Substituting Yarn

(edit to add: If you are more of a visual learner I have made a video where I discuss this subject in a little more depth than this post. Check it out by clicking on this link to YouTube.)

In my last post I mentioned that I am trying to create a different look for the Scarab Shawl by making a new version in a different yarn. Which brings to mind an issue near and dear to many knitters hearts; knitting a pattern in a yarn other than the one called for by the designer.

Substituting yarn.

Tons of fun for some people, an enigma wrapped in a riddle for others. So I am gonna try and shed a little light on the subject for those who find themselves wandering around their LYS scratching their heads while clutching a skein of yarn to their chest.

First off – not all yarn in a given stated weight is precisely what it says it is. Think of the different yarn weights as more of a range of sizes as opposed to a single size of yarn. You can have light fingering, standard fingering and heavy fingering all labeled fingering. That being said, yarn typically comes in the following weights (in increasing order of size):

  1. Cobweb
  2. Lace
  3. Fingering (or Knitting weight in the UK/Europe)
  4. Sport (not particularly available outside of North/South America)
  5. DK (which stands for Double Knitting)
  6. Worsted (not particularly available outside of North/South America)
  7. Aran (double the weight of DK)
  8. Chunky/Bulky

On a basic level, if you are looking at the UK designations there is actually a logical progression of weights. If you double Lace-weight you get Knitting-weight. If you double Knitting-weight you get DK. Double DK = Aran, it is all logical kinda like the metric system.

Both Sport weight & worsted weights were US inventions for yarns to fall into the ‘in between’ spots. Double Sport weight and you get Worsted, and if you double Worsted you get Chunky/Bulky! There are very fine lines between the weights of these yarns, which is why I prefer to look at the yardage vs weight to decide if something is going to substitute.

Take Madeline Tosh DK, I am working on a pattern in it right now and it is a beautiful yarn.

This skein is in use for my new pattern “Earl Grey” is the colorway

It says DK right in the name right? Well, if you were wanting to substitute yarn in a pattern designed for this yarn it might help you more to look at the yardage vs weight. In a 100g skein of this yarn you get 225 yards. Doing a quick search in the Ravelry yarn database and selecting >DK>Wool I see that Rowan has a lovely DK weight wool called Pure Wool which might work out for me. But lets look deeper.

Pure wool comes in 50 g skeins with 136 yards per skein. Multiplying this out to match the 100 g of Madeline Tosh you get 272 yards per 100 grams. Hmmmm? When you take the same weight of the same fiber (wool here) and stretch it out to have more yardage you will end up with skinnier yarn. Comparing 225 y/100 g to 272 y/100 g, the Rowan is going to be much thinner yarn.

In contrast, lets look at the stats for a very popular ‘Worsted’ weight yarn. Cascade 220 tells you right there in the name that it has 220 yards in its 100 g skein. At the very lightest end of what can be considered worsted weight, Cascade 220 would be a better substitution choice for Madeline Tosh DK than the Rowan DK.

You might notice that I stuck to comparing wool to wool. That is because other fibers weigh in differently and open up another can of worms. Fiber content changes not only the weight of the skein, but also changes the way the yarn behaves. Some fibers are much more “drapey” than others, which can or can not be desirable depending on the pattern. A short and non-comprehensive list of fibers that can make your yarn more “drapey” would include: alpaca, silk, tencel, and bamboo.

Another thing that can significantly effect how a yarn knits up is the structure of the yarn itself. Single ply vs plied yarns and the different kinds of plied yarns all knit up differently. Sticking to something that is similar in content and construction to the originally called for yarn can help you be more successful in substituting yarn. edited to add: If you are interested in a deeper discussion on these different elements that effect yarn substitution check out this video on the subject.

I think I successfully obfuscated the end product with this photo

And for those of you who have read through allย  of my babbling, here is a sneak peek into the Tosh DK pattern that I referred to. It is a fun & easy pattern that I cannot wait to release. But I have to wait for my awesome test knitters!


10 thoughts on “Substituting Yarn

  1. This is THE most helpful yarn substitution post I’ve read – I’ve always struggled with this before, trying to find a suitable UK alternative for US-based patterns on Ravelry. I love your suggestion regarding comparing yardage per weight – that hadn’t occurred to me before. Thank you!

    • Thank you for your kind words. I am glad that this was helpful to you. There are many different ways to go about doing this but the yardage/weight has always made the most sense to me. I think that everyone’s brain works differently and different methods “click” with different brains. Apparently your brain is similar to mine. My condolences.๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. You are a Godsend! I am fairly new at knitting. Following a pattern is one thing, but shaking it up to fit your own needs is another! ๐Ÿ™‚ This is the only thing that I have read that transcends all possible substitution applications. In hindsight it seems so logical and simple but, like Barbara, it never entered my mind to think of it that way. THANK YOU!

  3. This is such a great piece on yarn substitution! In your opinion, what is the maximum different in yardage (given that weight is the same) that you would go before deciding that a yarn is not a good substitute? You cite an example in your post: Cascade, a better substitute for Madeline Tosh than Rowan. The yardage difference was 5 yards. When substituting yarn, have you ever had a yardage difference be more than that?

    • Hmm, well the yardage difference between the MadTosh & the Cascade was 5 yards where the difference between the MadTosh & the Rowan was almost 50 yards. In that particular example it was a no-brainer.๐Ÿ˜‰ Unfortunately this is more of an art than a science and it really depends on the yarns being considered. I would say up to 10 yards over/under should be OK, but it would all depend on the spin, ply and other characteristics of the yarns being compared.

      I have been known to go a bit further with substitutions, but with the knowledge that I am going to have to do some fudging to “make it work”. I hadn’t really thought of your question before, I might have to pay closer attention to that aspect and see if I can cook up a good guide.

  4. I was looking for some hints about how to compare alpaca yarn weights to wool yarn. Wondering if, for example, a 100 g skein of alpaca would have more or less yardage than wool….

    • I am afraid I don’t know if it will be more or less – but I am pretty confident that it will be different. One of the benefits of Alpaca is that it has a higher insulation factor in relation to its weight than wool does. Which means that you will have lighter weight pieces that are just as warm as most wool. Although the lack of lanolin makes it less water resistant, so there is a trade off.

      But I don’t know how this specifically translates in yardage/weight. I bet there are books out there that talk about this, but not one that I have yet read. Sorry.

  5. Thanks. I m a beginner from India and all the specifications are so different here. The weight vs length concept helped a lot. Thanks again๐Ÿ™‚

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