Yarn 101

One of the things I love about knitting is that it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. While some folks can be perfectly happy making scarfs from worsted weight yarn into their old age, others will want to branch out.

If you plan on branching out, you’ll need to learn a few things about yarn. Every skein or ball of yarn comes with an informative label or “ball band,” that tells you things like washability, weight and yardage, but that label doesn’t tell you much about that yarn in the grand scheme of things until you have some context. That’s what I’m here for.


First, let’s look at the major properties of yarn and then break them down into what the beginner needs to know.

  • Material – What is the yarn made of? What kinds of materials work best for specific types of projects?
  • Weight – How thick is the yarn? What does that mean for what I want to make?
  • Ply – How many strands are twisted together to comprise the yarn? Why do I care?

There are many more properties of yarn, such as twist and grist, but we’re going to focus on these to start.


I must admit to a strong bias in favor of wool. What do I love about wool? It’s lovely to the touch, it has great insulating properties — even when wet — and it comes in a vast array of textures, weights and colors. I know what you’re going to say: “I don’t want to hand wash,” and “wool is itchy.” I am ready with counter arguments.

Washing wool garments is easy, with hardly more active time than switching over a load from the washer to the dryer.

  1. Fill a sink with luke warm water.
  2. Shut the water off and add a dollop of wool wash (Eucalan is a good brand. You want it to say “no rinse.”)
  3. Add the garments to the water, let them sink down on their own and leave them there for about 20-30 minutes while you attend to other matters. To avoid fulling or felting the garment, don’t make the water too hot, don’t run water directly on the fabric and don’t wring it out. If the item is particularly soiled, give it a few squeezes while it’s soaking.
  4. Drain the water from the sink and gently squeeze as much water out of the garment as you can, then roll it up in a clean bath towel, squeeze again, unroll it and lay it flat to dry.

See? No big whoop.  Even I can do it and I loath laundry. You can also buy “super wash” wool, which is machine washable, but even that should be hand washed if you’re looking for a long life for the knitted garment.

As for the itchiness, it’s a thing of the past. Wool used to be itchy largely due to the chemicals used in the wool scouring process. Those chemicals are not used anymore. Very few people are actually allergic to wool, as it’s largely composed of the same chemical components as human hair and fingernails. That said, different breeds of sheep produce different wools and some wool is courser than others. Also, if the yarn is spun in such a way that a bunch of ends are sticking out, that can cause a bit of scratchiness. If you’re sensitive, try merino wool, it’s ultra soft and lovely.

Other than wool, some of your options are:

  • Luxury animal fibers such as angora, mohair, cashmere and alpaca. Once you develop some knitting chops, I highly recommend splurging for a small project made of luxury fiber or a blend of wool and luxury fiber. Angora and alpaca are particularly warm.
  • Cotton. Great for summer knits.
  • Bamboo.  Soft and silky without being silk.
  • Silk. Quite lovely on its own, or blended with wool.
  • Linen. Like cotton, great for summer knits and has nice draping properties.
  • Synthetics. Washable. Great choice for gifts for folks who you know won’t hand wash. Great blended with wool to strengthen high wear accessories like socks. They also do all kinds of crazy fun novelty yarn with synthetics these days.


For practical purposed, the term “weight” refers to how thick the yarn is. Beginners are often confused by all the terminology surrounding yarn weight. There’s lace weight, baby weight, fingering weight, sock weight, dk weight, worsted weight, aran weight and bulky weight. And I know I missed some. As a beginner, here are the weights I’d concentrate on first:

  • Sock weight. Thin yarn for making socks.
  • Worsted Weight. Medium thick yarn great for a wide variety of projects from mittens to sweaters to blankets
  • Bulky weight. Thick yarn good for knitting up quickly and making really warm things.

The most crucial piece of information you need to know is that each weight has a recommended needle size and gauge (in the US) or tension (in Canada). This simply refers to the number of stitches in given measurement of knitted fabric (such as stitches per inch or per 100 centimeters).


If you want to make a garment from a pattern someone else wrote, and you want it to end up the same size as the pattern, you must achieve the same number of stitches per inch as the pattern writer. If the pattern calls for worsted weight yarn and size 8 needles, it’s really a recommendation. The important part is the gauge. Four stitches per inch may mean size 8 needles for you, but size 6 needles for me. No two individuals are going to naturally knit at exactly the same gauge. This is why you need to measure. No sense pouring hours of work into something that will end up the wrong size. Unless you need a good cry.

To check your gauge, you should knit a swatch. For instructions on swatching and measuring gauge, check out this article at knitty.com.

For beginners, I always recommend starting with worsted weight yarn. It’s not too thick and not too thin.

When you want to start getting down in the weeds on yarn weights, knitpicks.com explains it pretty well.


Ply refers to how many strands of yarn that are twisted together to make the final yarn. You don’t need to worry too much about this when you’re starting out, except that you want to avoid any multi-ply yarn that is very loosely plied, as it will have a tendency to split and frustrate you while you’re still learning. The other thing to know is that ply does effect the look of the knitted fabric. A single ply yarn looks almost slightly slanted in a stockinette fabric. A multi-ply yarn doesn’t. [sample pictures]

So there’s your crash course in yarn. There’s plenty more to learn now that your interest is piqued. You can start at yarn section of Ravelry.com. Ravelry is an amazing treasure trove of knitting and crocheting patterns and information. Create a free account and start exploring.

I’m sure you have questions, so hit me.

By the way,  the topic of needles will be covered in another post soon (and I will convince you that circular needles are the bees knees).


  1. Carol Anne says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. I was clueless about yarn. Glad to know how to wash the wool too. I was afraid of it.
    And never even considered that I’d needed to measure my stitches. So much to learn!

  2. I like the idea about rolling the garment up in a clean bath towel to help drying. That’s a great tip that I’ll definitely be giving a shot!

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