Choosing yarn for a sweater can be a big decision. You may be working with this yarn for a hundred hours or more – and wearing the sweater you make even longer. Sweaters are usually the largest items knitters make, and the cost for that amount of yarn can be high. So how do you choose a yarn that’s right for you?
The most important thing
Some folks will tell you that you have to choose a certain type of yarn for sweaters. They will tell you it has to be hard-wearing yarn, that is has to be exactly the yarn suggested in the pattern, or that it must match the colours you already have in your wardrobe. But here at Tin Can Knits, we are not purists. For us, the most important thing about a sweater yarn is that YOU love it. What good is knitting a whole sweater in a yarn you aren’t thrilled-to-death about? Are you suddenly going to become enamoured with a yarn you find scratchy or dull once it’s knit into a whole sweater? I doubt it. I personally like to wear black quite a bit, but I definitely don’t want to knit a whole black sweater! So forget what you think you SHOULD use. Go out and find a sweater yarn that is perfect for YOU.
It’s all about pros and cons
Not all yarns are great for sweater knitting. A single-ply, un-spun yarn, for example, will likely end up a pilly mess after only a few wears. There are lots of different types of yarn out there, though, and they each have their pros and cons. We stand confidently behind the yarns we use for our pattern samples, but we know they aren’t always available or accessible to everyone – nor are they necessarily what you might choose for your own sweater.
And just because WE have used a certain type of yarn for a particular sweater, it doesn’t mean that is the ONLY type of yarn that will work. A sweater knit in a single ply and a plied yarn might look different, but it certainly doesn’t mean one is definitively better than the other. It comes down to what YOU prefer for YOUR sweater. Customizing things to suit our tastes is what knitters do, after all! Keeping that in mind, here are some factors to consider when choosing a sweater yarn.
Construction or ply
What is a ply? A ply is a strand of fibre that makes up a yarn. A single-ply yarn is just one twisted piece of fibre. A plied yarn is composed of two or more of those plies twisted together. A two-ply yarn is made up of two single strands. A three-ply yarn is made up of three single strands and so forth. Take a look at a few of the yarns you have on hand and see if you can pull apart the plies to count them.
If you choose a single-ply yarn for your sweater, it will be oh-so soft and cozy, BUT it won’t be as hard-wearing as one made with a plied yarn. Single-ply yarns also tend to pill more than plied yarns. There are varying degrees of twist in a yarn as well. One that has a lot of twist will last longer, but it generally won’t be as soft as compared to a softer-spun yarn of the same fibre.
There are just so many types of yarns out there these days! You can find yarns made from any number of animal fibres and plant-based fibres, as well as synthetics. There are yarns made from sheep’s wool, alpaca, and yak. There are silk yarns, cotton yarns, and linen yarns. You can also find yarns that are a mix of these things. So which one is right for your sweater?
Emily and I tend to use animal fibres in our sweater knits. Animal fibres have what is called ‘memory’, which means they tend to stay where you put them. They block easily and keep their shape. However, there are exceptions to this. For example, alpaca tends to drape more and holds its shape differently than sheep’s wool. Wool has a few magical properties that I like to take advantage of – like it stays warm when wet and is naturally odour resistant.
Plant fibres, like cotton or linen, tend to keep you cooler. If you live in a warmer climate, they might be the way to go. Plant fibres do not have memory, so they don’t hold their shape the same way that animal fibres do. This can be both a pro and a con. The drape of a linen, for example, can make for a really beautiful top. I’ve had the most success using patterns that are specifically designed for these types of fibres.
Synthetic fibres are the most cost effective when it comes to sweaters. They are also easy to care for; sometimes they can even go in the dryer! You can also often find yarns that are a mix of animal fibres and synthetics, which can strike a great balance.
Another consideration when choosing a sweater yarn is how you will care for your garment. I hand wash all of my hand knit sweaters and my kiddos’ sweaters, too. This isn’t practical for everyone, though, so you might opt for a yarn that is machine washable, like a superwash wool or a synthetic. This is also something to think about if you are doing any gift knitting. In my experience, non-knitters are not always well versed in knitwear care, so keep that in mind.
The swatch test
So you have your chosen yarn. You have considered longevity, drape, softness, and care, and you have chosen the one YOU love. You are now ready to swatch! Swatching is generally recommended, but I think it is the most important step when preparing to knit a sweater – so don’t skimp on the swatch! Knit a nice big one! We have some thoughts on swatching basics here, the cowl swatch here, and swatching for colourwork here. Give yourself all the information you need before starting your sweater!
Swatching will let you know if you are getting the recommended pattern gauge, and maybe more importantly, if you actually like the fabric at that gauge. Is the fabric is too open or too dense for your liking? Will you want to wear a whole sweater in this colour after all? If you are knitting a cabled sweater, do the cables ‘pop’ the way you want them to? If you are knitting colourwork, do the colours all work together the way you had hoped? Or do you need to add a brighter yellow? Or more contrast? (We have a whole post on choosing yarns for colourwork here.) Your swatch will give you a pretty good idea if your chosen yarn is right for your sweater project.
While swatching is important, it is wise to remember that swatches can’t tell you EVERYTHING. A swatch doesn’t have the weight of a whole sweater hanging from it, so it can be a bit more difficult to assess the drape of a fabric. A swatch doesn’t have seams, and it rarely encompasses all of the stitch patterns in a sweater. BUT it is still the best tool we have to test whether or not the chosen yarn will work the way we want it to.
The Hat Swatch
Hats are perfect for swatching, so we knit a whole lotta of swatch hats! For instance, when contemplating the colour palette for the Embers sweater, we first tried several different colour combos in the Embers hat. Yarns in this array include The Farmer’s Daughter Fibers Soka’pii, a single-ply fingering weight; Emily’s handspun, a plied sport weight; and Jamieson & Smith Two-Ply Jumper Weight, a plied wool fingering weight yarn.
You have a yarn you love. You have pinpointed the perfect colour, and you have the right mix of hard-wearing and soft-against-the-skin. Your swatch has told you that the fabric is just right for your liking. Now it’s time to cast on and knit your sweater!
If you are embarking on your very first sweater, or could use some pointers, check out all our sweater knitting tutorials here.
What is your favourite sweater yarn? Let us know in the comments!