Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a large, well-known yarn store in California. As Thor parked the car, my eyes hungrily drank in the yarns and knit goods hanging in the windows. Stepping into the store, I was impressed both by amount and variety of (mostly) high end yarns. Wow.
As Thor found a quiet spot to read, I started exploring the inventory. I found a skein of wool in a great color in what I guessed was between fingering and sport weight, but while the tag noted its yardage, it contained no information about the skein weight. A woman was sitting behind a computer working, and I approached her. Here is a summary of our conversation:
Me: “What’s the weight of this skein?”
Her: “It’s 330 yards.”
Me: “So I read. But what’s its weight?”
Her: “What’s important is the yardage.”
Me: “Only in relation to the skein weight.”
I think I lost her, so I tried another approach. I grabbed a ball of a bulky mohair,
Me: “If I want to know if I could substitute the first yarn with the second yarn, I need to compare them – their yardage relative to their weight.”
Her: “No, you could knit them both at the same gauge, so they are interchangeable.”
Me: “No. If you fit these two yarns at the same gauge, one would make a dandy suit of armor and the other a shapeless rag.”
At that point we had reached what is probably called a stony silence, and I gave up.
A teaching moment:
In order to ensure that the size of the finished project is not a surprise, a correct stitch gauge is critical. (Row gauge is generally not too critical unless you are knitting or crocheting sideways or if the pattern has a specific motif.)
If you would like to use a yarn different than that called for in the pattern, it is not merely a matter of getting the same gauge. You should use a yarn of a similar weight. Yarn weight (e.g., lace, DK, sport, worsted, or bulky weight), reflects the relationship between the length of the fiber (i.e., yards or meters) in each unit (i.e., skein, ball, cone, hank) relative to the unit weight (e.g., 4 oz, 50 g, etc.).
This picture shows different diameters but same length material: Maglite Flashlight, spaghetti, a knitting wire, and a network cable. If they were all yarns, you can visualize that they are not interchangeable! This is an obvious exaggeration, but I wanted to be as clear as possible that the weight of a yarn is critical to the finished project. To ignore it creates unpredictable and – frequently – disastrous results.
While you may be able to get the same gauge with very dissimilar yarns by changing needle sizes to knit or crochet more or fewer stitches per 4 inches, the resultant fabric will be quite different than the designer intended – the fabric that originally caught your attention. Knitting or crocheting bulky yarn, for instance, down to 5 stitches per inch creates a fabric that could probably repel arrows. Knitting or crocheting a lace weight yarn at 3 stitches per inch will give you a misshapen rag.
By the way, it turned out the “only gauge is important” clerk turned out to be the yarn store owner. I was flabbergasted. I can only conclude she is an efficient business owner but a unskilled fiber artist. (I hope she does not teach classes at her store.)
Does this make sense? As someone who has taught both math and knitting, I will happily write another post explaining the mathematics behind gauge, yarn weight and finished project!