I am so excited today to talk with you about making yarn substitutions! I vividly remember the feeling of walking into my local yarn shop, pattern in hand, ready, but terrified, to pick out yarn! I was completely overwhelmed and felt totally unequipped to make the best choice. My goal is to arm you with the best and most comprehensive information about yarn substitution so that you can confidently make the best choices possible when substituting yarn.
This post contains affiliate links that support the content on sekhandmade.com. All opinions are my own. Find my policies here.
Why is yarn substitution so hard?
There are a lot of reasons why yarn substitution is so challenging. A lot goes into creating the squishy fiber we love and every step can affect the final product. From fiber content to the way yarn is spun to even how it takes up different dyes, each of these creates a unique yarn. If you feel like yarn substitution is complicated, that’s because it is! If you’ve heard simplified explanations of how to substitute yarn and then felt like a failure when they didn’t work, it’s not you! While simple methods of yarn substitution can work like a dream sometimes, other times they will totally fail. I used these over simplified methods when I first started out and it made me feel like I was a failure. But really I was just working with incomplete information.
It can be extra hard to make quality yarn substitution if you are not working with complete information. The first step to any yarn substitution is making sure that you have as much information on the original yarn used in the pattern as possible. Ideally, it would be wonderful if you could get your hands on that yarn so you could not only have all of the statistics, but also feel and look at the yarn to have a really good idea about all of the characteristics. If you aren’t able to get your hands on the yarn used by the designer, that’s OK! But be sure to look up all the statistics you can online.
Making Better Yarn Substitutions
Once you are armed with as much knowledge as possible about the yarn used in the pattern, you are ready to start making decisions about a substitution. If you would like your final project to be as similar as possible to the original design, it’s important to try to choose a yarn that is as similar to the original yarn as possible. While you don’t always have to pick a yarn that is very similar to the original, know that the further you move away from the original yarn, the more likely your final project will be different from the original design.
After you’ve gathered all the statistics on the yarn used by the designer, the first thing you want to consider is yarn weight. While this may seem simple, yarns within a weight category can vary. Comparing the weight and length of the original yarn to the weight and length of the yarn you’d like to substitute can be a helpful comparison. It is not a magic ticket to the perfect yarn comparison. Many times keeping these numbers as close as possible can help you get to a similar yarn weight. However, since the way a yarn is spun can change this reach ratio, you may find that making your substitution this way doesn’t work. If you find this to be the case, don’t be hard on yourself. It is very hard to know how a yarn is spun. So it would have been very difficult to predict this problem.
The second thing to consider, and one of the biggest things I left out of the equation when I first started substituting yarn, is fiber content. Next to yarn weight, I would argue that fiber content is the most important thing to keep as close to the original yarn as possible. Yarns with different fiber content can behave very differently and, depending on the project, result in a very different finished object. If you are looking to have a final project as close to the original design as possible, try to stay as close as possible to the original fiber content.
On the other hand, if you’re allergic to the fiber that was used in the original design or you’re an adventurous person who just wants to change things up, try out a different fiber content! Just be aware that the further away you move from the designer’s original fiber content, the more different your final project might be. It’s equally important to realize that sometimes the exact same fiber can behave very differently. I have worked with acrylic yarns that are soft, drapey, and luscious and other acrylic yarns that are stiff and provide a lot of structure. This is where being able to feel the yarn is super helpful!
Ply & texture
The third piece that I definitely didn’t consider when I was starting out is the ply and texture of the yarn. While you may be able to meet gauge with a yarn that has different ply and texture, it can really change your final project.
The plying of yarn has to do with the way the yarn is spun. Yarn can be single plied, two ply, even 4 ply. The number of plies can have an effect on the look and sturdiness of the final project. If you are working on socks, it’s especially important to pay attention to the fiber content and plies of the yarn the designer used. These can play a big role in the final projects long term wearability and durability. If you’d like to visually see what a ply is, be sure to check out my YouTube video here.
Yarn texture make a big difference in stitch definition. If the designer uses a single ply yarn and you choose a boucle, you are going to have much less stitch definition than with the yarn the designer used. While stitch definition can be a matter of preference, it’s definitely worth thinking about before you buy a bunch of yarn for a sweater!
The next thing you will want to consider when making a yarn substitution is the availability of the yarn you’re choosing to purchase. While designers try to be as accurate as possible in their yardage estimates, they are estimates. The human factor of how we work with our yarn plays a role in how much yarn you will need. Personally, I prefer to buy extra yarn and be more confident that I won’t run out then have to scramble at the end of a project to get more yarn.
Another important factor when it comes to availability, are dye lots. With the improvement of industrialized yarn manufacturing, dye lots can be less of a factor than they were in the past. However, there’s nothing more frustrating than having an unintentional stripe in your project because not all of your yarn was from the same dye lot. It’s never a bad idea to check each skein for a matching dye lot before you purchase.
Get the Right Yardage
Last, you want to be sure you are purchasing the correct yardage of yarn needed for the pattern. This can be especially challenging when the yarn estimates for each size are listed as balls of yarn instead of yards or meters. If this is the case, be sure to use the equations on the Yarn Substitution Cheat Sheet to get the correct number of skeins you need.
Other things to remember
There are factors that go into making a yarn that you will probably not have knowledge of, like how the yarn is spun. For this reason it’s always super important to swatch before you start a project. If the yarn you chose is not a good match, don’t feel badly. This happens to even the most experienced crafter.
Keep in mind that you’re not just switching for gauge as you swatch for a project. You also want to be sure you’re creating a fabric you love. If you chose a fuzzier yarn than the designer and your stitches don’t have enough definition in your swatch, better to change the yarn now than be unhappy with your final project. Also, keep in mind that you want to treat your swatch like you will treat your final project. This means, if you plan on blocking your final project, you’ll want to block your swatch.
Don’t go it alone
I hope after reading this you have grown more confident in your ability to substitute yarn. But remember you don’t have to go it alone! Local yarn store workers and owners are often a wealth of yarn information and very helpful too! Even at big box stores there may be someone with a lot of experience in yarncraft who can help you out.
Online resources that can be a big help are Yarn Sub and Ravelry! Yarn Sub is specifically designed to help you substitute yarn. On Ravelry you can either search for yarns with the specific specifications of the yarn used in the pattern to find similar yarns. If the pattern is on Ravelry, then the projects can be a great place to look for yarn substitutions! Check out what yarns other people used to create the pattern and often see the final project! This may not give you all the information you need to make the perfect yarn substitution, but it can be a good place to start!
If you must go it alone
Know the original specs
Stay as close to them as possible
Compare yardage and weight
Buy the right amount
The more experience you have, the easier it gets. Get out there, play with yarn, make swatches, build your experience. Give yourself grace. If you’d like to try more swatching, check out my sereis all about swatching, Swatch & Learn. In this series we slow down and swatch with the simple intention of learning.
Check out Swatch & Learn on YouTube.
Read more about why swatching is the best way to expand your crochet skill here.