How to read a yarn label?
You can actually learn a whole lot about any ball of yarn you pick up simply by reading the label - but for a beginner, they can seem a little tricky to decypher.
Here's how to crack the code:
- Literal weight. This refers to the actual weight of the ball or skein. It will usually be presented in both ounces and grams.
- Length or 'yardage'. The length of yarn in the ball or skein. This will usually be given in both yards and metres.
- Fibre content. This tells you what proportion of the yarn is made from each type of fibre, for example 80% acrylic, 20% wool. There is more information about yarn fibres below.
- Weight. This refers to the thickness or diameter of the yarn, and the system for measuring this will depend on the country the yarn is from. The section below on 'yarn size and weight' will explain how this works.
- Needle and hook gauge. This is a recommendation for the ideal size of knitting needle or hook to use with the yarn. It will tell you what size of needle you will require in order to knit or crochet a standard size swatch.
- Colour name and number. Many yarns will have a colour name, as well as a number associated with that name. Different manufacturers will have their own systems for how they name their colours.
- Dye lot number. there will almost always be slight variations in colour between batches of dyed yarn. If you are working on a larger project and you want to ensure the colour is consistent throughout, it's worth making sure that each ball of yarn you buy is from the same dye lot.
- Washing symbols. These give all the information you need in order to care for your yarn appropriately.
So now that you've worked out what all of those details mean, let's look at some of the main variables that you'll want to consider when selecting the right yarn for your project.
The four main ways that yarn can vary are:
- Ply and texture
The fibre is the material from which a yarn is made. These can be split into three main categories: natural, synthetic, and blended.
These are any yarns made from naturally occurring fibres. They fall into two further subcategories:
- Animal, such as wool, alpaca, angora, silk, etc.
- Animal fibres are prized for their warmth and softness, though these qualities vary significantly depending on that animal they come from and how they are spun.
- The most commonly used animal fibre is sheep's wool, but cashmere, angora, and silk are also widely used. Curious knitters can even find yarns spun from more unusual sources such as possum, and camel.
- Plant, including bamboo, cotton, rayon, linen, and hemp.
- Plant fibres are generally the most breatheable, so they're great for making garments intended to be worn in warmer seasons.
- That same breathability makes these fibres ideal for knitting blankets and clothes for babies.
- As they're not produced from animal sources, plant fibres are vegan friendly.
- Allergies to animal fibres are quite common, so plant fibres are a good hypoallergenic alternative.
- Due to their sustainable farming and cultivation practices, bamboo and hemp are the most environmentally friendly yarn choices.
These are any fibres that are artificially produced. They include acrylic, nylon, and polyester. While they vary in composition, they are all essentially different forms of plastic. This may sound like a drawback, but synthetic fibres have some very desirable qualities.
- They stand up well to washing, and don't shrink or fade as easily as natural fibres.
- They're inexpensive and widely available.
- As they don't contain animal fibres, they're vegan friendly, and suitable for people with animal allergies.
Yarn manufacturers will often blend different fibres together in order to combine their different qualities. Blends can be:
Different combinations of fibre will affect a yarn's price, texture, washability, durability, colourfastness and warmth.
NON RECOMMENDED FIBRES
Plant, especially bamboo and hemp
Pure animal fibres especially angora, cashmere, mohair
Regardless of what they are made of, fibres have to be spun to make yarn. This is the process by which the fibres are stretched and pulled so they run parallel to each other, and twisted into long strands.
Ply & Texture
One strand of spun yarn is called a ply. The ply count of a yarn refers to the number of plies that have been twisted together to form the yarn.
Note: ply can also refer to a yarn's weight, which you can read about below.
- Single ply - this yarn tends to be less tightly spun, since it's only been through that spinning and twisting process once. This results in some unique qualities:
- It felts easily
- Has a puffy look, often referred to as a 'bloom', when knitted or crocheted.
- Can pill more easily as the individual fibres are more readily pulled away from the yarn
- Generally produces pieces with a softer look and feel than other yarns
- When made with fluffier fibres will often have a 'halo' effect, where
- Can be weaker than other yarn, though this can be countered by knitting or crocheting with a tighter gauge.
- Multi-ply - most yarn is made of multiple plies twisted around each other into a single strand. Plied yarns:
- Gain strength with each additional ply
- Have increased density with increased ply count
- Usually show greater stitch definition than single ply yarns
- Cable ply - this type of yarn is made with multiple strands of already plied yarn. For example taking two strands of two ply yarn, then plying them with each other to make a four ply yarn. Cabled yarns:
- Are very hard wearing, and particularly useful for projects that are going to get a lot of use like socks, or the cuffs of cardigans and sweaters.
- Are often described as 'bouncy' or 'squashy' because the way the plies of yarn are spun together.
Unusual Yarn Textures
You can find all manner of fun and interesting textured yarn if you're looking for something a bit different to knit with. For example:
- Boucle - where at least two plies are spun together at different tensions to create loops along the length of the finished yarn.
- Eyelash - looks like a long thread with many long strands sticking out at right angles from it, just like eyelashes.
- Chenille - short lengths of yarn called 'pile' are twisted between two 'core yarns' so that they stick out at right angles creating a soft and fluffy finished product.
- Metallic - some yarns can be spun with metallic filaments running through them to add sparkle to the finished fabric.
- Brushed - brushed yarn has had some of it's fibres pulled away from the plies, giving it a soft, cloudy look
Other yarns have had additional elements like sequins, beads, or even short lengths of ribbon added to them during the spinning process, which can create interesting visual and textural effects.
Size & Weight
A yarn's weight doesn't actually refer to how much it weighs in grams. Instead, it denotes the thickness or the diameter of the yarn. This is important because yarn can be spun into thick or thin plies, and plied in many ways, so it's not always informative to measure the size of a yarn based simply on the number of plies it's comprised of.
That said, as with knitting needles and crochet hooks, different countries have different systems for denoting a yarn's weight. Confusingly, the Australian system uses the term 'ply' to refer to yarn weight, while American yarns have a numbered system. In addition to this, there are common names for each of the weight categories. This can be a lot to wrap your head around, and an understanding of weight differences is something that knitters develop over time. For beginners, the following table is a good place to start:
|Lace, light fingerin, cobweb & thread|
|Sock, fingering & baby|
|Sport & baby|
|Worsted, afghan & aran|
12 to 14 ply, chunky
|Chunky, craft & rug|
20 ply, super chunky
|Bulky & roving|
While there's plenty of room to play and experiment with yarn weights in different projects, certain weights lend themselves most readily to specific projects. For example:
IDEAL YARN WEIGHT (AU)
1 to 2 ply
Scarves and shawls
8 ply and over
Blankets and rugs
12 ply and over
Sweaters and cardigans
8 ply and over
8 ply and over
Doilies and lace
Solid coloured yarn is easy to find and comes in so many colours. Other yarns are 'variegated' or multi coloured, and create different effects when you knit or crochet with them. Some examples include:
- Self striping - when yarn is dyed different colours at intervals that produce stripes in the finished fabric.
- Ombre - yarn is dyed so that the colour changes slowly from light to dark shades of the same hue.
- Heathered or tweed - randomly placed flecks of a different coloured fibre often giving a rustic effect.
All yarns will have a dye lot number printed on their packaging. This is because there will almost always be slight variations in colour between batches of dyed yarn.
If you are working on a larger project and you want to ensure the colour is consistent throughout, it's worth making sure that each ball of yarn you buy is from the same dye lot.
Finally, make sure you also consider your own taste and likes when buying your yarn. Work with the ones that you're drawn to because you enjoy the way they feel, or you like their colours. Enjoying the process and the materials is why we hand make things after all!