One of the most common questions I’m asked about my job is, “Do you teach beginners?”
Honey, this is a tough field. I teach whoever shows up and pays.
What is a beginner, really? If you’ve been knitting for thirty years but you’ve never cut a steek, you’re a beginner in my steeks class.
I don’t think I know a knitter who isn’t a beginner at something. We all have gaps and blind spots. I spend ninety-five percent of my waking hours dealing with yarn; yet mysteries remain.
Yarn substitution used to be one of them.
I remember the sinking feeling of being told the yarn I needed wasn’t available. The shop didn’t have it, the internet didn’t have it, nobody had it. So far as we could tell, the yarn had been discontinued sixteen hours after the pattern was published. “Happens all the time,” said the yarn shop lady. “You have to pick something else to use if you want to knit that.”
My first lesson in substitution was no more than the same yarn shop lady teaching me the rudiments of yarn weights. The pattern called for “worsted,” so I ought to choose another yarn with “worsted” on the label.
So I did. But the original yarn was wool, and my substitute yarn was alpaca. After blocking the alpaca exactly as I had been taught to block wool, the baby sweater grew to one hundred and sixteen times the original dimensions and now covers a Toyota Prius in Madison, Wisconsin.
There is more, a great deal more, to successful yarn substitution. It’s not only a question of yarn weight (and its effect on gauge); but also a question of fiber, structure, color, and texture.
I wish that I’d had Carol Sulcoski’s Yarn Substitution Made Easy: Matching the Right Yarn to Any Knitting Pattern (Lark Crafts) as a new knitter. Hell, I’m happy to have it now.
Yarn Substitution Made Easy grew from the author’s years of teaching the subject on the national circuit. It’s methodical and thorough, breaking down the vital information into bits that can be digested—to the reader’s immense benefit—in a few easy evenings of pleasant reading.
The first section of the book—a primer on the fundamentals of what makes a yarn act the way it does—explains buzzwords like “stitch definition,” “drape,” and “elasticity.” Too often, even knitters who’ve been at it for years have only a fuzzy notion of what these mean—and so end up with rigid swing coats and inadvertent Prius covers.
Sulcoski digs into the questions of fiber (is it animal based, plant based, or synthetic?), structure (woolen spun? worsted spun? how many plies?), and visual effects like variegations and gradients. Outliers aren’t neglected, either—there’s information on singles, chained, ribbon, and novelty constructions.
Time and again I found myself checking off with a pencil terms I’ve seen a million times on yarn labels but never really understood. What, strictly speaking, is a “fine wool?” Is there a difference between mercerized and perle cottons, or not? If we’re talking about knitting yarns, is there an appreciable difference between polyamide, polyester, and acrylic?
In each case, the book answers the questions of not only what these (and many more) are, but what effects they have on your knitted fabric.
Now, this is stuff you can find scattered through a few other books; but here it leads neatly into the heart of the matter: the question of how, exactly, you choose a substitute yarn that will suit your requirements. There’s no alchemy—just simple steps, lucidly demonstrated.
Sweet Valley Cardigan.
In addition to being a knitting instructor and author, and the proprietor of the dyeworks Black Bunny Fibers, Sulcoski is also a lawyer. It is amusing, therefore, that she ends the book with a series of patterns that serve as case studies. Each pattern is given in full (they’re quite nice patterns). Then you are given an analysis of the original yarn; and analyses of a trio of substitutes, each rated for its suitability or lack thereof.
Little Bird Hat.
If you’ve ever turned away from a pretty pattern because you weren’t sure what to knit it with—get this book.
I hadn’t intended that this month’s focus would be on books useful to the beginner, but then Emma Osmond’s Stash Knitting: 25 Quick and Easy Projects to Make landed on my desk.
This is a collection I’d give a new knitter so they’ll never hesitate to pick something new to work and go for it. It’s a collection I’m going to hang on to, because these sorts of patterns are also my favorites for when a hand-knitted gift is needed, but time is short.
Osmond describes her style as “pared-down,” and it’s a fair assessment. She makes effective use of fundamentally simple fabrics like stockinette, garter, and seed stitch. When she introduces cables or other motifs, they’re usually established early and repeated verbatim throughout the fabric. It’s a sharp tactic—you get maximum visual interest with a minimal learning curve.
And the “stash” bit? Well, the author states in her introduction that she has stuck to the sorts of bread-and-butter yarns that you’ve likely got sitting around the house in reasonable quantities, waiting to be used. And so she has. If you’re especially good at yarn substitution because you’ve studied Carol Sulcoski’s book, so much the better.
Fiona Goble knows cute. She’s written more than 20 knitting books, including the insanely cute Knit Your Own Royal Wedding, the outrageously cute Knitivity: Create Your Own Christmas Scene, the preposterously cute Farmyard Knits, and the apocalyptically cute Knit Your Own Bunny Rabbit.
I’ve made a pack of the Queen’s corgis from Royal Wedding and every time I’m freshly impressed by the ingenuity that conjures a tiny, but highly detailed, little dog.
Goble’s latest, My First Animal Knitting Book is simpler, and aimed at the junior set—knitters aged seven and up.
I don’t think the appeal of these patterns will be limited to the very young. Maybe I mix with a weird crowd, but I know a lot of adults who wouldn’t sniff at a panda bear mug cozy, a frog tissue cover, an owl pencil caddy, or a scarf in the shape of a shark.
Goble cranks up the cute meter with uncomplicated, effective details, often embroidered. It’s wonderful to see a book for kids that considers them capable of chain stitch embroidery and real sewn seams. (Children aren’t stupid, and their hands aren’t blocks of wood.)
And, finally, an important detail: The working hands in the excellent technical illustrations by Rachel Boulton include a thorough mix of skin colors–light, dark, and many shades between. A subtle, powerful message; and one I hope other publishers will emulate.
Yarn Substitution Made Easy: Matching the Right Yarn to Any Knitting Pattern by Carol J. Sulcoski
Stash Knitting: 25 Quick and Easy Projects to Make by Emma Osmond
My First Animal Knitting Book by Fiona Goble