How to Substitute Yarn for Vintage Knitting Patterns

How to Substitute Yarn for Vintage Knitting Patterns

With so many beautiful knitting patterns that are freely available, it can be difficult to decide which one to make first. But, before you can begin your vintage project, you need to figure out not only how much yarn you need, but also which weight of yarn you need! 

How to Substitute Yarn for Vintage Knitting Patterns

No need to worry, though, in this article we’ll show you how you can substitute the right yarn for your vintage pattern. 

Vintage yarn weights and vintage patterns

The first thing that you’ll need to know about vintage yarn weights and vintage patterns, are that the vintage wool were thinner than we are used to today. For example, the DK (double knit) called for in many vintage patterns are closer to today’s 4-ply yarns and even the vintage worsted weight isn’t the same as the modern worsted weight. Still, you will need to do swatches to ensure that you don’t choose a modern 4-ply that is too thin to get the correct gauge.

To this end, the pattern’s gauge will actually give you a clearer answer to the yarn weight question than simply looking at the yarn weight given for the vintage pattern. 

Why swatches are so important

Swatches are really a lifeline to getting the right yarn for your project when you’re working with vintage patterns. Making a gauge swatch will show you not only if you’re using the correct weight of yarn, but also whether you need to change your knitting needle size to one larger or one smaller to obtain gauge.

Using gauge swatches in the colors of your choice will also give you a better idea of whether the color(s) you’ve chosen will work with the stitch pattern. As many of the vintage patterns are hand drawn (especially those from the 1800’s and early 1900’s) and not photographed, the exact look of the finished garment can sometimes be a real surprise!

There can also be a big difference to how the pattern looks on an old black and white photo and in real life.

How to substitute vintage yarn for modern yarn

Let’s now look at exactly how you will go about calculating which yarn to use. Keep reading to find out how much yarn you’ll then need to buy for your project.

            Yarn weight, fiber content, and knitting needle size

As we’ve mentioned at the beginning of the article, the yarn weights need to match for the pattern you’re going to make. However, don’t rely on all DK’s being 4-ply or worsted being sock yarn.

Kim Brody Salazar has a superb and user-friendly table with yarn weight substitutions for vintage and modern patterns on her website, String-Or-Nothing.

Besides the yarn weight, you should also try to match the fiber content of the yarn used in the vintage pattern. For example, patterns before the 1950’s makes almost exclusive use of only natural fibers and fiber-blends. It is only after a boom in the production of acrylic yarns that acrylics almost became a go-to.

Using the same fiber content will help your finished item have the same drape, texture, etc. as the original, vintage one. If you are using a yarn with a different fiber content, you’ll be able to tell a lot about how the end-result will look based on the swatch(es) that you make beforehand.


Although gauge is a bit more lenient when it comes to scarves, shawls, and the like, if you’re making socks, sweaters, or other fitted garments, gauge is extremely important and should be matched as closely as possible.

Yarns – especially commercial ones – usually show their gauge on the ball band, although you should still knit a swatch to make sure that yours matches. The gauge on the ball band, however, will make it a lot easier to know whether or not you can use the yarn for your vintage project.

While many patterns have the gauge on the pattern, some of the vintage patterns only give the knitting needle size and yarn weight. When you have these, however, you  can calculate the gauge quite easily as there is usually a general gauge for a specific knitting needle size when using a specific yarn weight. 

For example,  you can look at Kim Brody Salazar’s table again to see that a 4ply yarn’s gauge (vintage) is 28-30 stitches per 4 inches when knitted with a US size 1 or 2 (2,5 – 2,75 mm) modern knitting needle (a US size ‘12 steel’ or US size 1 vintage knitting needle). This is then equal to most modern sock yarns and some of the modern 4-ply yarns.

Therefore,  a pattern using 4-ply yarn (vintage weight) and a size 12 steel or size 1 knitting needle (vintage size) will most likely have a gauge of 28-30 stitches per 4 inches. This gauge can then be knitted with modern yarn and knitting needles using sock yarn and a US size 1 or 2 knitting needle.

How to calculate the amount of yarn you’ll need

To be able to calculate how much yarn you’ll need for your vintage project, you will first need to know the weight/length per skein of the yarn that the vintage pattern calls for.

When the pattern only states, for example, 4 balls of a specific brand, Ravelry is able to help you more often than not to find what they weight/length per ball were. You can also use the handy website, YarnSub, for this information.

For example, if the skeins of yarn in the pattern are each 155 yards in length, and you need 4 skeins, you will be able to quite easily calculate how many skeins you will need once you have found the correct yarn (gauge-wise) to work with.

If the modern yarn you’re substituting with measures 195 yards per skein, your calculation will be:

the length of the skein x the number of skeins = total length needed

(155 x 4 = 620)


the total length needed / the length of yarn for the substitution yarn per skein = total skeins required

(620 / 195 = 3,17)

Therefore, for this example, you will also need 4 skeins of the replacement yarn.

And there you go! Working out which yarn (and how much of the yarn) to use for vintage patterns are not as daunting as it looks at first!

Now you just need to decide which pattern to start with…




Casey Morris

Unfortunately some of the Sun-glo wool used in vintage Australian patterns, does not state the size of the skein. And I cannot rely on the internet stating a skein measuremrnt equivalent actually being 58 yards. Waiting for the Wool museum to clarify.

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