Yarn choices for your patterns by Kate Atherley
How do you choose a yarn for your design? Kate Atherley shares her advice…
When I’m designing, I often spend as much time choosing the yarn for a pattern as I do choosing the pattern stitches and working out the actual design. I have to take into account the requirements of the design, of course, but the requirements of the knitters are just as important.
As a designer, I need a yarn that works with my design. These decisions are essentially the same decisions a knitter makes when choosing yarn for a pattern. First, I need to consider texture of the yarn. If I’m working a cable or other textured pattern stitch, I want a yarn that’s going to show it off well – something smooth. Then I need to think about the fiber and composition of the yarn. I wouldn’t want to use a heavy and stretchy alpaca yarn for a long seamless garment, as it’s likely to grow significantly with wear. Next I need to take into account how the item will be worn or used: a winter hat would be silly made out of cotton or linen. Durability and care of the yarn is also important: if it’s a kid’s garment, or a sock, I want something that’s going to withstand wear and tear, and frequent machine washing. Finally, I need to make a careful colour selection to ensure it is appropriate: a busy pattern stitch probably won’t work well with a busy variegated or self-patterning colourway.
And then I need to think about the needs of my knitters. I can’t just choose my favourite colour if it’s not one that has broad appeal. I adore bright oranges and yellows, but I know that a lot of people don’t. When browsing patterns, whether online, in a book or magazine, or a collection of pamphlets in a shop, a knitter may only take a second or two to look at the picture of the finished item in the pattern. That’s not a lot of time to absorb the details. So if you’re looking at a sweater in a colour you don’t like, chances are you’ll just move on to the next one. Reactions to colour can be pretty emotional, and it can be hard to override that sort of response to think about whether you like the sleeve shaping of a particular sweater. (That’s why they used to tell you to photocopy a pattern picture in black and white when assessing its suitability.)
I also want to make sure that the colour will make the design look good in the photographs. I wear a lot of dark colours – black, charcoal, deep shades of brown – but it would be foolish to use them for my design work as the details just wouldn’t show up in the pattern pictures. A knitter needs to be able to see what the design looks like so they can work out whether it’s what they want. Imagine trying to make out the details of a black cable knit! If a knitter can’t really see the details of a design, chances are they aren’t going to want to make it.
It also needs to be a yarn knitters can actually find and buy. If you want to sell the pattern online, to a broad audience, you’re going to do better if you find a yarn that’s widely available. Many knitters are comfortable making yarn substitutions, but many more simply aren’t. The less experienced a knitter, the less confident they will be with this, and the more they will rely on your yarn recommendation. If the yarn comes from a tiny indie dyer based in your hometown who only sells through one or two shops, you’re making your pattern less appealing. And the more distinctive or special the yarn, the more integral the yarn to the appeal of the pattern – whether a fantastic self-striping sock yarn you’ve used to create a clever slipped stitch effect, or a limited edition colourway, or a slubby, textured yarn – the more of a problem this is.
Many years ago I designed a pullover with a large stand-up collar that used Rowan Harris Tweed Chunky. This yarn was fantastic, substantial but not heavy, with a classic tweedy texture and flecked colouring, but it was discontinued before I could publish the pattern! I had it reknit and professionally photographed in another yarn, one from a North American distributor, and shortly after that got discontinued, too. I haven’t been able to find anything that works in precisely the same way, despite many swatches and much searching. Because I rely heavily on the structure of the yarn for the collar, it would be foolish to publish this pattern without a yarn suggestion, since the knitter simply wouldn’t be able to reproduce my results.
Yarns and colourways do get discontinued – but that doesn’t mean you can’t publish. Just make a note that what you used for the sample isn’t available, and make some suggestions for alternatives. This is a good idea whether the yarn is available or not. A yarn that is easy to find in the UK may be expensive to import for a North American knitter – you can make sure your pattern appeals broadly by suggesting yarns available in other regions.
If it’s a speciality item, consider providing suggestions for less expensive substitutes. Not everyone can afford hand-dyed yarn: is there one commercially produced that would also work? When writing up the pattern, you can approach it one of two ways: list specific yarn brands/types, or describe the characteristics of the yarn. For example: “You can also use Cascade 220.” Or “this design looks best when worked in a smooth, multiple-ply, tightly spun wool or wool-blend yarn of equivalent gauge.” I often do both! Even if the yarn isn’t available any more, I highly recommend you include the specific name and type in the materials list, as it can guide knitters with substitutions. A general listing like “1000m DK weight wool” will put off a beginner who doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with what ‘DK weight’ means, and will frustrate a even an experienced knitter who wants to make sure they get something with the right characteristics. There’s more to yarn than just gauge: there’s number of plies, there’s degree of twist in the spin, there’s density/loftiness – all of these factors affect a fabric.
(And remember, too, that knitters will often look for patterns by a specific yarn name… Make your pattern pop up in search results!)
If the pattern specifically uses fingering weight yarn, it’s also worth commenting on what sorts of yarn colourings work. There are a lot of really wonderful hand-dyed and variegated yarns out there, but not every pattern benefits from their use. And equally, a pattern that works particularly well with a wild variegated yarn should make a point of promoting this. You might say: “This design looks great worked in a busy variegated or self-striping yarn.” Or “Because of the textured pattern stitch used, this pattern looks better if worked in a solid or only mildly variegated colouring.” My own Lemon Difficult design was specifically created to use up a skein of particularly outrageous sock yarn I bought, and it’s sold well because I’ve promoted it that way.
As a knitter, you know that a good yarn choice is a key component of project success. As a designer, a good yarn choice can drive great pattern success, too!
Last updated: September 14th, 2016.