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Cracking the (Pattern) Code, Part 3: Selecting Yarn & Buying the Right Quantity

October 13th, 2013

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Technical editor and yarncrafting expert Kj Hay joins us for a series on understanding the different elements of patterns. Click here to read her earlier blog posts.

Cracking the (Pattern) Code, Part 3: Selecting Yarn & Buying the Right QuantityCrochet and knit patterns list a specific yarn and the number of balls of yarn needed. Using the specified yarn is the best way to achieve the intended results. If you would like slightly different results (e.g., different fiber content due to a sensitivity) or the specified yarn is not available, you may wish to substitute a different yarn. There are at least three things to consider when selecting a substitute yarn: 1) Weight, 2) Quantity, and 3) Drape. Yarns can be grouped into different weight categories, as described on the Craft Yarn Council web-site.

For best results, when a substitution must be made, select a yarn of the same weight and with similar fiber content. Yarn comes in balls of different weights and lengths. When determining how many balls of a substitute yarn will be needed, compare the total yardage. For example, if there are 120 yards in each ball of the specified yarn and 4 balls are needed, 4 x 120 yards = 480 total yards are needed.

If you wish to substitute a yarn that comes in balls of 110 yards each, you will need 480 / 110 = 4.63 balls, or 5 balls, of the substitute yarn. Different yarns look and behave a bit differently when knit or crocheted even when the exact same pattern stitch is used. A substitute yarn may yield firmer or looser fabric than the specified yarn. Make a swatch in the project pattern stitch, study the drape of the resulting fabric, and decide if the drape is acceptable.

Pro Tips

Because there can be slight differences in yarn usage, it is wise to purchase an extra ball of yarn. It is usually much easier (and fun) to find a new use for an unneeded ball of yarn than it is to locate an additional ball of yarn when your project is not quite complete.

When purchasing multiple balls of yarn for a project, check both the color number and the dye lot. Achieving beautiful yarn colors is both a science and an art. Each batch of Blow-My-Mind-Blue  can differ ever so slightly in color from other batches. Different batches of color are known as dye lots. For best results, make sure that all the balls of yarn for the same project come from the same dye lot. The slight difference is color between dye lots is another reason why it is a good idea to purchase an extra ball of yarn before beginning a project.

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  • greening

    Good advice on the extra ball — it will come in handy for some multicolored scrap project later if you don’t use it up! As someone who has been knitting for decades, I still don’t have perfect instincts about fiber and have taken to buying the recommended yarn in recent years. If I’m drawn to the project as it looks in the picture on the pattern, I want it to come out looking that way. Drape is something I don’t have an infallible sense of and haven’t had great luck with adjusting by using different-size needles. I admire people who can be creative with yarn substitutions and changes to the pattern but we don’t all have those talents.

  • Naomi

    The problem I have is that I’m mildly allergic to wool. So many patterns are done in wool and wool blends….and I really have trouble figuring out how to equate something like a bamboo/cotton blend with a recommended wool in making the conversion. Is there some trick to this…or is it called “Experience”????

    • http://www.lionbrand.com/ Zontee

      Hi Naomi, what you’ll want to keep in mind is that different fibers have different qualities. For instance, wool is very springy and has “memory” (meaning it will keep its shape well), whereas cotton and other plant fibers are not springy and have very little give. So if you want to make a form-fitted project that was originally designed in a wool yarn with a cotton yarn, it may not stay form-fitted, so factor that in. Synthetics like acrylic and nylon were invented to mimic the qualities of different fibers such as wool and cotton, so you may find that an acrylic yarn is the best substitute for a wool pattern, in terms of having similar characteristics. However, if you’re looking for natural options, you may want to check out fibers from other animals (which will have varying degrees of “memory”, but more than cotton and other plant fibers), such as angora (from rabbits), mohair (from goats), and alpaca, since often people who are allergic to wool are not allergic to all animal fibers. I’d also recommend “The Knitter’s Book of Yarn” by Clara Parkes for more about different fibers. Hope that helps!

  • Elsa M. Ramos

    I used to worry about buying too much yarn, however, I’ve learned that most reputable stores will accept returns and give you a full refund, save your receipt! I usually end up using refund to buy another type of yarn or another pattern! ;-)

    • Gen

      I did not know there was ‘too much yarn’ … I LOVE the variety of yarns and want it all!

      • kim dawson

        lol I agree.. I have a room of to much yarn as my hubby calls it but I figure one day it will be something…. ami, flower, hat, scrap blanket etc.. I always over buy but I consider it an investment to my stash and future projects :)