How to substitute yarn


Have you ever found a pattern featuring a discontinued yarn, or wanted to use a different yarn than recommended? Here's some helpful tips on how to substitute yarn. 

They say fashion is cyclical, and it's not hard to see why. Trends tend to resurface after a few decades, and that means that your mother's knitting and crochet patterns are now back in vogue. But those vintage patterns feature discontinued yarns that have been lost to time - what to do? 

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How to substitute yarn: always, always swatch

Learn how to substitute yarn with Laughing Hens

The answer to "Do I need to swatch?" when substituting yarn is always yes. Always, no exceptions! If you don't believe me, check out this post by Jessica Anderson from the All in a Day's Fun blog. She talks about gauge woes and the importance of knitting or crocheting a tension square before you begin, in order to save yourself heartache later on when you realize your sweater is several sizes wrong. 

Choose your fibres carefully

Learning to knit and crochet is like learning to speak a new language, with intricacies and slang that can take years to pick up. Learning how fibres work is like that. In general, it's smart to substitute yarn that is the same fibre as the recommended yarn. Different fibres interact differently with different stitches, and if you're not careful you can end up with a shawl that never blocks properly or a sweater that sags to your knees the first time you wear it. 

Plant fibres

Learn how to substitute yarn with Laughing Hens
These fibres include cotton, linen, hemp, and bamboo. Plant fibres have a different cellular structure than animal fibres that dictates its characteristics. They tend to have little to no stretch, but a gorgeous drape that makes any shawl look stunning and more resilience if you happen to wash it incorrectly. Cotton yarns can be mercerised, which is a type of heat treatment that makes them easier to dye vibrant colours and resistant to splitting - mercerised yarns are easy to spot, because they have a gentle shine that other cotton yarns don't. 

Acrylic fibres

These man made materials are wide ranging in characteristics, depending on the way it was manufactured and what fibre it was designed to imitate. While acrylics have come a long way, it's still safe to depend on your swatch when you use it as a substitute yarn. 

Fibre blends

These days, it's common to see yarns engineered from fibre blends to make them softer, stronger, machine washable, or have a more interesting colourway. Sock yarns tend to have nylon blended in for strength, and many yarns designed for garment knitting have been treated to be a superwash yarn or are blended with an acrylic to make it easier to wash. Fibre blends can yield gorgeous results, but as always it's of utmost importance to swatch before you begin a project! 

Animal fibres

Learn how to substitute yarn with Laughing Hens

Wool, alpaca, mohair, cashmere, yak, possum - the possibilities are almost endless when it comes to animal fibres. In general, these yarns have more stretch and block better after washing than plant based materials, but are susceptible to felting when washed in hot water or agitated when wet. These fibres are common for garment knitting because of their "shape memory." 


Choose the right weight

Learn how to substitute yarn with Laughing Hens

As a general rule, sticking with the recommended weight is the way to go. If your pattern calls for an aran weight yarn, use an aran weight yarn - anything else could result in disaster. However, some knitters and crocheters like to double strand different yarns that make the recommended weight together: for example, using two strands of aran weight yarn at the same time to make a chunky weight when knitted or crocheted up. This is always a viable option and can result in some truly stunning and artistic textures, but with this method you absolutely need to swatch before you begin - learn from our mistakes, don't just eyeball it! 

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