Choosing the perfect yarn for your knitting or crochet project can be a difficult task given all the choices in your local craft store. Do you want worsted or super bulky? Acrylic or wool? And what's with all those novelty yarns that look like feathers or ribbons, or have little flowers or other shapes woven into the thread?
This guide will help you decide the best yarn to buy no matter what you're planning to make.
The first issue to consider when buying yarn is its weight. Weight refers to the thickness of the yarn and there are six main categories, ranging from super fine to super bulky.
Superfine is also known as sock yarn, fingering yarn or baby yarn (some baby yarn is fine, which is slightly thicker than super fine). It is often used for lightweight items like socks, baby clothes and lace or decorative trim. Fine yarn (also known as sport yarn) is slightly heavier but used for many of the same applications as super fine.
For light garments (or heavy socks) lightweight yarn is a popular choice. Also known as DK (for double knitting) or light worsted weight, this yarn is perfect for light sweaters, tank tops and light throws.
Worsted weight (also known as medium) is probably the most used weight of yarn. The biggest variety of yarn can be found in this weight, and it's great for heavier afghans, sweaters and accessories like shawls, ponchos, pillows and handbags. There are many different color and texture variations in worsted weight yarns, so you can get many different looks from the same weight of yarn.
The next-heaviest yarn is bulky (or chunky). As the name implies, this is a heavy yarn great for scarves and hats, sure to keep you warm on the coldest of days. It's also used for making rugs and in other craft projects. And the heaviest yarn, super bulky (sometimes confusingly referred to as bulky weight) is wonderful for baby blankets, winter accessories and chunky sweaters.
The thicker the yarn, the fewer stitches per inch and the faster it is to knit up. If you want a quick project, make a scarf out of super bulky. If you want something slower paced and more challenging, make some booties out of super fine yarn.
Yarn is made up of all sorts of fibers today, from cotton and wool to acrylic and silk, mohair and exotic fibers like cashmere and pashmina. Depending on where you shop, you may only find cotton, wool and acrylic yarn.
Many knitters love wool and will use little else. It is an incredibly versatile fiber and can be spun in different ways that make it good for cool weather and warm weather alike. Most wool yarns these days are not as itchy as the sweaters you might remember from your younger days. Some yarns are sold under the name of the breed of sheep they came from. The most notable of these is merino wool, which comes from a long-haired sheep and makes a fine, warm, luxurious yarn.
Wool is wonderful when you want warmth, and it is great for hiking socks because it can hold a lot of water. But wool can also shrink in warm water with agitation, so it can't be laundered by machine. Superwash wool has been chemically treated to resist felting, so it can be washed by machine.
Cotton is another incredibly versatile yarn, good for all sorts of projects from fisherman's sweaters to accessories. Cotton is heavier than wool and does not hold its shape very well when stretched.
It is usually relatively inexpensive and is widely available in many different colors, weights and textures. Cotton is much more washable than wool, but it can shrink as well if washed in hot water.
Some die-hard knitters turn their nose up at acrylics, but these fibers have come a long way. There's still nothing natural about them, but they more closely mimic some of the natural fibers these days. The upside of acrylic is that it tends to be inexpensive and is machine washable. It's great for baby gifts because the new mother doesn't have to worry about how to care for it.
Acrylic yarn comes in a dizzying array of colors, textures and weights. It can be a lot of fun to work with because acrylic can do things that natural fibers can't do. Many of the novelty yarns are acrylic, and these yarns are a lot of fun to work with for a scarf, handbag or other fun accessory.
Other Types of Yarn
There are many, many other kinds of yarn available online and from local retailers, made from such fibers as:
All have different properties and are good for different purposes. The best way to learn about yarn is to experiment with different types of yarn and see what happens. Also make friends with the owner of your local yarn shop or with a knowledgeable knitter who can give you advice on the best types of yarn for the projects you want to do. Looking for knitting patterns online is also helpful because the patterns will suggest a yarn. You don't have to use that yarn, but it will give you some idea of the best yarn for that type of project.
Reading the Label
Luckily, yarn labels give knitters and crocheters lots of useful information. Somewhere on the label you will find a strip of symbols that tell you the weight, gauge and washing instructions, if only you know how to decipher them.
The weight symbol shows a drawing of a ball of yarn and will include the words for the weight and the number (one through six) for that weight (a ball of fine yarn, for example, will have the word fine and the number two).
Next to that you will find two squares that describe the average gauge of the yarn. Gauge refers to how many stitches and rows fit into a knitted or crocheted square using a certain size needle. Measurements will be in inches and centimeters and include the American and European sizes for needles.
It's a lot of information in a small space, but it's useful information. If you find a yarn that knits up to 15 stitches and 22 rows in a four-inch square on size eight needles, and you know that matches the gauge of the pattern you want to knit, then you've found a yarn you can use. This data allows you to substitute a different kind of yarn for the one used in a pattern.
Next to that you will find care instructions. The universal symbols for fabric care are used on yarn, so if you understand those, this part will be easy. A drawing of a washtub represents a washing machine. Water drawn in the tub indicates that the yarn is machine washable, and the temperature noted in the symbol will tell you what temperature water can be used (usually 40 degrees represents cool water while 100 means it's OK to use hot water).
If the tub is crossed out, machine washing is not recommended. Next to this symbol is a square with either a straight line or a circle drawn inside. A straight line means you should dry the finished product flat, while a circle means you can dry it in the machine. Sometimes yarn will also have care instructions in words, but it's valuable to know how to interpret the symbols just in case.
In addition to standard fiber yarns, the market is flooded with all sorts of so-called novelty yarns, from eyelash yarns (think feather boas) to yarns that vary in thickness along the thread and "yarn" made entirely of ribbon.
These yarns are fun to work with and work particularly well as trim on a more conservative piece or as an accessory. If you've never worked with these types of yarns before, look for a product that offers a free pattern on the inside of the label and try that before you start devising your own uses for the yarn.
A Warning About Dye Lots
Many projects require more than one skein (or ball) of yarn. Most yarns are dyed in batches called dye lots, and each batch is given a unique number. When you're buying yarn for a big project, especially if you're new to knitting or crocheting, buy more than you think you'll need and check that the dye lot number matches on all the skeins you buy (just because they come from the same store at the same time does not mean they have the same dye lot).
The dye lot number is usually printed in black on the label near all the symbols. Some yarn companies offer inexpensive (usually acrylic) yarns with no dye lot, meaning each skein should match all the others. It's not the highest quality yarn, but it is good for practice. In no time you'll be ready to explore all the strange and wonderful fibers out there without fear.
Choosing the "Right" Yarn
The perfect yarn for your project is going to depend on a lot of different things, such as:
- What "season" are you knitting this item for? A heavy wool will be better for winter clothes, while cotton, rayon, and other light yarns are preferred in the summer.
- Will this item get a lot of use? If you want to be able to machine wash it, that will limit your choices.
- How much am I willing to spend? If you're on a budget, luxury fibers like cashmere will be out of the question, but there are many nice yarns that don't cost a bundle.
- Do I love this yarn? You should really enjoy the yarn you want to work with. If you don't like the color, the feel, the weight, or anything else about a yarn, don't buy it. The whole point of knitting is to make wonderful items for yourself, your family and your friends, so if you aren't passionate about the raw materials, it isn't worth doing.