How Much Yarn do I Need to Knit a Sweater?

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Article by Emma Lane

How much yarn do you need to knit a sweater?

It depends – on the yarn weight, fiber content, sweater size, the pattern, the style (e.g., fair isle, aran, etc.) …

On average, you need a minimum of 1000 yards to knit an adult sweater. You should also buy an additional 10% of yarn just in case. Why?

Your tension/gauge might differ slightly from the pattern, requiring you to need a bit more yarn to make a sweater than the pattern calls for. Because of how popular knitting is, after your original yarn purchase, it can be hard to find skeins of yarn that match your dye lot. It’s best to buy the additional 10% at the time of your original purchase.

What You Need to Know About How Much Yarn You Need to Knit a Sweater

There are many things you need to think about when we purchase yarn to make that cozy pullover, such as fiber content, yarn weight, gauge, size, style, and design. Each of these elements plays a role in assuring you knit a sweater that is the right size and the right fit.

It doesn’t make sense to take all the time and effort of knitting a sweater when it doesn’t fit right or doesn’t look right – or, horror of horrors, you run out of yarn inches away from finishing your last sleeve.

Fiber Content: How Does it Affect Your Sweater?

Whether you want to knit a pullover in all wool, cotton, alpaca, silk, or any combination of fibers, each fiber has different properties.

The breed of sheep matters. Shetland wool is different from Romney wool. Each strand of fiber from sheep breeds may be a different width, length or coarseness, which changes how the yarn drapes and the stitches twist. Wool from different breeds has more or less crimp or curliness, which affects the elasticity of yarn. A stiff, non-elastic wool may require more stitches to give fullness or to be the right fit.

The stability of cotton yarn makes strong sweaters, but substituting cotton for wool in a pattern brings, oh, so many problems. The design will not only fit differently, but the yards needed to make the sweater will be completely different.

Combination yarns, such as wool, silk and cashmere or silk and linen, change how the stitches form and how the sweater will fit. You may need additional yardage when using a combination yarn. For example, a springy elastic wool will require fewer stitches for a wrist opening versus a stiffer linen blend or pure linen. This means less yarn is required for the all wool sweater.

Yarn Weigh: Its Role in How Much Yarn You Need to Make a Sweater

The differences between, let’s say, a worsted weight and a DK weight appear slight when holding the yarns side-by-side, but the difference is big when it comes to how many balls or skeins of yarn you need to knit a sweater.

The bigger worsted weight requires fewer stitches to make the same number of rows, therefore, fewer yards of yarn are needed. This all sounds good only if the pattern calls for a simple stitch like garter or stockinette. Knitting anything fancier can throw off the pattern gauge a lot, and require more of that worsted weight yarn than you expected.

What About Yarn Ply?

Does yarn ply affect yardage? Yes, but you also need to think about yarn weight. A 2-ply lace weight may be smaller in diameter than a 1-ply fingering. In this example, when using the 2-ply lace weight as a substitute for the 1-ply fingering, it would take more yards of the lace weight yarn to knit the same sweater.

What Does Yarn Gauge Tell You?

Gauge (i.e., stitches and rows per inch) gives you a good idea about how much yarn you will need. If the yarn you want to use has fewer or more stitches and rows per inch than the pattern design, then you will need to adjust the amount of yarn needed for your sweater accordingly.

Here’s where swatching is important. Yes, the dreaded s word.

Knitting a swatch is particularly important when changing yarn brands, fiber content or yarn weight. As discussed for fiber content and yarn weight, not all yarns of a specific fiber or weight are created equal.

Some spinners, whether large mills or independent spinners, create yarns with a tighter twist than other spinners. The twist affects the looseness or stretch of the yarn as the tighter the twist, the less stretch in the yarn. For example:

  • Less stretch means the sweater may not have that comfortable cozy feel.
  • The weave of the knitted stitches may also be looser and may have more of a see-through effect.
  • The stitches look perfect, but the fibers from one stitch won’t reach across to another stitch as the individual fibers remain twisted tightly in the yarn.

Beautiful stitches. Check! Soft and comfy? Maybe not so much.

How Sweater Size Tells You How Much Yarn You Need

When you look at how many balls or skeins of yarn you need, use sizing as a guide. Sometimes, hundreds of yards of yarn separate two sizes.

One of the obvious bits of information to know about how much yarn you’ll need is who are you knitting for – a child, an adult, a woman or a man? Make that decision and then look for the right size.

The right size isn’t their dress size or shirt size. Instead, you should consider the following questions.

  1. Does the person like to wear layers? Think larger than their normal size. More yarn please.
  2. Does the person always wear tight-fitting clothing? Think about the regular size they wear and choose it or maybe go down one size if the sweater pattern looks looser than they typically wear or has a lot of ease. Less yarn and quicker to knit gets you knitting your next project before you know it.
  3. Does the person wear loose-fitting, just-want-to-be comfortable clothes? Think one to two sizes larger. Possibly, a labor of love to knit, but oh, so worth it.

Sweater Style Changes How Much Yarn You Need

Look closely at the pattern before determining how many yards to buy.

Will you knit the pullover from the top down or the bottom up? Great, no seams to sew means less yarn required.

Will you carry the yarn up the side in a multi-colored pattern? Great, no cutting the yarn on each color change for weaving in later.

When thinking about a sleeve length for a pullover, remember that style also influences yardage. A close fitting long sleeve sweater takes fewer yards than a bell or flared shape at the wrist. Using a smaller needle size on a ribbed cuff uses less yarn than if the sweater uses the same sized needle from the shoulder to the wrist.

Necklines change not only the look of a sweater but also the yards needed to make them. Crew, v and boat necks use less yarn than most other neck styles, but do look at how the designer creates them. A different stitch pattern or width of the neckline changes the yardage for even simple crew necks.

Obviously mock turtle necks use fewer yards than a folder over full turtle neck. But a large rolled cowl necked sweater requires even more yarn than that full turtle neck.

How to Substitute Yarns in Sweater Patterns

I’m often asked questions about switching yarn brands when using a pattern. Can I use a different brand of yarn, a different type of fiber, or a different yarn weight?

My answer most often? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.

A designer works long and hard to develop a product that looks great using the chosen yarn. Even if you use a different brand of yarn in the same weight or a different fiber, you may need more or less yardage than called for in the pattern.

If you are okay with knitting a truly unique pullover, then go for it, but pay close attention to the stitches and rows per inch.

If you’re using a different brand or weight of yarn from that called for in the pattern, you may need more or less yarn than the pattern calls for. You’ll need to take into consideration the different yards/meters per grams and any changes in yarn weight to determine how much yarn you need to knit your sweater.

So, if your little sister has her heart set on that pink alpaca sweater with the bobbles and you decide…

…either for reasons of economy or because you have some leftover pink yarn from another project…

…to switch to a different brand or fiber types, tears or a lack of genuine thanks may be offered as your little sister doesn’t get exactly what she expected.

The color, the texture or even the look of the sweater may be so different from the picture on the pattern that your effort may not be worth it.

And, oh my, even worse would be to run out of yarn because the gauge is slightly different and you add a different color to the sleeves. Little sisters can be notoriously unforgiving.

Does Stitch Type Affect How Much Yarn is Needed?

Stockinette, the go-to stitch pattern for sweaters, is the easiest stitch for determining yardage. It requires the least amount of yarn because of the simplicity of the stitch. It also gives you length-wise stretch. The longer the stretch, the less yarn needed.

Garter stitch makes short chubby stitches with a horizontal stretch. If you want a pebbly texture to your longer-styled sweater, you’ll need more yardage not just because it’s longer but because each row will be a shorter height than a typical stockinette row.

Cables make beautiful and interesting patterns, but use more yarn than a simple knit or purl stitch. The number of stitches moved to a cable needle dictates how much working yarn is needed to reach the stitch on the left hand needle. Additionally, when working cables, extra stitches need to be added to the row to account for the “pulling in” of the cable stitches. Extra stitches. Extra yarn.

Oh, the bobbles and nupps we could make with an endless ball of yarn. Remember that the stitch gauge on a yarn wrapper accounts for actual stitches. A single bobble makes one stitch in a row, but the number of times the yarn is wrapped or picked up to create that single bobble can be several stitches worth of yarn.

Conclusion

You can use 1000 yards plus 10% as your tried and true, go-to guide for purchasing yarn to knit an adult sweater. But each part of that sweater needs reviewing to determine if you need more or less yarn.

The one-size-fits-all answer for how much yarn you need to knit a sweater may not always fit, because, after all, the answer for how much yarn you need to knit a sweater may just be…”It depends.”

2 thoughts on “How Much Yarn do I Need to Knit a Sweater?”

  1. Some rough guides of yarn weight would be useful. EG: 6′ person 200lbs, loose fit, then same for tight fit, then same for 5’6 person 130lbs. That would give us some ballpark figures to start with when buying yarn by weight, which is what I’m doing at present.

    • Thanks for your comment, Pau. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as saying a person this height and weight needs roughly this much yarn. The problem with body weight is that it is arbitrary. A 6′ tall 200 lb bodybuilder will require less yarn to make a sweater than a 6′ tall person who weighs 200 lbs because they are overweight. They will wear two different sweater sizes (muscle takes up less space than fat). A tight fitting sweater for the bodybuilder won’t fit the person who is overweight. Likewise, a sweater that loosely fits the overweight person will likely be too big for the bodybuilder. A classic example is Arnold Schwarzenegger as his body weight makes him obese on weight charts, but he’s quite the opposite. Thus, it’s difficult to give you a figure based on someone’s body weight. You also have to look at the other factors I mentioned above – sweater style, fiber content, yarn weight, etc. They will all factor into how much yarn you need to buy to make a sweater.

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