One of my favourite things about winter is that no-one bats an eyelid if you drag your knitting about with you. In the last month, I’ve finished a hat at a casual dinner party, whipped up two pairs of fingerless mitts over weekend pub lunches and come ever-so-close to finishing off a tunic for my godless-heathen-daughter, thwarted only by the fact that one of the balls of wool has been hidden by one of the cats and so I need to wait on new arrivals from the US before I can do the back neck and sleeves.
We’re living in a golden age for knitting at the moment, with genius patterns available in books, magazines and available from companies, designers and keen amateurs on the net. But try as we might, sometimes mistakes creep through into published patterns, and sometimes what’s available doesn’t fit with what we want. Happily, there are easy ways to spot problems in advance and fix them before you begin to knit. And for wools we can’t find or for patterns that don’t come in quite the right size, it can be relatively easy to make quick fixes that will work for you.
Read on for our solutions to the most common problems, and don’t forget to leave us comments with your fixes, too!
I can’t find that wool
This is one of the most common problems knitters encounter. Many patterns are designed internationally and call for yarns that are simply not available in Australia or New Zealand. Others use specialist brands that are simply too expensive for some of us. You have two options here. The first is to order from an international supplier, which can be an economically sensible choice, even with postage factored in, while the Australian dollar is doing so well. Check around a few, and check the parcel rates before you order – I’ve found that Europe tends to be cheaper than the UK, and the US most expensive, but other people I know have had great rates from American suppliers. Laughing Hens is brilliant for Rowan and Debbie Bliss, or check out Ebay, especially if you are looking for smaller lots – many people with three or four leftover balls will unload them at reduced prices there.
The lazypants option (for people like me) is to use a similar yarn that is locally available. Yes, I know that all the patterns say that you should only use the yarn specified, but let’s be honest, it’s not as though it’s lifesaving medication. I’ve substituted a lot of yarns happily over the years and have rarely regretted the decision. In some cases, I think the result has been dramatically improved. My fave fingerless gloves call for a yarn that doesn’t seem to be available anywhere outside of Seattle. It’s a pure wool Aran-weight tweed, 100m to 50g, and 18 sts and 24 rows over 10cm of Stocking stitch using 5.00mm needles. Luckily for me, Western Australia’s Jo Sharp does a gorgeous yarn that’s similar: Silkroad Aran Tweed. It’s 85% Wool, 10% Silk & 5% Cashmere, with the same tension and 95m to 50g. It was close enough for me to experiment with, and it turned out to be a perfect solution, and even better than the original because the slight amount of extra bulk gave a better finish than the one in the picture, while the silk and cashmere make the gloves a little bit softer than the pure wool would have been.
I’m making the same gloves in a third yarn at the moment, Eki Riva’s Casual baby alpaca. It’s 100m/50g, but 22sts and 30 rows to 10cm, so these gloves are lighter and lacier than the others. Gorgeous and soft for indoor use, not so fab for outside in a stiff breeze.
To see what yarns you can substitute with ease, learn as much as you can about the original. If the pattern doesn’t list it, try the web. You’re looking for:
* Metres/grams (yards/ounces): write down both figures where possible as some yarns only list one or the other. Since most come in 50g or 100g lots, those are the most convenient figures to have. Look for figures that match, or have only a small difference – 5% is fine, 10% is usually about the limit.
* Tension details: you’ll find these on most ball bands (the paper wrappers on yarn) and they generally give the number of stitches and rows required to get to 10cm. Look for figures that are as similar as possible, though I have found that two extra stitches or rows can be OK if you are just making small accessories. Be careful if you’re making a larger garment, though, as all those extra bits can add up. You can cheat your way around this if you are passionately committed to a particular yarn that is a bit wrong: use smaller or larger needles as required to reach the tension specified in the pattern. It will alter the flow of the garment, so be sure to start with a trial ball and knit up a sample to check you’re happy with the results.
* Fibre content and style: different fibres can act in dramatically different ways, especially when one is a vegetable yarn like cotton or linen and another an animal fibre like wool or alpaca. Stick to something similar for best results, or be sure to knit up a sample first to see how it will turn out. The style of yarn is handy for two things, firstly it will narrow down your search (it’s much quicker to check the tension squares on the Aran-weight yarns rather than every yarn in the shop), and secondly, it will give you an idea of factors such as loft, silkiness, tweediness and so on that will influence your choice. You might need to check out yarn shops and reviews on the internet to find out this information.
I like the pattern, but not the yarn
Ah, the story of my life. I have what hairdressers like to call ‘particular’ colouring: pale skin but very dark hair and eyes. About 10 colours look terrific. Most others, various degrees of awful. For example, the divine duck egg blue in this cape from Debbie Bliss’s Folk Chic?
Makes me look like the Corpse of the Week on Castle, or a Very Special Case on Grey’s Anatomy.
The easiest thing to do here is to look for other colours in the same yarn. This one is Debbie Bliss Cashmerino DK, which comes in lots of lovely colourways, including the dark red, black and navy tones I know I can carry off. But a handy trick is to look for other yarns from the same supplier, too. Many are constructed to similar weights with only slight fibre differences, or perhaps different colourways, separating them. So I could also have tried Debbie Bliss’s Rialto DK, which would give a similar result in a slightly sturdier yarn, and a choice of six colours I can wear rather than three.
Ask your local yarn shop for advice, or email, or tweet, the yarn company directly. Many are brilliant at responding to customer enquiries, and most have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts where other uses can sometimes help you out even more quickly.
It doesn’t come in my size
There’s little more disheartening than finishing a project, only to discover the designer’s idea of a small is size 10, or large is size 12, or that one size fits all means fits everyone over 165cm. Read the pattern’s measurements and take your own before you start anything. Look for patterns that come with those cool little graphs of the finished item and lots of measurements for things like shoulders, bust and back length. It’s best to start out with a pattern and size as close to your own measurements as possible, but you can make some adaptations, too.
For large or complex garments like cardigans and jumpers, you’ll need a bit of confidence before messing about with things. But if you’re happy to rip out failures and re-knit, it’s always worth a try. Look for plain areas where you can add in or lose some stitches or rows as required: more stitches = wider; fewer stitches = narrower; more rows = longer; fewer rows = shorter. Remember that if the garment includes a pattern repeat, like a cable, moss stitch or lace, you will need to take out one whole repeat if you plan to change the number of rows, or else start or end the garment on a different row, as you can’t take any out from the middle.
Some garments are easy to adjust. This gorgeous cropped cardi from Ella Rae has a long panel of stocking stitch forming most of the body:
For a short-waisted person, 2-6 rows can be dropped out of the unshaped sections without any stress, while the same amount could be added for a long-waisted version. Although the original pattern comes in four decent sizes, you could lose stitches from the unshaped vertical parts of each piece for a tiny version and add them just as easily for a buxom cardi.
Similarly, these fingerless gloves from Slumberland come in a standard women’s size and have lines of purl and cable stitches. To scale them to up a man’s size, just add in an extra repeat or two of the purl and cable stitches, for a size in between, add the extra stitches but drop a needle size to form a denser knit. You can do the same thing with beanies, but remember that you will need to keep the decreases even when you come to the top of the hat. Take a look at the original pattern, there are usually four-eight sets of decreases worked evenly, just shift them to the new even points and work as in the original, keeping in mind that it might be a little longer because you have more stitches to decrease.
Complex shapes are probably best left alone until you have the experience to work out how to alter them (and either the patience to start again if you go wrong, or a large amount of graph paper to draw it all out in advance), but if you want to try, go ahead! It’s just knitting. The worst thing that can happen is that you will rip it out and start again. It’s not as if you’re tanking the global economy.
How do I know it will work?
One of the loveliest things for knitters these days is the large number of amateur pattern makers sharing their creations on sites like Ravelry and their own blogs. Some go on to become professionals, like Ysolda Teague, while others just share their creations and keep up their day jobs.
However, mistakes can creep through when we write up instructions. They manage to get into even published books, so it’s not surprising that the rest of us can be a little less than perfect. If you love a design, don’t be put off by the fact it’s from an amateur, just go through it carefully line by line before you start. If you’re experienced at reading knitting patterns, you can usually see the problem on the page, otherwise, take some sample yarn and knit up any bits that look super complicated to you to see whether or not they’re going to work. It’s always better to waste one ball rather than 20!
I adore this Butterfly Beret pattern from Rachel Lufer and have knitted four of them so far (alas, all given to friends):
Before I began the first one, I read the pattern for the butterfly stitch, which happens over a 10-row, 10-stitch repeat. The instruction for Row 10 was: *knit 7, butterfly stitch* rep from *, which is only 8 stitches. That was never going to work! Drawing out the stitches on graph paper, it became obvious that the instruction should have been *Knit 7, butterfly stitch, knit 2* rep from *. Easy! Most mistakes stand out like this, just keep in mind how many stitches you begin with and the fact that they all need to go somewhere, every row. If there are more stitches than there are instructions for them, either you made a mistake the row before, or the pattern has left something out. Look at the next row and it’s usually obvious which it is!
(There’s one other little mistake in that pattern as it starts the decreases with the yarn in front butterfly stitch part of the repeat, when it should start with the Knit 5 part. Email me at email@example.com if you want the corrected pattern rather than trying to fix it on the fly – makes a great hat!)
Most patterns are quite reliable. Typos are usually obvious, and if you look at the picture as well as the instructions, you will spot the most common typos in advance (casting on with the wrong colour and casting off on the wrong side for collars and sleeves). Most major yarn companies publish corrections to the mistakes in their published patterns, check out these excellent fixes from Patons as an example, so be sure to go online and see if there are any listed for the pattern you like before you begin.
For amateur patterns, check out the comments before you start. Corrections are usually listed there, or at the very least you will see Help! comments flagging that there is a problem. And do join Ravelry! There are thousands of members, many of whom might have made the same thing you’re about to, so you can often find great corrections and tips on the pages of others. Plus it’s a great source of tried and tested patterns, as well as being a fun place to chat with other knitters.