It depends. There are a lot of choices to make when starting a new knitting project. How am I going to cast on and cast off? What color yarn? What weight yarn? What fiber is best for the type of knit project? Superwash or regular? Organic? Natural vs. synthetic? Who is it for? What fiber will feel best on my/their skin? How long is it going to take? What size do I need to make? Can I try it on as I go? Will the recipient care for it properly? There are enough to make your head spin if you let yourself get carried away. One of the most important aspects of a new knitting project is knowing how much yarn to buy. While it’s not an exact science because everyone knits at different tensions, here are a few tips for estimating yarn yardage. (Yarn length is usually measured in yards, hence ‘yard’age. Just pay attention to the units when reading patterns and yarn labels. Convert if necessary)
Here are two ways to think about finding out how much yarn you need for a knitting project:
Situation 1: Do you already have a pattern that you like and want to buy yarn for it?
Situation 2: Did you find amazing yarn and want to buy enough for a future pattern that you haven’t yet discovered or decided upon?
Situation 1: You already have the pattern picked out, now all you need is to buy yarn.
1) Read the pattern
The first step to determining how much yarn you need is to consult the pattern. Most good pattern designers will give you a suggested yarn with suggested number of skeins. What size you are making will also factor into the yarn requirement. The same pattern knit for a small baby sweater compared to a teen boys XL sweater, will be a big difference! Follow their directions closely for the best results.
2) Substitute yarn
If you are not using the exact yarn suggested, we will need to figure out a good substitute yarn. Which we will talk about in super detail in another post. But for now, look for a yarn that has the same gauge as the recommended yarn. Do up a swatch or however many needed, if you don’t remember, find out more here. If the swatch works out well, go down to #4 below to make sure you buy the right amount of yarn, since the recommended yarn and your chosen yarn will likely have different lengths per skein.
Another useful way to decide on the amount of yarn needed is to go look up your pattern or a similar pattern in Ravelry. Ravelry is a website dedicated to knitting, crocheting and weaving patterns, forums for fiber artists to chat, yarn information, etc. If you haven’t already gone into the bottomless well of joy and fiber that is Ravelry , I suggest you create an account and dive in. But be warned, there are so many patterns and so much information that will be thrown at you, it may be overwhelming. Oh, and set aside a few hours to do this, otherwise your time in Ravelry will be one big distraction.
Once you have found your pattern or a similar looking pattern, look to see what yardage the designer or other knitters have suggested. Each pattern has a section on the page about people who have started/completed the project. There may be a few or hundreds depending on the popularity of the pattern. Look for yarns with the same gauge as yours.
4) Pull out the calculator
Most yarns have the length included on the label. We can calculate an estimate of how much substitute yarn is needed based on 1) the skein requirement of the pattern and the 2) the skein length of the suggested yarn.
After doing this math, you should end up with the right number of skeins for the project!
Always round up to the nearest skein, you NEVER want to run out of yarn. I usually grab an extra skein just in case!
Remember, all of this is just an estimate! No way to figure out exact amount required!
The other factors to keep in mind:
2) This is assuming you are using the same exact weight yarn = your substituted yarn is appropriate.
3) The amount of yarn also depends on how loosely or tightly you knit.
4) This whole process requires math, so prepare yourself mentally if math does not come naturally to you.
5) It is easier and more accurate to estimate using the middle weight yarns (DK, Worsted). Lace patterns involve a lot of different stitch patterns and YOs so it is very hard to calculate.
Situation 2: My favorite method for buying yarn without a pattern
So my favorite non-scientific but completely logical method is as follows. Take an item or imagine the same kind of item you would like to make. Hug it and feel how much space it takes up in your arms. Now, go to the yarn you would like to use and hold the equivalent in your arms. Then add a skein. There you go! You have enough for what you want to make! I ‘discovered’ this a while back and have used it rather successfully since. But, I do not claim that it is a perfect method, none of these are exact.
So, take which parts of advice make sense to you and leave the rest behind. I cannot be held responsible for your yarn shortages. 🤷♀️
Ready for some Yarn Chicken
Do you remember the game of chicken where two drivers drive straight at each other and if one of them swerves out of the way, they are called, ‘chicken’? And if the other player drives straight they are called the winner? And of course if neither swerve… NO. ONE. WINS. Pretty stupid eh?
Now have you ever heard the term YARN CHICKEN? This is knitter (and probably crocheter) speak for the same kind of situation, though not so deadly. ridiculous maybe…
Yarn chicken is starting a project and crossing your fingers that you have enough yarn. I love how knitting/crocheting terminology makes so much sense after you figure out what something means. Before it just sounds like something made up, but once you know it, yarn chicken sure makes sense.
Don’t play yarn chicken (on purpose).
Fit vs. Non-fitting
If you knit a scarf and it ends up a few inches shorter than what the pattern says, it isn’t that much of a big deal. A scarf is considered a non-fitting item, the final size doesn’t matter much.
If you knit a sweater and end up running out of yarn when the work is only at nipple height, that is a big deal. A sweater is considered a fitting item, size does matter. Of course there is a lot of wiggle room here, you can wear a boxy, oversized sweater and look just fine. It’s called style. So you might luck out if you run out of yarn and can just call it a cropped sweater.
How to determine if you’ll win yarn chicken
You need a kitchen scale, the project in question and some crossed fingers. It’s a bit tough, but find the weight of the project without the extra yarn or needles. Next, weigh the amount of yarn you have left from the last skein(s). Now, looking at your pattern, compare how much yarn you have in the project and how much you have left. If you’re more than ¾ through the project pattern and have more than ¼ of your yarn left, you’ll likely be fine. If not, maybe go run to the store or contact the store and cross your fingers that they have more of the same dye lot! (Dye lot is the name for the ‘lot’ of skeins being dyed at the same time in the same dye pot. You can dye each set of skeins with the same amount of dye and water but still end up with a slight color variation. To avoid your project coming out stripey because you used two different dye lots, always try to buy enough from the same dye lot.)
In the END, It STILL Depends…
So, after all this information, what would be your answer to the question: How much yarn do I need for a knitting project? It depends. ALWAYS!
Go buy some yarn! And then grab an extra skein just in case! IF you already have all the tools necessary but don’t know where to begin, try this! The Get Your Yarn on the Knitting Needles Mini-Course.