MF Field Guide: Searching for Yarn Substitutes

Hello from the Morale Fiber Headquarters! Back in the fall of last year when Lion Brand discontinued one of their most unique and beautiful yarns, I knew I’d have to do a hunt for something adequate to replace it. Not only do I use Shawl in a Ball / Shawl in a Cake as the recommended yarn for two of my best patterns, the Priestess Coat and the Embla Vest, it’s also a go-to favorite for making some of my other designs as well – such as the Lotus Mandala Vest. I also thought this would be a good opportunity to write another field guide – this time focusing on how to find the best yarn substitutes!

I started searching around, using some of my yarn knowledge acquired through years and years of using substitute yarns and getting mixed results. A lot of this yarn know-how is detailed in my extensive post about crochet gauge and the different characteristics of fiber and yarn construction, and in that post I do mention Shawl in a Ball specifically. You see, it’s just such a strange yarn! Despite being a #4 weight, the yarn is relatively thin and sleek, with the fluffy fibers that cling to the cotton strand core making it lofty and soft too. It often works up much smaller in gauge than other #4 weight yarns, but it has a heaviness and drape to it because of the denser cotton core construction.

Not to mention the colors – gorgeous. Truly a yarn I will miss. I may have bought a lot of it for my stash when I realized it was in danger of disappearing forever šŸ˜‰

After several fruitless trips to the big box hobby stores, my search for adequate substitutes led me to my favorite bulk yarn supplier, Ice Yarns. Their huge variety of yarns was just the hunting ground I needed, and I ordered a big bag of different skeins, ready to test them out against Shawl in a Ball. I set the big bag aside, fully intending to create a new yarn unboxing video for this little venture. And then I procrastinated until my nice fat package from Ice Yarns had been staring balefully at me from my office corner for months. But now, I finally conquered making that unboxing video, as well as swatching all my samples of yarn to create this how-to guide for finding the right substitute yarn!

Anyway, time to get to the nitty gritty, eh? First up is the unboxing video itself, to introduce all of our candidates. Then, we’ll go over the details of each yarn’s weight and construction, along with my test gauge swatches, and talk about which yarns are the best substitute for Shawl in a Ball, as well as the finer points of what makes a good yarn substitute in general! Hopefully this guide will provide some answers on how to search for the right substitute yarn no matter what you’re looking to replace šŸ™‚

Ice Yarns Unboxing

The Swatches:

Target Yarn: Shawl in a Ball (also includes Shawl in a Cake)
#4 weight category
61% Cotton, 34% Acrylic, 5% Other Fiber
150 g / 440 meters OR 5.3 oz / 481 yards

For this exercise in yarn substitution, I’m searching specifically for something besides Shawl in a Ball (SIAB) to make my Priestess Coat pattern with, and so all the swatches are made using the stitch for that pattern (Tunisian Simple Stitch) and aiming for the target gauge for that project using the recommended hook size (6.5 mm). All swatches were made in one sitting for consistency and have all been blocked by pinning them out so that the stitches are fully stretched to allow accurate measurement.

Of course, all of these swatch measurements are dependent on my own unique tension when I crochet. ALL gauge measurements are going to depend on each individual crocheter’s tension, and so measurements will vary from person to person even when using the same materials. For more information on understanding how to navigate gauge, be sure to check out my Crochet Gauge guide!

When searching for potential yarns to order for this exercise, I focused on finding skeins with a comparable weight (grams or ounces) to length (meters or yards) ratio. If I found a similar ratio, I would then consider yarn structure and fiber content. Here’s how my four samples performed…

Ice Yarns Cakes Mohair

#2 weight category

20% Mohair, 20% Wool, 60% Acrylic

150 g / 810 meters OR 5.3 oz / 885 yards

In the unboxing video, I couldn’t remember if I had bought this yarn for the substitute search or not, since the weight category was #2 and I’m trying to substitute for a #4 – it seemed like I should have stayed within 1 category grade! However, I remembered after filming that my original intention WAS to double this yarn and see if a 2-stranded swatch would compare to my single strand swatch of the desired #4 weight.

Just for fun, though, I swatched it with both the single strand, and the 2-strand šŸ™‚ In the above picture, the 2-strand is on the top of the image, and the 1 strand is on the bottom. As you can see, 2 strands makes it much bigger and the 1 strand swatch is the dinkiest of all the swatches.

Target Gauge: 7 stitches & 6 rows = 2 inches

Gauge for 1 strand swatch: 8 stitches & 8 rows = 2 inches (pictures above – too small!)

  • This swatch comes in too small, as predicted. At a full 2 rows OVER what it normally takes to get the correct height for the gauge, I wouldn’t attempt to use this yarn single-strand for the project. While it may be possible to size the hook up a few times to enlarge the stitches enough to meet the gauge, I’d predict that the fabric would not be dense enough with such a large hook to achieve the right look for the garment. In other words, too much space between stitches would cause the fabric to look too airy and “lacey.”

    Gauge for 2 strand swatch: 7 stitches & 6 rows = 2 inches (ON TARGET! pictures below)
  • Doubling up the strands for this yarn worked! This is also what I predicted according to the math (the length per gram was almost double the yarn I was trying to match, therefore doubling the yarn produced similar gauge). While the gauge measurements match, the swatch of fabric itself is thicker and fuller feeling than the original SIAB swatch, so the resulting Priestess Coat would be a little denser, but it should work beautifully and be warmer than the original design, a plus for many since the SIAB Priestess was created more for style than for warmth šŸ˜‰

Ice Yarns Elegant

#3 weight category

36% Superwash Merino, 18% Linen, 18% Bamboo, 28% Cotton

50 g / 120 meters OR 1.76 oz / 131.2 yds

Target Gauge: 7 sts & 6 rows = 2 inches
Gauge for Elegant: 7.5 sts & 7 rows = 2 inches (slightly under!)

  • While this yarn worked up slightly smaller than the desired measurements, I would still consider this a good substitute. To make it meet gauge, I could go up in hook size one or two steps, or I could work with my physical hand tension until I’m used to making the stitches a little less tightly, using the same hook size the pattern recommends. The fabric density and the overall feel of the fabric is a close match to the original SIAB, because of the similar strand structure I mentioned in the video, so visually this yarn performs well.
  • It’s important to factor in that gauge isn’t always going to translate *exactly* from swatch to project. Especially in the case of larger garments, the extra fabric weight and long stretches of the same stitch motions may end up loosening your tension FOR you. It’s not the safest gamble to depend on, but it happens! Still, I recommend getting your gauge as close as possible on the swatch, and worrying about how it translates later.

Ice Yarns Lorena

#2 weight category

50% Cotton 50% Acrylic

100 g / 280 meters OR 3.5 oz / 306.2 yds

Target Gauge: 7 sts & 6 rows = 2 inches
Gauge for Lorena: 7 sts & 6.5 rows = 2 inches (SO close!)

  • Sorry for the black on black on black. I know it’s not the most visible thing in the world, but turn your screen brightness up and bear with me, because this substitute is great! As I mentioned in the video, I am specifically hoping for a good substitute in black shades so I can make a witchy, raven-y Priestess Coat – and Lorena fits the bill. At just a fraction of a row too short for the gauge height, I can probably rely on either changing my manual tension to fix this, or using my knowledge of the pattern to add extra rows if/where necessary.
  • The fabric density of this swatch is surprising – at #2 weight I wouldn’t expect it to be such a good match. However, the yarn has lots of plies that come together to form a bouncy, rounded yarn that is also light and sleek, so the stitch structure is delicate enough to still have space between stitches while also looking substantial and not too “lacey” or flimsy.
  • This yarn also has good elasticity, which leads me to suspect I won’t have to worry about that extra .5 of a row gap in gauge measurement. This is because the overall stretch of the fabric, once all the weight of the project is exerted, might stretch the stitches enough that the gauge makes target. Again, it’s best not to rely solely on such an imprecise prediction, and getting exact gauge is best – but it can happen!

Ice Yarns Bamboo SoftAir

#4 weight category

15% Bamboo, 85% Acrylic

50 gr / 145 meters OR 1.76 oz / 158.5 yards

Target Gauge: 7 sts & 6 rows = 2 inches
Gauge for Bamboo SoftAir: 7 sts & 6.5 rows = 2 inches (Close again!)

  • I’m so glad I got this measurement for Bamboo SoftAir, because it helps demonstrate exactly the point I’m trying to make here, which is that weight categories aren’t everything! The gauge reading for this #4 weight yarn is pretty much the same as for the #2 weight yarn Lorena, which we just sampled. Weird, right? Goes to show that there are really so many variables when choosing yarns such as structure, fiber content, number of plies, and all of that on TOP of each individual crafter’s tension. No wonder the number one question I get is about yarn substitutions! It can be a lot to parse through.
  • While the gauge reading is good, I’m not thrilled with the way the fabric looks. Compared to the SIAB, the fabric is much denser and woollier, creating an overall stiffer swatch than I want. The thickness would be great for someone looking to make a very warm coat, but one of the key design characteristics of my Priestess pattern is the way the loose structure of the stitched fabric creates a lovely swing in the diamond gore inserts at the hem. I could definitely make this coat with this yarn, but the drape would not look and move the same!

Further Tools and Resources

I have to admit that when it came to hunting the yarn for this test, I did it the hard way! I wanted to really get my hands into the process so I could explain it in detail. Fortunately there are great resources out there that allow you to skip the process of calculating the gram-to-meter-to-whatever ratio of every single skein candidate:

Yarnsub.com – This is my instant go-to database for substituting any yarn! Just type in the brand name and yarn style of the yarn you need to substitute, and the huge database will give you match results based on the same parameters discussed here – weight category, gauge, fiber content, ect. The results pop up by nearness of match, and you can filter by type of fiber and cost. Here’s an example search with SIAB already plugged in! One drawback of this database is that of course, there are tons of yarns not included (I’ve never seen an Ice Yarn pop up despite the fact that they often make very good dupes of popular hobby store brands). But one can’t expect every yarn in the yarniverse to be in there, so it’s still a great starting point.

Ravelry.com – Ravelry still reigns supreme in my eyes as the most useful yarn-crafting network on the internet and once you move past their slightly-outdated webpage formats it’s easy to see why. For every pattern information page, there’s a tab marked “Yarn Ideas” that will pull up all the yarns used by crafters who have made the project and logged it on Ravelry.

I knew before I clicked it that one of the entries under Yarn Ideas would be Lion Brand Mandala, a DK weight acrylic cake yarn. So far this is the substitute I have recommended most for this project, as I’ve gotten good feedback from crocheters saying they really liked this project in that yarn šŸ™‚ Hobbii Universe XL was a surprise though – and I really would love to try that one too!

You can also look at the “Projects” tab to see all the projects made from a particular pattern and get a better idea of how different yarns look in the overall finished project.

This explanation of yarn substituting from Sister Mountain is nice and succinct, and I referenced it a few times to help get my thoughts in order for this post.

This explanation of drape from Interweave Press does a wonderful job describing a difficult to summarize phenomenon of yarn behavior! I referenced this article while researching my post on Gauge and Yarn Behavior, which was essential to writing this post, which is sort of a sequal.

Conclusion

If you’ve read this far, I’m proud of you. This is next-level stuff! Understanding the finer details of yarn planning is so essential to creating projects you’re going to love for years to come, so I hope my perspectives have been useful or at the very last, encourage asking the right questions when you’re on the hunt.

As for my search for a great yarn substitution for a Raven Priestess Coat project, I think I’ve settled on a combination: the true black Lorena for the main body of the coat, and the SIAB Cleansing Quartz for the diamond panels at the bottom. We may grab some Bamboo SoftAir for a pared-back trim (instead of the bulky fur) , although I think it would look great without any fancy trim at all so we’ll see. Check back in a few years when my procrastinating self is likely to have it done šŸ˜‰

-MF

6 thoughts on “MF Field Guide: Searching for Yarn Substitutes

Add yours

  1. This was so helpful, and cut a lot of the trial and error (and frogging) I do when trying to find a substitute yarn. Thank you so much for sharing your experience in a clear and understandable way.

  2. So if I have some SIAB yarn and want to mix it with one one the Ice Yarns (like say the Cakes Mohair), for a 2XL and using the SIAB for just the panels & hood I would need roughly 3 skeins of 481 yd SIAB and then roughly 4 skeins of the Ice Yarns Cake Mohair. If I mathed right. Does that sound right to you? (Iā€™m guessing based off of 6 diamond inserts and hood)

      1. Since the Cakes Mohair is almost double the yardage of the SIAB, but you’re doubling the strands, so 2 skeins of Cakes Mohair should equal a little less than 2 skeins of SIAB (885 yards for 2 cakes of the mohair, 962 yards for 2 skeins of SIAB). So if the main coat part uses 3 skeins of SIAB, 4 skeins for the cakes mohair sounds right! That’s the number i’d go with

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