On Yarn Substitution

Notes for the Knitter and The Designer
There has been been a lot of discussion recently about yarn substitution for knitting patterns. That is, when a knitter is unable (for myriad excellent and valid reasons) to use the yarn that a designer lists for a pattern.

I want to provide some context from the perspective of a pattern writer and technical editor, and some suggestions for both designer and knitter.

I’m focusing here only on what’s in the pattern itself. I won’t – and can’t – address the topic of the choice of the yarn used for the sample. There are so many reasons why a particular yarn is used: it might be one the designer loves, it might be one that was lying around her their stash during lockdown, it might be one that is provided free by a yarn company in exchange for promotion, it might be one that was mandated by a publication. Sometimes it’s not the designer’s choice.

This is about how yarn information is provided in the pattern, with a view to making suggestions to designers to help make it easier for knitters to choose yarn. And I also want to illuminate some of the information we provide to help knitters understand what’s there, and how it can help with making your yarn choice.

A Knitting Pattern Should, At An Absolute Minimum, Include The Following:

YarnCompanyName YarnName (x yds/m per xx oz/xx gm ball/skein; x% Fibre1, x%Fiber2, …. ); 
x (x, x, x, x, …. ) skeins used; sample uses color X
x sts/x rows (rounds) = 4 inches/10 cm in stockinette stitch

For example, it might look like this, for a pattern that has three sizes:

VeryNiceYarnCompany’s Best Worsted Wool (220 yds/200 m per 4 oz/115 g skein; 50% Blue-Face Leicester, 
50% Merino); 4 (5, 6) skeins used; sample uses colour Beautiful Blue
20 sts/28 rows (rounds) = 4 inches/10 cm in stockinette stitch

The pattern is simply incomplete without this information. All this information. Even if you’re not buying that yarn, the information is a good guide – total (estimated) yardage required can be calculated by multiplying yardage per skein by the number of skeins. And the fibre content is an obvious guide for shopping.

(Note to designers: the formatting used here is just a suggestion. This is basically how I do, the way the information presented is entirely up to you. And I’m using yards here, but metric measurements are equally applicable!)

Dearest Designer:

Make your yarn and gauge information complete. The better information you give, the higher chance your knitter has of being successful with their project – and the happier they will be with you and your patterns!

Dearest Knitter:

If the pattern doesn’t provide all the information I’ve listed above… consider choosing another pattern. It’s missing crucial information that you need to be successful!

Yes, Gauge is a Tool for Yarn Substitution

The gauge tells you what “weight”/thickness/category of yarn you’re looking for…. And I’m talking here specifically about the stockinette stitch gauge.

Even if the item is worked in an all-over pattern stitch – lace, cables, seed stitch, ribbing, whatever – the stockinette stitch gauge helps identify the “thickness” of yarn you’re looking for.

After all, there are lots of yarns that are called Worsted, but there’s a lot of variance in how thick they are, and how they knit up. Same for Fingering, DK, etc. A yarn weight name is a category, it’s not precise enough on its own for yarn selection. (And those category numbers? Same thing – they get you in the right section of the yarn shop, that’s it! They’re ranges.) The stockinette gauge is what’s used on the yarn label, so that’s how you can identify more precisely what to buy.

And of course, if the item is worked in an all-over pattern stitch – lace, cables, seed stitch, ribbing, whatever – you should also give the pattern stitch gauge.

Dearest Designer:

Please add stockinette stitch gauge to all your patterns. If it’s an all-over pattern stitch, or the pattern stitch uses a needle different than the usual for that yarn, it’s worth making a note that you don’t necessarily expect them to swatch in stockinette stitch, – e.g. this pattern uses a yarn that typically knits to x sts/x rows in 10 cm/4 inches using size x needles.

Dearest Knitter:

Use the stockinette gauge to identify the yarn to use, and use the pattern stitch gauge to identify the needles you need (to match gauge).

On Needle Size

You might have noticed that needle size is not listed in the gauge. This might surprise you, but it’s actually optional. We include it by habit, but there’s a risk in doing that… the risk is that we make it seem like that needle size listed is sacred. The needle size listed in the pattern is simply a recommendation. Most of the time, it’s just the needle the designer used. You may well need a different needle size. (This, BTW, is what swatching is all about: making sure you’re using the needle that’s right for you.)

Obviously, if there’s more than one needle size used in a pattern, for example, one for the ribbing and one for the body of the sweater, then the gauge should specify which of the needle sizes is required, which might lead to:

20 sts/28 rows (rounds) = 4 inches/10 cm in stockinette stitch using larger needles

If the needle size is listed, use that as a starting point for your swatching (unless, of course, you know that you’re habitually a looser or tighter knitter; adjust accordingly). And don’t be dismayed if you need a different size to get the same fabric: no two knitters knit exactly alike.


Adding More Yarn Information

Designers can help knitters a lot by adding a sentence or two to their patterns about why they chose a particular fibre/yarn/texture/colouring. This isn’t an ad for a particular yarn brand or type, this is to communicate how the properties of the yarn used work in the project, and what characteristics tare important if seeking a substitution. This can be simple, or complicated, depending on how much the design relies on those key characteristics.

For example:

“Make sure you’re choosing something that feels good on the skin, and is easy-care for this baby sweater: it should be safe for both machine wash and dry.”

“This top is designed for hot weather: look for linen or hemp or other fibres that breathe. The slight stiffness of those fibers enhances the a-line shape.”

“This design uses stranded colourwork. It looks best if you choose a sticky yarn with elasticity, so the fabric can be smoothed with blocking. A rustic (woolen-spun) wool or wool blend is best.”

“This two-colour brioche project works best when worked with a solid colour and a variegated yarn that are highly contrasting: a variegated yarn that’s too close to the solid isn’t as effective, as the patterning won’t be visible.”

“The fine and detailed patterning in this openwork lace shawl looks best if worked in a solid or semi-solid colourway. It benefits from a good stretch when blocking, and so a yarn that has elasticity and memory is best – choose a wool or silk yarn, or a blend of the two.”

Dearest Designer:

Uncertain about what to include in the Pattern Romance, the introduction? Here you go!

Dearest Knitter:

If the info isn’t provided, Google or your LYS can be your friend – find the yarn suggested and use that as a guide for a substitute.

Providing More Detailed Yardage Estimates

Knitters have told me that instead of

x (x, x, x, x, …. ) skeins

they prefer to see numbers for yardage, e.g.

1000 (1250, 1500, 1750, …. ) yards 

Yardage has traditionally been listed by balls/skeins of yarn because knitting patterns used to be tools to sell yarn, published by yarn companies. So of course they’d tell you how many of their yarn to buy!

And designers have stuck with this for a couple of reasons: because it’s always been done that way; but also because the yardage estimates are exactly that: estimates.

I’ll be honest: as I designer, I’m nervous about publishing precise numbers for yardage. Because they are, as I have mentioned, estimates.

Let me be clear about how we go about determine yardage requirements for a pattern. As a designer, I weigh the finished sample and the swatch and determine how much yarn I used to create that sample. That one is easy. Then for the other sizes, I figure out how much bigger (or smaller) they are, compared to the sample I knit. Many designers use square inches, I tend to use total stitch counts.

 (Yes, that’s right, to do this, I calculate the total stitches in the garment. For example: if the lower back has you cast on 100 stitches, and work for 16 inches/40cm, I can work out the total number of stitches in that section by looking at the row gauge. And so forth… )

If the next size up from my sample is 10% bigger, then I need about 10% more yarn.

Then I round up – usually 10-15% – to allow for swatching and other sundry things. And then I round that to full skeins.

I can’t speak for all designers, but my process does give me an actual number for each size, but that number is an ESTIMATE. Expressing it as a number of skeins better communicates – I think – the inexact nature of these requirements. If I tell you that size M requires 1050 yards, but it turns out to need 1055? That’s potentially a big disappointment, a big problem. 

There are situations where listing number of full skeins isn’t great, and additional supporting information is helpful. The key one is where a project uses only a small fraction of a skein, as in the three examples here:

1. Colourwork

 Colourwork is a classic example: a project that features several colours might only need a few yards of some of them. In this case, I strongly recommend the designer provide an estimated yardage, for example:

 VeryNiceYarnCompany’s Best Worsted Wool (220 yds/200 m per 4 oz/115 g skein; 50% BFL, 50% Merino)

Main Colour: Beautiful Blue, 2 (3, 4) skeins

Contrast Colour 1: Bright Red, 1 skein for all sizes – approx. 100 (125, 150) yds required

Contrast Colour 2: Sunshine Yellow, 1 skein for all sizes – approx. 50 (60, 75) yds required
Contrast Colour 3: Gorgeous Green, 1 skein for all sizes – approx. 10 yds required for all sizes

 2. If the skeins are particularly large, or the project is very small in comparison to the skein size:

 VeryNiceYarnCompany’s Jumbo Saver Everyday Cotton (750 yds/680 m per 12 oz/350 g skein; 100% cotton); Gentle Grey; 1 skein for all sizes – approx. 75 (100, 125) yds used

 3. If the project requires multiple skeins, but only uses a small portion of the last one:

 VeryNiceYarnCompany’s Jumbo Saver Everyday Cotton (750 yds/680 m per 12 oz/350 g skein; 100 cotton); Gentle Grey; 2 skeins for all sizes

Note: the project only needs about a quarter of the second skein, when making a substitution, you need approximately 940 yds/850 m overall. 

Dearest Designer:

Consider adding more specific yardage information, especially in the situations listed above. It’s up to you if you do it by listing specific yardages for each size, or just number of balls/skeins. If you’re doing it by balls/skeins, just make sure that you’re including yardage per ball/skein so that knitter can do the calculation.

Dearest Knitter:

Please remember that all yardage requirements are estimates. Make sure you have a little extra, to allow for a second swatch, or the cat chewing the end of one of the balls, or knots that you have to cut off, or alterations, or gauge or knitting style variations. Did you know that two knitters can knit a piece of fabric the same size and at the same gauge but use different amounts of yarn? If you’re using a finer yarn, you need a little bit more to travel the full path of a stitch. And if you use the same yarn and match stitch gauge but not row/round gauge, your yardage usage will be different, too.