The (K)nitty-Gritty – Yarn

The (K)nitty-Gritty – Yarn

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So now that you know how you’re going to learn how to knit, you need the tools! So let’s get down to it and talk about your knitting supplies: your yarn and knitting needles. Yarn is the most important part of knitting (obviously) – it is your finished product. The type of yarn you choose effects the final outcome of your knitting project. There are so many types of yarn and some are made out of some unusual materials like yak, paper, and even bamboo. So, how do you choose what’s right for your project? In a little bit I’m going to list some of the most popular types of fiber used to make yarn and their properties when knitted. This will help you decide which one to use when considering what type of project you are knitting – a sweater? a bag for your yoga mat? a beer cozy?

Yarn Packaging

But first things first, when you buy yarn it doesn’t always come in a ball. It can be a skein, hank, spool, or ball. Some skeins and balls come so you can pull the end of the yarn from inside the center and it unravels from the inside out. I find this most helpful because the yarn doesn’t roll away every time you pull a little more out. A hank will need to be rolled into a ball, otherwise it will be a big jumble of yarn. You can do this manually or buy a ball winder. And spools of yarn come on a cardboard cone or cylinder and are usually a very large quantity.

Labeled Balls of Yarn

One more thing before we get to the yarn. Each skein (or hank or ball or spool, I’m just going to call them all skeins from now on)comes with a label. This label includes:

  • Color name
  • the fiber content, or what the yarn is made of
  • Yarn weight, the thickness of the yarn
  • instructions on how to care for the yarn, for example whether is is superwash wool or a washable cotton or acrylic
  • the gauge, or how many stitches are in a specific amount of space
  • suggested needle size
  • length of the yarn in yards or meters and weight of the skein, usually in grams
  • Dye lot, usually a number or series of numbers and letters. The dye lot is important because yarn is usually dyed in batches (a.k.a. dye lots)and the color may vary slightly with each dye lot.

The symbols on a yarn label. From left to right: yarn weight, knitting gauge and suggested needle size, crochet gauge and suggested hook size, washing and drying instructions

Types of Fiber

There are several different types of fibers that yarn is created from and these fibers are often blended together to form a stronger/softer/more elastic yarn. Here’s a list of the most popular fibers that yarn is made of and the properties to consider when choosing them for a project:

  • Wool – Wool is spun from sheep’s fleece and is especially durable. Wool stays warm even when wet and has great elasticity. Wool’s elasticity is great for beginner knitters to use because mistakes are less visible and the yarn is more forgiving. Since wool is a great insulator, it can even help you stay cool in warmer weather. However, wool shrinks easily when exposed to too much heat, moisture and/or friction.
  • Merino Wool – This is similar to normal wool except that the Merino sheep has exceptionally soft wool that creates a softer, slightly more luxurious yarn. Shrinkage does occur with merino wool as it would with normal wool.
  • Mohair – This yarn comes from the Angora goat. It is lightweight yet warm and insulates well. However, it is not as elastic as wool and can easily stretch. For this reason Mohair yarn is often blended with nylon or wool to provide more elasticity.
  • Alpaca – This yarn is soft and can be warmer than wool. It is also hypoallergenic so if somebody is allergic to wool, Alpaca yarn is a great alternative.
  • Cashmere – This fiber comes from the Cashmere goat in China. The fleece is combed from the goat’s belly before it is spun into yarn. Cashmere is exceptionally soft and stretchy. Because it is so expensive, cashmere is often blended with other fibers to keep the cost down.
  • Silk – A fine, strong yarn is created from silk. It is not elastic at all and is usually blended to add properties it lacks.
  • Cotton – This yarn dries quickly, stays cool and is easy to wash. However, cotton stretches easily and shows flaws and mistakes. Cotton is often blended with acrylic yarn or wool to increase elasticity and add softness.
  • Linen – This fiber is strong, washable, and stays cool. Linen does wrinkle easily and tends to be on the stiff side. It is usually found in blends to allow for more softness.
  • Acrylic – Acrylic yarn imitates wool but does not insulate the same way wool does. Acrylic yarn is heat sensitive and can melt if ironed and steamed at a high setting. It is inexpensive and sometimes blended with natural fibers.
  • Nylon – Polyamide is a strong, durable fiber. Like acrylic yarn it is heat sensitive and is usually used in blends to reinforce other yarns.
  • Rayon – This fiber is softer than cotton and does not melt under high heat. However, it does scorch and is not resilient. Rayon is most commonly found blended with cotton.

Here are four examples of different fibers so you can see how their properties differ:

FiberLabeledThe Nylon Acrylic blend looks the smoothest and is definitely the softest of all these blends. The wool and wool cotton blends have slightly more texture but knit up nicely. Finally, the bamboo yarn has a shine to it and feels the least like “yarn” but is definitely a cool fiber to use in knitting.

Yarn Weight

How this a yarn is spun determines its weight. A yarn’s weight can effect the outcome of a project in several ways: how long or wide the finished product will be, the how heavy the project is, the size of the stitches, among other characteristics. The weight of the yarn usually helps determine what size needles you want to use. A thicker yarn would call for larger needles. The needle and yarn combination determines the gauge of your knitting. This will be discussed in the next section.

This chart from the Craft Yarn Council summarizes yarn weights and gives great details about gauge and recommended needles:



A yarn’s gauge determines how many stitches and rows are in a  given amount of space. Usually gauge is measured in 4 inches x 4 inches or 1 inch x 1 inch squares. Patterns usually provide you with a recommended gauge in order for your finished product to be the correct size. To determine gauge you should knit a swatch in the stitch pattern of your project. Once your swatch is large enough to determine your gauge, you can count the stitches in 4 inches and rows contained in 4 inches. If your gauge does not match your pattern you needle the change needle sizes and try again until you’ve found the correct gauge.

Sometimes gauge is extremely important, for example when knitting garments. And I probably shouldn’t be saying this but other times gauge is less important like for a blanket or other projects that aren’t worn. To be honest, I get lazy and I don’t check my gauge when knitting things that won’t be worn.


And that’s the (k)nitty gritty on yarn. Phew! That’s a lot to remember (and type!). But after you begin knitting these things really come natural when considering a project or pattern. If you are knitting gifts its good to remember these few rules to make something really special that will last. Another great resource is Crafty’s Know Your Yarn class if you prefer watching videos.

Next up, needles!


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One thought on “The (K)nitty-Gritty – Yarn

  1. Pingback: The (K)nitty Gritty - Knitting Needles | Peggy and Pierre

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