Yarn is forever, but yarns, sadly, come and go. An overwhelming number of respondents to the last survey I sent out, said that not knowing much about yarn kept them from weaving more. Many weavers mentioned specifically the challenge they have with making yarn substitutions, or that they only have big box stores nearby to shop for yarn and they were reluctant to shop online because they couldn’t see the yarn. When looking to substitute one yarn for another, I look at matching three factors: size, content, and style.
The easiest way to compare yarn is by looking at the two given yarns side by side, but that typically isn’t possible if one of them isn’t available. I use yards per pound as a way to find a common metric between any two given yarns.
I live in the U.S., so I think in terms of yards and ounces. Weaving patterns list the yarn’s weight in yards per pound, while most knitting patterns list the size standards created by the Craft Yarn Council as well as the yardage by put-up. You need to work a few simple calculations in order to compare apples to apples.
Many yarn maker’s have the maddening habit of listing yards per gram on their labels. To figure out yards per pound from yards per gram, first translate the grams into ounces by dividing the number of grams by 28. Technically, the conversion is 28.3495, but you don’t have to get down to that level of detail. Then divide the number of ounces into to the yardage on the label. This gives you the number of yards per ounce. Multiply this number by 16 and you get the yards per pound. The calculation looks like this:
_____ grams ÷ 28 = ____ ounces
_____ ball or skein yards ÷ _____ ounces = yd/oz
_____ yd/oz × 16 = yds/lb
You can also work backwards from the yd/lb to figure out the yardage of a 1.75 oz/50 gram or 3oz/100 gram skien, a common yarn put-up in balls or skeins.
Creative Knitting magazine has a handy calculator on their website that translates grams to ounces and calculates how much yarn you will need for a project.
Compare the yd/lb of the yarn in the pattern to the yd/lb of the yarn you would like to use. They don’t have to match exactly, but they should be close. You do, however, need to be sure the you are comparing the same fiber types—a pound of cotton is a different size than a pound of wool.
Size and content are closely related. You can match a same-sized wool and cotton yarn, but they will act differently in the cloth. You want to get as close to the original content as possible.
Weaving is about making a final object, but it is also about the experience, and getting to know your materials is what will make the experience better.
Natural fibers are made from base materials found in nature and not synthesized in a lab. We weavers love our natural fibers. I really can’t say it better than Clara Parke’s answer to the question, What’s the deal with all these sheep that folks keep going on about? (I paraphrase the question.) You could easily substitute other natural fibers such as cotton, linen, mohair, cashmere for “sheep” and get the same answer. Nature really knows what she is doing when it comes to yarn
You don’t have to use natural fibers, but if that is what the pattern calls for, it will pay off to be mindful about matching the content as closely as possible to get the same final look and feel. If you can’t find yarn that is 100% of the same fiber, then look for a same-sized yarn that at least has some of the same content, the higher the better.
Synthesized fibers use natural materials as their base, but transform them in a lab. They are also called semi-synthetic. Many synthesized fibers are engineered to substitute for natural ones. For instance, rayon substitutes well for silk. Rayon can be made with three primary methods—acetate, viscose, and lyocell—so if you see these names on the label they are all rayon as is Tencel and bamboo. Rayons also blend well with wool, cotton, and linen.
Superwash wool is another example of synthesized fiber. The wool is treated so that the scales of the individual fibers are smoothed and won’t interlock while washing which is what causes wool to felt. This process makes wool yarn machine washable. Superwash yarns are designed to be stable and don’t bloom in the final wash, which is what brings woven cloth to life. I like mixing superwash and non-superwashed fibers in the the cloth so that some of the yarns will bloom.
Nylon and Acrylic could also arguably be called semi-synthetic as they are derived from coal and petroleum/oil which is found in nature, but they are almost wholly constructed in the lab. They may or may not substitute well for other natural fibers.
Nylon is derived from coal. Nylon is shiny, tough, stretchable, and melts under a hot iron. The fibers are non-absorbent, quick drying, and won’t wrinkle. Nylon is often blended with other fibers to add toughness, particularly to sock yarn.
Acrylic is petroleum based. The fabric is lightweight, warm, and quick drying. It has less stretch than nylon and I find that it can cause the same issues in woven cloth like superwash. As with nylon, blending acrylic with other fibers can lend both of their good qualities to the final yarn. Both of these fibers are inexpensive and designed for lots of wash and wear, although neither are very absorbent and won’t make a good choice for kitchen and bath items, but do make fine scarves and shawls, just don’t expect them to be as warm as wool or other natural protein fibers.
There are a number of nice wool/acrylic blends that you can find at either a local yarn store or at a big box craft store, such as Berroco Vintage or Lion Brand’s Wool-Ease.
A note on “natural” vs. “synthetic”. All yarn production involves resources—water, land, fuel, and labor. Most involve some sort of chemical. Just because a yarn is synthetic doesn’t mean it’s bad, or a that a natural yarn means its good. Modern farming practices can be highly water intensive and use vast amounts of pesticides to create natural fibers. Some manufactured yarns use naturally growing renewable resources and less water than some of the “natural” counterparts—and some do not. Get to know your fiber and yarn to make the best choice for your lifestyle.
If allergies are an issue, select a yarn that makes you or your recipient happy and healthy.
I will try to restrain myself from getting too geeked out here about style. I use this term rather loosely to describe the way a yarn is made. I’m a hand spinner and I look at yarn style the same way I look at beer styles—with a keen eye as to what I want and don’t want. This level of detail may be too much for those of you just beginning your weaving journey. If you can match the size and content closely, you can slide a bit on style.
There are two things that go into styling a yarn: twist and construction.
The basic building block of yarn is fiber, whether natural or synthetic. The length of the fiber determines how much twist the fiber needs to have the integrity to stay put during use. Short fibers, such as cotton, need a lot of twist. Long fibers, such as silk and mohair, need less.
You will often hear yarn connoisseurs talk about the degree of twist or the ply twist being low or high. Generally speaking, the firmer the twist, the harder the yarn. The lower the twist, the softer the yarn. Yarns that are tightly plied and smooth are traditionally thought of as good warp. Tender, loosely plied, or softly spun yarns are often shunned. There is a trade-off between these two extremes. You want yarn that will be strong, but you may also want it to be pliable. To which end you lean depends on your end use.
The way yarns are spun beyond twist also affect the style of yarn. Fibers can be spun and used as a single, or plied together. The number of plies and how the yarn is plied—from high ply twist to low—and other novelty constructions such as bouclé, thick and thin, and spiral yarns determines a lot about how the yarn will act.
It may not be possible to actually compare the style of the yarn in the pattern vs. the one you may want to use because, after all, you are going through this exercise because the pattern yarn is not available. You will learn to start looking at fringe or scanning the yarn description to give you some possible information about the style of yarn
Delving into these three aspects of yarn—size, content, and style—will make you a better and more happy weaver. It will, at the very least, give you a little bit more confidence when you are shopping for your next project, whether you are shopping in a store, online, or in your stash.
Weave happy folks!
Edited: It completely escaped my mind to mention a great website, www.yarnsub.com. You can type in the name of a discontinued yarn and the site pops up a list of suggested substitutions. You have to be a little cautious as this tells you substitutes from a knitter’s perspective not necessarily a weavers.