Don’t let this stress you out too much, but the yarn you choose really can make or break your project. It can mean the difference between something that is a joy to work on, where you can’t wait to return to your needles and add more and more stitches, and an unfinished project that never leaves the basket, or even a finished one that never leaves your closet.

But if you, like me, feel the urge to create things with yarn, the best thing you can do is:

a) arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible,

b) trust that the salespeople are there to help you, and,

c) when all else fails, go with your gut and buy what you like!

I promise you, yarn store confidence will come with time, and all this will quickly go from being overwhelming to a whole lot of fun!

The good news is that once you understand the characteristics of different yarns and learn the right questions to ask, you can easily work up a favorite pattern in several different types of yarn and, depending on the properties of the yarn you choose, you can have a unique and amazing creation on your hands every time!


Basket of yarnBy [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Striking out on your own

Of course, the simplest way to find the right yarn for your project is to follow the pattern author’s recommendations. But if you’re designing something for yourself, if you’re not thrilled with the author’s recommendations, or if perhaps you’re using a free online pattern that did not include a recommendation, you’ll want to know how you can make these decisions for yourself.

Start by reviewing the pattern author’s recommendations and looking up the yarn(s) that they suggest. Patterns will usually indicate the type of yarn they used, and sometimes will also indicate good alternatives at different price points. If you want to use a less expensive brand, or if the option is no longer available or you can’t find it locally, but you still want your creation to have the same overall drape and appearance of the author’s, be sure to stick to the same type of fiber content (wool, cotton, acrylic, etc.) and yarn weight.

If you do decide to deviate from these recommendations, understand that this will affect the final product. Be sure you know why and how your choice will change the end result. Do some practice swatches using the pattern’s stitch pattern to see exactly what end result this new yarn will give you. It may seem a little wasteful at the time, but ultimately this is the only way to be 100% sure you’re making a choice you’ll be happy with. Plus, you can keep these for future use and therefore get more mileage out of them.

STEP 1: Establishing Your Yarn Budget

A note of caution: yarn is one of those things where it is shockingly easy to spend a lot more money than you had initially intended. Figure out how much you can afford to spend before you ever set foot in the store or yarn department. Set a budget, and stick to it. There is nothing wrong with sticking to less expensive yarns, especially when you’re just starting out. All those fancy fibers will still be there when you are ready for them.

[bctt tweet=”The Challenge: Set a yarn budget, and stick to it.”]

The thrift store can be a great place to start your yarn search. You can find some really interesting yarns without breaking the bank. I also love how it forces me to be just that much more creative – you have to work with whatever you can find, and “make it work” (a la Project Runway). As someone who suffers from chronic “analysis paralysis”, I’m more likely to fully plan out and finish something when I’m given fewer options to work with.

I also want to point out that you don’t need to be snobby about yarn, especially not when you’re starting out. Walking into a yarn store, with its dizzying array of colors and styles, is overwhelming for any beginner. Keep it simple. If you can only afford acrylic yarn from a big-box store right now, I’m certainly not going to look down my nose at you. I use that yarn for many of my smaller projects or for anything where I’m not totally sure that I’m going to love the pattern. If I do love the pattern, I can always go back and make it up in a more expensive yarn, and if I don’t, at least I haven’t spent too much money on it.

STEP 2: Decide on your requirements/what is important to you?

Make sure you establish what is most important to you in a finished product and what requirements this yarn absolutely must meet. The following questions are a good place to start:

      Is it essential that this item be machine-washable? Consider an acrylic or super-washed yarn.
      Are you making a cold-weather garment? Look to natural animal fibers. Or is this item destined for your summer wardrobe? Cottons and linens will keep you cool.
      Are you planning to go hiking in your new sweater? Better make sure you choose a nice, breathable animal fiber.
      Casual? Dressy? Plied and twisted fibers often look more sophisticated, while single plies are more relaxed and casual.
    Are you on a tight budget? Synthetics might be your best bet.

STEP 3: Match your yarn’s characteristics to the garment’s characteristics

Just because two yarns have the same gauge doesn’t necessarily mean that they can successfully substitute for one another in a given pattern. If they have different characteristics — texture, drape, fiber content, twist, etc. — the final garment will look and feel different from the one pictured on your pattern.

To get a better feel for how all of these elements will come together, before you commit to using a particular yarn on your project, you can always knit up a sample swatch before getting started.

Understanding Plies

What is a ply?

Yarn can be made up of one or more strands, called “plies”. Single plied yarns are, as you might imagine, made up of a single strand, or ply, of yarn. A “plied” yarn consists of multiple strands that are twisted together.

Note: It would be easy to assume that a higher ply number is equivalent to a thicker yarn, but don’t. A 4-ply yarn, if the individual strands are thin, can be finer than a single ply.

As I mentioned earlier, the ply of your yarn can have a big effect on the overall impression of your garment. Plied and twisted yarns will give you a more sophisticated, classic effect, while single plies feel more relaxed and rustic.

Fiber Drape and Shape

Carefully consider the qualities you want in the finished product, and think about how it will drape.

Cotton, silk, etc. are inelastic [what else is inelastic?] and therefore are not suited to garments that are ribbed or knit with negative ease. These fibers are best suited to patterns that hang straight (examples?).

Negative ease: garment is knit to measurements smaller than your actual shape, so it will stretch to fit close to your form when worn.

If you really want to use cotton or silk yarn for a garment that will stretch, you can always try double-knitting it with elastic thread.

A rule of thumb

STEP 4: Consider your stitch pattern

If you’re doing cabling or any kind of intricate stitch pattern, a smooth yarn in a solid color is your best bet to show off all that hard work.

Cabled stitch patternBy Ryj (Digitalkamera FinePix A 201) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, variegated, multi-colored, and novelty yarns can really add some visual interest to a simple stockinette or single crochet stitch pattern. In fact, matching a complicated stitch pattern with a multi-colored or otherwise visually stimulating yarn can prove to be a maddening waste of effort, as the yarn will muddle the effect of your careful stitch-work.

Be aware that some novelty yarns can be a bear to work with. On one of my first attempts to learn knitting, I purchased a kit from a craft store. It was a beginner kit, for a scarf, I think, but it called for me to knit with two types of yarn at the same time – a multi-colored acrylic and some synthetic version of mohair that was difficult to control and made it impossible to see my stitches after I’d made them. I never did finish that scarf, and I still have that silly yarn. It mocks me from the depths of my yarn basket. I should go ahead and make something out of it, for cathartic reasons if nothing else. Any suggestions?

That being said, there are no hard and fast rules here, and with a little searching I’m sure you could find examples of variegated yarns paired with complex stitch-work that came together to great effect. For example, an ombre yarn that shifts subtly from light to dark values of the same hue could actually enhance the cabling on your cardigan. So take these suggestions as guidelines, not rules.

So, here it is in a nutshell:

[feature]Simple garment shape & stitch pattern = Interesting textured or colored yarns.

Complex shape and/or stitch pattern = Plain and simple yarn.[/feature]


So what exactly do I do when I come across a yarn I like but don’t know what I want to do with it yet? Well, first I run through a quick checklist in my head to try to determine what it might be best suited for:

      1 – Is it soft enough to wear right against my skin?
      2 – Is it elastic/inelastic?
    3 – Is it an animal fiber, plant fiber, or a synthetic? How will that influence what I’m likely to use it for?

Once you have an idea in your head of what type of project the yarn is best suited for, you can run it through an online skein estimator, such as this one: There are several apps available for both iPhone and Android that will do this for you as well.


The patterns will tell you how much yarn to buy, but if you use a different yarn from what they recommend, you will have to do a little math. Err on the side of buying more yarn than they recommend. Many yarns are dyed in small batches, and if you run out of yarn you may be stuck buying from a different dye lot. The color will probably be similar but is very rarely exact, unless of course you are working with mass-produced synthetics, where this won’t be such a big deal.

Use a knitting calculator if you don’t know exactly what pattern you want to use, or don’t have it on hand. You can pull up this website on your phone and get a rough estimate of how much you’ll need:

If the pattern tells you how many skeins to buy but not how many yards, you can figure this out with a quick calculation:

Number of skeins called for x yards per skein = Total yards needed to complete the pattern

Once you’ve chosen your alternate yarn, you can figure out how many skeins to buy with some more basic math:

Total yards for the pattern / number of yards per skein of your chosen yarn = number of skeins needed.

When in doubt, round up. It’s better to have leftovers than to not have enough.

Ultimately, the best way to really get to know yarn is to start working with it. Over time, you’ll find your favorites and learn what works best for you. You’ll make a few missteps along the way – some day, you may look back and wonder why you ever thought that such-and-such was a good idea – but the thing is, we all do that. The best way to learn is by doing, so go get some yarn on those needles already!

You’re going to make beautiful things!