Types of Knitting Yarn: The Materials & The Colours
Knitting needles and yarn are the vital ingredients of any project. In fact it’s quite amazing what you can make from what are essentially a couple of sticks and a piece of string!
Photo by Cheryl.
When you're a beginner knitter and just practising your skills, there is no need to worry about the yarn you are using - so try not to be put off by the overwhelming choice. And when you do start following patterns, you will nearly always have a yarn recommended to you anyway, so you won’t need to choose your own without guidance.
Once you get used to knitting, you will feel more and more confident about picking out different yarns you want to try, and even substituting yarns of different weights into a project e.g. a pattern may recommend a medium weight yarn but you want to use a bulky yarn instead, so you would need to alter the pattern and needle size you are using to accommodate the change. This is a wonderful opportunity for more advanced knitters to show creativity and put their own spin on a pattern.
The type of yarn you pick is only really important when the finished knitted item must be worn or has some practical use. For instance, durable cotton is excellent for washcloths, whilst wool would be a bad choice, and any scratchy type of yarn would be a poor option for a sweater or scarf. Mainly, though, it’s a matter of how the yarn looks (colour, pattern) and how it feels (you’d want a very soft yarn for a baby blanket for instance).
Yarn is available in a range of different ‘weights’. The weight of a specific yarn is not how heavy the ball of yarn is (e.g. 50g) but is instead a number referring to how fine or bulky the strand of yarn is. The higher the yarn weight number, the thicker (bulkier) the yarn, and the chunkier the knitting.
A bulkier yarn results in a lower knitting gauge (less stitches per inch of knitting), whilst a fine yarn results in a higher gauge (more stitches per inch).
When first looking at what yarns to buy, the most confusing part for me was figuring out what yarn ‘weight’ to knit with. If everything was merely numbered depending on the weight, life would be easier, but alas; there are different names for yarn weights whether you live in the U.K., the U.S. or elsewhere. The worst thing about some of the names is that they don’t seem to correlate to the yarn and don’t give any clue to what yarn weight they represent. Double knitting (DK) yarn? Sport yarn? Confusing!
As with anything though, it is easy when you are used to the names. Here is a chart which sets out all of the different names for the different yarn weights, as well as common uses for each weight:
(Medium weight is the most common weight.)
As mentioned above, it is possible to substitute one yarn weight for another within a project, as long as you think about how the change will affect the end result - changing the size of the needles you're using, and/or altering the number of stitches in the pattern, to compensate.
For example, if a pattern says to use worsted weight yarn but you choose to use bulky yarn instead (without altering the pattern or needle size to compensate), then the end result will be denser. This is because you are using a bulkier yarn with a needle size originally chosen to be used with a finer yarn. The resulting knitted item would also be larger in size than if you had used the recommended weight of yarn. This may not matter in some projects where size isn’t important, but it will obviously matter if the project is for wearing - because the end result won’t fit. You would therefore need to alter the pattern, most likely in addition to using a larger needle size.
The point I am trying to make with this (not very succinct!) example is that you are best using the yarn weight that’s recommended to you in the knitting pattern unless you really know what you are doing, because changing yarn weight can change the end result quite drastically.
If you are after a looser knit, an alternative to using a finer yarn weight is to just switch to larger needles; and if you want a denser/tighter knit, you could just switch the needle size to a smaller diameter instead of increasing the yarn weight.
Beautiful handspun yarn by Star Athena.
This yarn incorporates a variety of materials including merino, recycled sari silk, nylon and mohair.
Popular Yarn Materials
There are many materials that yarn can be made out of, although there are a few that are much more commonly used than others. The following list shows you a selection of options:
- Wool: This is the material you probably thought of immediately when considering the yarn to knit with. Wool is the traditional choice, and is popular; especially for knitting sweaters. Wool is warm, cosy, absorbent and breathable, and also lasts a long time if you take good care of it. It’s also reasonably stretchy and has a good drape (drape = how it hangs on the body).
Wool is lovely to work with I think, but bear in mind that it can shrink (if not washed carefully) and is quite fuzzy; no crisp lines are going to be achieved with wool like you could get with something like cotton. It’s also relatively expensive to buy.
The most common wool by far is made from the coats of sheep. There are different types of wool yarn available which have slightly different textures and/or properties depending on the type of sheep it came from and how it was processed. Examples of different wool yarns include lamb’s wool, merino wool, pure new wool and Icelandic wool.
Yarn can also be made from the hair/fleece of other animals such as goats (Mohair and Cashmere yarn), rabbits (Angora yarn), and alpacas (Alpaca yarn). These are very soft yarns, but expensive - especially in their pure form.
- Acrylic: This is a man-made material (compared to wool which is natural), and supplied either as 100% acrylic or as a ‘blend’* where acrylic is combined with another material such as wool.
It’s usually the best value choice and good for beginners on a budget. It’s durable and reasonably warm (although not as warm as wool) and is easy to wash. Quality matters when choosing acrylic yarn because some can be quite rough whilst others are soft. There is quite a difference between the best quality and the worst. Therefore, if you can go into a yarn shop and feel the yarn before you buy it that would be the best way to find a yarn you like.
- Cotton: With regards to knitting garments, cotton can be a good choice for more summery options, as it has a good drape and is light, cool and breathable. Cotton is also absorbent (and therefore a good choice for washcloths), plus it has good durability and is easy to wash.
Cotton doesn’t have much stretch though, so it (obviously) wouldn’t be a good option for making anything stretchy, such as a ribbed hat, and it’s also harder to hide mistakes and inconsistencies when knitting with cotton (so may present more of a challenge for beginners).
Other yarn materials you may see include linen, bamboo, rayon and silk.
* ‘Blends’ are where 2 or more materials are blended together into one yarn. The resulting yarn then includes the attributes of all of the materials within it. For example, a wool/nylon blend is often used for socks because wool is warm but not particularly durable, and nylon adds durability to the mix.
An acrylic/wool blend is popular due to it being less expensive than wool whilst still retaining advantages of wool, and the acrylic content means that the yarn is easier to wash and a bit more durable.
One confusing thing is that even though two balls of yarn may be the same weight and material as each other, if the yarns are provided by different brands, they can still differ slightly despite identical content on the label. Some yarns are better quality, some are stronger, some are softer etc. so try and take a close look at the yarn before you buy it, and if you can’t, try and find reviews on the internet for different brands.
How Are Yarns Made?
Yarns are made from either natural or synthetic fibres, which are ‘spun’ together into long strands. Natural fibres include wool, linen, cotton and silk, whilst synthetic (man made) fibres include acrylic, polyester and nylon.
The technique of ‘spinning’ twists the material into a long, continuous strand. If you are crafty-minded you could learn to spin as well as knit – which would enable you to create EXACTLY the colour, texture and pattern of yarn you want all by yourself! I love handspun yarns because they can exhibit so much creativity and are totally unique. Unfortunately I can't buy them often because they are expensive, but they are so nice to look at!
What is Ply?
When fibres are spun together, they form single strands of yarn; also called ‘singles’. Usually, single strands are not used to knit with, but instead 2 or more single strands are twisted together to form a ‘plied’ yarn. A plied yarn can consist of 2 singles (2-ply yarn), 3 singles (3-ply yarn), 4 singles (4-ply yarn) or even more singles twisted together.
The more plies there are, the smoother, stronger and more durable the yarn is. With more plies also comes more definition in your knitting work, whilst fewer plies create a softer, more rustic look.
The number of twists also changes the yarn properties; the more twists, the tighter the yarn is ‘plied’, and the stronger the yarn. Click here for more detailed information about plies.
The only way to know how a yarn will look when knitted is to knit a sample (just a square shape). It would also be useful to wash this sample to check how the yarn reacts to being washed. Yarn with more plies generally is harder wearing and withstands washing better. Fewer plies means the yarn could become fuzzier or looser when washed. But I’m afraid you have to test it to find out for sure!
Unfortunately, there is a bit of confusion caused by labelling a yarn with the number of plies it has, when referring to yarn weight. In some countries, the ply of a yarn does refer to the weight (as can be seen on the yarn weight table above) whilst in other countries the ply has nothing to do with yarn weight! A 4-ply is not necessarily bulkier than 3-ply, for instance.
Ply is/was a traditional measure of yarn weight but there is such variation in yarn nowadays that it's best to use a different measure such as the 0-6 scale or the yarn description e.g. sport weight, bulky weight etc. to identify the weight of yarn.
Yarns are occasionally left undyed, but usually they are coloured with natural or artificial dyes.
Most yarn is dyed in batches, and each batch is referred to as a ‘dye lot’. If you look on the label of a ball of yarn you will probably be able to find a number on there which refers to the specific dye lot of the yarn. All yarn with this particular number printed on it was dyed at the same time, in the same batch.
All yarn labelled as the same colour e.g. ‘royal blue’, and made by the same brand, is of course dyed with the same dye, however it is very difficult to get the shade spot on in every batch and there can be a slight variation between batches.
This is why it is recommended that you buy enough yarn for a knitting project all in one go, from the same dye lot. Otherwise, if (for example) you buy 5 balls of royal blue yarn for a project and then find you need another ball to finish, it may be difficult to find yarn from the same batch, which matches exactly. This can create a subtle but sometimes quite annoying colour variation in your knitting project.
So always make sure you have enough yarn and it’s all dyed in the same batch.
How Do I Know How Much Yarn to Buy?
Most patterns will tell you how much yarn to buy to complete the knitting project, but if you need to work it out yourself, have a look at these resources to help you out:
Remember it’s better to overestimate than underestimate!
Novelty ribbon yarn photo by **tWo pInK pOSsuMs**.
Different Types of Yarn, Including Colour & Pattern Variations:
Not only are there plenty of yarn materials and weights to choose from, but there are also many more aesthetic variations available too.
Novelty yarns and handspun yarns are two categories you may come across:
- ‘Novelty’ yarns: These are created to add a fun element to your projects. These yarns can be furry, velvety or can incorporate unusual textural elements such as bumps, loops or pieces of ribbon. This makes them harder to knit with, however they can liven up an otherwise plain piece of knitting.
I’d recommend not using novelty yarns when you do any fancy knitting techniques or knitted textures, because any details you go to the effort of creating will be lost within the ‘busy’ look of the novelty yarns. However, when you are a beginner and are only perhaps using plain garter stitch or similar, a novelty yarn can make your knitting look a lot more interesting (and can hide mistakes well!)
- Handspun yarns: These yarns are usually expensive but I love them, especially the artistic ones with a variable texture along the strands. The best thing about this type of yarn is that it is spun and dyed by hand, and is therefore unique and made with a lot of care. Different colours and patterns are nearly always incorporated into this type of yarn.
There is also textile yarn, which is not a common type of yarn, but you may come across it at some point. Textile yarn is made from strips of fabric (such as jersey). You could make some jersey yarn yourself quite easily from old t-shirts if you wanted to!
You can get extra creative with what you use for 'yarn' if you like to experiment; in fact you can use strands of almost anything as a yarn substitute if it's flexible enough. This includes many different cords, as well as fine wire or strands of wool roving. You can have lots of fun trying out different ideas!
How could you resist this yarn?!
Variegated handspun yarn photo by Shine.
Then there are even more descriptive terms that you may come across, which describe how colour and pattern are used within the yarn:
- Solid: This is where the yarn is just one colour. This type of yarn is best if you want to show off textural details and patterns within your knit, such as cables or bobbles.
- Semi-solid: This is where the yarn is one main colour e.g. green, but there are sections of the yarn that are different shades i.e. lighter and darker greens. These are subtle colour variations.
Photo of semi-solid blue yarn by Jiva.
‘Variegated’ is the term used for yarns which have colour variations along the length of the yarn and therefore aren’t just one single, solid colour. The following are examples of variegated yarn types:
- Gradient: This is a term applied to yarn that has long sections of different colours, or shades of one colour, which blend into one another where the colour changes. Self striping is an example of a gradient yarn.
- Ombre: Yarn that slowly changes between light and dark shades of a single hue.
Ombre hat by Saxarocks.
- Tweed: This yarn is mostly one single, solid colour, however there are also flecks of another colour throughout. This is usually subtle, and I think these yarns look very sophisticated.
- Heathered: Different coloured fibres are spun together into one yarn to produce a random colour pattern.
- Colourway: This is a multi-coloured yarn where two or more different colours are present. The colourway often has a creative name such as ‘Cherry Blossom’ or ‘African Sunset’ to describe the colours used.
Yarn photo by Chanala.
This yarn has an 'Industrial Age' colourway.
- Marled: Where the yarn is made from different-coloured singles twisted together i.e. the plies are different colours.
- Self-patterning: Almost always used in sock making, this type of yarn allows you to produce patterns within your knitting without even changing yarns or doing any advanced technique at all. I really think they’re so clever, and if you ever start knitting your own socks you should definitely check these yarns out.
One type is the ‘self-striping’ yarn which creates stripes in your project without you going to the effort of swapping yarn colour! The colour of the yarn simply changes every so often. I’ve also seen some amazing self-patterning yarns which are designed to be used with a particular knitting pattern, and when you follow this set pattern, images emerge within your work. I’ve seen some fun examples of this, including socks with Santa Clause faces all over. These yarns are excellent for keeping you entertained whilst you knit, because you can just watch the patterns slowly emerge as if by magic!
All of these yarn types allow you to really get artistic with your knitting, and can produce some wildly impressive results (with not much added effort usually!)
Photo of self-striping yarn by Breibeest.
For beginners who are just learning the ropes and are a long way off making garments (which are the projects where the yarn material is particularly important), acrylic, cotton or acrylic/wool blends are good choices:
Cotton is smooth and inexpensive, and is durable against wear. Good for things like washcloths, doilies, pot holders and dish towels.
Acrylic is also inexpensive and durable and can be used for a wide range of projects. Acrylic is often chosen for craft-type projects, whereas cotton is often the choice for more practical household uses.
Acrylic/wool blends are more expensive but I think are nicer to work with because they have benefits of both wool and acrylic. If you don’t have a tight budget, then this is the yarn I would go for.
In terms of weight, go for light (3/DK) or medium (4/worsted/aran) weight.
Whichever yarn you pick, make sure you personally like the look and feel of it, because then you’re less likely to get bored of it after staring at it for hours!