Yarn is made from many different fibers -- animal, plant and vegetable. Animal fibers include wool, mohair, angora, silk, cashmere, llama, alpaca and qiviut (musk ox) and are made of mostly protein. Cotton, linen and ramie are vegetable fibers. Synthetic (man-made) fibers include acrylic, nylon, polyester, metallics and microfibers.
Each fiber has its own qualities, and they are often blended to take advantage of the best properties of each.
What are plies?
Years ago, yarn was referred to by the number of strands (plies) twisted together. This wasn't a problem at the time, because crocheters and knitters understood that a two-ply yarn would be much thinner than a four-ply yarn.
Today, however, yarn sizes can range from the finest gossamer threads to extra-bulky yarn. Yarn manufacturers now give us more information so that we can be confident in substituting yarns. Ply refers to the number of strands twisted together to make a particular yarn it no longer describes a weight or class of yarn.
The diameter of these plies is what determines the weight of the yarn. A very fine yarn can consist of several tiny plies, while a heavy yarn may only consist of one unspun ply.
What is gauge?
Gauge is the number of stitches per inch and the number of rows per inch a crocheter or knitter gets when stitching with a particular size of yarn and a specific crochet hook or knitting needles.
Gauge varies from stitcher to stitcher, even when they are using exactly the same yarn and hook or needles. It is very personal. One person may get 4 stitches to the inch with a worsted-weight yarn and a size G crochet hook, while another gets 3.5 stitches to the inch. This may not sound like much, but that half stitch per inch can make your finished garment several inches too big or too small.
A swatch is a small sample piece of knitting or crocheting made in the stitch pattern using the size of yarn and hook or needles called for in the pattern. A swatch will help you determine if you meet the designer's gauge.
It will also give you a good indication of whether or not your chosen yarn will have the desired hand (feel) and drapability.
For best results, make a crocheted swatch that measures at least 6 inches square and then measure the stitches in the center of the swatch to determine gauge.
How do I measure gauge for knitted patterns?
Most knitting patterns and some crochet patterns will tell you to make a swatch (test piece) using the stitch pattern called for in the project. For instance, some knitting patterns may say to cast on a certain number of stitches and work a certain number of rows in the specified pattern. When bound off and smoothed out on a flat surface, the piece should measure the size specified in the pattern.
The pattern may say "20 stitches and 24 rows = 4 inches stockinette stitch." To make this test piece, use the size needles the pattern directs you to use and cast on 20 stitches. Work 20 rows in stockinette stitch (alternating knit and purl rows). After 20 rows have been completed, bind off. Lay the piece flat on a table and measure the width and length. If you knit to the designer's gauge, your piece should measure 4 inches wide and 4 inches tall.
If your pattern instructions don't say to knit a test swatch, you can measure the stitches and rows by using the method below for measuring crochet gauge.
What about the gauge in a crochet pattern?
Many times, a crochet pattern will not tell you to make a gauge swatch. It may say instead "4 stitches and 4 rows = 1"."
To make a swatch (test piece), use the yarn and hook size called for and chain enough to measure about 6". Work in the specified pattern for about 6", then fasten off. Lay the piece flat on a table. Place a small ruler (here's where a sewing hem gauge with a moveable pointer comes in handy) with the 1" mark at the beginning of one stitch. Count the number of stitches between the 1" mark and the 2" mark on a horizontal row. If there are partial stitches in between this inch, count the stitches in between two inches or three inches, until you have the number of whole stitches. This is your stitch gauge.
Next, place your ruler so that the 1" mark is at the bottom of a vertical row. Count the number of rows between the 1" mark and the 2" mark. Again, if you have partial rows, count another inch or two until you have the number of complete rows. This is your row gauge.
What if I don't knit to the designer's gauge? Does this mean I can't make this pattern?
If your gauge doesn't match the designer's gauge specified in your pattern, don't panic. Most stitchers seldom match a gauge exactly.
Everyone knits or crochets with a different tension, which affects gauge. If your gauge is larger than that specified in the pattern, switch to a smaller hook or set of needles and try another swatch. If your swatch is smaller, then you'll need to increase needle or hook sizes until your gauge matches.
It isn't unusual to sometimes need to go up or down several hook or needle sizes to get the proper gauge. It also is not unusual for hooks manufacturered by different companies to give different gauges. If all else fails, try switching hook brands to reach the desired gauge.
What if my stitch gauge matches, but not my row gauge?
Of the two, the stitch gauge is more important. In a sweater pattern, for example, most patterns will tell you to work so many inches to the underarm, then so many inches to the neckline shaping. In this case, it doesn't matter if your row gauge is a bit off since you're working in inches.
Row gauge becomes very important, however, when complicated stitch patterns repeat after so many rows, such as a 10-row pattern repeat. If the designer specifies that the shaping must take place at a certain row and your row gauge is very different from the pattern gauge, the shaping will not be done at the proper time, which means your garment may not fit properly.
In most cases, though, if you can match the stitch gauge, your row gauge shouldn't be too far off.
My pattern calls for a certain brand of yarn that I can't find in local stores. What do I do now?
Don't worry! Here's a chance for you to be really creative and make a unique garment totally your own!
Most yarn labels tell you the recommended gauge and needle or hook size. Read the label and purchase a yarn that comes closest to the specified gauge in your pattern.
Be sure to make that all-important swatch to see if the yarn works for your particular pattern!
How much yarn will I need to purchase?
Again, here's where you'll need to read the label.
Your pattern should tell you the number of yards in a skein of the yarn called for in the pattern. Multiply the yardage by the total number of skeins needed to make the project.
Read the label of the yarn you plan on purchasing to find out yardage. Divide the total number of yards needed for the pattern by the number of yards in the skein of substitution yarn. This is the total number of skeins you'll need to make the project.
It's always a good idea to purchase an extra skein or two, just in case you need to make adjustments to the pattern. It's best to have too much yarn instead of too little. Most yarn shops and hobby stores will allow you to return extra yarn, as long as you haven't used any.
Can't I substitute yarn based on the number of plies?
There are some three- or four-ply yarns that are very lightweight yarns. There are also some one- or two ply yarns that are very bulky and heavy.
Your best bet is to always substitute yarns based on the recommended gauge and needle or hook size listed on the label.
How important is yarn content when substituting?
Yarn content is not as important as gauge.
You can easily substitute a similar weight of cotton yarn for wool, or acrylic for cotton. Keep in mind the finished use of the project you're making. A washcloth, for instance would not be very practical stitched in wool or acrylic yarn. Socks made in acrylic do not wear as well as socks made in wool.
If you are combining different types of yarn in one project, make sure they all have the same washing instructions or you could be unpleasantly surprised when the wool yarn shrinks and the acrylic yarn doesn't.
You should also consider the feel and drapability of the yarn when substituting. When in doubt, make a swatch!
What does drapability mean?
Drapability refers to the stiffness or softness of the finished project.
A project crocheted or knitted with a heavy yarn and small hooks or needles will not drape well -- it will be very stiff. Conversely, a project crocheted or knitted with large needles or hooks and very fine yarn will be very limp -- fine for shawls, but not really good for sweaters.
Stitching a large swatch (approximately 12" by 12") in the desired yarn and pattern stitch will give you a good idea of how drapable your finished project will be.
I've heard that cotton yarn is too heavy to make a sweater. Is this true?
No. And yes. It all depends on the pattern stitch and how heavy the yarn is to begin with.
Cotton yarn comes in many weights -- from baby weight all the way to extra chunky. Take a good look at the photo of the finished project to see if the pattern stitch will make a heavy fabric. Then make a swatch!
This is one instance when a lighter weight yarn can be substituted for a heavy one (for instance, substitute sport weight cotton yarn for worsted weight) with good results. Just make sure to use a larger hook and check your gauge!
Even though the yarn is a lighter weight, the gauge should still be the same or the size of the finished garment will be affected.
How can I tell if the yarn I bought will pill?
Pilling (little balls of fiber that appear on sweaters) comes from friction. The rubbing of fibers against each other causes static, and static causes the fibers to attach to each other, forming little bundles. The more friction, the more little bundles are formed. Generally, the tighter a yarn is spun, the less likely it is to pill.
A yarn with a tight twist is best for socks or work sweaters, or any project that will get lots of heavy wear. Look closely at the yarn you plan on purchasing. If you see a lot of little fuzzy fibers sticking out of the main strand, it's likely your yarn will pill.
Light pilling can be removed by the use of a sweater stone (a piece of porous stone cut into a rectangular shape that removes the pills by a process similar to sanding with sandpaper) or by using a defuzzer (which is like a razor that shaves off the pills).
How do I wash my handmade projects?
Take a look a the yarn label for suggested washing instructions. Some yarns, acrylics for example, should be machine washed and dried. These fibers actually expand when washed, allowing dirt to be released from the fibers. They need to be machine dried to go back to their original shape.
Other yarns, wool for example, should never be put in hot water or in the dryer. The sweater you spent many hours to make for your husband could turn up fitting your daughter's doll!
Some wool yarns are treated with chemicals to make it safe for you to machine wash and dry them in warm water, but you'll need to read the label to make sure.
If you've bought yarn at a garage sale and aren't sure of the content, briefly touch a lit match to the end of the yarn. If it melts, the yarn is made of acrylic or nylon. If the yarn scorches, it is likely made from cotton or wool.
You usually can't go wrong hand washing a knitted or crocheted item in gentle soap and cool water and then laying it flat out of the sun to dry.
What is the difference between one yarn classification and another?
Yarns can generally be classified into six types: Super fine such as sock, fingering and baby yarns Fine such as sport and baby yarns Light weight such as DK and light worsted yarns Medium-weight such as worsted, aran and afghan yarns Bulky weight such as chunky, craft and rug yarns Super Bulky weight such as bulky and roving yarns
What knitting needles should I use with a type of yarn?
Generally, smaller size needles are used with light-weight yarns, medium size needles with medium-weight yarns, and larger size needles with heavier weight yarns.
What do I do if I don't have enough of yarn of a dye lot to finish a project?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question.This is why the importance of buying enough yarn of the same dye lot before the project is started is stressed in almost all patterns.
For small or multicolored projects, a color match of another dye lot may be close enough for your purposes. But with a solid color sweater or Afghan, you likely will find that the match is not exact enough for a finished product to be pleasing.
Yarn Substitution List
The following is a list of yarns and the respective needle or hook sizes necessary to meet the recommended gauge. This gauge is an average gauge specified by the yarn manufacturers, one that they feel works best with their yarns. Be sure to read your pattern to check the designer's gauge for that particular project, then make a gauge swatch with the yarn you wish to use.
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Fingering yarn Needle size: 0-3 (2-3.25mm)
Knit gauge: 7 or more stitches = 1"