Yarn Substitution Tips

Have you ever wondered what happens when you use a different yarn than the pattern calls for? Depending on the type of yarn you are using, your project could be larger, smaller, drapier, denser, or (if you're lucky!) the same as the sample using the specified yarn. Today, we'll talk about the effects of gauge, fiber content, and color usage when substituting yarn in any pattern.

Gauge Considerations

When substituting yarn in any pattern, it is critical to knit a gauge swatch before you do anything else! Even if a yarn is labeled as the same weight as the called-for yarn, it may behave differently when you knit with it. Make sure that your swatch is large enough to give you a sense of the fabric you'll be creating, and you'll also want to block it in the same manner you plan to do with the finished piece, whether it's hand washing in your favorite wool wash, spray blocking, or steaming.

When measuring your gauge, count the stitches and rows in a 4-inch area in at least 3 different spots on your swatch, then take an average of those numbers to calculate your actual gauge in 4 inches. This will give you a more accurate measurement overall, since it's likely that every single stitch isn't uniform (after all, that's what gives a hand knit item character!). Our Elephant Needle Gauge has a handy 4-inch window to make counting those stitches easier!

If your gauge is too small, try going up a needle size. If your gauge is too large, try a smaller needle size to get the required number of stitches and rows. If you are still having trouble getting the required number of stitches or rows, you may need to pick one of your gauge swatches and do a little bit of math to figure out how the difference in gauge will affect your finished piece.

Fiber Content

If you plan on substituting one yarn blend for another of the same yarn weight, your gauge swatch will also come into play here. How a specific fiber or blend of fibers behaves in a knitted piece is a very vast discussion, so we'll use a few visual examples here. Both of these projects used an eyelet stitch design and was knitted with fingering weight yarn; however, each yarn has a different blend of fibers, which produces a different level of drape and stitch definition:

Sample #1: Rochambeau Cowlette by Carina Spencer, knit in Forbidden Fiber Co. Babel Sock, a blend of 70% wool, 20% yak and 10% nylon. 

Original Sample: knit in The Plucky Knitter Primo Fingering, a blend of 75% merino wool, 20% cashmere and 5% nylon.

Sample #3: Starshower by Hilary Smith Calais, knit in Apple Tree Knits Plush Merino Gradient, a 100% merino fingering weight yarn.

Original Sample: knit in Anzula Nebula, a blend of 84% merino and 16% stellina.

Even when using the same stitch pattern or design, you can create a different look just by changing up the yarn! 

Color Usage

Some knitters are nervous about using different colors than what's used in the sample, especially for patterns requiring multiple colors of yarn. Having a basic grasp of color theory can help you make substitutions with confidence, so we’ll give you a quick rundown here: 

Shown here is the color wheel, which is made up of three main colors: red, blue, and yellow, known as primary colors. In traditional color theory, primary colors are the 3 pigment colors that can not be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors. All other colors are derived from these 3 hues.

Secondary colors are created by combining the primary colors. For example, Red+yellow=orange, yellow+blue=green, and blue+red=purple.

Tertiary colors are formed by mixing a primary and a secondary color (for instance, yellow-orange or red-purple). 

Here are 4 simple ways you can use the color wheel to create pleasing color combinations: 

  1. Analogous colors are any three colors which are side by side on the color wheel, such as blue-green, green, and yellow-green. 

  2. Complementary colors are any two colors which are directly opposite each other, such as red and green, or yellow-green and red-purple. Typically, one of these colors is used more than the other two to create a color dominance.

  3. Triadic color schemes use colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel - for example, orange-red, yellow-green, and blue-purple. When using a triadic color scheme it’s important to balance the colors thoughtfully.

  4. The split-complementary color scheme is a variation on the complementary color scheme. In addition to the base colors, it uses two colors adjacent to its component. A sample split-complementary combination would be red, yellow-green, and blue-green (instead of red and green). 

For patterns requiring sharp contrast (for example, in stranded colorwork or mosaic knitting), here’s a quick trick for testing your chosen palette to see if they have enough contrast between them: take a photo of all the yarns together…

And then switch the photo to monochrome: 

If you can see distinct differences between each skein with the color components removed, you know that you’ve created a palette with enough contrast to look great in the finished project. 

We hope this post inspires you to "think outside the box" and perhaps even color outside of the lines with your next knit or crochet project. 

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