curiosity gets the best of us

Posted on Posted in book reviews/events

good morning! you might remember that last year, we had a nice blog post to introduce my friend hunter hammersens’s first book, the knitter’s curiosity cabinet and to explore the world of curiosity cabinets. i’m flying to colorado today to work on a project at interweave press, so i gave hunter the keys to the blog so she could tell you about her new book the knitter’s curiosity cabinet, volume II. and now i’ll let her take the floor . . .

I’ve been a fan of Anne’s work for just about as long as I’ve been knitting. She has an aesthetic and style that really stands out, and it’s always easy to spot one of her designs. So when I heard she’d turned her talent to making yarns, I was excited to try them. I had great fun swatching four of the yarns up.

Anne’s new yarns, and my new book, The Knitter’s Curiosity Cabinet Volume II, seemed to offer a perfect opportunity for me to talk a bit about a subject of interest to most knitters, yarn substitutions! I’ll start here with a bit of discussion about yarn substitution in general, and then pick up over on Violently Domestic with a few examples of what to do in more complicated cases (hint, the answer is math).

In general, you want to look at three characteristics when you’re considering substituting yarns: yarn weight, fiber content, and structure. If all three of those things are the same (so if you’re substituting a three-ply, merino, fingering weight yarn for another three-ply, merino, fingering weight yarn), you’re almost certainly golden. Those are the easy substitutions, and they’re almost sure to work.

But alas, a match that close doesn’t always present itself. Sometimes you fall in love with a particular yarn (or you’re knitting from stash and need to use what you have on hand), and you need to be a bit creative. The good news is that with a little bit of experimenting, yarn substitutions are actually pretty flexible. Let’s work through two examples like this (where the yarn isn’t a perfect match on all three criteria) and see how they play out.

(One small note, some of the book swatches are prototypes and differ very slightly from the swatches in Anne’s yarns. They’re still really good examples of how to play with different yarns, I just didn’t want any close observers to spot the differences and be alarmed.)

First, we’ve got the Erasmia pulchella socks.

In the book, these are knit in Sock by Shibui (a two-ply fingering weight yarn made of 100% merino). Here, I swatched in Anne’s Breakfast Blend Fingering (a three-ply fingering weight yarn made of 50% merino, 40% alpaca, and 10% nylon). And the substitution works brilliantly! You can absolutely make these socks with this yarn.

Ok, now why? The yarn weight is the same (fingering in both cases), but the fiber content and structure aren’t. But the substitution works because they’re not as different as it might seem at first glance.

The Shibui is 100% merino. Half of the Breakfast Blend Fingering is a match, the other half is alpaca and nylon. While alpaca and wool are quite different, they are both animal fibers and have some characteristics (warmth, breathability) in common. One of the biggest differences between wool and alpaca is that alpaca isn’t as elastic as wool, but the nylon helps make up for that. And this may be a bit controversial, but I tend to regard anything up to about 20% nylon, especially in a sock yarn, as something of a blank slate. You can put it in a yarn without it making too much of a difference when it comes to substitutions. For something like this where it’s meant to be a sock, it’s actually a really lovely addition, as it will make the socks more long-lasting, while not interfering with the feel of the natural fibers.

The two-ply versus three-ply is also not a big deal in this case. If you look at the Shibui, you’ll see it’s a fairly tightly twisted two-ply. That means the yarn is quite round bouncy. This tight twist makes it a closer match to the Breakfast Blend Fingering’s three-ply structure than a more loosely plied two-ply would have been.

Next up, we’ve got the Vanessa antiopa Cowl.

In the book, this is knit in Lion & Lamb by Lorna’s Laces (a single ply aran weight yarn made of 50% wool, 50% silk). Here, I swatched in Anne’s Breakfast Blend DK (a three-ply dk weight yarn made of 60% merino 40% alpaca). Once again, the substitution works well, and you can totally use this yarn for this cowl, though this one does require a bit of explaining.

These two yarns are really quite different. The weight is a bit different (not dramatically, Breakfast Blend DK is on the heavier side of dk, and there’s a bit of overlap between heavy dk and aran), the fiber content is different, and the structure is different. You’d think there wasn’t a chance! But this is an example of how the project you’re considering matters just as much as the yarns you’re considering.

This is a cowl that sits right up against your skin and that’s meant to fold and drape and show off the lovely stitches. So one of the first questions to ask is what’s the fabric like at the required gauge in the Breakfast Blend DK. The answer is that it’s great. It’s got good drape, it’s soft enough to snuggle up in, and the stitch pattern shows up well.

Because this is a cowl (and so not subject to the sort of heavy wear that a sock endures, or even the functional demands of something like a sweater), the feel and look of the fabric is the most important consideration. The textural interest that the silk provides in the original yarn is taken care of in Anne’s yarn by the slight halo of the alpaca. The result isn’t exactly the same, but it’s just as lovely. And both yarns are soft enough for next-to-the skin wear and heavy enough go give good drape and hang nicely.

So there are two examples of successful yarn substitutions, even with yarns that have different characteristics. The first shows a substitution between two fairly similar yarns. Each will let you get gauge, have similar stitch definition, and stand up to the challenge of making lovely, sturdy socks. The second shows how a substitution between fairly different yarns can work beautifully, as long as both are suited to the demands of the project (and projects like cowls are particularly forgiving of substitutions).

Both examples demonstrate how you can get good results, even with yarns that aren’t a perfect match on yarn weight, fiber content, and structure. To see some even more distinct substitutions (ones different enough they require a bit of math), read the companion to this article over on Violently Domestic.

wasn’t that great?? and you know what’s even better? hunter has sent me an extra copy of the knitter’s curiosity cabinet volume II and i want to pass it on it to one lucky reader. if you’d like to win this copy, leave a brief comment at the end of this post by 9pm EDST on saturday, june 1, telling me one thing you learned from hunter’s post that will help you with your swatching adventures (cuz you know, it’s ALL an adventure!). we’ll pick a winner soon after and let you know when i return to my post on monday

117 thoughts on “curiosity gets the best of us

  1. Hunter’s post convinced me — finally and unequivocally — that I must start swatching for projects.

  2. Interesting that yarns with different characteristics can be substituted if the project will work and that a good swatch will allow you to decide if the drape and hand are acceptable.

  3. Wow, I have always been told to swatch but
    now I have better understanding of why. Thanks!

  4. I love the idea of adjusting different yarn weights for a project! What a great technique to learn about!

  5. I love how versatile yarn can be if we look at it in a more in depth level. Makes me want to stash dive & find similarities & differences of my go to yarns 🙂

  6. I was really stuck in the first example of substituting yarns– but the idea of thinking about the project and matching the qualities of the “fabric” really lit a bulb in my brain.

  7. This was very helpful. I’m currently in process of starting an AH lace shawl using a slightly heavier weight lace yarn than specified in the pattern. I can understand subbing a yarn with same content and number of plies, especially in making a sock which usually requires a close fit. Ditto for cowl; it has more forgiveness if gauge is not exact and one can usually tell how to adjust it to fit if using a different yarn. I definitely want to learn more about evaluating substitutions and alterning patterns using math to have them come out as expected. Thanks for getting me thinking about this with an introduction to key concepts.

  8. I’ve always been substituting yarn by trial and error and now I have a better idea of how to substitute for the best results. I should really swatch more often.

  9. I often sbstitute yarns and am usually focused on gauge. I need to think of swatching as a miniature project so I can better evaluate the other characteristics of the yarn. I used to knit with similar yarns where I could predict drape, sheen, stitch definition, etc. In the last decade (through Ravelry and Knitspot clubs!), my exposure to new yarns has never been greater. I need to remember to swatch to truly appreciate learning about the yarn before plunging into a project. Thanks for the reminder!

  10. This is so helpful! I am a hand spinner and in the process of trying to learn how to spin yarn that will substitute well for commercial yarns suggested in patterns. There are so many variables but this post gave me a better idea of what to focus on.

  11. Good to know I can get a good result when the substituted yarn doesn’t completely match. I’m loving the BNW in a variety of knits…thanks Anne!!!

  12. I generally go simply for weight/size of yarns (“fingering,” “worsted” etc.) when substituting, but looks like I need to Swatch more to take in other characteristics…Thanks.

  13. Ahhh, swatching! So nice and so boring at the same time, I learned that you have to look closely at your stash and find different alternatives. You never know what you can discover!

  14. I love Hunter’s second curio book, and would love love love to win this! And great article about substituting yarn, by the way. It’s the knitters’ perennial question…

  15. I’m taken with Hunter’s comment that up to 20% nylon in a fingering weight/sock yarn can be considered a “blank slate.” I find that idea fascinating and it does open up the possibilities for substitutions! Thanks for an interesting blog post and the offer of 2 books for some lucky person!

  16. When I first started knitting 50 years ago, my mother did not even consider the given yarn! She always substituted with success. I just thought that that was the way to go. Just recently have I used some suggested yarns. I enjoy the flexibility of choice.

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