Friday, April 07, 2006

Why I hate the new "standard" yarn chart

Earlier this week, I talked about yarn classification, the big picture of how yarns are organized, looking at thickness, gauge and weight. I forgot to mention one of the best ways to get a feel for this: browsing through the Patternworks catalogue. Apart from being decent yarn porn (although it used to be, believe it or not, much much better before the sale to Craft-o-Conglomerate), it's very nicely organized from biggest yarns to smallest. You'll get a feel for which of your favorite yarns fit where in the grand scheme of things.

Traditionally, certain shorthand names have been given to the categories of yarns. I've made a little chart to show you most of the ones I've seen or heard, and to demonstrate how I think of yarn classification in my head.

Like any set of guidelines, there are always exceptions, so consider this a way for you to conceptualize things. I've also added some anachronistic and international terms, which you may see when using a vintage or non-US pattern. If you should need to substitute a yarn, the starting point is this chart. Due to popular demand (I love it when you beg me), I'm going to talk about yarn substitution at length (or do I mean "ad nauseum"?) in another post, but finding where the specified yarn falls on this chart is the starting point to finding a good substitute.

Within the past few years, the Craft Yarn Council, or whatever the hell it's called, prepared its own "Standard Yarn Weight System." Their website grandly states:

The publishers, fiber, needle and hook manufacturers and yarn members of the Craft Yarn Council of America have worked together to set up a series of guidelines to bring uniformity to yarn, needle and hook labeling and to patterns, whether they appear in books, magazines, leaflets or on yarn labels. Our goal is to make it easier for consumers to select the right materials for a project and complete it successfully.

Here's what their chart looks like:

Now I will be the first to say that there is some valuable information in the chart. It lists number of knit stitches in stockinette stitch (over four inches); recommended needle size; number of crocheted stitches in single crochet; and recommended crochet hook size. But I still hate it. It's really counter-intuitive to me and for that reason, I'm unlikely to use it on a day-to-day basis.

First of all, there are some glaring omissions from the chart. Lumping all yarns that knit at seven stitches per inch or finer together into one category really isn't accurate. There are fingering weight yarns, then there are lace weight yarns which are much lighter, and there are even cobweb weight yarns which are, like the name suggests, very much like knitting with spider webs. To suggest that all of these are interchangeable, simply because they are really skinny, does these yarns a disservice and has the potential to be highly confusing. (You could make the same argument about the heaviest class of yarns; there are yarns that knit at 2 sts per inch and yarns that knit at 3 sts per inch, and if you were to make a sweater treating those yarns as interchangeable, you'd end up with two completely different-sized sweaters).

I also find the use of gauge over four inches (as opposed to stitches per one inch) to be user-unfriendly. I understand that you will get a more accurate gauge count if you measure over a larger swatch, but I always end up dividing the number by 4 to get a stitches per one inch number. That's how I think of them in my head: "5 sts per inch," not "20 sts over 4 inches." This particular gripe may be peculiar to me; if you're accustomed to thinking about gauge over 4 inches, you'll be just fine.

But my biggest complaint is how they have taken the interesting, quirky names for classes of yarns and substituted numbers. Numbers that don't have any identifying characteristics about them. Is Category 3 worsted weight? sport weight? who knows? who can remember? Is Category 1 the really fine yarns, because they are thin and one is the lowest number; or are they the really thick yarns, because the number of stitches per inch is so few that they put them at the low numbers? Is Category 5 worsted weight, since worsteds knit at 5 stitches per inch? Is Category 6 fingering weight, since "finger" has six letters in it?


I'd much rather talk about "DK" or "doubleknitting" yarns, knowing that this is a wartime term that meant the yarn could knit comfortably at either 5 or 5.5 sts per inch (double = 2 = 2 gauges, get it?). I'd much rather see a reference to a baby yarn, knowing that it refers to something thin and fine enough to put on a baby, visualizing Dale of Norway baby patterns that knit up at an ungodly 7 to 8 stitches per inch. I'd rather hear about a polar weight yarn, immediately getting the image of how thick and bulky a yarn would have to be in order to be useful in the Arctic regions.

Maybe I'm a traditionalist, or maybe it's just that you get so accustomed to a particular set of measurements or standards that your old brain just can't cope with translating everything into the new ones.

Don't get me started on "ply"

You'll notice some references to "ply" in my yarn chart. I've put them in mainly because some older patterns and some from other countries refer to yarns by their ply. Allow me to state, unequivocally and without hesitation, that ply has nothing to do with yarn weight or gauge. Do you hear me? Nothing. NOTHING, I TELL YOU.

Let's get basic. A ply is nothing more than a strand of fiber that is twisted around one or more other strands to make up a piece of yarn. I never really appreciated this distinction much until I started to spin, but if you pay attention, you can see that certain yarns, like Manos del Uruguay, are "singles" or single ply: the yarn consists of only one strand. When you start to spin, people will talk about your "singles," meaning the strands of yarn you produce and use by themselves, singly. Other yarns consist of multiple, very thin strands that are twisted around each other. At the cut end of your yarn, you can sometimes see the plies untwisting from around each other. If you think of something like Reynolds Odyssey, or some Noro yarns, in which the plies are different colors, you can see the plies twist around each other. One of the easiest ways to improve the look of a newbie's handspun yarn is to ply it: twist two strands of it around each other, and watch how magically the thin parts in one strand balance out the thick parts in the other, and vice versa.

If you think about it, there is some logic to the idea that the more plies, the more strands of yarn twisted around each other, the thicker the yarn you'll end up with. And there may have been a time, perhaps, when you could reliably tell a yarn's size and how many stitches per inch it would knit with based on the number of plies it had. That's why you'll see the term "4-ply" as an old synonym for fingering weight yarn, or the term "8-ply" for sportweight.

However, in the wonderful yarn world in which we live today, there is no longer any correlation between ply and yarn thickness or gauge. Technology is such that very thick yarns, like Manos, can be single ply, while infinitesimally thin multiple plies can make up a lightweight sock yarn. I've included the "ply" terminology in my chart because you might run into a pattern that uses these terms in describing a yarn, but rest assured that other than using them as a clue to the yarn's size (and if you've got a gauge measurement, that's a much more reliable indicator) you shouldn't worry your pretty little heads about them one bit.

Now it's off to kiss three little munchkins goodnight, and then maybe, just maybe, a few rows of knitting before I go comatose.


Jen said...

This is great! You are so stinking awesome.

Rana said...

What jen said. (And I've just spent the last 6 hours in a fiber-crafting haze of goodness (a Fleece Fair), so I know from awesome.)

These informative posts of yours are The Best.

Janice in GA said...

You know, back a bazillion years ago when I was trying to knit patterns from an old James Norbury pattern book, it sure would have been helpful to know what "4 ply" meant in HIS context. All I could find was 4-ply knitting worsted and thought I didn't know *much* about knitting, I could tell that it wasn't the same as the 4-ply he was talking about.
This is why I love the internet. There's info out there that you can FIND easily. Wasn't like that in 1979.

Anonymous said...

I've been knitting a project lately with a "Blah blah tweed 4-ply" that's made of ... two plies. Silly Britishers.

Christina said...

Great post. I also think those numbered skeins of yarn the Craft Council puts out (and you see in mags) is rubbish.

M-H said...

If the yarn is made in the UK, Australia, South Africa or New Zealand, you really can rely on the label 4-ply, 8-ply etc connoting a standard thickness, even if it doesn't have the right number of plies. I realise it's confusing for people in the US, but it really does work in a lot of other countries, so it can't be completely wrong. As for 'silly Britishers', the US is just about the only nation in the world that hasn't been able to learn and use the metric system. 'Nuff said.

Liz K. said...

Another super-informative post. Carol, thanks for the time you put into these posts and educating us.

Marg B said...

This is a really great summary and THANKS for including the Australian labeling - American cutural imperialism pervades even the knitting world and the rest of us fudge our way through as best we can. Australia, Britain and America are countries separated by a common language (and no, this isn't an original saying but I can't remember who said it first so no attribution is possible). I used to think American cars were powered by a gaseous fuel, not liquid petroleum, due to the use of the word 'gas' for what Australians know as 'petrol'. So maybe the Australian use of the word 'ply' to descibe the thickness of knitting yarn doesn't have the same meaning as it would to a spinner - but as m-h said, from a knitters perspective, it seems to be a far more consistent and reliable labelling system compared to many others. 2-ply bulky weight yarn sounds like an oxymoron to me, but that's my cultural perspective. Wraps per inch are probably the most accurate and least culturally relative form of measurement. And then maybe, one day, America will make it into the metric world (dividing and multiplying everything by 10 is so much simpler dividing inches into eigths and multiplying by 12s to get feet), and we'll be talking wraps per centmetre.

Anonymous said...

I'm humiliated to admit that I worked in a yarn store for 9 years and never was curious enough to find out what 'double knitting' meant. I'd tell them it was another term for sport weight...ACK! Thanks for teaching this old knitter the facts AND a bit of cultural tolerance. On the metric front, I'll stand up as one United Statesian who is both embarrassed AND ashamed that we haven’t gone there. sheesh. (although I draw that line at spelling it ‘colour’…)

Bev said...

Northern is 2 ply, Charmen is one. As for me and my house, give me the Charmen. Another example of ply as a worthless element of measurement. Bev

Anonymous said...

I too think in terms of "x stitches to the inch". so why can't my yarn lables say so IN PLAIN ENGLISH instead of making me do the math?

an extremely informative post; thank you!

anne marie in philly

Helen said...

I am SO with you on this!
I hate these new number things. And I find it telling that in their own charts they use the old names to define them. I wonder what TKGA is doing about their master knitter program questions on yarn sizes now? Do the poor folks have to learn what the numbers mean? do they have to equate them to the terms we all know and still use?

But more can we get them to go back to the informative names???

Anonymous said...

I also like to point out that probably only in America can some ad executive take the saying "does a bear shit in the woods" and make a successful campaign for Charmin toilet paper. I'll take Mr. Whipple back as well as the descriptive terms. My daughter runs track in metric in the spring and English in the fall. Go figure.
Carol isn't the book your design is in coming out next week?

Anonymous said...

Ooooh, a book!

I ummmmm, (very quietly said) didn't know what dk meant either. Wonder if we could start a revolution and switch over to your very descriptive yarn chart...

M-H said...

One other little thing - 8ply Australian is exactly the same as DK. Every Australian (or NZ or UK) 8-ply will tell you that it should be knitted at around 22 sts to 10 cm, which is 5.5 to the inch, not 6-7 as you have it. This stuff is so confusing!

Carrie K said...

Thank you for a very informative post, Carol! The anachronistic and International terms were especially helpful.

Oh, is that what ply means! I hadn't a clue.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea that this chart even existed. I vaguely remember seeing those numbered balls of wool in magazines but they have always meant nothing to me so I just ignored them. I go straight to the gauge listing in the pattern and use that info along with internet research to find an equivalent yarn.

Gail said...

This is so funny - I was ranting about that damn new chart on my podcast (I deleted it all out before I published it, because it came down to "I hate you evil chart, and you suck". I was going to try and be more indepth, but this is a much better discussion than anything I was going to come up with.

Melissa said...

I've been waiting all week to hear why you hate the new number system!

Ditto on the stitches over 4 inches thing. Sure, I'm going to knit a big swatch to get a good sample, but do I really want to count all those stitches, especially at the smaller weights? I think in stitches per inch too, so it's damn annoying to have to be whipping out a calculator all the time.

Ditto also on the numbers meaning nothing. To me, it's more intuitive to have 1 be the biggest size. Also, why isn't lace on the chart? And what's the point of having a cute little icon if you still have to list the gauge because the icon represents such a range of gauges. Sigh.

Rana said...

And what's the point of having a cute little icon if you still have to list the gauge because the icon represents such a range of gauges

That one I can answer, because the range represents the possibilities in the yarn -- one knitter might knit insanely tightly on small needles, and one might knit loosely on larger ones.

But, then, you get into the whole set of variables needle-size and knitting tensions introduce, and the supposed "neatness" of the new numbering system collapses. Given that we all have to knit for gauge anyway, a ballpark description (like Carol's list) is a perfectly adequate starting point.

Beth Skwarecki said...

I think the commercial yarn industry does the "ply" thing to try to drive us hand-spinners crazy so we're less competition. Same for "worsted" - yeesh.

Next I bet "spinning wheel" is going to be the new term for knitting needles, or something. :)

Franklin said...

Among your many talents is that you can write about this stuff in a way that one can read it and understand it. Brava!

Anonymous said...

I never understood why they do not call yarns by the wraps per inch or whatever the metric equivalent is. This way you can always substitute with yarn that is the same size every time regardless of material or ply.

Anonymous said...

As an Aussie new to knitting, i must say your chart is very helpful in deciphering American terms, which half the knitting world seems to follow. I do think a standardised system would make everyone's life easier, and we could share more patterns! I can see why you dislike the one you've described - it's not specific enough.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you for putting this into words for me!!! I've been noticing more inconsistencies lately. I think the standard chart is just for the handfull of manufacturers who choose to comply. But it does nothing for patterns writen before it was developed, or patterns that just tells wat yarn 'they' used. I would like to see a Wraps Per Inch included in the chart. That's how I've been gauging yarn. Used to work great, but lately I've had terms crossing boundries, and I'm just not into swatching!
I think they are just trying to avoid thorough research.

thrill_me_mogilny said...

Thank you! I too can't stand the silly numbered balls. When I first saw it I thought it meant the number of balls needed for the project.

I have no problem with X stitches per 4 inches but that's probably because being a Canuck I've seen it as x stitches per 10cm my entire life. To me having it in the multiple of 10 makes it so much easier.

Anonymous said...

Some useful, and useless ( mainly quoted from the Craft Yarn Council ) here.

Butttttttttt, there was day, in the not too-long ago when ply DID mean something.

Until the advent of imported yarns, American used the ply system to distinguish weights of yarn. 1 ply was for lace, 2 for baby, 3 for sport and 4 for worsted. And so on.

It developed from the custom that yarns were all smooth finish ( either woolen, for the country, or worsted for city slickers ) and mostly only worsted spun yarns were sold.

Otherwise, enjoyed your post. You have such a way with words.

Alissia said...

Yeah, I totally agree how annoying the chart is, because what do you do when you come across something that's described by the yarn sellers as "Light DK/Sport"? Is it DK? Is it Sport? Who the heck knows?

Also, I love the countdown meter...I totally have to show my husband that one. He'll love it. I totally can't believe Obama won. I hoped it would happen, but I still totally can't believe it.