Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hints for substituting yarn for CAL vest

When it comes to substituting yarn some pattern resources are very encouraging and give you suggestions while other resources predict dire consequences if you crochet with a different yarn than the designer used for the pattern. We're ready to start our second Crochet-A-Long (CAL) with the pattern Level 1 Beginner Crocheted Vest L40222, a free pattern available from Lion Brand Yarn. Rosemary and Maxine have been making test swatches with several types of yarn and have some tips for everyone on substitute yarns that you might want to consider. Even if you don't plan to participate in the CAL, the information in this article will help you next time you're thinking of making a yarn substitution and the source you're using does not offer suggestions.

Rosemary and Maxine, why are you thinking of substituting yarn for this pattern?
The recommended yarn for the pattern is Lion's Pride Woolspun which is 80% acrylic / 20% wool bulky weight (#5 in Craft Yarn Council yarn weight standards). The yarn has a lot of pluses going for it:
  • It's sold exclusively through Michael's so it's ready available at several locations in our area and very affordable.
  • It's very soft and cushy and feels wonderful.
  • It's available in a wide variety of colors - this photo shows two of the colors. Maxine chose the light olive green on the right for her swatch and Rosemary chose the darker blue green on the left for her swatch. (As an aside, this also shows the difference between two crocheters - Rosemary made her swatch with a size K hook and Maxine made her swatch with size L - and both achieved gauge.)
On the minus side, Woolspun does not have a lot of drape. So visually, it looks bulky and some of us do not need to add extra bulk to our silhouettes!

But won't all yarns that are classified as #5 be bulky yarns?
Yes, it is true that all #5 yarns are classified as bulky but that does not mean that they are all exactly the same size. Some bulky yarns are, well, bulkier than others. You can't just look at the classification number of a yarn and automatically substitute any yarn with the same classification number.

How do you determine which yarns might be suitable for substitution?
The classification number is a good starting point. For example, for the CAL vest pattern, you could not easily substitute a #4 yarn because it would be almost impossible to make gauge. (Although if you're ready for some advanced work, see "Can't I rework the pattern to another yarn weight?" later in this blog article.)

For now let's assume you've found another bulky weight yarn that is a candidate for substitution. The one that we'll use to illustrate the process is Bernat Alpaca, a blend of 70% acrylic and 30% alpaca. The first step is to look at the yards per ounce and see if it's close to the suggested yarn. You shouldn't have to purchase the two yarns to do this comparison; Ravelry or the yarn manufacturer's website will usually provide this information.

The two yarns we're comparing are very close in yards per ounce, so Bernat Alpaca is a good candidate for substitution.
  • One skein of Lion's Pride Woolspun is 3.5 ounce, 127 yard = 36.3 yd/oz
  • One skein of Bernat Alpaca is 3.5 ounce, 120 yard = 34.3 yd/oz
The second step is to determine the wraps per inch (WPI) for the two yarns and compare them. (See "Can you explain more about WPI?" below.) This step is optional but extremely useful. Unfortunately, yarn companies do not typically put this information on their websites so you'll have to purchase a skein of each yarn to do the comparison. Like the first comparison, if the WPI for the two yarns is similar, the yarn is a good candidate for substitution because if two yarns have similar WPI, then they should work up to a similar gauge.

The two yarns we're comparing differ in WPI. The Bernat Alpaca is definitely a lighter, less bulky yarn than the Lion's Pride Woolspun but, in this case, that's exactly what we wanted. This difference in WPI means that the Bernat Alpaca may take a larger hook then the LP Woolspun to achieve the same gauge.

  • Lion's Pride Woolspun has 5 WPI
  • Bernat Alpaca has 6 WPI
The third step is absolutely necessary: Make a test swatch. If necessary, remake it with a smaller or larger hook - and repeat until you make gauge.

Once you have achieved gauge, there is a fourth and final step that makes a huge difference in your final result. Ask yourself: Do I like the feel of this fabric for the item that I'm making? If the answer is yes, then congratulations, you've found a good yarn for substitution. If the answer is no, then you're wise to keep looking rather than spend time working with a yarn that is not suitable for the project.

This photo shows the two swatches side by side - you may not be able to tell it here, but the Bernat Alpaca (purple) has much more drape than the Woolspun (green). Much as Maxine likes the soft, cushy olive green (her favorite color) Woolspun, she prefers the feel of the purple Bernat Alpaca fabric for her vest.

So what are some of the yarns you tried as substitutions for this pattern?
Altogether, Rosemary and Maxine made swatches with nine bulky-weight yarns and were able to achieve gauge with them all. Look below the photo for their comments.

Note: If you click on the picture, you'll see that each swatch has a number that corresponds to the number in the table below.

Yarn Comments
Lion's Pride Woolspun (1)
80% acrylic, 20% wool
Good color choice, easy to work with; not as much drape as some other yarns
Bernat Alpaca (2)
70% acrylic, 30% alpaca
Good drape and feel, not a huge number of colors to choose from
Paton's Classic Wool Roving (3)
100% wool
Good drape but feels a little scratchy; single ply so good stitch definition; striking colors
Paton's Shetland Chunky (4)
75% acrylic, 25% wool
Good selection of colors; very soft with good drape
Paton's Shetland Chunky Tweed (5)
72% acrylic, 25% wool, 3% viscose
Small but sophisticated selection of colors; nice drape and very soft texture
Loops & Threads Woolike Chunky (6)
85% acrylic, 15% nylon
Feels springy and spongy but does not have good drape; limited selection of colors
Lion Brand Jiffy (7)
100% acrylic
Soft fuzzy yarn, the lightest weight of all the bulkies (so it required a larger hook to get gauge); nice drape, excellent color selection
Lamb's Pride Bulky (8)
85% wool, 15% mohair
The luxury yarn of the group, available at several LYS in a wide variety of colors; nice feel but not as much drape as some of the others
Deborah Norville Serenity Chunky Tweeds (9)
97% acrylic, 3% viscose
Fairly good drape and feel; color selection very limited 

Can you explain more about WPI?
This photo shows a handy little tool in action, the WPI Tool Kit - ask for it at your local yarn shop. The idea is to place the yarn on a flat surface and carefully roll the yarn around the tool without stretching the yarn. You wrap the yarn so that each wrap lies next to each other without squishing and without gaps (the wraps in this picture are not really close enough together). You then count the number of wraps for each inch. It's best to roll it around several inches (the tool has 3 inches marked on it) and then measure in the middle. You can use a round dowel, or wooden crochet hook or knitting needle if you can't find the tool. No matter what tool you use, measuring WPI takes a little practice.

Can't I rework the pattern to another yarn weight?
There are two approaches to this question. The first approach is to try to achieve a gauge that is exactly twice as many rows and stitches as the pattern gauge. Rosemary was able to do this with one #3 (sport weight), Caron Simply Soft Light - the front yarn in this photo. Since the row count and the stitch count are both exactly twice of the suggested gauge, she can double the stitch count and row count in each and every step of the pattern, thereby converting the pattern as she works.

She was not able to make gauge with the other yarn, Bernat / Vicky Howell Cottonish (also a #3); she was able to double the row count but not stitch count. This highlights what we said earlier - you can't assume two yarns will behave exactly the same just because they share the same weight classification number.

The other approach is to completely rework all stitch and row counts to the gauge of any weight yarn. You have to be willing to do a lot of calculations - and you have to be willing to experiment, knowing that experiments sometimes fail! These are the steps at a high-level for this approach:
  1. Make a generous swatch in the yarn you'd like to use, using the hook size that you feel makes the best fabric for the project. This is where some of the willingness to experiment comes into play - you may have to try several hook sizes.
  2. Note the stitches gauge and rows gauge that you achieved (traditionally over 4 inches).
  3. Look at the pattern to see if the schematic shows exact dimensions for each piece. If no dimensions are given, then you need to figure out the size (in inches) of each piece based on the gauge given in the pattern.
  4. Once you know the dimension in inches, divide those inches by gauge inches you achieved and then multiply by the gauge count. For example: If your back vest piece should be 20 inches wide and you achieved a gauge of 14 stitches and 12 rows over 4 inches, then you would perform the following math: 20 / 4 * 14 = 70 stitches.
  5. Repeat step 4 for every dimension; be sure to multiply by the row count for the vertical dimensions. 
As a final note, just remember that if you do use a substitute yarn for this or any other project, your finished result may not look exactly like the result envisioned by the designer. But that's all right, because it will be uniquely yours!