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Frequently asked questions about the stringy stuff hanging from needles and hooks
This document was written by Wendy Chatley Green in 1995.
- What can be used as yarn?
- Almost anything; if it is flexible and able to withstand the act of being
wrapped about needles or hooks then someone has worked with it. The Whole
Earth Catalog mentions a woman who crochets tents and canopies from nine-track
- What makes a good yarn?
- This differs from knitter to knitter, from crocheter to crocheter, and from
vendor to vendor. For most people, a good yarn is affordable. Yarn that is
too expensive is always bad yarn; it is also damp yarn because people who can't
afford it drool on it.
In truth, the type of project determines the type of yarn. Ragg yarn, a thick
yarn made from one ply of shoddy and two plies of wool, makes a great warm
sock but a terrible lace tablecloth. Cobweb Shetland makes a flimsy Aran
sweater but is perfect for an heirloom shawl. Wool will drive an allergic
person to distraction but some people hate the feel of acrylics. Some natural
fibers will felt and become weatherproof; others are poor insulation.
- I don't understand any of this. What's a ply and those other thingies?
- Let us start with some basic terminology.
- the strings and filaments of which yarn is made.
- fibers processed into a strand long enough to work.
Whatever the yarn is worked into is fabric, whether it is woven, knit,
crocheted or processed by another method.
- Most yarn is made of plied material. A ply is a twisted strand. If the
twist is a firm one, the yarn will be fine; if is too firm, the yarn "kinks."
If the twist is loose, the yarn is soft, thick and a bit less hardy.
The number of plies in yarn has nothing to do with thickness. A yarn made of
four firm plies may be thinner than one made of two loose ones. That having
been said, yarn strength and evenness depends on the number of plies. Yarn is
usually plied (the act of twisting the twisted strand together) in the opposite
direction of the individual strands. This corrects the tendency of the yarn to
slant as it is worked. A sweater made from a firm, multi-ply yarn knit with a
small gauge might survive generations of wearers.
Unplied yarn is a hunk of wool that has been stretched out a little. Roving,
a fluffy bulky yarn with no twist, is an example of this. Sweaters made of
roving are fragile and tend to pill.
- Yarn comes in fine, medium and heavy. Fine is often referred to as
'fingering' or baby yarn. 'Sport' or 'jumper-weight' yarn is thicker than
Extra-fine yarns are used in lace-knitting. Some of these are spun as thin as
a human hair. A shawl made of this wool might weigh only two ounces but
contain 6,000 yards of yarn.
"Worsted" is the term used for what most people think of as sweater yarn but
worsted is actually the term for a yarn whose fibers were combed before
spinning. This sweater name is more properly called 'double-knitting' in
England and 'Germantown' in America.
Heavy yarns are thick ones meant for large needles. Bulky and chunky are
- Virgin and other terms:
- Virgin fiber is fiber that has not been knit, woven or worked
Shoddy is yarn or fabric made from scraps; obviously, it has been worked
beforehand. Since it does not wear well, its name is used to describe anything
Felt is what happens when wool shrinks and mats together; the action is
Pills are little matted balls that form on sweaters. They happen as the
soft yarn rubs against itself and the fibers tangle.
Knit-alongs are yarns knit with the main yarn in a fabric. They do not
affect the gauge of the pattern but add strength, color or pizzazz.
Gauge is not a fiber term. It is the number of stitches per inch the yarn
gives when knitted. Although the size of the yarn is a factor, needle or hook
size and the tightness with which the yarn is worked also determine gauge.
[Editor's note: "gauge" is known as tension in the UK.]
Hand is how a yarn feels.
- How is yarn made?
- Some synthetic yarns (nylon, polyester, etc.) are made by forcing hot
material through tiny holes--picture meat through a sausage grinder, but on a
smaller scale. Metallic yarns come from sheets of aluminum or other metal
combined with a polyester film and cut into filaments. Wool and cotton, the
traditional materials for yarn, are spun into yarn.
Before spinning, the fiber is cleaned, untangled and carded (brushed smooth
and straight.) Some fiber are also combed, which further straightens them and
sorts them by length. Bundles of these fibers are drawn slightly into
'slivers;' if they have a slight twist to them, they are called roving. Fibers
are pulled from the roving and twisted into plies. Twisting these plies
together produces different weights and types of yarn.
- Now can I ask what kinds of yarn are available?
- Okay--what kinds of yarn are there?
- Animal fibers:
- Wool as far as I'm concerned (and I'm the one writing this FAQ,) wool is
fiber from a domesticated sheep. Wool accepts dye well, is flame-retardant by
nature, remains warm even when wet, sheds water better than other yarns.
Natural wool should be hand-washed. 'Superwash' wool has been treated to allow
machine washing. Wool will usually resume its proper shape when washed
correctly; if it is mistreated and washed in too-hot water, it will shrink or
- Mohair is fiber from an Angora goat. Mohair is durable, sheds dirt, dyes
and does not felt easily. Despite its hardiness, it is usually spun into yarn
used for fluffy garments and scarves. This yarn is abraded, roughing its
fibers to create that 'fuzzy' look.
- Angorais fiber from rabbits. Fabric made from this yarn is inelastic (no
stretch), very fluffy, soft and warm. Contrary to a belief popular in the
1950s, a Angora sweater does not increase the size of one's bust.
- Silk is the fiber produced by silk moths. Silk knitting yarn is made from
damaged silk cocoons and broken fibers. 'Raw' silk still has the original moth
secretions in it. 'Tussah,' silk obtained from wild moths is brown. The food
fed to domesticated moths determines their silk's natural color; this can
white, green or yellow.
Silk retains heat, absorbs moisture, pills less than wool, is very strong and
very stable when knit, neither shrinking or stretching.
- Cashmere is fiber from the undercoat of a Cashmere goat. It
is so expensive because only a few ounces are obtained from each goat per
year. It is such a delicate yarn, more fragile than wool and more
susceptible to abrasion, that it is usually blended with wool to make it
- Camel is fiber from the two-humped or Bactrian camel.
Camel hair cannot be bleached, so it is either used undyed or dyed a darker
color. It is lightweight and fragile.
- Vicuna comes from the vicuna, a South American relative of the camel.
They are rounded up once a year and shorn like llamas or sheep; their hair
is finer than any other animal fiber.
- Alpaca is a smaller relative of the llama but its hair is more
commercially valuable. Yarn from this fiber does not felt or pill easily. It comes in
fifteen natural colors (as do the alpacas) and is denser than wool, so fabric
knit from it may droop. The undercoat of a llama is very similar to alpaca
Two places on the Web to find out more about alpaca are AlpacaNet and
Chase Tavern Farm Alpacas.
- Qiviut(kiv-ee-uht) is included here because it is a wonderful Scrabble
word; the fiber itself is very hard to find. It comes from a musk ox and resembles
pale gray cashmere but does not shrink.
- Cottonis the fiber surrounding the seeds in a cotton pod. Usually white
but there are green and brown varieties. Cotton is heavy, dense and inelastic;
although it will regain its shape after washing, its ability to do so decreases
over time. It is comfortable to wear in a cool climate but not a hot one (the
opposite of wool) and is slow to dry once wetted. It makes a weaker yarn than
silk or linen but is stronger than wool.
- Linen comes from the flax plant. It is durable and stronger than any other
fiber. Fabric made from it becomes softer and more beautiful with age. It
absorbs moisture better than cotton and dries more quickly, making it more
comfortable to wear than cotton in hot temperatures. It is easier to wash than
wool and does not stretch or shrink.
- Ramie is made from nettles (as in the Fairy Tale "The Swan Princes," where
their sister had to gather nettles and spin them into yarn.) It is often used
as a substitute for linen since it is less expensive but shares linen's good
- Rayon is a fiber produced from natural ingredients by artificial means.
Cellulose from wood pulp or cotton is treated chemically until it may be drawn
into filaments. Rayon is a weak fiber but it is absorbent, dries quickly, and
stretches (although it does recover some when dried in a automatic dryer.)
- Nylon is lightweight, strong, elastic, resists abrasion, does not stretch or
shrink (except at high temperatures,) and is easy to wash. It is usually combined
with wool to impart its strength and elasticity to the wool. Pure nylon is
available as a 'knit-along' to strengthen sections of a garment that will
encounter wear, such as elbows and sock heels.
- Polyester is the most common type of synthetic fiber. Fabric made from it
retains its shape. It adds strength and resilience to natural fibers.
Polyester is very easy to wash and is more comfortable to wear than many other
- Acrylics are the most common synthetics in knitting yarns. They are
resilient, moderately strong, somewhat inelastic, feel good to the hand and are light in
weight. Acrylics are easily made to imitate natural fibers so they are sold as
alternatives to wool. However, acrylics cannot wick away moisture from the
body so their warmth diminishes when wet. The fiber burns readily unless
treated and will shrink in moist heat. Acrylics are often used to achieve
novel textures and characteristics that are not available with natural
- Metallics (described above) are best used as a 'knit-along' with another,
- This explains the different kinds of fibers but it does not tell me why
some yarn is smooth and some is bumpy.
- Please rephrase your response in the form of a question.
- How would you like me to release some moths in your yarn stash?
- Okay--I can take a hint.
The length and quality of the fiber in a yarn determines its texture, luster,
strength and hand. Yarn made from long fibers will pill less, be smoother,
stronger, more lustrous and more elastic. Yarns containing a mixture of fiber
lengths are softer, fuzzier and less strong. Tightly twisted yarns display the
texture of a knitted pattern to its best advantage. Fuzzy yarns obscure a
but are warmer and cozier, although they wear less well and often shed like a
St. Bernard in a Georgia summer.
'Novelty' yarns are ones with an unusual texture, color or appearance that
comes through differences in its ply sizes, the combinations of its fibers or
some variation in its spinning.
Slub yarn has a textured, lumpy surface. It has a smooth ply and one that
was spun unevenly, which creates 'slubs' or lumps in the ply. Crepe yarn has
tiny bumps. Boucl&ea; yarn has its smooth ply so tightly twisted that it curls
around the slub ply.
Roving, mentioned above, is loosely spun wool. It is a weak yarn and can pull
apart while being knit. Once made up, the fabric itself holds the fibers
together; although warm, the fabric will pill, abrade and does not wear well.
'Eyelash' or 'fur' yarn has long filaments grouped along its length.
When the yarn is knitted, these filaments stick out from the fabric and give it a furry
The following are not yarn but can be knit like yarn.
- Chenille is cut from a specially woven fabric. It twists while being knit
because it has no oppositely-twisted plies to counteract the twist imparted by
the knitting. It sheds from its cut edges.
- Ribbon yarn is just that: thin ribbon used for knitting. Although most
knitters let the yarn twist as it may, fine ribbon-knitting keeps each stitch
as flat and smooth as possible.
- Strips of fur -- see chenille
- Leather thongs -- see ribbon yarn
- Crochet cotton, string and rope
- Anything else that can be wrapped around a needle or hook.
- You used that last line in the first paragraph. Does that mean this FAQ
is all wrapped up?
Knitting for dolls |
Emily Way (email@example.com)
Last updated March 22, 1999