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) *K2tog P1* repeat across
  • Cast off: in pattern (K1, P1)

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!

It’s Hip to Be Square – Sticking With Classic Designs

Some things are “classic” like Bach concertos and other things are likely to go the way of the song that inspired the title of this blog, Huey Lewis and the News and their song, Hip to be Square. I suspect that Bach will be heard more often and long after I’m around, given how long it has been since he was around (he died in 1750).

The upshot? Trends die and classics last. So why not knit things that never go out of style?

Last week I mentioned my grandmother used to, out of boredom, knit the frilliest, most intricate couch throws. And though I know she knit my family dozens of these beautiful showpieces; I cannot tell you where any of these are today–probably hiding out in closets. You don’t see them because they were showpieces and not particularly useful.

I’m lazy, so if I’m going to take the time to knit an afghan, rather than creating a visual piece, I’d rather see it wear out from use. And even better if it looks good too.

My first afghan, knit from yarn in my grandmother’s stash, was a series of stockinette and reverse stockinette squares with a seed stitch border. Since then, I’ve stuck with this very classic “squares” design, varying only the size of the squares, the weight of the yarn and the border. And though the first one is from many years ago, it is warm, washable, reversable and comfortable. And being a basic ivory color, it should also match any possible décor.

Simple Squares Throw in Ivory Acrylic

I’m on the last block of squares of my latest afghan in this series. After which I’m going to try a Purl Soho pattern to do something just a bit different, but not so different it won’t get used.

Shadow Squares Pattern from Purl Soho

I’m definitely happy to be a square when it comes to creating classic, useful household items. What I tend to splurge on is the fiber itself. These two afghans are a wool-silk blend and they are warm, warm, warm. Perfect for these chilly winter months.

These simple contemporary designs which are both easy to make and great for every day use.

This coming weekend I’m heading to the Red Alder Fiber Art Retreat in Tacoma. I’ve missed it every year–until this year–because of work and travel. I’m super excited to hone my double-knitting skills so I can do more reversible items. Hope to see you there!

What would you do if you forgot how to knit?

For most of my life, I’ve been a sweater knitter. I think this is because my grandmother, who taught me to knit, was a prolific knitter of sweaters—30+ a year. She also made afghans, but not as many because she’d get bored. To keep things interesting, she’d choose intricate patterns with bells and baubles. When I think of the ‘lost art of knitting’ it’s these fancy items that come to mind.

What’s amazing is after my grandmother stopped knitting, there was only one work in progress in her stash. She was a finisher, but later in life she became ill with Alzheimer’s and literally forgot how to knit. At some point, she thought if she didn’t have the yarn, she’d be less likely to want to pick up a project. And this would reduce her torment of starting and not knowing how to keep going. Except, of course, for the times she forgot that she’d forgotten how to knit.

This is how I came to ‘inherit’ a huge amount of yarn more than 10 years years before she passed away at 90 years old.

As a knitter, to forget how to weild your craft seems like the ultimate punishment. If it were me, I’d do what she did–find someone to inspire. And boy did she have a lot of inspiration to share! She’d been collecting for years and with every store closing or fire sale, her stash grew and grew until it overwhelmed her house.

As her memory faded, my grandfather reminded her that I was a knitter. So, she called and asked me to drive from Arizona, home to Idaho, to take away her stash. When I arrived, my grandmother told me it “made her sick” to look at it. She kept asking me, “you’ll use it won’t you?” at least a dozen times. “I just don’t want to see it go to waste.” I assured her it wouldn’t, and I meant it.

Then, as now, I am intensely grateful for the gift of her stash which I’ve knit into all kinds of things.

At that time, I would never, at that time, have been able to afford these yarns—not even the synthetics. Overnight, my nonexistent stash bulged with wools, silks, angora, cottons and linens as well. Most of it odds and ends, because she never knit with more than one yarn or color at a time. Since I do, her leftovers work just fine.

In this new year–new decade–in fact, I am challenging myself to put the remaining yarn to the best possible use. There will be difficulties, as many of them have no yardage or care information. It will also be fun figure how I can best use this gift of yarn to its best advantage.

I look forward to sharing!

Stash Mash – Decisions! Decisions!

The minute one project ends, I’m on the hunt for the next. And many times, I don’t even look at my queue (40+ items) or library of patterns (more than 6000).

I have projects on the needles, but I’m anxious to grind down my stash with a new project. And with so many free patterns—some with timeless good looks to them, it feels like the time to do a stash reduction is now. Especially if I’m going to make my goal of 20 projects completed this year.

One resolution (again) is to shop from my stash. Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration I cannot seem to leave a wool shop or event without coming home with truckloads… And did I mention I bought loads on December 31st? 🙂

Rounding out the top of the free patterns on Ravelry I’m considering, given my stash, these are the top candidates:

  • A sweater called Sloper, by Karen Templer. Instead of three strands of worsted wool, I’d use two strands of Aran weight Rowan Bamboo Tape in Honey from my stash. Not only will it breathe better than wool, it won’t be scratchy on the soft skin of the neck.
  • A hat called Twist and Slouch, from local (Anacortes, WA) knit designer Kali Berg. It looks easy and I love the big brim, which for my small head is a necessity. I think Knit Picks Galerie  in Renaissance (jewel tones) would make a fine, colorful hat. I bought it for socks, but it’s must too thick for that.
  • A simple throw, Garter Squish, by Stephen West to chew through my copious stash of worsted weight yarns. I could make one in synthetic and one in wool and still have dozens of yarn left over.
  • An extra wide version of this Bias Scarf, by Shelby Dyas to replace a rectangle wrap I wore ceaselessly until I lost it in Copenhagen on a business trip.
  • Sediment Scraps blanket, by the knitty professors, is another possible candidate.

Where to start?

So what is tickling your destash fancy?

Weekend Knitting Double Header

You can get this cool quantum t-shirt at Zazzle.com

It’s been a CRAZY spring. I’ve been burning the candle at all three ends.

And what happens the minute you slow down—you get sick of course! And while I really dislike the brain fog and lost time of working on my teaching materials, I got a lot of knitting done while I was confined to bed with a nasty cold.

The good news is that I had several easy projects on the needles and lots of time where I could only really do mentally passive activities—simple knitting among them (TV watching being the other—reruns of The Expanse anyone?).

I finished another bathmat–this one for the island house bathroom, I’ve taken to called “Jeff’s bathroom” due to it being across the hall from the bedroom where the inimitable Jeff Dozier spent time with us during his knee convalesce. And a very simple mock turtleneck sweater design by Adrienne Vittadini  from an old Vogue Knitting Magazine. Vintage yarn for a vintage pattern.

I’m hoping my brain function returns soon, but for now, there’s nothing like knocking off a twofer of simple WIPs in my project queue.