Monday, January 23, 2006

More on the economics of yarn (or why you need a calculator at the LYS)

I got a lot of positive feedback from my post a few weeks ago comparing the cost of various yarns, and demonstrating that yarn purchased at a chain craft store isn't always cheaper, apart from differences in quality. If cost is a serious concern to you, then keep reading for some more thoughts about the economics of knitting.

Cost Per Yard

How cost-oriented a shopper are you in the grocery store? If you go into the grocery store to buy, say, toilet paper, you will have several choices. You may look at one package that costs $5 and then see another that costs $10. But you can't conclude only from the price tag that one is a better buy than the other. Suppose the $5 pack had only one roll in it, and the $10 pack had 10 rolls in it. (Assume that the rolls all have the same number of sheets, just to make it easier.) That means you're paying $5 a roll for the small pack and $1 a roll for the larger pack. The larger pack may cost more but the TP is vastly cheaper per roll.

The same idea applies to yarn. I can't tell you how many times my mom has picked up a large hank of yarn and gasped at the price ("Oh honey, $12 for one skein of yarn?") But you can't decide whether a skein of yarn is overpriced until you know the Cost Per Yard, just like you can't know which roll of toilet paper is cheaper until you figure out the cost per roll.

Here's what you have to do: First, be sure that your yarns are comparable as far as gauge and fiber content. (Cashmere will always be more expensive than merino, for example, so let's take the extra factors out of the equation.) Then whip out your calculator and do some third-grade math: divide the price of the ball by the number of yards per skein. Voila: you've determined the cost per yard.

To use a few examples: let's consider some worsted weight yarns, all 100% wool. Here are the specs:

Reynolds Odyssey 109 yds. $10
Cascade 220 Superwash 220 yards $10
Karabella Aurora 8 100 yds. $8.50
Bemidji 225 yds $5.90
Elann Peruvian Wool 109 yds. $2.25

If you divide the price of the skein by the number of yards, you get:

Reynolds Odyssey 9.2 cents per yard
Karabella Aurora 8.5 cents per yard
Cascade 220 Superwash 4.5 cents per yard
Bemidji 2.6 cents per yard
Elann Peruvian Wool 2 cents per yard

The cheapest yarn is the Peruvian Wool, closely followed by Bemidji; Cascade 220 is middle of the pack, and Aurora 8 and Odyssey are most expensive. Note that the Cost Per Yard doesn't dovetail exactly with the price per skein.

Now of course there are all kinds of variables in play here: you might really want superwash, which narrows your choice to the Cascade 220 Superwash and the Aurora 8 (i.e., the most economical choices, Elann & Bemidji, aren't suitable because they aren't superwash) -- but don't be fooled by the fact that the Aurora 8 costs only $8.50 a ball but the Cascade is $10 a hank. If you do the cost per yard calculation, you'll see that the Cascade 220 Superwash is almost half the cost PER YARD (4.5 cents per yard instead of 8.5): the skeins cost a bit more but they have way more yardage in them, so ultimately the Cascade is cheaper.

There are other, more intangible factors. You may like the color choices in one yarn vastly more than another; if you are going to spend hours and hours knitting a sweater, you might be well advised to spend a little more to get a color you love, rather than settle for one you aren't crazy about. Ditto for your gut reaction to the feel of the yarn; some people just like the feel of one yarn over another, even if the yarns are very similar. You'll notice that the Odyssey, which is one of the more expensive choices, has built-in color gradations, which form a subtle striping as you knit it. You may be willing to pay more for this effect. And so on.

But my point is that in order to calculate apples-to-apples cost, you have to compare cost per skein AND yards per skein.

The Economics of Yarn Weight

As someone who never has enough time to knit, I have a hard time imagining the ability to whip through so many sweaters in a month that I can't afford to do another one. (It takes me months to finish an adult garment, since I don't finish garments as quickly as, say, someone without three needy children and a husband who suffers from male refrigerator blindness.) But if you are someone who knits quickly and spends a lot of time knitting, this may be an issue for you. I will throw out to you, then, the insight that knitting with finer yarns, at more stitches per inch, is cheaper than knitting with bulkier yarns at fewer stitches per inch.

Some of this is common sense: if it takes you a week to knit a sweater in a bulky yarn, and two weeks to knit one in a finer yarn, you will be knitting twice as many bulky sweaters in a month (4) as you will finer-gauge ones (2). More sweaters = more yarn = more cost.

But it is also true -- even if you don't want to hear it -- that bulkier yarns cost more per sweater, as a general proposition, than finer-gauged ones. Allow me to play with my SweaterWizard software and show you some numbers.

Keeping all variables except gauge of the yarn equal, I'm calculating a women's raglan pullover with a crewneck, chest size 36 with a standard amount of ease. Here's the yardage:

7 stitches per inch: 1607 yds.
5 stitches per inch: 1083 yds.
2.5 stitches per inch: 545 yds.

But wait, GoKnitInYourHat Lady, you say, how can it be more expensive to knit a sweater at 2.5 stitches per inch when it requires less than half the yardage of the fingering weight yarn? Surely you must be wrong.

Oh, my little knitters, the sordid truth of the matter is that I am never wrong. Just kidding. The truth of the matter is that it costs more per yard for bulky-weight yarn than it does for fingering weight yarn. Common sense again: you are getting more fiber in a yard of bulky yarn than in a yard of finer yarn, and more wool means more greenbacks. To illustrate, I will use Brown Sheep, which makes roughly comparable 100% wools in bulky, worsted and fingering weight:

Naturespun fingering weight: 310 yds. $4.50 per ball
Naturespun worsted weight: 245 yds $6 per ball
Burlyspun bulky weight: 132 yrds $15.25 per ball

Let's find Cost Per Yard:

Naturespun fingering weight: 1.45 cents per yard
Naturespun worsted weight: 2.45 cents per yard
Burlyspun bulky weight: 11.55 cents per yard

Yep, quite a shocking per yard difference between fingering weight and bulky weight. But the analysis has to consider the total number of yards you'll need to make that sweater:

Naturespun fingering weight: 1.45 cents x 1607 yds. = $23.30
Naturespun worsted weight: 2.45 cents per yard x 1083 yds. = $26.53
Burlyspun bulky weight: 11.55 cents per yard x 545 yds.= $62.94

So the total cost difference between fingering weight and worsted weight isn't dramatic in this example (although it could be, if you were considering using, say, Aurora 8 at 8.5 cents a yard, for a total of $92.05 for 1083 yds.) but the difference between bulky weight and worsted/fingering weight is striking. It costs more than twice as much. When you knit with bulky yarn, you are paying for the speed of the process. You may be paying rather dearly if you are using a designer yarn. That may be okay for you, or it may not. It depends on how much time you have to knit and how much you've allocated in your budget for materials.

Coming this week: One last wrench to throw into the economic analysis, the surprise revealed (I'm mailing the package this morning), and another spring preview.


Anonymous said...

Hi Carol,
Great analysis. In your paragraph on superwash wools "... you might really want superwash, which narrows your choice to the Cascade 220 and the Aurora 8." Cascade 220 and Aurora 8 to my knowledge are not superwash, in fact I use Cascade 220 for felting.
I have always taken in to account price per yard, however have never considered that finer gauge items are more economical to make. I guess if you have a strict budget, you should only make fine gauge items with a high difficulty (for the knitter) to make the money stretch.


Carol said...

Thanks, Teresa. Actually, I was considering Cascade 220 Superwash, which is a superwash version of the yarn that retails for $10 a ball instead of the more typical $7 a hank for regular, nonsuperwash Cascade 220. I'll revise my post to make that clear.

My web research indicates that Aurora 8 is superwash; look at WEBS or another on-line retailer that sells it if you don't believe me.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. One of the things I love about my LYS is that the price per yard data is included on the price sheet. Makes shopping so much easier.

Anonymous said...

I used Aurora 8 for a sweater, and always thought it was hand washable. I guess early in my knitting life (a year ago) I didn't pay that much attention to the ball band. My apologies there.

mamaloo said...

Another fine post, Carol. Thanks for doing the calculating and showing us the analysis. I'm a smarter knitter because of you. I'll be linking this post and your previous analysis post on my blog - it's too good not to spread the info around a little.

Rana said...

These posts are great -- I don't think anyone else out there is taking the time to do this kind of educational work, nor doing it so nicely. ;)

(It's also interesting seeing this from the combined perspective of a knitter/spinner. Since I'm stuck with a handspindle for now, the whole yards-per-weight issue, along with the sweaters-per-yards one, is a pretty important thing for me.)

(I guess you could say I'm "jayedup" -- my first verification word that ever seemed to say something.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a most informative post, and for clarifying something I had never really pondered before. I am an impulse shopper, buying scads of yarn just because I like it, without any project in mind....but your post has given me pause. Please keep writing...I look forward to your blog.

Franklin said...

I love you. Please leave your husband and children and run away with me.

Unknown said...

Oh please...Franklin says that to all the bloggers.

And as for yarn costs, I prefer my method.

It's much simpler and requires no calculator.

When I see a yarn that I like, I buy it in the quantity required to make an extra large man's sweater rounded off to the nearest bag.

Easy, no?

Anonymous said...

Ah, Joe, I love you. (please go read my latest comment on your blog so you'll love me too and...) I use the exact same method as you for calculating the worth of a particular yarn.
Is it beautiful? Does it feel good? Are the colors wonderful?
Okay, then. It's mine.
I'm not going to mention my verification word.
I know you'll thank me.

Unknown said...

Ditto me too to Joe's method, although it wasn't always so. When I was poverty-stricken with two kids, I did as Carol explains. This also is why I knit with fine yarns. More bang for my buck back then and I found I preferred them anyways.

This is a valuable analysis, C. Nice job!

Or as my verf. word says, ijist.

Ann said...

YIKES...Math...I read through the entire thing too. (I may possibly be scarred for life.)


Actually, it is great information if nothing else to give one points to ponder when making yarn purchase is money is truly and issue. I really admire the time that you put into sorting all of this out. Nice Job!


Anonymous said...

Hmmm, what can that last wrench be? Spinning your own? Five finger discount? And if it's not a chibi cover WTF is it? You're killing me here.

Carol said...

Okay, I'm gonna go out on a limb here, seeing as Evelyn Waugh is dead and Crabtree & Evelyn is an inanimate corporate fiction.

Evelyn Wood, is that you?

Anonymous said...

Evelyn, Evelyn Bond. Yep, it's me. I'm a major Anglophile, so it all makes sense in my own warped world. I'm enjoying the why you don't have to buy "cheap" yarn articles as well as the yarn previews. And I'm going to take another look at the Alterknits book, just because you liked it. You have power, baby!

Marcia said...

I eagerly await the upcoming throwing in of the wench. And I promise not to throw up one muppet.

Marcia said...

Oh, that was supposed to be "wrench?"

Never Mind.

Anonymous said...


I don't have a blog and suppose I'm not too computer savvy. I've been all over the Internet trying to see if anyone has info on substitutions.. Like if I want the Colinette Monet and the cheapest is $18 a hank, probably plus shipping, is there anything that maybe LOOKS like it and costs less? Thank you for all that math info - good job and generous and kind of you!

Cozy Badger Fiber Arts said...

A calculation you didn't make in this post is the weight of the yarn, which is another way you can compare fingering weight to bulky.

Perhaps I thought of it because I'm a spinner first, a crocheter second, and only occasionally knit. So if I'm going to compare a commercial yarn with a handspun, I'll compare the gauge and the weight.

Very nice article.