Reader Question: Choosing & Substituting Yarns

” I’m a big fan of your show Knitty Gritty and that’s how I got into knitting. Even though I’m in my late 20’s, my mom is teaching me to knit. I’m so new that I have a few questions for you. How do you choose your yarns for any existing crochet/knitting projects you want to create? I can’t always afford what is recommended and don‘t know which yarns are best for which projects….Thanks in advance, Christina

Originally posted as a comment by Christina on Vickie Howell using Disqus.

Dear Questioning Christina ;-),
I’m thrilled to hear that Knitty Gritty played a part in your learning how to knit–I love hearing that! 
I’m really attracted to color and texture so assuming I haven’t been hired to use a particular yarn for a project, I head over to the yarn shop (or my stash) and see what makes me the happiest.  After all, if you don’t enjoy working with the yarn, you’re not going to have fun knitting your project!  Other things to consider are:
  • Weight. How thick or thin you want your finished project to be–or, if you’re working from a pattern, what weight of yarn’s called for. More on that in a sec. 
  • Drape. How you want your finished garment to lay.  For example, if you want to make the delicate, lace wrap you saw in your favorite magazine but opt for worsted cotton instead of fingering-weight cashmere, alpaca or baby merino; you’ll likely find that not only is the size of your wrap WAY off, it’s also as heavy as a blanket and about as elegant as a table cloth.  Alas.
  • Feel.  What are you knitting?  If it’s a preemie or Cancer cap, then the softest yarn possible is best.  For a handbag or basket however, a little scratchiness is no big deal.
When it comes to substituting yarn, there are a few tricks for making it easier:
  • Follow the symbols.  Yarns are generally classified as weights 0-6.  If you’re working from a magazine (or some books, depending on the publisher), there’s usually a little yarn skein symbol (see below) with a number inside of it, next to the yarn’s content/brand description. These same symbols are frequently also printed on yarn labels, making it easy to match the two up when you’re at the yarn store shopping.  Think of it as a paint-by-number system of sorts, for knitting. 😉

    Page taken from Knit Aid: A Learn it, Fix it, Finish it Guide for the Knitter on the Go.  
    (Sterling ’08) For answers to all of your knitting questions, order your copy now!

  • Gauge.  Each pattern will list a gauge; how many stitches and rows per inch are obtained from working with the called-for yarn and needles.  Gauge (aka tension) is also listed on a yarn’s ball band.  If your pattern says that the gauge is 20 sts and 27 rows per 4″ (10cm) in stockinette stitch, then you know you need to look for a yarn that lists the same specs on the label.  See above for what the international symbols for gauge look like.  It’s standard for a yarn’s gauge to be tested with stockinette stitch (knit front rows, purled back rows) so if your pattern has it’s gauge listed in a different pattern stitch, then I recommend going with either the symbol or weight (see below) instead of gauge.  Make sure to swatch though, before you start your project!  Your personal gauge may be different than the standard, which will just require that you adjust your needle size.
  • Weight.  Often patterns will list the suggested yarn followed by yarn weight for substitution (ie. Vickie Howell Collection’s Craft yarn, or any equivalent, sport-weight yarn.)  In that case, you can just search your stash or ask a yarn store staff member to point you in the direction of other cotton, sport-weight yarns.
Thanks for the questions.  Happy Knitting!