Crochet Yarn Conundrum

It’s not my fault and neither is it yours if a yarn substitution isn’t working.  I’d love to tell you that it’s easy to just plug your favorite yarn into a design and get good results.  I’d sort of be lying if I did.

Let’s say you’ve discovered a crochet design that you want to make but you don’t like/have never heard of/can’t find/wouldn’t pay that much for in this lifetime, or whatever, the yarn suggested in the pattern. So you examine the yarn requirements and consider the possible substitutions.  You have on hand enough yardage of a similar product in a color you’d actually wear, so you go for it. Three things can and often happen: you can’t achieve the stated crochet gauge; you don’t like the looseness or tightness of the resulting fabric or drape; you end up with not enough yarn to complete the project. This would totally piss me off and I would be cursing the designer, the publisher, the yarn manufacturer, my dog and myself {not necessarily in that order} for the complete botched job. I say it again.  It’s not my fault and neither is it yours.

Experience has shown me that no two skeins of yarn are exactly alike. I’m not talking about skeins of completely different yarns that list the similar information on the labels. I mean I’ve had skeins of the same yarn that differ, albeit subtly, in weight or thickness, twist and texture from one color to another color, even from skein to skein of the same color same dye lot.  Hell, there has been yarn that worked to varying gauge within the same fracking skein. (This happens occasionally when you crochet with softly S-twist yarn that inexorably untwists and loses coherence as you go.  However I’ve had yarn that wasn’t intended to be thick and thin, but gave me thick and thin areas just the same!)

How is a crocheter supposed to navigate these waters? The only way to know for sure is through experience; lots of trial and error and cursing.

You’d think there should be some standardization in how yarns are classified and categorized and that such critical information be printed on the yarn labels of every skein offered for sale to aid the unwary public. Well, in a limited way there is.  The system developed and published by the Craft Yarn Council of America (CYCA) is in this downloadable booklet, Standards and Guidelines For Crochet and Knitting. Not to say that the CYCA efforts are unappreciated, but if you study the page Standard Yarn Weight System you’ll find that the system is general and still leaves you guessing.

Standard Yarn Weight System

Categories of yarn, gauge ranges, and recommended needle and hook sizes

Yarn Weight Symbol
& Category Names
lace super fine fine light medium bulky super bulky
Type of
Yarns in
Category
Fingering
10-count
crochet
thread
Sock,
Fingering,
Baby
Sport,
Baby
DK,
Light
Worsted
Worsted,
Afghan,
Aran
Chunky,
Craft,
Rug
Bulky,
Roving
Knit Gauge
Range* in
Stockinette
Stitch to 4 inches
33–40**
sts
27–32
sts
23–26
sts
21–24
st
16–20
sts
12–15
sts
6–11
sts
Recommended
Needle in
Metric Size
Range
1.5–2.25
mm
2.25—
3.25
mm
3.25—
3.75
mm
3.75—
4.5
mm
4.5—
5.5
mm
5.5—
8
mm
8 mm
and
larger
Recommended
Needle U.S.
Size Range
000–1 1 to 3 3 to 5 5 to 7 7 to 9 9 to 11 11
and
larger
Crochet Gauge*
Ranges in
Single Crochet
to 4 inch
32–42
double
crochets**
21–32
sts
16–20
sts
12–17
sts
11–14
sts
8–11
sts
5–9
sts
Recommended
Hook in Metric
Size Range
Steel***
1.6–1.4
mm
2.25—
3.5
mm
3.5—
4.5
mm
4.5—
5.5
mm
5.5—
6.5
mm
6.5—
9
mm
9
mm and
larger
Recommended
Hook U.S.
Size Range
Steel***
6, 7, 8
Regular
hook B–1
B–1
to
E–4
E–4
to
7
7
to
I–9
I–9
to
K–10 1⁄2
K–10 1⁄2 to
M–13
M–13
and
larger
* GUIDELINES ONLY: The above reflect the most commonly used gauges and needle or hook sizes for specific yarn categories.** Lace weight yarns are usually knitted or crocheted on larger needles and hooks to create lacy, openwork patterns. Accordingly, a gauge range is difficult to determine. Always follow the gauge stated in your pattern.*** Steel crochet hooks are sized differently from regular hooks—the higher the number, the smaller the hook, which is the reverse of regular hook sizing

The CYCA system is not universally recognized nor are the stated standards and little ball band symbols used much outside the US.  They know that.  And it figures. It is after all the Craft Yarn Council of America.  Imported yarns are often labeled by their US distributors for our market, but that is no guarantee that the CYCA category will be offered or even considered. Hey, even US manufacturers aren’t putting those symbols on all yarn labels yet.  Is that any example for the world?  Really.

This chart tells you what you can expect from each category in terms of suggested tool sizes and stitch gauges.  For the most part, for knitting and for normal crochet techniques, these suggestions are OK and enormously useful.  But this chart does not spell out what guidelines are used to categorize the yarns in the first place.  You’d hope that the thickness or diameter of the strand (occasionally measured in wpi or wraps per inch) would be considered along with the density or airiness of the fiber (apparent in the number of yards per ounce). You can judge this for yourself in many ways, the simplest is by running a strand through your fingers. Some yarns are between categories or posses qualities that put them in more than one category.  It is then up to the manufacturer or the distributor to assign a weight based on their own customary method.  And that method is often unfathomable.

You say tomato, they say to-mah-to. Even if the yarn description uses familiar terminology, there’s no guarantee that we’re speaking the same language. For example, I have been stalking 100% silk yarns on a UK site, Colourmart

A caveat is printed alongside this DK silk offering: “note that we call this a dk based on its yardage but the denser nature of silk yarn means our dk silks feel more like a fingering weight or similar..”.  The gorgeous Z-twist silk yarn I eventually purchased is put up in a 150 gram cone with 540 yards, which divides out to 180 yards per 50 gram skein (50 grams equals 1 3/4 ounces and is a universally common put-up for skeins of yarn).  This places my silk way finer than DK (CYCA Category 3 Light), possibly finer than sport (CYCA Category 2 Fine). It coulda been a disaster, but because of their warning, I was prepared for that yarn to work to an even finer fingering weight gauge that better corresponds to CYCA category 1. Buyer beware!

Don’t let the CYCA Category names fool you.  The titles Medium, Light, Fine, SuperFine are not meant to be absolute descriptions, they are relative terms. A Category 4 Medium yarn can actually feel lighter than a Category 3 Light one.

All things considered, it is very fortunate if your yarn has a really good label like this example, but you must still beware.  See newly added Crochet Rules #29 and #30.

Even if your label tells the truth and the yarn appears to be a perfect match for your purpose, your substitution outcome can still go horribly wrong due to factors beyond weight category and suggested tools and gauge.

  • Fiber content makes a huge impact. Sticky fibers, definitely mohair as well as some wools, cashmere and alpaca, can adapt to a range of gauges and applications because that stickiness helps the surface hold the stitches, either tighter or looser, so there’s a better chance you can match stated gauges. A classic example is when laceweight mohair is worked using oversized tools to get extremely open, cobweb gossamer fabric.
  • Slick, slippery fibers, such as rayon, or dense fibers, such as mercerized cotton, might not offer as much latitude.Taken to extremes, the stitches could be too stiff at smaller gauges (potholders) or begin to fall apart, unable to hold larger gauges.
  • The spin or twist of the yarn also makes a difference in how a yarn behaves, which I’ve come to expect given my experiments with twist.
  • The most annoying issue is that the yarn color can make a difference in the gauge. Intuitively you’d think that a darker shade of a yarn would have more processing and dye.  If there’s any difference at all, it should be the darker yarn that feels weightier in your hands and on your hook than a pale or natural shade of the same yarn. Hokey Smokes!  The opposite is often the case.

Back to the conundrum.  How does a crocheter confidently substitute yarn in a project, particularly in cases where critical label information is lacking or just plain wrong?

You can begin by first judging a yarn by the yardage per skein, hank or ball. This is only a crude initial look and cannot tell the whole story.  The yardage can vary wildly from product to product, but for traditional type yarn these are some of the averages you can expect:

  • worsted weight Category 4 Medium yarns contain around 80-90 yards per 50g;
  • DK weight Category 3 Light yarns contain around 110-120 yards per 50g;
  • sport yarns Category 2 Fine contain around 140-150 yards per 50g;
  • fingering yarns Category 1 SuperFine contain around 200-250 yards per 50g.

Again, it all depends on the heaviness or density of the fiber and type of construction and twist. For example, compare these two yarns that I’ve had the pleasure of using for recent design.

Blue Sky Alpacas Techno is put up with 120 yards per 50g hank:

It has a more yardage per hank than this Tahki Cotton Classic, which is 108 yards per 50g hank:

The Techno is a whipped up baby alpaca blown into a mesh tube of silk, making it very light and airy.  It is a Category 4 Medium yarn that works to worsted gauge, bordering on chunky! The Cotton Classic is a firmly Z-twisted mercerized cotton that is dense.  It is a Category 3 Light yarn and works to DK gauge.

Here’s the next tell, and you can try it too.  Much of the yarn available to us is manufactured, labeled, marketed, intended and destined for hand knitting. The industry is accustomed to catering to knitters.  Nearly every skein of commercial yarn I have ever held (this does not include certain boutique, specialty or artisan products for which there are few rules!) gives a suggested knitting gauge on the label. So in cases where the weight class or crochet gauge is not clear, canny crocheters can use the ubiquitous knitting gauge as a guideline.

Compare the suggested knitting gauge of your yarn to the CYCA standards above. I know, I know. Every listing in the standard is given as a range, so it’s not exact. For example, the Techno above gives a knitting gauge of 3 to 5 stitches per inch using a US Size 9-10.5 knitting needle.  The needle diameter alone (same mm size as crochet hooks I/9 through K/10.5) puts Techno squarely in the thicker worsted, even chunky range. Cotton Classic is labeled 5 stitches per inch on a US Size 6 needle; it is on the heavier side of DK.

I find myself writing the next words more than I’d care to. There is no magic bullet. After these initial judgements of yarn weight class and knitting gauge, the next step, and the only way to truly know if the yarn will work, is to just do it. Experience, trial, error, cursing. :-)

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16 thoughts on “Crochet Yarn Conundrum

  1. Wow! Great analysis of the problem. I do a lot of substituting, and like you, I have found that the three things that are most useful are the yards per 50 grams, the knitting gauge, and the fiber content. I try to substitute similar fiber content when I can. so that the drape stays similar. So If the pattern calls for a cotton/acrylic, I will substitute something like a cotton/silk/ Modal or a cotton/Tencel in a similar stitch gauge. When I go outside the similar fiber rule, I try to stay with a fiber/weight combination that will drape in a similar fashion. I recently did a lace shawl based on an old doily pattern not in the Microdenier acrylic/cotton DK which the pattern specified, but in a Merino wool/ baby alpaca/silk DK. Although the wool shawl had more stiffness than the microfiber/cotton, it still had enough pliability to drape in a fashion that complemented the doily pattern.

  2. thank you for such an informative article! I am currently attempting a freeform-type scarf and now realize I need to size up my hook to get the effect I desire.

  3. I know what you mean when you say that different colors of the same yarn can work up differently! I’m working on a motif project right now, and I was wondering why my white motifs kept coming out too big! I thought I was just letting my gauge get sloppy, but it still happened when I was actually concentrating. Now I know to adjust my hook size and watch for this problem in the future.

  4. I agree with everything that you said. Very astute. I will also admit that I have recently had this tragedy while making a very unique crochet sweater. The yarn called for was supposed to be Lion Brand Cottonease. I chose to use a far more expensive but snugly Queensland Super Aussie (superwash merino) for said sweater. The design and measurements all came out relatively fine but instead of me wearing the FO, I’ll be giving it to my younger sister. It would take a blocking like you wouldn’t believe to make it fit me. Good news? I still have some of that yarn left, and it’s been in my stash since WEBS last year. So no big deal. There will be more sweaters.

    Next project.

    Well written article! I’ll be following from now on!

  5. I wish I’d read your comments before embarking on a recent multi colored project. I needed 3 skeins each, of 4 colors of the same yarn. I bought enough for my project at my LYS for a pretty penny. As I started out, the first two colors [which I'd used in my gauge swatch] were working up just fine… but when I introduced the 3rd color… whoopsie… as I worked a few rows it was noticeably a different weight and texture despite being the same yarn brand, size and type. It hadn’t seemed different when I bought it the year before, but of course it was rolled up into a skein, inside a wrapper. I now realize I should have unrolled a yard or two [despite the frowns of the shop clerk] and really looked closely, rolling a few loops around my finger, holding colored strands together… whatever was possible without harming the yarn. I might have been able to chose other colors that were closer in gauge and feel or bought another yarn altogether. This yarn has been discontinued and sold out at the store since I bought it, so exchanging the unused colors is not an option. There’s no point in buying on eBay, as I can’t do my comparison test. ARGH. Oh well, it’s been a learning experience, at least. I frogged my project and will use the yarn for something else, where gauge isn’t that important, possibly a shawl with varying size motifs?

  6. I wish this article was around when I was a beginner. Unfortunately I learned much of this the hard way :( If you are in the store you sometimes have the luxury of comparing two yarns that are both oh say #4 but clearly one is lighter than the other. When ordering on line or an unfamiliar brand you don’t. Watching gauge is so important. Can’t tell you how many times things have goofed up from just these simple things….then you are frogging and redoing, adjusting and hmm yes cursing ! Thank you so much for writing this…I am going to reblog it for any of my readers who have not seen it or know your page because it is so concise and helpful.

  7. Reblogged this on Off The Hook and commented:
    These simple things have been the complete cause of cursing and havoc in many of my projects. Take the time to read this great article to help avoid cursing, frogging and general hair pulling in your next project !

  8. This is a wonderful subject to discuss because it basically points up that in spite of the markings on the ball band, we know very little about the yarn we just bought.
    WPI would be wonderful if manufacturers were willing to use it, but very few are. I find the knitting gauge confusing.
    Lately I discovered YPP – yards per pound – while looking at weaving yarns. I find this a quick and easy way to decide whether I’m in the ball park gauge wise. I divide 16 oz (1 lb) by 1.76 oz.(50 grams) which gives me 1.090 which I multiply by the yards in the specific skein I’m looking at.
    For example, the Cotton Classic is 1.090 X 108 which is 1177 yards per pound.
    There are several charts that classify YPP according to yarn weight but I don’t use them. I write down the ypp of every yarn I figure – not every yarn I come across – just yarns I’m considering for something. – in my computer from lightest to heaviest.Cotton Classic fits somewhere between Valley Yarns Northhampton and Lornas Laces Honor. The YPP doesn’t have to be an exact match – there is a lot of leeway. I know Valley Northampton is a worsted, but I have discovered it is a very light worsted – more of a dk. I’m using it now substituted for a dk yarn.
    After you do this, you have to address the issue of: now I know the gauge range but is this yarn appropriate for the style of garment I want to make.
    My purpose in doing this – and it really isn’t difficult – is that it empowers me to divorce my crocheting from the “what is the yarn weight” issue. When I look at my list of yarns and their ypp’s I realize these numbers are all over the map and standardized yarn weight – 0- 6. Is a Fig Newton of the yarn industry’s imagination. .

    • Correction: The number to multiply the yardage by is 9.090. This makes the Cotton Classic 981 ypp which is exactly the same as Classic Elite Premier. This would put both yarns in the #4 category according to many charts, yet Classic Elite Premiere is labeled dk..
      I’m convinced that these companies call in Vanna White to spin the wheel of fortune and tell them which weight their yarn will be.
      Sorry about the confusion – but I am finding this system works for me. It’s a fairly simple way to get the gauge question out of the way.

  9. Great article… and one I wish I’d read before tackling a recent project. I’m making an afghan using Cotton Ease… and bought all of that yarn I thought I needed in 5 colors, only to discover, as I worked, that some colors were just not working up the same as others. I did some comparing with small swatches and discovered that not only was the gauge different between some colors, but the twist and feel of the different colored yarns varied too ! Yes, all were a worsted weight, but as you point out Doris, not all worsteds are exactly the same.

    I really wish manufacturers would just be honest with their customers, and explain that due to the dying process, there might be some gauge variation among colors of the yarns, just as there are slight differences in color among dye lots. We could plan accordingly. Sometimes, if we’re warned, changing hook size between colors will do the trick.. other times, we might need to carefully chose different colors for gauge compatibility.

    My afghan will be OK [I hope, I hope] .. it’s modular and I can probably fudge enough as I crochet the strips together to compensate for the color size variations. I’ll use a unifying color around the entire thing instead of individual section colors as the pattern instructs.

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