Playing with Yarn

When I design a project I think about the yarn a lot. All yarns are not created equal. By that I don’t mean that some are inferior to others, but some definitely work better for certain projects or effects than others.

An example:Worsted weight kitchen cotton rarely makes a nice garment, it tends to bag and sag with wear and can be very heavy.  It’s ideal though for dish cloths, bath scrubbies or even a sturdy market or beach bag.

The things I look at when choosing a yarn for a design often happen long before the design is even conceived.

Yarn for Design Swatching

I frequently purchase a single skein/ball/hank of yarn to try it out. I’ll play with different stitches and stitch patterns with various hooks to see how the yarn behaves and how the fabric looks. If I like any of those swatches, or if I think I might like them, I’ll wash and block the swatch to see what happens next. How much does it grow or shrink? Does it look better or worse?

Lately this experimenting occurs as part of my search for a yarn to use in a design I want to publish or that I want to propose to a magazine or yarn company. I know what I want the yarn to do in the design, so I search for a yarn that will do that.  OR I know what a yarn will do and I come up with a design that I know will showcase that yarn well.

The road from this creative process to a published design can often be rocky.  Sometimes I will sell a proposed design, but the publisher wants to change the yarn I will use. That can lead to some interesting juggling if the preferred yarn responds differently to the stitch work of the proposed design than the original yarn.

Often it requires some re-calculations of the math to make the design come together.  Since this all happens at the beginning of the creative road it doesn’t distort how the finished design looks to the pattern using public.

What happens though when the pattern using public decides to substitute a different yarn than the one used for the original design?

Almost everyone decides to substitute yarns at one point or another.  It’s quite understandable. For some of us it may be that we have yarn in our stash that we feel would work nicely or we like the color of. For others the specified yarn may not be easy to obtain where they live, or may be outside the reach of their budget. But substituting yarn can be quite tricky.

Sometimes the resulting project is even nicer than the original sample that was pictured with the pattern. Unfortunately the opposite can happen to varying degrees.  I’ve seen instances where stitchers have substituted a different yarn that changed the gauge significantly, they then adjusted the math of the pattern…but are unhappy with the finished object.

All this is understandable, and it can even be entertaining as a stitcher to play with a pattern in that way.  But what yarn will you choose?

Four points to keep in mind when you want to substitute a yarn:

1) Pick something that has a similar fiber content.

If you are horribly allergic to animal fibers like wool and have fallen completely in lust with a pattern that was originally designed in a wool or wool blend yarn you may have some difficulties. You might be able to find a yarn that looks somewhat similar, but your finished object is going to block and wear quite differently from the original. If you are okay with that result, go for it.

2) Stay with the same size yarn.

Meaning if the pattern calls for DK weight yarn and you substitute a Bulky yarn you are going to have some BIG changes in your finished object (no pun intended). I’ve seen some stitchers decide to work a pattern in a heavier yarn without changing the size hook or needles they are using. Then they are unhappy because their project doesn’t have the drape or flow of the original.

If you are going bigger or smaller than the recommended yarn you need to change hook or needle size accordingly, and you need to figure out how your gauge will change to adjust the pattern.

3) Try to match the twist and elasticity of the original yarn.

This is a bit harder to do, because you need to be able to observe both the original yarn and the yarn you wish to substitute. Yarns using the same fiber content and of the same weight can still have a big difference in “give” due to the way they are created.

Take a close look and touch different yarns in your local yarn store and big box craft stores. You will see that some are much more elastic than others, even if they don’t have elastic thread added to them (there are a few sock yarns that do have elastic nylon added to create a very stretchy sock fabric).

If the original yarn in a pattern is very “cushy” or elastic and you substitute a tight non-elastic yarn the finished project will be much less stretchy and, in the case of garments, may not give you the fit you want.

One quick test for similarity in elasticity is to measure the yarn resting and stretched.  Best case scenario is if you can compare a couple of yarns you are considering to the original yarn.  Shopping at your LYS you may be able to use the knowledge of the shop employees to help you find a good substitute.

4) Swatch!

Yes, I know many of you hate to swatch. But when substituting yarn it really is critical.  It is far better to put in 20 minutes or less swatching, than to have worked days and weeks on a project to discover the gauge or yarn performance is completely off.

Once you finish a swatch let it rest before making any measurements or evaluating the fabric.  During the process of crocheting (or knitting) the warmth of your hands and the manipulation of the yarn can change the fabric.

I tend to lay my swatch out flat on my work table for at least an hour (sometimes overnight) before taking any measurements and evaluating the fabric.  If the finished piece will be blocked I block my swatch, this is particularly important if the yarn is natural fibers like cotton, silk or any animal hair/fur.

Another thing to consider is growth of the project. The weight of the yarn can change the fabric you create when the piece is large.  One way to evaluate that from the swatch is to hang it with weights on the bottom edge. I use clothes pins.

I hope these tips and this glimpse into my design process are helpful to you.  Play with your yarn choices and patterns to find the mix that gives you what you want. “Play” is the key word there, just have fun with it. Afterall, it’s all playing with yarn.

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