How to Join the Round on a Circular Needle
How to Wind a Hank of Yarn
How to Choose Yarn for Your Project

Choosing Yarn for Your Knitting Project

Yarns, garment shapes, and stitch patterns must work together for your knitting project to be successful. If you plan to knit a scarf or a blanket, go ahead and let the yarn you fall in love with dictate the outcome of your project. However, if you plan to make a sweater, using a sweater pattern as your starting point is the simplest way to get going on a project. You can purchase the yarn specified in the pattern or something similar enough (check with a knowledgeable salesperson) to ensure that the completed garment will look like the one in the picture.

The gauge of yarn

If an irresistible yarn is your starting point and you want to make a sweater, find a pattern written especially for the kind of yarn you've chosen and hope that you like the style. Another option is to select a pattern calling for another yarn that works up to the same gauge as the yarn you've chosen. If the pattern you've chosen expects you to get 4 stitches and 6 rows to the inch and your yarn gives you something different, your sweater will turn out a different size than the one given in the pattern.

Gauge (sometimes called 'tension' is listed at the beginning of a pattern before the instructions proper begin. It's given as a number of stitches and rows over 4 square inches or 10 square centimeters. It also tells what needle and what stitch pattern were used to determine the gauge.

Just because two yarns have the same gauge doesn't mean that they can substitute for each other successfully in a given pattern. If they have different characteristics — texture, drape, fiber, and color — the final garment will look and feel different from the one pictured on your pattern.

It isn't easy to predict what yarn in a ball will look like when it's knitted up. This is especially true of novelty yarns. Jewel-colored hanks may look beautiful when displayed in a basket, but like mush when knitted up. Even plainer traditional yarns can surprise you. Their drape and feel will vary greatly depending on how tightly spun they are, the fiber they're made of, and the dye used to color them.

Check to see whether the yarns you're interested in have been knitted into a sample. Many yarn shops knit up sample swatches or entire sweaters in the yarns they carry so that you can see what they look like worked up.

Texture and color of yarn

If you want to work cables and stitch patterns, a smooth plied yarn in a solid color gives your stitches a crisp look, showcasing your effort. Cables and pattern stitches worked in soft single plies have a slightly softer appearance than when worked in highly twisted yarns. In general, plied and twisted yarns are sophisticated and classic. Single plies are rustic and relaxed.

Yarn consists of one or more strands of yarn called plies. Plied yarns are made from several plies of yarn twisted together. The thickness of a given yarn is determined not by the number of plies, but by their individual thickness. If the plies are thin, a 4-ply yarn can be finer than a heavy single-ply yarn.

If color is what you're after, a simple stockinette sweater knitted up in a colorful hand-painted or sparkling novelty yarn will make a knock-out sweater with relatively little knitting effort. Simple stitch patterns are best. Don't knock yourself out with tricky stitch work if you're using a variegated yarn. The texture won't show up, and all your stitch-making effort will be for naught.

If you love Fair Isle patterns, smooth plied yarns in contrasting colors give you clear and readable patterns. But don't overlook the possibilities of using a hand-painted yarn as one of your colored yarns. A variegated yarn in a single color that shades from light to dark has the subtlety of a watercolor.

Some novelty yarns can be tricky to work with. If you're dying to work with a novelty yarn, start with a variegated dyed or painted simple plied yarn. These give lots of color variation and interest, but the strand of yarn is itself easy to see. Identifying individual stitches in highly textured yarns is difficult if not impossible, making it hard to fix mistakes or rip out stitches.

The wilder the yarn, the simpler the sweater shape and pattern stitch should be. The plainer the yarn, the more texture and shaping details will show up.

Fiber content of yarn

For cotton, silk, and other yarns that are inelastic, look for patterns that don't depend on rib for fit. Find patterns that hang straight to highlight the drape of these yarns.

If you have your heart set on a cotton sweater with a ribbed border and you want the ribbing to pull in and not hang straight, ask the people at your yarn shop whether they have an elastic thread that you can work along with your regular yarn in the rib or edging pattern.

If you shop in a specialty yarn store, chances are that the people who work there have experience with their yarns and with knitting in general. They're there to help you and encourage you. Feel free to ask questions about the yarn you're considering for your project. Here are some good questions to keep in mind:

  • Does it pill?
  • Is it colorfast?
  • Will it stretch?
  • Is it easy to knit with?
  • Does it work with the pattern I've chosen?
  • What size needle will it work best with?

Whatever yarn you choose, remember that you're going to be seeing a lot of it. Hundreds of yards of it will be passing through your fingers as you build — stitch by stitch — your knitted project. Make sure that what you choose is worth your effort. You don't always have to spend more money for good quality, but if you do, you'll save yourself a headache or two, and you'll have a beautiful garment or project to show for your effort.

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