The Woolly Badger guide to yarn substitution

There’s been a lot of talk in the online knitting community over the past few days about how to make sure that knitting is financially accessible for as many people as possible. As a large part of that responsibility rests with designers, and the yarns we choose to use, I wanted to lay out my approach to choosing yarn, providing alternative options, and helping people find the yarn that will work best for them. I’ve pulled together some helpful yarn substitution resources at the end of the post, so if you’re just here for them then skip to the end.

Yarn stash shot
Yes, that’s only part of my yarn stash. Yes, I have a problem.

Ah, yarn substitution. You funny old beast. I’ll be honest; for years, I didn’t even realise yarn substitution was a thing. I thought you had to knit the pattern in the yarn that the pattern told you to knit it in, or it would all go terribly bad and wrong. Every single time. No exceptions.

I now know that not to be the case.

And I also realise that yarn substitution is actually a pretty important thing. Switching in a different yarn can be the difference between being able to afford to knit, and not. When I first got into knitting a lot of my friends assumed I was going to save myself a lot of money by being able to knit my own jumpers, and I had to explain time and again that that’s really not the case. Unless you’re willing to knit everything in acrylic (and to be clear, I have nothing against acrylic except a bit of environmental unease, but that’s a whole other blog about how sometimes slow fashion made out of acrylic can be better than a constant stream of fast fashion made in terrible conditions with supposedly ‘better’ fibres), then chances are you’ll end up spending rather a lot more on your knitwear than you would if you bought similar on the high street.

So, yes, having yarns at a variety of price points is really important if knitting is going to be accessible for as many people as possible. And having patterns that work for yarns at a variety of price points is a pretty big deal too. I used to look at patterns and think I couldn’t knit them because I couldn’t get the yarn they called for. Sometimes because I couldn’t find it, but sometimes because I just couldn’t afford it.

These days I’m lucky enough to be able to afford some really, really lovely yarn. And as a designer, I really want to support other indie businesses by using their yarns in my designs. That’s why you’ll see a lot of fancy, hand-dyed yarn used in my patterns. But I also know that won’t work for everyone; spending £20 on a single skein of hand-dyed yarn is not going to work with everyone’s budget. And crucially, not everyone will have the knowledge, or indeed the confidence, to substitute the yarn I’ve used without getting a little help from somewhere.

So, the other side of my role as a designer is supporting people who need more affordable choices. I’m not going to lie here; I am not a yarn substitution expert. My preferred method for my own projects starts with looking at yarn weight, takes a brief sojourn past fibre content, and then invariably gets wildly distracted by colourways. It’s probably not the way you should do things.

But, I’m going to put my haphazard ways aside and make sure that where I can, I’m recommending at least one more affordable yarn choice with each of my patterns. But, that’s still not really enough. The great joy of the internet is that people from all over the world can use my patterns. The great ballache of that is that not every yarn is available in every country, so it’s going to be impossible for me to recommend a yarn for every possible scenario. But I can recommend places that help.

Your local yarn store

Man, local yarn stores are great. They’re run by people who love yarn, and who seriously know their stuff. If you ever need help substituting a yarn for any pattern you’re knitting, I’d really recommend starting there.

Now, I know not everyone is lucky enough to have a local yarn store they can just drop along to. But one of the (very few) good things about the Covid-19 pandemic is that more and more people are trading online, including yarn stores. Chances are a quick google will be able to bring up someone who will be happy to help you via phone or email, and then post your goods out to you.

Online resources

Now, I could write a nice blog about which fibres behave similarly, and which swapouts work particularly well. I could, but I’d largely be making it up. So instead, I’m going to point you towards some other resources from people who really do know what they’re talking about.

So there you go. That’s the Woolly Badger guide to doing yarn substitution the right way, as opposed to the haphazard way. Writing this post has almost convinced me to start following my own advice.

Almost.

THe story of the Beatrice shawl

The lace and stocking stitch Beatrice shawl pattern may have just launched, but technically, its goes back to 1997. I’d just moved back to the UK after a stint in Australia, and I started at a new school. Which was where I met the friend after whom the Beatrice shawl is named.

But I can’t really claim that that was the genesis of the shawl, because back then I couldn’t even knit. And I definitely wasn’t planning to design any knitted accessories for my new friend. My main design ambitions were around having the best binder collage of snipped-out pictures from J17 and Bliss magazine. Important stuff when you’re in year 8.

Beatrice shawl opened up on one side to show lace detailing

So no, I’m not going to start this tale in 1997. We’re going to skip over 23 years of friendship, through the copied homework and the underage drinking and the gig-going and the time she locked me in the basement over a particularly fraught game of Who’s In The Bag and straight to where we are.

The knackered mum years. For since that first classroom encounter, between us we’ve gained four children, a shared interest in colourful crafts, and a total of about 6 hours sleep each.

The tale of the Beatrice shawl actually starts with the Great Shawl Frenzy of 2020, when my reaction to the absolute nightmare shitshow of a year that is 2020 seemed to be to knit shawls. Lots of shawls. All the shawls. Two things drew me to them; no seaming, and minimal ends. I do not like seaming, and I do not like sewing in ends. I especially do not like doing them when I’m a bit stressed, which this being 2020, I obviously was/am.

And so I found myself WhatsApping a lot of shawl photos to my friend, who did me the wonderful service of pretending to be interested. And then it happened; I found a load of mustard yellow lace yarn hiding in my stash. Just sitting, there, looking at me. Asking me to make it into a beautiful lace shawl.

Detail of mustard yellow lace shawl edging

Now, among the things Bea-the-person has introduced me to over the years is the incredible joy of mustard yellow. As a ginger I’d always steered clear of every colour except blue and green, because late 90s/early 00s TV and women’s journalism had convinced me that they were the only options for me. Then I had kids and the combination of jealousy of heir wardrobes and just not giving a crap anymore led me to decide my previous colour combinations – or lack thereof – were boring. Enter: Bea and her array of mustard yellow.

So obviously, this yarn (the Yarn Collective Portland lace in Keeping Bees, if you fancy some for yourself) was telling me that I had to make it into a shawl for Bea. But this was where I got adventurous; rather than spamming her with another 5,294 photos of potential shawls to knit I decided to go in a different direction.

I was going to design something just for her.

Of course, being as she lives in London and I’m in Bristol, this process still involved a lot of WhatsApp spam. But it was new spam. Spam of lace patterns from stitch dictionaries. Spam of shawl shapes. Spam of terribly executed sketches from my newly-purchased design notebook. I asked her to pick her favourites, and then I committed to Frankenstein’s monstering the whole lot together.

It was not as difficult as I expected it to be.

In amongst the chaos and catastrophe of 2020, it was actually really bloody good to have something to focus on and get completely absorbed by. I sat next to my eldest’s trainset as he crashed his Thomas trains, calculating stitch counts. I worked out the best order to use the lace motifs in. I sketched out lace charts and sorted out the placement of the pattern repeats. I did yet another shonky sketch, and then I told Bea I was good to go.

And thus began the Great Unknown Knit. I had a theoretical lace shawl in my notebook, but no idea if it would actually work in reality. The stocking stitch bands were fine; you just keep knitting back and forth. Perfect, soothing crafting fodder. But as I got to each lace panel I had small-scale terror that my maths would be wrong and I’d have to go right back to the start.

It wasn’t. And I didn’t.

Instead, I ended up with the shawl you see in the photos. Lightweight, lacy, and of course mustard yellow. It’s a good’un. I’m proud of it. It’s a testament to enduring friendship, and the soothing power of knitting, and the joy of a good pop of colour.

You can get your hands on the Beatrice shawl pattern in three places, which are all listed below. I hear you can even knit it in colours other than mustard yellow.

Never have I ever knitted… (or, the knitting bucket list)

For someone who considers themselves a seasoned knitter, there’s a surprising amount of knitting that I’ve not done. And I’m not just talking about all the planned projects that currently just exist in the form of a load of stashed yarn and some dreams. I mean there are loads techniques, and types of knitting, that I’ve just never done.

Admittedly, I’m not the most adventurous person. My idea of a cracking night is a cup of tea, some knitting, and a nice sit down. But I am adventurous in my clothing, and my colour choices, and I like to think I’m adventurous in my design. And yet, there are huge gaps in my yarny experience.

For example: I just knitted myself a pair of socks. They were my first ever socks. Not my first toe-up socks. My first socks, full stop. This is not really an acceptable state of affairs for a professional knitter.

And so I’m compiling a list of all the things I’ve never knitted so that I can work my way through them slowly. Prepare to be appalled, my fellow knitters. There are some gaps here as glaring as the gap in my cinematic knowledge that comes from never having seen The Wizard of Oz.

Top-down socks
Not really a big surprise, this one, given that I’ve just told you that I’ve only ever knitted one pair of socks and they were toe up. But for the sake of completeness, it still needs including. And rectifying. Swiftly, with some of the sock yarn I’ve just accidentally bought. Turns out knitted socks are really cosy. Who knew?

Everyone? Oh.

Anything else top-down
Yes, that’s right. I’ve never knitted a top-down sweater, or cardigan, or anything. I’ve only ever done one top in the round, although I did at least knit that one twice. I know there are huge benefits to whole top-down method, like checking the fit, and feeling smug, but I’ve still never quite been brave enough for it. I just look at those items and think “ooh, that looks tricky.”

A fairisle yoke
Science fact: I’d never done any colourwork until less than a year ago, because – shockingly enough – it scared me. It’s that whole top-down thing again. So I suppose the obvious conclusion here is that I should knit a top-down fairisle yoked sweater, isn’t it?

Magic loop
Another ridiculous omission, given that it’s apparently brilliant and much easier than using double pointed needles. But something about the name makes me think of law firms, and I apparently just can’t get past that. If I wanted to be a lawyer I would’ve done something more than watching a lot of The Good Wife and going ‘oh man, that looks EXCITING!’. And so, my brain’s idiocy in collating magic circle law firms with magic loop knitting has condemned me to a life of things being far more difficult than they need to be. Serves me right, really.

A triangular shawl
This one, admittedly, is more about aesthetic choice than a fear of technique. I’m not really a shawl-wearing person; I’m more chunky cardigans and coats with pockets full of crap from years ago. But, it’s occurred to me in writing this that I could use a shawl a bit like a cape and swoosh my way around. And that I could knit it in really bright fun colours and it needn’t be granny-like at all.

I’ve talked myself right into that one, haven’t I?

Brioche
I’m not going to lie – brioche looks like the result of some dark magic to me. How? How does it do that? I don’t have even the faintest idea. Suppose I should probably find out at some point soon.

An I-cord bind off
What is it? Is it a bind off made by Apple? How many other people have made that joke before me? It’s another one I’ll have to knit to find out. Although maybe not about the joke. I don’t think I’ll finish the bind off and suddenly a voice will go “10,006 people made that joke before you!”

That’d be cool, though.

So that’s it. That’s the list, a least as far as I can remember. And, now that they’re committed to the internet, I’m committed to rectifying the situation.

Eventually.