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So many choices! What's a knitter to do?
Will every yarn work for every knitting project? Thinner yarns and thicker yarns, different yarn contents, striped and unstriped, and what if you're felting?--Before you let yourself fall in love with a particular skein, consider the qualities that will matter most in your particular knitting project.
Consider the yarn called for in the pattern for your project. In some cases, as with garments designed for eyelash and novelty yarns or chenille, the type of yarn is crucial to the way the project looks and feels, and an item knit from the same pattern with different yarn won't work at all. For most projects, however, yarns with similar qualities can be substituted.
The icon for lightweight yarn, from the Craft Yarn Council of America
The most important aspect of the yarn for most projects is weight. Yarn weights are labeled with words like sock, fingering, sport, DK, worsted, aran, and bulky or chunky (among others). These terms divide yarn into categories from very fine to very thick. The Craft Yarn Council of America has developed a system to categorize yarn by weight, using numbers from 0, for lace weight, to 6, for extra bulky. However, not all manufacturers use the same standards, so if the yarn you want to use is not numbered, the safest course of action is to check the gauge.
The label of a skein or ball of yarn almost always includes an indicator of the yarn's gauge, often a small square with a drawing of a pair of knitting needles. This square will tell you the number of stitches and rows, and the needle size required to knit a 4" by 4" square.
A knitting pattern should also give the gauge for the project, and in many cases you can complete a project in any yarn with a gauge that matches the one described in the pattern.
Check the gauge by making a 4" by 4" square of your own, and see if the number of stitches matches.
If you find a yarn you like that is of a slightly different weight, you may be able to adjust the gauge by using different needles. Use larger needles if you want to get fewer stitches per inch, and smaller needles for more stitches per inch.
Be aware, however, that substitutions of this sort may have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the project. Very heavy yarns worked on small needles yield a dense and rather stiff fabric, while very fine yarns worked with large needles will create a loose, lacy effect. Make a sample square with your intended yarn and make sure you are happy with the qualities of the work before you proceed.
On fiber content:
Not all yarn contents can be used for every project; consider stretchiness as well. Yarns made of wool are quite stretchy, but those made of cotton are not. Some yarns, like chenille and decorative novelty yarns, may have no stretch at all. Socks, mittens, and other garments that are meant to stretch and fit the body closely should only be made of yarns that stretch. Non-stretching yarns may be more appropriate for projects requiring some structure and rigidity, like purses, capes, and caps.
Some wool yarn is itchy, and uncomfortable to wear close to the skin. Consider merino wool or alternative-fiber yarns if you're knitting for someone with sensitive skin.
These days, you can find yarn made from milk, bamboo, soy, and sugarcane!
Some yarn is softer and more pliable than others. If you want to make a soft, flowing wrap, you'll want to use very soft yarn like cashmere or bamboo. On the other hand, if you're making washcloths, you want your project to have some backbone, so perhaps you'll use cotton.
Feel the yarn that your pattern calls for so you can choose a yarn with similar properties. Fold over a 3" long segment of the yarn, and pinch the ends between your thumb and forefinger, with the loop sticking up. If the loop flops right over, you're holding a very soft yarn. If it is quite springy and holds itself up, it's not very flexible and flowing.
Are you planning to felt your project?
You must knit from yarn that is at least partially made of the fleece of an animal (wool, alpaca, mohair, etc.), in order to felt. Acrylic yarns will not work, nor will cotton.
Some felted projects look great in yarns that are part wool and part acrylic; they will retain a texture slightly different from that of felted pure wool.
If you're not sure, you can contact the yarn's manufacturer, or, of course, make a sample, and wash it a few times to see how it turns out.
At a well-stocked craft store or a specialty yarn store, you can find yarn in every color you can imagine, as well as overdyed yarns, which are spun from strands with tiny color variations between them, and self-striping yarns, of which long segments are dyed in different colors, so that a striped pattern results in the piece of knitwork.
It's a good idea to knit a sample if the yarn you're considering is not a solid color. The effect of the color variations may not be what you anticipate.