On Yarn Selection and Substitution

6 January 2021
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Yarn substitution was a hot topic on social media in 2020. The discussion was prompted by the release of a sweater pattern from a popular designer, featuring multiple colours of an expensive yarn. The total yarn cost to make the sweater, even in the smallest sizes, added up to hundreds of dollars US.

Some folks pointed out – reasonably – that this was beyond the budget of many. Even in a normal year, it would be a lot of money, but in mid-2020, even fewer crafters than usual had that kind of disposable income.

A pattern featuring expensive yarn can certainly seem to be inaccessible. A crafter might feel that they can’t make the project, because they can’t afford the yarn. Some crafters might feel that we, as an industry, must consider affordability, financial accessibility.

Other folks in the social media discussion offered solutions. It was suggested that patterns should show samples worked with more than one yarn choice, or not list any specific yarn at all, leaving it open to the crafter to make their own choice. Other crafters asked that designers use less expensive materials for their designs.

Yarn and Business

But none of these solutions is perfect, and as with many hot topics in crafts, the nuance comes in when we consider the business aspects of such decisions, and when we explore the freedom we have as crafters to use whatever materials we want.

First, a bit about the business. A craft pattern is often sponsored or supported by a company that makes supplies. Many knit and crochet designers receive free or discounted yarn to use in designs for publication, whether they publish independently or in a magazine. It’s to a yarn company’s benefit to provide yarn, because it’s excellent promotion of their product and many crafters do purchase exactly the yarn specified, so direct sales often result.

Yarn support, as it’s called, is a business arrangement: In exchange for the yarn, the designer or publication commits to listing the particular yarn details in the pattern so it’s easy for crafters to find and buy it.

You might think, then, that a solution to the affordability issue would be for designers and publications to purchase materials themselves, thus relieving the need to list the specific yarn in their patterns. Many designers make very little money selling their patterns, however, and yarn costs, even for relatively inexpensive yarns, might prevent them from designing at all. Publications, similarly, often operate on tight budgets themselves, and if they had to purchase materials rather than having them supplied, they might have to publish fewer patterns.

Yarn support is ubiquitous in this industry because it is a mutually beneficial arrangement: Manufacturers see their products featured in designs, designers can choose the best yarn fit for their projects, and crafters can know exactly what to look for when they go shopping.

As for that last part: Yes, crafters need to know exactly what to look for when shopping even if we aren’t shopping for the exact yarn named in the pattern. That specific yarn information – the name and manufacturer, the fibre content, the yarn weight and gauge – is what informs our selection of a substitute.

Removing that information from the instructions would under-serve crafters and weaken the pattern information. The information about the yarn used is crucial, as not all fibres are appropriate for specific techniques – some designs work better with wool, for example, and others with cotton. Yarn texture and colouring can be crucial to the success of a project, too – intricate pattern stitches look best worked with a smooth yarn without much colour variation, say. Some of this information can be gleaned from photographs, but not all. The crafter benefits from specific yarn details to help ensure their project turns out well.

So then perhaps designers should use less expensive materials?

Going back to the pattern that sparked the firestorm on social media, the designer of the garment in question chose wool for the pattern, as it was most appropriate for the techniques used. Crafters protested that the specific types of wool the designer chose were particularly costly. Here’s a challenge with that: “Costly” is very, very relative. The designer chose yarn from two small, independent, U.S.-based businesses. Yarn from these businesses is more expensive than yarn that’s manufactured overseas; production and labour costs are higher in North America than in other parts of the world, and the raw materials are more costly. The companies in question both pride themselves on paying their staff a living wage, and are committed to ethical and environmentally sustainable business practices, with consideration to animal welfare. Yes, there are wool yarns with a lower price tag, but the cost is paid in other ways.

(Avoiding wool isn’t the answer to high costs. Cotton is also problematic, and the manufacturing of synthetic yarns has a huge and negative environmental impact.)

The designer made a clear statement about their values with their choice of yarn. They chose based on their beliefs, their fibre preferences, their colour preferences, and what was available to them, and the costs they wished to bear (financial or other).

Image description: Six hanks of yarn of different colourways lined up in a row.

Photo credit Kate Atherley.

Make Your Own Choices

Just because a designer chose certain materials for a project, based on a variety of considerations, doesn’t mean that crafters need to use the same. When choosing supplies for a project, a crafter should take those same factors into consideration: personal values, ethical and environment concerns, access, cost, fibre content, brand, colours.

As a designer, I fully expect a crafter to make their own choices. I know that at some point, it’s likely that the yarn I chose will get discontinued, and I’d like the pattern to have a life after that. (I’ve written eight books with patterns, and for each one, at least one of the yarns used has been taken off the market between the time I finished making the samples and when the book went on sale.)

Yarn substitution does take some experience, absolutely. This is one of the reasons we love local craft-supply shops: the staff are always keen to advise and help you choose materials.

At Digits & Threads we’re committed to helping crafters make their own choices. Our patterns will always list the brand and type of materials used, and we’re also going to give you details on key qualities of the materials, and, where appropriate, suggestions to aid substitution.

Sometimes this is simple. In my Stay Home cross-stitch pattern, I mentioned possible colour variations. For other projects, there are more variables involved. When considering yarn, for example, there are factors of cost, the actual fibre, yarn construction and spin, washability, colouring type, and so forth. What’s right for the designer might not be right for the crafter. Mary Martin’s Canadian Resources Cowl relies on specific colouring of yarn to make the design most impactful – you’ll find guidance on making a choice in the instructions.

Every pattern should provide enough information to help a crafter find alternative materials that meet their personal needs. After all, that’s a big part of the joy of crafting: making the project truly your own.


Featured photo credit Steve Johnson on Unsplash.

Copyright © Kate Atherley except as indicated.

About Kate Atherley

Kate Atherley (she/her) is a co-founder, editor and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2002 as a designer, editor, writer, and instructor. She's authored eight books about knitting, from a next-steps guide for newbie knitters to the industry's only guide to professional knitting pattern writing. Kate lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband and their rescue dog Winnie.

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