Ariel Altaras of Stariel Knits shares her thoughts on how to choose the right yarn for your project.
Working at a yarn store, people often ask me how to pick yarn for their project. Sometimes the suggested yarn isn’t available, or isn’t exactly what you want. There are several things you need to consider when substituting yarn for a project.
Yarn Weight and Amount
Many patterns will tell you the weight of the yarn you should use. In this case it’s pretty easy to make sure the yarn you substitute is the right weight. But, if the weight isn’t given, it isn’t always easy to figure out the weight of a specific yarn mentioned. The gauge is a good place to start, but sometimes yarns are knit tighter or looser than the recommended gauge to achieve a specific type of fabric. Ravelry is a great resource for looking up yarns you are not familiar with.
Similarly, the yarn amount may be given as number of balls, grams, ounces, or yards. To substitute, the number of yards is the most accurate. If possible look up yarns to determine how many yards per ball and grams or ounces per ball.
Once you know the amount and weight of yarn to buy, the next thing to consider is the fiber content. Different fibers have different properties. A garment knit in wool will be very different than one knit in cotton – the cotton garment will be heavier, not as warm, more likely to stretch out, and generally not have as much stitch definition. The wool garment will be warmer, lighter, keep its shape better, and show a stitch texture better. But there are less obvious differences as well. Alpaca, even though it is an animal fiber, doesn’t have the same springy quality as wool and may not show a cable or textured pattern as well. Fibers like silk and bamboo can give a yarn both drape and shine.
For a larger project, it’s ideal to swatch a yarn at the recommended gauge, and make sure you like the fabric you’re getting. But for a quick substitution, a yarn that is similar to the recommended one will be the most likely to give you a finished project like the pattern sample.
The construction of the yarn can also affect the fabric it produces. Tight vs. loose twist, plied vs. cabled yarns, single vs. multiple plies. All of these properties will affect the behavior of your knitted fabric. If you want your project to look like the pattern picture, try to pick a yarn with a similar construction.
The color or colors of yarn can have a big influence on how the finished object looks. Here is the same pattern (Monkey by Cookie A) knit in solid, semisolid, and variegated yarns:
You can see with a solid color that the stitch pattern really has a chance to show off.
The semi-solid yarn still shows the pattern quite well, though not as well as the solid yarn.
The variegated yarn distracts quite a bit from the stitch pattern.
Monkey is a pattern that I think actually works quite well with most yarns, but you can definitely see the difference in pattern visibility when using a solid vs. a variegated yarn.
Color choice is a matter of personal preference, but do take the stitch pattern into account when making your choice. Stockinette stitch, garter stitch, or simple textured stitch patterns are good choices for variegated yarns, since the stitch pattern is not intended to be the focus of the knitted item. To show off lace or intricate cables, solid or nearly solid yarns are best. Semisolid or tonal yarns are a good middle ground. Depending on the amount of color variation they can show off patterns quite well, and they pair well with less intricate lace and cables too.
But, in the end, the most important factor to consider when choosing yarn is whether you like it, and like the look it produces with the pattern you’ve chosen. When in doubt, swatch!
Ariel knits and designs socks and accessories in Seattle, assisted by audiobooks, Scandinavian cinema, and her cats. She also works at her local yarn store and blogs at http://www.starielknits.com.