The Ultimate Guide to Yarn

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Woman holding balls of yarn

Yarn is one of the most versatile fibers on the planet. What else can you use to make necklaces, bracelets, cozies, sweaters, pants, and countless other clothing and household items? Although sometimes figuring out which yarn is best to use can be a bit of a headache.

Luckily for you, I’ve put together the ultimate guide to yarn. In this guide, I’ve included everything I’ve learned about yarn and the fine art of crafting with interlocked fibers. Read on to find out about yarn in all its glorious forms!

Types of Fibre Content

There are many different types of yarn. Below, I’m going to touch on the three main varieties of yarn; animal, plant-based and synthetic yarn. Familiarizing yourself with the differences is useful because each yarn type has its respective advantages and disadvantages and are better when used in certain contexts. 

Animal-Based Yarn

As the name suggests, animal-based yarns are those that are derived from animals. These yarns are typically used in the production of knitting and crocheting textiles. Often, animal-based yarns are harvested from the fibers of alpaca, sheep’s wool, or silkworms. Let’s take a look at the benefits of each of them.

sheep in the evening sun
  • Alpaca Yarn: Alpaca yarn is ideal for sensitive consumers or knitters who have adverse reactions to lanolin, because this fiber type does not contain lanolin. Rather, alpaca yarn is hypoallergenic and is warmer than sheep’s yarn.
  • Sheep’s Wool Yarn: Sheep’s yarn is a dense and insulating material that provides additional warmth, which makes it ideal as a fabric for making winter clothing. Merino wool and lopi wool are both water-resistant, which makes them useful for making athletic clothes. 
  • Silkworm Yarn: Moth caterpillars and silkworms produce silk for their cocoons, which can be threaded to form a delicate yarn. 

Plant-Based Yarn

There are several classes of plant-based yarn which are vegan-friendly and more environmentally sustainable options than their animal-based counterparts. Generally, plant fibers are considered durable and soft, which makes them excellent choices for knitters who want to minimize their carbon footprint. Below are some of the most common varieties of plant-based yarn.

cotton plant buds
Cotton Plant Buds
  • Hemp yarn: Industrial hemp has little to nothing to do with the cannabis plant and the psychoactive substances for which it is known (THC and CBD). Rather, hemp yarn contains no narcotics and is a durable textile that is highly renewable since it requires minimal pesticides and fertilizers. 
  • Linen yarn: Linen yarn involves a relatively complex process of “retting” the plant stalks to divide them and intertwine them. Since the production process is labor-intensive, linen yarn tends to be more expensive than standard yarns. 
  • Cotton yarn: Cotton fiber yarns are extremely popular and are often categorized as Egyptian, American, or Pima cotton types. Compared to other varieties, cotton yarn is longer and softer and can be dyed any color. 
  • Bamboo yarn: Bamboo yarns are short and can be harvested while keeping the plant alive, which makes it highly renewable. These yarn varieties are tough and durable and are eco-friendly because they require very little water to grow. 

Synthetic Yarn

There are three main synthetic fiber-derived yarn varieties. These yarns are not made of plant or animal materials, but are industrial in nature and are sought-after for their water-resistant properties and high level of durability.

  • Polyester yarn: Polyester yarn is used primarily in the construction of clothing, furniture, and wearable items. Often, polyester is combined with cotton or wool in the making of clothing for added durability and comfort.
  • Rayon yarn: Rayon yarn is partly made of plant material but is refined with semi-synthetic materials and is often used in chemical manufacturing. Making rayon yarn requires an intensive chemical treatment which makes it synthetic.
  • Nylon yarn: Nylon yarn is a popular yarn variety for clothing and the manufacturing of consumer goods, which became popular in the post-war economy as a silk alternative.
Yarn in Bowl with Knitting

Buying Yarn

When you purchase your yarn it can come wrapped in a ball, a skein (oblong) or a hank (loosely wound large circle that’s been twisted). Balls and skeins are often what you find in stores and come ready to knit, although skeins can lose their shape and become more at risk of tangling so many folks like to wind them into a ball first. Hanks always need to be wound into a ball before you can use them, and this job is made a lot easier with a yarn swift. You may find your yarn is only available in hanks, particularly if it’s of high quality.

Weight Categories

The thickness and material variety of a piece of yarn determine its weight. How light or heavy your yarn is will have a significant impact on the look and feel of your knitting or crochet. The heavier (and bulkier) the yarn, the faster you can stitch a single one-inch knit. For those of us who like to see lots of progress the chunkier the better!

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Source: Craft Yarn Council’s www.YarnStandards.com

Here’s a rundown of the main categories of yarn and their most common uses. 

0 (1ply)

Lace is a one-ply yarn that ranges in size from zero to one on the US needle sizing chart. This type of yarn is used in lace knitting for clothes and requires as many as 10 stitches to create a one-inch stockinette.

1, 2 and 3 (2-5ply)

Superfine yarn, or “baby-weight” yarn, is any yarn that corresponds to sizes one to three on the US sizing chart. These yarns are used in the creation of socks and other small, thin garments. Superfine or fingering yarn requires about eight stitches to create a single inch of stockinette.

4 (8-10ply)

Medium yarn (8 ply = DK and 10 ply = Worsted or Aran) is a yarn that uses sizes three to six US sizing chart. Yarns with a medium weight are used in the creation of most clothing items, including scarves, socks, blankets, hats, and many outdoor clothing pieces.

5-6 (12-14ply)

Bulky or super-bulky yarns are between 12 and 14-ply they require a size 13, 14, or 15 US needle. It requires roughly two stitches to create a single one-inch stockinette stitch. These yarns are used to manufacture rugs, sweaters, and other heavy and bulky items.

We’ve made this handy tool to help you identify the size needle you’ll need for both US and UK sizes. But if you prefer to look up the sizes in a table here’s the data that sits behind it:

[supsystic-tables id=3]

Wraps Per Inch

If you have a bunch of yarn but don’t know it’s weight, then there’s an easy hack that you can use to figure out its weight without any special tools. 

To measure your yarn’s weight and thickness, begin by wrapping the yarn around a pen or pencil without making it too tight. You don’t want any strands of yarn to overlap, but you also don’t want to leave any holes or gaps between them. Wrap at least once inch of yarn around the pencil. 

Once the yarn is securely wound around the pencil, count the loops around the pencil per inch. Then, compare the number of loops around the pencil to the following sizing chart:

  • 0 (Lace yarn): 35 wraps or more
  • 1 (Superfine yarn): 19-22 wraps
  • 2 (DK weight yarn): 15-18 wraps
  • 3 (Worsted yarn): 9-14 wraps
  • 4 (Bulky yarn): 7-8 wraps
  • 5 (Super-bulky yarn): 6 or fewer wraps

Ply and Twist

As you probably already know, yarn is composed of interlocked single strands also known as “singles” that come together to form a stronger, thicker piece of yarn. When strands are twisted in a single direction, they form a “ply.” 

You can get a sense of how thick a piece of yarn is by its ply count. A piece of yarn that has 5 plies spun together, for instance, is a 5-ply yarn which, if we refer to the breakdown listed above, corresponds to medium thickness.

When it comes to yarn and quilting, a twist holds the yarn singles together in a tight bind. The thinner the yarn material, the more twists will have to be performed to keep the yarn intact. In other words, thin yarns like silk require more twisting than bulkier yarns.

There are two main types of yarn twists. Below, we’ve explained the differences between “S” and “Z” style twists. ‘

  • Z Twist: The “Z twist” is the more common type of spun yarn, in which the filaments on the yarn appear to run downward in a diagonal “Z” shape when held vertically.
  • S Twist: The “S twist” is the inverse of the Z twist in which, when held vertically, the filaments of the yarn appear to form an “S” shape running downward and to the left. An S-plied yarn is used in the Western method of knitting, whereas the Z twist is primarily used in the Eastern method.

Yarn Dyes

Several types of dyes are used in the manufacturing of yarn. It can be difficult to keep track of all the technical terms thrown around in the production of yarn, so we’re going to explain the difference between the three main yarn dye varieties below.

Blue Yarn

Synthetic Dyes

A synthetic dye is one which is typically used on synthetic yarns such as polyester or rayon. These dyes are colored before they are spun if they have no dye lot on the skein of the yarn. Dyes that are synthetic do not derive from plant or animal sources are often not environmentally sustainable. 

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes are those that are derived from plants and other organic sources. Often, natural dyes are manufactured with additives sourced from flowers, seeds, and herbs. Natural dyes are usually consistent in color and shade and have little variance in the colorways. Synthetic dyes, such as acrylic dyes, are usually more powerful than natural dyes and produce a brighter, more engaging color.

Hand Dyed

Hand-dyed yarn is a highly sensitive type of dye that, as the name suggests, is dyed by hand and not by mechanical processes. Hand dyes are generally more expensive than traditional synthetic or natural dyes, and usually produce a more detailed dye that is consistent across the colorway.

Common Fibres (Uses and Care)

As we’ve touched on to this point, there are many kinds of yarn fibers. For each yarn type, there are a plethora of uses. What may be an ideal application for one yarn variety may not be suitable for another. Below, we’re going to touch on each of the various types of yarn fibers and explain their uses. 

Wool

Raw Wool

Wool yarn comes in four varieties: fine, medium, long, and coated. These varieties of yarn are excellent options for winter clothing because they insulate heat very well and tend to last many years without degrading. This yarn type is also a common choice for crafters who want to make household goods or artisan items with yarn textiles.

Perhaps the most common use of wool yarn is Merino wool, which is used to treat warm and water-repelling clothing. It’s a small wonder, then, why so many hikers, cyclists, and runners seek out Merino yarn-spun clothing to keep them warm in the winter and cool and in the summer. 

It’s also worth noting that most wool varieties, including Merino and Shetland wool, are partially fire-resistant, unlike all other types of yarn. The downside to wool yarn is that it can be itchy to some people, especially if they have allergies.

Good for: Athletic wear, scarves, gloves, hats, socks, base layers

Mohair 

Angora Goat Flock

If you want a wonderfully soft and plush type of yarn, look no further than mohair fibers. Mohair yarn is a natural yarn sourced from the hairs of the Angora Goat that reflects light, resists water, and is relatively tough. Mohair yarn has many similarities with Merino wool because it is often used in winter clothing due to its insulating properties.

Mohair yarn can be used all year round for clothing because it’s light and comfortable without overheating you in the summer. However, mohair yarn is less abundant than other forms of natural yarn and is, therefore, more expensive for consumers. Consequently, mohair yarn is used in the production of many luxury goods. 

Good for: Summer and winter clothing, luxury goods

Cotton 

Cotton yarn is exceptionally soft and is grown in hot climates all over the world. This breathable material is strong and doesn’t break down easily, which makes it one of the most common fibers used in the manufacturing of clothing and furniture. 

There is a wide array of cotton yarns, including superfine and bulky options. The versatility and variety of cotton yarns make it highly sought after by quilters, knitters, and crafters the world over. No matter what you want to make with cotton yarn, there’s probably a variety of cotton yarn that will satisfy your needs.

Before knitting with cotton yarn, note that cotton can absorb many times its weight in water. It’s not a great option for anything you would take to the beach or use outside frequently since it will become soaked in the rain. 

Good for: Amigurumi

Cashmere

Cashmere is a soft wool variety of South Asian origin. Cashmere is extremely thin and is finer, in fact, than even the hair on your head. Given how lightweight and fine cashmere fiber is, it’s generally recommended that only experienced knitting or crocheters use fine cashmere in their crafts. Cashmere is a natural fiber sourced from Cashmere Goats. 

Good for: Soft indoor clothing such as slippers and socks 

Angora

Angora Rabbit on Straw

Angora yarn is a luxury fiber that is light and warm to the touch. This yarn type is commonly used in the making of scarves and mittens of fine quality. This yarn is animal-based, as it is sourced from the hair of the Angora rabbit. Angora fibers are roughly 14 micrometers (yes, micrometers) in diameter, which makes them super fine.

Good for: Making luxury superfine outerwear

Rayon

Rayon yarns are a synthetic yarn that is widely sought-after for its bright colorways and artistic appearance. As a synthetic fiber, rayon is usually inexpensive and can be used to teach beginners how to stitch or quilt.

Good for: Beginners’ stitching or quilting projects

Nylon

Nylon yarn is made with synthetic polymers, which makes it ideal for dying, shaping, and augmenting to suit your creative vision. This yarn type is very soft and inexpensive, which makes it a great substitute for silk. However, it is thinner and lighter, which makes it a less advisable choice for winter clothes and other outerwear.

Good for: Women’s clothing and handkerchiefs

Silk

Silk yarn comes in two distinct varieties: spun or reeled. These yarn types are slippery but are beginner-friendly because they’re strong and shiny. You can combine silk yarn with Merino wool or cashmere to create wonderful blends that feel incredible on the skin.

Good for: Summer clothing and durable household goods

Alpaca

Alpaca under White Sky

Alpaca yarn is a natural fiber that is very thick and warm, which makes it commonplace among knit sweaters and scarves. This variety of wool is sourced from American Alpaca, which roam in South America and have a furry and soft coat. Alpaca yarn is smooth and not itchy, and is slightly warmer than traditional wool.

Good for: Making water-repellent clothing and stuffed animals

Polyester

Polyester yarns are synthetic fibers that are often mixed with wool or cotton to form a soft and durable blended yarn. These yarns are bulkier than most natural varieties of yarn and are therefore suitable for novice knitters who want something a bit more substantial with which to work. The comfort and durability of polyester, and its relative affordability, make it a desired yarn type that is often used in the production of clothing.

Good for: Novelty craft goods, crochet blankets

Merino

Merino wool yarn is a natural yarn type that is hydrophobic, which means it repels water. Therefore, Merino wool is a sheep’s wool that is commonly used by athletes and outdoor adventurers to keep their bodies warm and dry in the rain, or merely to wick away sweat. 

Merino wool maintains the user’s temperature, whether hot or cold, making it a desirable textile in the making of clothes.

Good for: Athletic clothing and base layers

Acrylic

Many knitters use acrylic yarns because they are cheaper than many natural alternatives. These yarn types are machine washable, brightly colored, and can be used by amateur quilters and crafters to create beautiful and plush crafts. 

Acrylic yarn is suitable for multiple dyes to create multicolor yarns and holds up well when exposed to oils, direct sunlight, and chemical treatment, which makes this yarn type last longer than most others. Plus it’s much more forgiving in the washer/ dryer.

Good for: Entry-level crafting projects for beginners, outdoor decorations

Wool Blend

Wool blend yarns are blended combinations of wool and other types of yarn. Usually, wool blends are combined with other natural fibers, such as silk or cotton. However, many crafters like combining wool with acrylic fibers to create a more colorful project. Try a 50/50 blend of wool and any other yarn type to add softness and thermal retention to your yarn.

Good for: Knitted scarves, mittens, and hats

Understanding the Label

When you buy yarn from a store, you’ll notice that it’s bound in a paper label. Although few novice quilters or knitters read the label, it’s good to  know how to read the labels of yarn products so you can decide if it’s right for you. Below, we’ve listed the various elements of yarn labels and how to decipher them. 

  • Fiber content: The top of the label lists the type of fiber used in the yarn (e.g., Merino wool, acrylic, wool blend, or polyester blend). 
  • Weight: The label then lists the weight of the yarn in ounces and grams (e.g., 199g/7.1oz).
  • Amount: The amount of yarn is often measured in meters or yards (e.g., 350 yd). 
  • Care instructions: The care section advises the user how to wash or launder the yarn. A triangle symbol represents bleaching, a miniature iron represents ironing, and a circle symbol represents dry cleaning. Any “X” through any of these icons means that you cannot bleach, iron, or dry clean a garment made with this yarn. 
  • Suggested needle and hook size: The gauge symbol on the label is a picture of two crossed needles, which lists the US size directly below is. A single hook symbol represents the desired US hook size (e.g., 8 US, I-9, respectively). 
  • Dye-lot number: The dye lot number (e.g., 450), denotes the exact color of the yarn. If you’re matching two identically-colored yarns, ensure that their dye lot numbers are equal. 

Wrapping It Up!

Who knew there was so much to learn about yarn?! Whether you’re a newcomer to the art of crocheting, or you’re an expert looking to teach a crash course in knitting, this is the perfect resource for you. So, what are you waiting for? Get started today using wool blends, synthetics, silks, cottons, and more to make beautiful yarn creations of your own. 

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