More On Yarn Substitutions

Ask Madelyn

Recently, I’ve received several questions about yarn substitutions. I’ve addressed this before, but here are two questions and some added thoughts. ~Madelyn

Hi Madelyn!

I bought 3 skeins of wool (50% Italian wool, 50% Merino wool) at the ANWG conference to weave a blanket. I am thinking of also using some 100% alpaca along with it. Would that be a good mix or do you have a better suggestion? I have only woven tea towels and scarves so far so this blanket would be new to me.

—Marg

Hi Madelyn!

Now that I’ve retired, I dug out all of my old Weaver’s magazines and I’m ready to weave some projects. A lot of them call for Nehalem, but I don’t think it is made any more. Can I substitute 5/2 pearl cotton? I don’t want to weave with wool because some horrid insects in this area eat it up right away.

—Carolyn

Hi Marg and Carolyn!

First, your best friend for making yarn substitutions is the Master Yarn Chart. There, yarns are shown at their actual size and, most important, yards per pound and suggested setts are given. If the yarn you want to use is the same fiber and the same yards per pound, substituting your yarn will, of course, be fine. However, if the fibers are not the same, you have to consider what will happen during wet finishing. If the yarns are not the same size, you have to consider changing the sett.

Mixing Fibers and Wet-Finishing Weaving

Whenever you make yarn substitutions make sure you've considered how the yarns will wet-finish to ensure you don't cause any undesired effects.
Wet-Finishing for Weavers covers the process of turning weaving into cloth. Finish wool, cottons, silks, and more!

In the case of the wool/merino and alpaca, finishing is the major issue. Alpaca will not shrink and full the way the wool/merino will. It is possible to use yarns that behave differently during wet finishing, however. If you alternate ends of wool/merino and alpaca in the warp and in the weft, the alpaca will retard the shrinkage of the wool, especially if you avoid agitation during wet finishing.

On the other hand, if you arranged wide stripes of alpaca in warp and/or weft, you are likely to get ruffling, with the wool/merino stripes shrinking and fulling—probably not desirable in a blanket. It might work to use all alpaca in either the warp or the weft. The only way to know how any of these choices will work is to weave and wet finish samples.

(To learn more about wet-finishing for different types of fibers and fabrics, I recommend Laura Fry’s video Wet-Finishing for Weavers!)

Yarn Substitutions Using the Master Yarn Chart

Yarn substitutions are a snap with Handwoven's Master Yarn Chart.
Comparison of yarns using the Master Yarn Chart. Top to Botton: Nehalem-type 12/3 wool, 5/2 pearl cotton, 5/2 unmercerized cotton.

In the case of Nehalem (12/3 wool at 2,160 yd/lb), a yarn I loved dearly, 5/2 cotton does make a good yarn substitution as long as you aren’t using it for a project that originally mixed Nehalem with other yarns. Both Nehalem and 5/2 cotton show plain-weave setts in the Master Yarn Chart at 15 ends per inch (the middle number of the three setts given). Nehalem will finish differently (fulling and shrinking more than the 5/2 cotton), but the final fabric will be similar in appearance (and won’t be a victim to insects)!

Most of the cellulose fibers in the Master Yarn Chart can be substituted freely for each other if they show the same yd/lb. An exception is some silks. Some spun silks are much loftier than others, and end up being a thicker yarn than one, for example, with the same yd/lb in cotton. Wool yarns, however, vary so much in degree of twist and the nature of the fiber itself that straight yarn substitutions should be made with care. You can make a guess about that by holding your strand of yarn next to the yarn photo to see if they look similar in grist.

And then, sample!

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