Overwhelmed by yarn choices? Let’s look at yarn by fiber, weight, ply, and color to find the right types of yarn for your knitting.
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As many knitters know, buying yarn is its own separate hobby. Sometimes you see a skein of yarn and you just have to have it. But what actually goes into different yarn types for knitting and what do you need to know about it before you cast on your stitches?
I’ve been knitting for over ten years and have learned the hard way how choosing the wrong yarn can ruin the final project. On the other hand, the right yarn can help make your knits shine. Learn from my mistakes and find out how to match the best yarn for each knitting project.
What we’ll cover
Checking your yarn label
The first thing you should do when you are considering a certain yarn is to read the yarn label! It is the fastest way to get a quick overview of that yarn. Fiber content will be listed to let you know what the yarn is made of. There will be yardage (or meterage depending on where you are located) which can indicate what weight the yarn is if you aren’t sure. There are usually instructions for how to wash and care for items knit with that yarn. You can even get information on how the yarn was plied or dyed. Even though it may seem obvious, don’t underestimate the power of the yarn label.
I have a bad habit of losing my yarn labels after I wind a skein of yarn into a ball. Later when I am trying to remember what kind of yarn I have I don’t have all of that information anymore. To help prevent this, you can fold up a yarn label and put it into the middle of your wound ball. That way it will stay with the yarn and you will always know what you are working with.
Fiber is the catch-all phrase for what the yarn is made of and you can find yarn made out of just about anything. The material the yarn is made from has a big impact on how the final project will turn out and how it will react in certain circumstances.
Yarn fibers can be broken down into two main categories: synthetic fibers and natural fibers. You can also find fiber blends, which can come in any number of combinations. There are strengths and weaknesses to each and you will have to decide what will work best for your knitting.
Synthetic fibers are artificial fibers like polyester, acrylic, and nylon that can be spun into yarn. Most knitters work their first stitches with synthetic yarn and it really is a great place to start.
Acrylic yarn and other synthetic fibers have a bit of a bad reputation that I do not think is entirely deserved. Some knitters will even refuse to work with it. There are plenty of reasons to use synthetic yarn and all knitting is beautiful.
When to use synthetic fibers
There are a lot of places you may want to reach for synthetic yarn instead of wool. Synthetic fibers are very strong and will not break easily so they work well for bags or household decor like pillow covers or blankets. They are also much easier to care for since they don’t felt or shrink when washed. If you like to gift knit, synthetic fibers may be a good choice since you won’t have to pass along extensive care instructions with the knitted item.
Synthetic fibers are usually the most budget-friendly which is a very real consideration for people. If you have any kind of sensitivity or allergy to animal fibers, synthetic fibers are a great choice for you as well.
Synthetic fiber drawbacks
There are of course times when synthetic fibers may not be a great choice.
The quality of synthetic yarns can vary widely. Some feel very plastic-y, scratchy, and generally not very nice, but there are plenty that are lovely to work with and wear. When you are looking for synthetic yarn I recommend touching it yourself if at all possible to make sure you like the way it feels.
You also wouldn’t want to use synthetic yarn for anything that could get hot, like hot pads or trivets for your kitchen, because it will melt.
If you like to knit intricate lace patterns that require blocking you may not want to choose a synthetic yarn. These yarns will not block well, so the lace pattern will not look as nice as if you used wool yarn.
There is also an ecological consideration. Synthetic yarns are not biodegradable, they are essentially plastic, so they can have a bigger environmental impact than some other fibers.
Natural fibers cover a wide range of options. To help simplify things, I will break these down into two groups, plant fibers and animal fibers.
Plant fiber yarns are just what they sound like, yarn made from plants. Even though these yarns share this fundamental similarity, they can have different uses in knitting.
Cotton yarn is strong and sturdy when compared to most other fiber choices. It will hold its shape and not stretch or warp very much. This makes it a great choice if you are knitting things for your kitchen, like washrags, dishcloths, and hot pads. It also holds up well for things like pillow covers or decorations. Personally, my favorite thing to do with cotton yarn is crochet earrings.
When it comes to garment knitting, cotton is great for warm weather items, like a lacy cropped shirt or knitted tank top. Cotton can be a good choice for sweaters if you have allergies to wool or other fibers.
For garment care, hand-knit cotton items will wash like other cotton clothing, so you don’t have to worry about felting the way you would with wool.
Linen yarn isn’t the most common fiber for yarn, but it is a great option for summer knits. It is light and breathable and can have a lovely drape. It can hold up to heavy washing and gets softer with time. If you can get ahold of some linen yarn, it is definitely worth a try.
Processed Plant Fibers
You may find yarn with fibers like rayon, tencel, or viscose. These are all variations of highly processed plant fibers that have been broken down until they can be made into yarn.
These yarns are great to work with. They are generally very soft and have a bit of a sheen to them. They are not difficult to care for and are usually available at an affordable price.
Animal fibers make up a large quantity of what yarn is made out of. If you are new to the knitting world or yarn world in general, you may be surprised to find out just how many animals you can make yarn out of!
By far the most common animal fiber you will find in a yarn shop is sheep’s wool. Wool is sheared off of sheep yearly, like getting a haircut. Then it is sorted, washed, spun, and sometimes dyed to become yarn.
Wool has some very useful qualities. First of all, it is a renewable resource, the wool grows back every year to make more yarn! It is also a warm fiber, and will even keep retaining heat if it gets wet.
There is a massive list of different breeds of sheep that can have their wool turned into fiber. Many yarns will only list “wool” on the label, especially the bigger brands. You can easily find Merino wool yarn. Merino sheep are very popular for their very soft wool, which makes very soft yarn. You may also see breeds like Blue Faced Leicester (often shortened to BLF) or Romney. If you are interested in learning about different features of wool from different sheep breeds, I highly recommend The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius
Another term you will see in conjunction with wool is superwash or SW. This means the wool has been treated so it is easier to care for. You can even throw superwash wool in the washing machine, but I still wouldn’t put it in the dryer.
When to use wool
Wool yarn is extremely versatile and can be used for just about anything you can think of to knit. From socks to hats and everything in between, there is a place for wool.
Unlike synthetic fibers, wool fibers block very well. Blocking is when you take a finished item, give it a bath, lay it to dry nicely and so everything is spread out so it looks neater when it dries. This is very important when doing any lace knitting.
Depending on the features of the wool and how it is spun, wool yarn can be anywhere from coarse and scratchy, to soft and luxurious. Some people are very sensitive to wool and cannot have it next to their skin no matter how soft it is. If you find you don’t like wearing wool yarn try using it on outer layers, like sweaters and jackets.
Another common animal fiber yarn you can find is alpaca. Much like sheep wool, the fleece of an alpaca is cut off like a haircut before being processed into yarn.
Alpaca fiber is one of my favorite fibers to work with. It is super soft and warm and finished projects have a lovely drape. Alpaca is less likely than wool to make people feel itchy when they wear it. You still want to treat finished garments gently and hand wash and air dry anything you knit out of alpaca fleece.
I love to use alpaca yarn for drapey sweaters and extra cozy scarf or slouchy hats. Keep in mind, alpaca yarn tends to stretch while you wear it, and plan accordingly when you choose a knitting project.
Silk yarn is spun from the cocoons of silkworms. Yarn made from silk is very beautiful; soft, shiny, and, well, silky.
This fiber is not as common and will be more expensive, but it does have beautiful results. Use silk yarn when you would like to knit something extra special.
Cashmere and Angora
Angora and cashmere are both incredibly soft fibers that make luxurious yarns. Cashmere fibers come from a particular breed of goat that is so soft. Seriously, touching cashmere is like touching a fuzzy cloud. Angora comes from long hair rabbits and is also super soft and will have a bit of a halo around the yarn that gives a very soft look to anything you knit with it. Whenever I get my hands on one of these yarns I immediately want to rub it on my face.
Both of these yarns can get very expensive, so it is not an everyday sort of yarn. These should be used for a special project that you will treasure and treat with care.
Mohair yarn is a specialty yarn spun from the coat of an Angora goat. Yes, you read that right, Angora goats do not make Angora yarn, they make mohair!
Mohair is usually spun thin (we will get into yarn weights a bit later) but will have a thick halo of soft fibers sticking out around the yarn that gives it a distinct look.
Mohair can be difficult to knit on its own. Because it is so fuzzy it can be difficult to see the individual stitches and if you find you’ve made a mistake it can be almost impossible to undo your knitting and fix it.
It has been very popular lately to knit sweaters using two strands of yarn at once, with one yarn being mohair. This gives a soft effect to the knit, but it is a bit easier to work with than mohair on its own.
There are so many animals whose fleece or fur can be used to make yarn. Alpacas aren’t the only camelids that make beautiful yarn, llamas and camels are too. Yaks can make a super warm yarn. This makes sense because they live in very cold climates. I’ve even used yarn made from the down of special possums from New Zealand!
If you start looking into handspun yarn, you can find even more variety. There are even people who will spin yarn from their dogs!
There are an endless number of ways yarn makers will combine different yarns to use fibers with different qualities to bring out the best of different fibers. There is no way I could cover every possible fiber combination, but here are a few common ones and where you might want to use them.
Wool + synthetic
It is very common to find yarn that is a blend of sheep wool and synthetic materials. This combination brings out the best of both worlds. You get strength and easy care qualities from the synthetic fibers and warmth and block-ability from the wool.
You can find different ratios of synthetic to wool, some will be more synthetic, while some will be more wool. Sock yarn will often come in a 75% wool and 25% synthetic combination. This helps keep the socks from wearing out quickly and makes the socks easier to wash.
Wool + Alpaca
You can often find alpaca fleece mixed with sheep wool. This combination strikes a good balance between the softness and drape of the alpaca with the strength and lightness of wool. You can use this kind of yarn in most places you would use wool yarn or alpaca. It’s great for sweaters, hats, mittens, scarves, and shawls. This is a very versatile yarn but can feel more luxurious than wool alone.
Cotton + Linen
Another common fiber combination is cotton and linen. Being both plant fibers this combination makes sense. They are both easy-care fibers that are light and breathable. This combination is perfect for summer knits.
One thing you will quickly notice when you visit a local yarn shop or look through the yarn section of any large craft store is that not all yarns are the same thickness. How thick a particular yarn is is what knitters refer to as the yarn weight.
Bulky Weight Yarn
Bulky weight yarns are the thickest yarns you will find. They are big and chunky and great for winter items and quick knits. You’ll often see hats and mittens that call for bulky weight yarn.
Worsted Weight Yarn
This is the classic size yarn. If someone asked you to think of yarn, you would most likely be picturing worsted weight yarn. You can tell if the yarn you are looking at is worsted if it is around 200 yards per 100 grams.
This yarn is very common and versatile. You can use it for just about any kind of knitting project. Sweaters, hats, and blankets all work up great in worsted yarn.
DK Weight Yarn
DK stands for double knit. Double knit weight yarn is very close to worsted weight, but slightly thinner. It’s not quite as common as some of the other weights. You can use DK weight yarn for just about any project you would use worsted weight yarn. The final result will be slightly lighter than if you had used worsted weight. If you are following a pattern that calls for worsted weight yarn and you want to substitute a DK yarn, be sure to check your gauge with a gauge swatch first, especially if the fit is important.
Sport Weight Yarn
Sport weight yarn is in a bit of a weird spot and can be tricky to find. It is not as thick as worsted but not as thin as fingering. You can spot a sport weight yarn because it will be around 300 yards per 100 grams.
Even though this size of yarn doesn’t get as much love as other yarns, it is still a useful choice. You can knit extra cozy socks or a not-too-thick, not-too-thin sweater.
Fingering Weight Yarn
Fingering weight yarn is the classic weight for socks. It is about half the size of worsted weight yarn, so it will be around 400 yards per 100 grams.
Whenever I walk into a local yarn shop I am immediately drawn to the fingering weight section. This is my go-to yarn. I have knit so many things with fingering weight yarn: socks, mittens, shawls, sweaters, and hats.
I like using fingering weight yarn because it is so versatile and you can complete small knitting projects like hats, socks, or small shawls with only one ball of yarn. It is also a popular yarn for small yarn dyers, so you can find all kinds of beautiful options.
If I am looking to gift a fellow knitter with a special skein of yarn, I will always reach for a fingering yarn. I know I can always find something extra special that will still be enough for a knitting project.
Lace Weight Yarn
Just like the name implies, lace weight yarns are some of the thinnest yarns you can find. You can get 800 or 900 yards per 100 grams! Lace weight yarn will knit up into a very delicate fabric. I like to use it for, well, lace knitting, especially intricate shawls or scarves.
Knitting with lace weight yarn is not for the faint of heart. It is extremely fine and delicate and if you get it tangled, it can take hours to straighten out. You can’t deny, though, that buying lace weight yarn is great bang for your buck. There are even some sweater patterns you can finish with just one skein of lace weight yarn!
If you pick up a piece of yarn and look closely you will most likely see that a single piece of yarn is made up of multiple strands twisted together. How many strands make up a yarn is what determines the ply of a yarn.
Single ply, as you might have guessed, means there is only one strand making up the yarn. These yarns can be very soft, but they will not be as strong as a yarn with more plies. Some single ply yarns can be extremely delicate and break apart easily. They are also more prone to pilling, which is when little balls of yarn build up on the surface of your fabric. Single ply yarns can be great for sweaters, hats, or shawls, but I wouldn’t use them for socks, which can get worn out easily.
After single ply, you can find two, three, four, or more ply yarn. Four ply yarn is very common for commercial yarn. If you are curious about how many plies your yarn has, you can untwist a small section until you can see the individual plies.
When I look at yarns I am always amazed by how many colors and patterns that can be created on yarn. I am not a dyeing expert, but I do have a lot of experience shopping for yarn and these are some of the broad categories I have found.
Not all yarn has been dyed. Natural fiber yarns can come in an array of whites, oranges, browns, greys, and blacks, depending on the source they came from. There are even varieties of cotton that grow in different colors and don’t need to be dyed! I am always amazed at the rainbow of yarn that can be made without using any dye at all.
Solid dyed yarns are all one uniform color. Any color you can think of, you can find in yarn. Solids can be great if you want to show off a particular stitch or lace or cable pattern and you don’t want a multicolored yarn to distract from it. Solids are also great for doing colorwork knitting like Fair Isle or Intarsia.
The color of tonal yarn is almost solid, but there will be sections slightly lighter or darker. You can use a tonal the same way you would a solid yarn, but there will be more variation to give a bit more interest to the color.
Heathered yarns are some of my favorite yarns. From a distance, heathered yarns will look like a solid. When you get in close, you can see an array of colors that come together in a beautiful effect. It is like the yarn equivalent of a Monet painting.
There are a lot of small, independent yarn dyers who are making absolutely gorgeous yarn colorways. They are multicolored and the color is layered in beautiful and unique ways and there are speckles of color throughout.
It is so hard to resist these yarns when you see them. They are eye-catching and fun to work with. They also come with fun names based on what the colorways are inspired by.
One more fun way yarn can be dyed is self-striping. Self-striping yarns have large chunks of yarn in one color, then it will switch to another color after a while. When this yarn is knit, it will create stripes without the knitter having to switch yarns. I love using self-striping yarns to knit fun socks!
And so much more…
This was just scratching the surface of all the types of yarn you can find for knitting. There is an endless number of combinations of fiber, weight, ply, and coloration. This limitless variety is what makes yarn and knitting so much fun. There is always something new to discover. So next time you are at your local yarn shop, have fun squishing some yarn and try something new!
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What is your favorite type of yarn to knit with? Let me know in the comments below!