Yarn Substitution: EEEEEK!

Note from Doris: This page is a work in progress.  As I collect bits of useful information I will list the links here.

I have written extensively about yarns and yarn substitution, but maybe you missed those sections in my articles, books and patterns. Most of those tips are specific to the designs.  I have talked in more general terms on my blog; here are two useful posts:

Crochet Yarn Conundrum, May 2012

The Crochet Twist, December 2011

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Interweave Crochet, Winter 2008, concerning gauge that might be helpful when substituting yarn.

GAUGE CRASHERS

 We know why gauge is important: to end up with a project that’s the right size, so keep our stitches neat and even. What we’d like to know is why ours gets so messed up. I am lucky. One of the benefits of being a designer is that I never have to match someone else’s gauge. Rather, I can smugly set the gauge for everyone else who chooses to follow my patterns. Reason tells us that no two people can possibly crochet exactly the same way. As with handwriting, we each have a particular touch when we pick up yarn and hook. Our physiology, eye-to-hand coordination, aesthetics, how we learned to crochet, how long we’ve been crocheting all contribute to our personal style of stitching.

 Not surprisingly, hardly anyone is able to work to my stated gauges right off the bat. It wasn’t until Dee Stanziano, crochet educator and supreme cheerleader, observed me crocheting that I found out from her that I am a lifter. I pull up the loops of my stitches really high off the working row. I never knew any other way of doing it, so imagine my shock when Dee informed me that many people work much more closely to the fabric than I do. How instructive it would be if we could see designers in action before obsessing over those patterns. We could stop blaming ourselves for not being able to re-create their gauges. Although it is possible to re-learn how to crochet in order to conform to the standards of others, it’s really hard. In the grand scheme of things, I’d rather you keep doing it the way that is most comfortable, natural and enjoyable for you.

 What can help you in your quest to get the proper gauge for a given pattern is to understand and learn how to maintain your own personal gauge. We aren’t machines. A machine would never change tension in the middle of a row, would never change speed, would never lose its hook in the back of a sofa. I find it comforting to know that crochet cannot and will not be made by any other than human hands. And yet, achieving and maintaining a perfect, uniform gauge is the ultimate goal of every conscientious crocheter. Liken it to the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, the parking space at the mall on Black Friday. It is folly, an impossible task.  Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

 Wandering gauge is not always your fault or under your control. The list of gauge crashers is infinite. Some of these guys can be kicked out of the party, some you have to let in and just deal. A few of the suggestions that follow may seem obvious or silly, but you never know what will work until you try.

 Yarn: It can vary in weight, thickness, density, texture and hand from color to color, from dye lot to dye lot of the same color, from skein to skein of the same dye lot, from yard to yard in the same skein. That’s why the dark stripes in your sweater sometimes work to a different gauge than the light ones. We expect and appreciate variations in multi-fiber, multi-color, multi-component yarns.  But it is a rude surprise to find variations in your favorite plain, smooth yarns. The phenomenon is not confined to inexpensive or indifferently manufactured products. Luxury yarns can be uneven. Think of each ball as an individual. Check out every single one and try to choose individuals that will play well together.

 Another annoying aspect of some yarns has to do with the construction—the manner and direction in which it was spun or not spun, plied or not plied. I am not qualified to speak about such technical issues. But I have noticed how certain yarns take poorly to winding, re-winding, ripping out and re-working. My only advice here is to avoid over-handling your yarns.

 Hook: We already know switching to a different size crochet hook has an effect on gauge. Realize, too, that using different brands of the same size hook can make a difference. If you can’t match a given gauge and you have the choice, try switching to a hook of another brand, shape, silhouette or material. For the same reason, don’t change hooks in mid-project.

 Speed: Varying your speed changes gauge. We have all rushed through projects and gifts to get them done in time. That’s just asking for gauge trouble. Although I can crochet quickly and evenly, I know for myself that the faster I go, the looser I crochet. Even Lily Chin, a world champion speed crocheter, admits that when she is competing at 90 or so double crochets in three minutes, “It ain’t pretty.” It’s not whether you are a slow, methodical crocheter or a Speedy Gonzales. What matters is that you stick to a steady, comfortable pace.

 Feed: How you manage your feeder yarn can affect the tension and alter your gauge. If you pull the first ball from the center, do that for all of them. Keep your feeder yarn in the same position next to you. Be sure to pull out plenty of yarn from the ball as you work, so it flows freely. If you wrap the feeder yarn or hold it a certain way across your fingers, do it the same way every time, at least for a whole project.

 Hands: How your hands (and wrists, arms, neck, body) feel makes a difference. Anything that prevents them from working smoothly and evenly will affect your gauge. If you have fatigue or pain, STOP and rest. Take care of your hands now and you will enjoy a longer, happier time crocheting.

 A rough edge on a fingernail or a stupid hang-nail that constantly catches on the yarn can louse up your gauge, and that’s what you should tell anyone who points out your frequent visits to the manicurist. Remember to moisturize.

 Ergonomics: How and where you sit makes a difference. Yes, it is possible to crochet while standing and moving around. Teacher, designer and friend Marty Miller habitually crochets while working out on a recumbent bike. But most of us need to sit still when we work. An ergonomically designed chair or workstation would sure help avoid fatigue. Yeah, right, in my dreams. Heck, I like to curl up on the couch as much as the next person. For smaller projects or at the start of a project, that seems fine. But as the piece gets longer and heavier, without the support of your lap or a table the weight will drag down your working row, causing you to compensate by pulling up your stitches too long. If gauge is really important and the project is going to be large, sit at a table.

 Heart: Your emotional state translates directly to your physical motions. If a project turns ugly, the frustration you feel often gets expressed as choked up stitches. Take a break. Walk away. Eat some chocolate. Avoid having to frog those “aggravation” rows later. I know for myself I shouldn’t try to make anything in twos, like two sleeves, two mittens, two gussets, two motifs, when I am mad. They never come out the same size. Better to crochet happy, or at least calm.

 Head: Over-thinking is my personal worst gauge crasher. My hands know how to crochet. My brain does not. For example, I can whip up one half of a scarf in beautiful, even, perfect gauge while watching TV. I’m not claiming that the crochet is perfect; there are mistakes, but the mistakes are in perfect gauge. Now let’s say I decide to straighten up and fly right, make the rest of the scarf while not watching TV, paying strict attention to each stitch. With the same yarn, same hook, same chair, same constant speed, the two halves of the scarf come out very different.

 What happens is that the first half of the scarf is crocheted by my hands on auto-pilot while my brain is engrossed in the program. The second half is supervised by my brain, which doesn’t even know how to hold a hook. That’s the reason I will never successfully teach crochet. It’s not for lack of desire or lack of trying. I became like a complete dunce, unable to express in words nor demonstrate in action how to do a stitch that I’ve been using for years. I thought if I could just S-L-O-W down the motions of my hands my students could better observe and maybe learn by example. I couldn’t even do that! As long as I kept buzzing along I knew how to do the stitch. The moment I tried to analyze it, make each motion deliberately, step by step, I was lost. Often the hands are eloquent when the brain is mute.

 So what do you do when all else fails and you find yourself with a completed project that is all over the place with the gauge, but you can’t bring yourself to rip it out and start again? There is one last resort. It’s a trick… uh, a technique I use all the time in my professional design work: blocking. Judicious blocking can often smooth out and compensate for many little and big miscalculations. But that is a topic for another time.

A follow-up to Gauge Crashers is this post:

Confessions of a Lifter, January 2009

And finally, here’s my stock reply that I publish in my DJC patterns in the HELP section.  It’s a cop-out answer, I know, but the best advice I can give:

! I hate all of those Doris yarn choices.  Can I just substitute my favorite?

      Go for it.  As long as you use the appropriate size crochet hook and come close to the stated gauge for the weight/version/dimensions you want to make, no worries.  Use any yarn or combination of yarns you please.  Hold multiple strands of fine yarns together and work them to equal a thicker yarn gauge. 

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