I'm generally not brilliant at being told what to do. I like to do things my way or at least be given room to put my own unique stamp on my work. When it comes to knitting a new pattern I can spend hours searching for yarn options. Sometimes the recommended yarn is too expensive, often because its a yarn that isn't readily available in my home country. Other times I'm just not happy with the colour choices available to me or the fibre content of the yarn.
This is why I love the Yarn Sub website, it lets me explore the options available to me effortlessly. Its a treasure trove of over 8,000 yarns from all over the world and it allows you to compare yarns so that you can get a similar effect to a pattern's recommended yarn without necessarily having to source outside your borders or compromise on your personal colour or fibre preferences.
I met up with Wendy Patterson, the creator of Yarn Sub recently to find out more about how the site works and how to use it to make yarn substitutions.
Wendy set up the site with her husband, David, who is a Software Developer. She herself worked in IT support and was a keen knitter. After having children she wanted to be able to work from home, so together they looked at setting up some kind of online knitting business.
Initially they had grand plans for a project which had a yarn substitution element to it. Wendy thought there would be no need for this and wrongly assumed there was loads of sites out there already providing yarn substitution.
"And of course when i looked there was absolutely nothing ... so we tried to do something quick and easy, only of course it wasn't ."
David developed an algorithm to allow the computer to compare the yarns while Wendy provided the information from a tactile knitter's experience to ensure that algorithm was spot on.
The yarns are entered into a database by Wendy and she is constantly on the look out for yarn releases and discontinued lines to keep it as up to date as possible. She is often surprised by what is relevant to the online knitting community as many larger manufacturer's products end up getting very low take up on ravelry while some tiny hand dyer might have a yarn that "explodes out of nowhere".
Wendy swatches a lot too, to understand more fully how different textures and constructions affect the properties of the knitting.
"I think sometimes you can work out how a yarn will behave, but real-life experience will always bring surprises. I wanted to get it as right as possible. That's a big motivation for me. Learning anything is quite a thrill, even just from swatching. Things I learn from working on the newsletter feeds into changes in the algorithm too."
One recent change came about as Wendy learnt more and more about the different breeds of wool. She began to realise that "something like Wensleydale is as different to merino as Alpaca is to Merino". So now they have updated the algorithm to include sheep breeds rather than just the generic label of wool as a fibre. Although only a handful of the thousands of yarns in her database make the breed of the wool known.
Sheep breeds are a major interest of Wendy's. She spoke about how here in the UK there are people like Knit British who are highlighting the need to buy local yarns that support traditional farming practices and rare breeds. She talked about Blacker Yarns and a less well known brand Black Bat, who supply British rare breed yarns.
"You take weeks and months making something and the more that I know the more that want to knit with these kind of yarns. I find their different characters so rewarding to get to know, compared to something more uniform like an s –on- s plied superwash merino yarn."
I wanted to know from Wendy how you can ensure your yarn will be durable. She said a lot of this comes down to construction of the yarn. It is often a balancing act between softness and durability. The shorter the fibres in the yarn the more problem pilling will be. Manufacturers add twist to decrease this but often have to sacrifice softness when they do. There are exceptions to this, chained yarns and blown yarns. "Chained yarns have loads of twist but they still feel soft. There is a newer construction called a blown yarn, which is basically a tube (often made of nylon, but sometimes silk) with soft fibres blown into it. They are incredibly soft, but still durable. Woollen spun yarns also tend to make more durable garments".
When using Yarn Sub you receive a list of substitutions for a given yarn with a percentage match attributed to each. If you are a beginner knitter and want to substitute a yarn but don't want to change the look and drape of the original pattern garment what is the minimum percentage you should substitute with? Wendy response to this was;"probably for a beginner you want to stick to 95% or more. Any time you are substituting a yarn you are acting like a designer and you'll get better results if you think of it that way. But at the same time do try because that is part of the fun."