole ‘nother blog post! With pictures, too, next time.