Yarn Yammer: Substituting Yarns

So you have found a great pattern but you don’t have the yarn that is called for; you should just give up right?



There are many reasons why you might need to use a different yarn. Perhaps that yarn is no longer available. Maybe the cost of the yarn is too high, or you are working on shrinking your stash, and you’ve decided to pull from it for an alternative.

Some knitters don’t think twice about switching yarns, but some of us break into a cold sweat just thinking about it.

Today, I will try to help those of you in the later group to feel a bit more comfortable about making yarn substitutions!

There are four basic questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. Does my yarn match the gauge recommended in the pattern?
  2. Will my fabric turn out like it’s supposed to?
  3. Do I have enough?
  4. Is this the right type of yarn for what I am making?



Does my yarn match the gauge recommended in the pattern?

When you begin searching for substitute yarn, you’ll want to start with the yarn label. Check out the label of the specified yarn, if you can. If not, you can always do a little research online to find this information. First check the yarn manufacturers site, if the information is not there sites like Ravelry.com and Yarndex.com often have the manufacturers gauge information for current and discontinued yarns.

Most yarn manufacturers list the gauge on the label as if it were worked in stockinet stitch. So, if your pattern gives gauge information for stockinet stitch, it’s easy to figure out whether your choice will work by comparing the gauge of the listed yarn with your yarn’s given gauge. If not you will have to make up a swatch using the listed stitch pattern that is specified with the gauge listing in your pattern.

I cannot emphasize enough though the value of actually knitting up a swatch, and washing and blocking it to get an actual gauge comparison! (I know.. it’s a pain, but it saves a lot of pain too!)

Big changes to the gauge of your yarn will affect the finished knitted fabric. This leads to the next issue:


Will my fabric turn out like it’s supposed to?


Take some time to think about the finished garment. Should it drape softly like a shawl?  Is it stiffer like a knitted basket? There is nothing more frustrating than coming out with a sweater that stands up by itself, when it was actually supposed to drape gracefully around the wearer!

If there is texture knit into the fabric like cables, or moss stitch etc, will the yarn hide this? A textured yarn like a boucle or a fuzzy yarn, can obscure patterns like cables and the like. Also variegated yarns can do this as well.

If you have knit a gauge swatch in pattern, you will be able to determine if any of these issues plague your substitute yarn choice. If you haven’t, keep these things in mind when choosing your yarn. (and *cough* make a swatch!)

Now that you have the right gauge:

How much yarn will I need?

Now, it’s time for some math! (I know.. I’m a teacher.. there’s always math homework!)

Once you’ve found what you think is a spectacular yarn substitute, you will need to make sure you have enough! You will want to compare the length, not the weight, of the yarn called for in the pattern. Length is a more accurate measure than weight since yarns made with different materials have different densities, even though they may be the same length. (There I threw in some science too!)

So again look at your label, and your listed yarn requirements in you pattern.

If the pattern calls for 10 balls of yarn with a yardage of 120 yards, then you’ll need a total of 10 x 120 = 1200 yards.

Please make sure you are comparing the same measurements as well. Many yarn labels, and patterns list the yarn length in meters rather than yards. So check this carefully, and you can always use an online measurement conversion calculator to help you out!

You wouldn’t want to come up short!

So you have the right gauge and you have enough yarn but:

Is this the right type of yarn for what I am making?

Think about the stitches and techniques used in the project. Is it lace? Are there cables? Some yarns are rather stiff and hard to work into these types of stitch patterns. For example cotton, and some 100% acrylic yarns can be rather in-elastic and hard to work with, causing you all kinds of troubles! You wouldn’t want to break a peg!

What is the end use of the item? Using the wrong fiber, can cause you troubles in the long run here too! You won’t want to use wool for a summer garment. You will want to us cotton or some other absorbent yarn for making a dishcloth, towel or soaker!

Also take a moment to think about whether a certain yarn was called for, for its specific qualities. For example a designer may have called for a self-striping yarn to highlight a particular stitch pattern, like mitered squares or entrelac. So think about the overall finished look of the pattern and how your chosen yarn substitute will add or detract to the intent of the design’s aesthetic.


If you follow these steps, I am sure you will make some great yarn substitutions.