Substitution with Vintage or Handcrafted Yarns: How to get care, gauge, yardage and more

Many patterns specify a yarn and number of skeins, rather than yardage making substitution difficult. This post is designed to help you use vintage or any yarn on which you have little information.

I’ll be outlining ways to get yarn weight, yardage and care in order to make informed substitutions. This is especially relevant to me, since I inherited a huge stash of wool from my grandmother when she forgot how to knit when she developed Alzheimer’s.

For this blog I used a vintage yarn Zegna Barrufa Lane Borgosesia dal 1850 Peacock. This yarn is not in the Ravelry database or any other online source.

It seemed like I had a lot of this yarn. My grandmother had 17 skeins (!) in her stash. But that turned out not to be the case. They are on cardboard spools–so there is more air than yarn. I’m also dealing with three different dye lots and minor sun damage. Grandma was a penny-pincher and often bought remainders, smoke/fire damaged and sun damaged, and unlabeled yarns at bargain prices. This is only one example of many “problem children” from her stash.

Getting the Weight:

What you will need:

  • Yarns of several weights that follows the standard yarn weighting accepted today. I generally rely on Cascade Yarn for this, but any major yarn manufacturer will do.
  • Appropriately sized needles for the weights.

Methods:

Twist method: I learned this several decades ago in a class, I believe, Lily Chin taught at one of the early Stitches West. This is where you take a yarn that is a good standard for different weights of yarn.

The trick here is to have lots of “known good” weights of yarn. I have loads of leftovers that work perfect for this.

You hook the yarns around one another and then twist in opposite directions. If there is a “smooth” transition when you run your fingers across the join, you have likely found your closest yarn weight.

For the Peacock, I started with a DK, then tried a worsted, aran and bulky. What I learned was that because of the variance in the yarn, it ranges from worsted to aran and it is too big for DK and too small for bulky.

Gauge swatch: Now that we have an approximate weight. I recommend knitting a gauge swatch of the matching weight yarn and your “unknown” using the same needles. Measure and compare the swatches.

If they have the same stitches to the inch, you are done. If not, knit a swatch with the yarn that is one size up if your mystery swatch has fewer stitches or one size down if your mystery swatch had more stitches to the inch.

And keep your swatch of the unknown yarn. It will come in handy for determining the care.

Getting the Yardage:

What you will need:

  • A yarn swift (I’ve also used chair backs–anything you can measure around)
  • Flexible measuring tape
  • If the yarn is in a skein, a yarn bowl or way to hold it steady while you wind it onto a swift

Method:

  • If yarn is in a hank, place it on the swift and extend the swift to the maximum size; If yarn is a skein, wind yarn onto the swift (Steps 1 and 3 in image below)
  • Measure around the swift (Steps 2 and 4 in image below)
  • Count the number of strands (step 5)
  • Multiply the number of strands by the number of inches (e.g., 50 strands time 60 inches) and divide by 36 (inches in a yard) (not shown)

In my case, I got 50 strands at 60 inches, so that’s 3,000 inches of yarn. I divided this by 36, to get ~83.33 yards. Keep in mind, yarn is sold by weight not length, so you shouldn’t expect to get a round number. After getting the yardage, I wound it back into a skein (Step 6).

With 17 skeins I actually only have about 1400 yards total and only 833 yards of a single dye lot.

Getting the Care:

As you can see from the yarn label, it says to wash in temperature 30 (F or C?), it is possible to use an iron and it is possible to wash with most detergents, but not bleach. This still leaves a lot of missing information.

There are three (maybe more) ways to determine how to launder the fabric you create with this yarn. They are as follows:

  • Look on the label. Sometimes “superwash” or similar phrases are there. In my case the yarn came with symbols and these can be looked up online. I’ve included the reference chart below.
  • Look at yarns with similar composition. On Ravelry there are wealth of yarns which have this information. If you find one of similar percentages, you came mostly rely on this information.
  • The most foolproof way is to swatch (the same one you made for gauge) and do to it anything you might do with the finished item. Wash, it dry it, dye it, bleach it, etc.

Dealing with Multiple Dye Lots or Sun Damage:

The easiest way to deal with inconsistent dying or sun damage is to group them by color and alternate in your most different skeins, every other row. Another thing that works very well is blending it with another yarn for a marled look. If the color problem is minor, it will be invisible.

Do Try This At Home

It can be hard, these days, to get to your LYS. So, I hope this post helps you use up more of the yarn you already have. I’ll be posting an afghan I’m working where I’m blending vintage yarns in an effort to get something both useful and beautiful by using up my grandmother’s stash.

Brioche Made Simple Reprise

I LOVE brioche—both the stitch and the bread. I fell in love with fabric the moment I found it in a Vogue Knitting pattern from the Winter 1998/1999 edition. It was pattern #10 which sadly is not online, so I’m happy to have the printed magazine.

Brioche was not new 20+ years ago when I discovered it. It’s been around for centuries and is believed to have originated in the Netherlands for fisherman sweaters. Think Aran Isle only Dutch.

In the hunt to find projects to use up odds and ends of my stash, I looked back at a previous post I made on simplified brioche knitting, but many of the links no longer worked, so this is an update to that post as well as a free scarf pattern in case you want to try it for creating stretchy, beautiful knitwear.

Brioche is almost as simple as garter because it is  the same and knitted both directions. And brioche is far stretchier than a standard rib. This means that it will stretch farther sideways than rib patterns. Which makes it great for a horizontal piece, but not good for a vertical one. I learned this the hard way.

As you know, there are loads of Brioche patterns, but few stand out as good references. The good ones use standard knitting terminology instead of BRKs, BRPs, etc. I call these the “brioche without tears” patterns.

Simple Brioche Instructions

In single color, flat brioche, all rows are the same—no matter which way the work is facing. Only the setup and bind off rows are different.

Across any even number of stitches:

  • Setup Row: (prep for pattern rows) *K1, yarnover (yo), slip 1 purlwise; repeat from * to end of row
  • Pattern Rows: (repeated row) *K2tog (the slip 1 and yo of the previous row), yo, sl1; repeat from * to end of row
  • Final Row: (prep for bind off) P1, K2tog across

Below is a pattern for a super quick knit scarf that I call 12 Feet of Love. It’s knit in a discontinued yarn called Kitten, by Reynolds, a wool-blend that creates a slightly fuzzy, bumpy fabric that was popular in the 80’s.

12 Feet of Love Scarf

This pattern can be any length, width or use any yarn you desire. This makes it a great stash buster project.

Length: As the title suggests, the project I knit was 12 feet including fringe. You can stop at your desired length.

Width: I you want a wider scarf; you can make it wider simply add pairs of (2) stitches until it is the desired width.

Yarn: I used Aran, but this pattern works for any yarn weight. If you use a thinner yarn, add more pairs of stitches, a thicker yarn will require a pair or two less. The best thing is to knit a gauge swatch with the whatever yarn you plan to use.

Supplies:

  • Needles: Size 9 or whatever gives you the appropriate or preferred gauge.
  • Yarn: I used 600-700 yards of Aran weight
  • Darning needle to weave in ends.

Directions:

  • Cast on 16 stitches.
  • Start setup row: *K1, yarnover (yo), slip 1 purlwise; repeat from * to end of row
  • Next row and every row after: *K2tog (the slip 1 and yo of the previous row), yo, sl1; repeat from * to end of row
  • When the scarf is the desired length, do bind off prep row: P1, K2tog across
  • Bind off 16 remaining stitches
  • Weave in ends
  • If desired, add fringe and trim to preferred length

What’s Next?

I hope the reference is useful for you. I’ll probably expand it to include more and more “conversions” as more as more simple brioche patterns (once again) are made available.

My next big thing is two-color brioche and it turns out that knitting brioche in the round is even easier than two-color brioche flat. Below are a pattern and a video to help without a BRK or BRP in sight!

Pattern: Joann’s two-color cowl

Two-color brioche cowl video tutorial: Milk Shed: Easy two color cowl video (knits and purls only): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRt0i1dQfJc

I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Call to Action!!!

If you know of other brioche patterns using standard knitting terms, I’m collecting them, so please share!