If you are me, when you walk into a yarn shop you are filled with great desire to hug all of the yarn. Then, once the initial euphoria fades, you start doing a mental catalogue of yarn weights and colours on the shelves, vis-a-vis what kind of yarn you want to buy and what kind of project it is going to be for. (Or you might just buy yarn not knowing what you’re going to make with it. I hear that sometimes happens).
[These helpful picture frames hang on the shelves at Needles in the Hay, which is think is pretty much the darling-est thing ever.]
Every yarn store is a bit different in how they arrange their yarns, but one thing that is quite common is to see general arrangements by weight (all the sock yarns in one section, all the laceweight in another, etc), or sometimes also by manufacturer (all Noro yarns over here, all Malabrigo yarns over there, etc). Whatever organizational scheme the shop uses is designed to help you access the yarn you need by narrowing it down according to a selective piece of information. Yarn weight matters for the kind of gauge and garment you want to get out of it, so it tends to be pretty common as a way of organizing yarn – many knitters (myself included) also organize their own yarn stashes in this way.
If you’re left to your own devices, however, this is all information that can be gleaned from reading the yarn labels or ball-bands. It turns out these little slips of paper are useful for much more than just holding a price tag or for keeping it contained while you squeeze and squish the living daylights out of the yarn. There is a lot of information contained on yarn labels, and if you are savvy about reading and interpreting this information, you can ultimately have more control over the finished results of your knitting.
I plucked a few skeins of yarn from my stash to help demonstrate this, and I’d like to show you in this post what the key pieces of information are that you should expect to find on your yarn labels and how this can help you in the long run with your knitting. While there is always some form of variation in label information between dyers and yarn manufacturers, you can expect some common ground. In the photo above I’ve got a skein each of (from top to bottom) Green Mountain Spinnery Wonderfully Wooly, Socks That Rock lightweight, Sweet Georgia superwash chunky, and Cascade 220 heathers. The Sweet Georgia and Cascade 220 are going to play along with me here for a close-up visual demonstration below.
Source – Let’s say you pulled the yarn out of your stash from a long time ago, or it was given to you, or you just have no idea what it is or where it came from. The label should tell you both the yarn name and the manufacturer name, and source information for where you can get more. In the current era, it is not uncommon to find a web site or email address in this place.
Yarn Weight – This is probably the first thing a lot of knitters look for. The actual yarn weight is specified by a weight measurement of the skein in ounces or grams (or both), and the number of yards or metres (or both) of yarn contained in the skein. Weight of fiber per yardage amount is, in large part, what determines how thick or thin the yarn is. For example, the Sweet Georgia Superwash Chunky here has 120 yds per 100g skein, whereas the Cascade 220 Heathers has 220 yards (oh look, it’s in the yarn name too! ;) ) per 100g skein. Clearly these two yarns are of very different yarn weights, even though the amount of fibre contained in each skein is the same. However, it’s not just yarn weight that makes a difference for how thick it is, but also the plying method and fiber content, which is why the other piece of information people tend to look at is the gauge.
Gauge – The gauge notation on the label tells us the anticipated number of stitches and rows per amount of fabric, usually over 1 inch/2.5cm or 4 inches/10 cm. The Sweet Georgia reads as 3 to 3.5 sts per inch with 5.5-8mm needles, and the Cascade 220 reads as 18-20 sts per 4 ins with 4.5-5.0mm needles. What this does is give you a ballpark figure to place these yarns in a category according to standardized yarn weight systems – what this says is that if you take the Cascade 220 and knit with it on either a 4.5mm or 5.0mm needle, you are most likely to achieve a gauge of 18-20 sts over 4 inches of stockinette fabric. According to standardized yarn guidelines, this means this yarn is classified as a worsted weight yarn. If your yarn store shelves yarn by weight, it means that it may also be sitting next to other yarns that are also worsted weight, which might be helpful if you’re looking for more ideas for the same project.
It is entirely possible, however, that you could pick up Cascade 220 and achieve a gauge of 18-20 sts by using a needle just to one side of that needle range, say a 4.0mm or 5.5mm needle, depending on whether you happen to be a loose or tight knitter as compared to the average. There is no way the people who print the yarn labels can anticipate all knitterly variation, but they do their best to give you a sense of where the yarn fits on the gauge scale compared to other weights of yarn that exist. If you are less experienced as a knitter, this is the kind of self-knowledge you will gain over time, so the answer is clearly just to knit more. (Heh.)
Fibre Content – both of these yarns are made of wool, but the Sweet Georgia is marked as a superwash wool whereas the Cascade 220 is marked as Peruvian Highland wool. This means, essentially, that the Cascade 220 is ‘regular’ wool and the Sweet Georgia is specially treated wool. Fiber content matters for knowing how the fabric will behave (and I recommend picking up some Clara Parkes reading if you want to know all there is to know on that subject) and whether it is an animal fibre or plant fiber, organic or not, what country it was sourced from if this is known, and so on. This is also closely related to how you should wash the knitted item once it is finished, which is why labels also tend to include…
Washing Instructions – You’ll see the Cascade 220 yarn label includes actual symbols, typical of the symbols you would also find on a garment label. Thankfully, the symbols tend to be the same, so if you don’t know what the symbols on your garment labels mean either, you can look that up and do just fine. Some of this may also be indicated by written instructions for clarity, as the Sweet Georgia label indicates that you can “gentle machine wash cold” and “lay flat to dry” (in other words try not to blast the daylights out of it by shoving it into the machine dryer), and a lot of yarn companies will tell you similar instructions. If in doubt about how to wash it, check the label.
Colour – this is key information if you reach a point in your project where you’ve run out and need to buy more in order to finish. If you have at least the colour name or number (different companies label differently), you can do this very easily. Some yarns will have not only the colour name but also dye lot information, in other words, the batch number of when that particular yarn was dyed. Some times dye lots of the same colour can vary dramatically, so if you can match both the yarn colour AND the dye lot, you are golden.
And that, my dear knitter friends, has been your friendly neighbourhood tour of yarn labels and ball bands. It’s been a real pleasure – be sure to tip your waitresses and try the veal!
Have a great knitterly weekend!