Monday, April 03, 2006

Yarn Classification

When I first returned to knitting, yarn classification baffled me. I heard all of these exotic sounding appellations ("fingering weight" -- which always sounded a little dirty to my pervy mind, "DK," "chunky" [hey, who you calling chunky?!]) and didn't understand what they meant, or how they fit in relation to each other. Eventually, I figured it out, and was kind of pissed that it had taken me so long to decipher the code.

One of the most common questions that customers ask at the shop is how to substitute one yarn for another when purchasing supplies to make up a pattern. You really have to understand the big picture of how yarns are classified in order to do that well. I can talk about yarn substitution if you want -- you can tell me if it's something you'd like me to discuss, or if it's old hat to you and I should skip it-- but today I'm going to blather on about general ways to categorize yarns, or ways that you can think about different yarns in your head in order to get a more intuitive understanding of how yarn classification works.

Here are a couple of strands of yarn from my voluminous stash.

Some sort of bulky weight yarn is on the left, then an unidentified worsted weight, and then a strand of Regia sock yarn. We can think about classifying them in three different ways, each of which gives you the same end result, more or less.

First of all, and most intuitively, we can think of them in terms of thickness. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the yarn on the left is biggest and fattest. The sock yarn on the right-hand side is skinniest and the worsted weight, in the middle, is about medium ("Just right!" if you're Goldilocks). One way to look at yarn classification is by thickness, and it's the most simplistic; it makes a lot of sense intuitively but doesn't get you all the way to where you need to go.

This translates pretty well into the standard yarn classification chart. Looking at yarns in order of thickness, going from fattest to skinniest, you have Bulky Weight; Chunky Weight; Aran Weight; Worsted Weight; DK or Doubleknitting Weight; Sport Weight; Fingering Weight; and Lace Weight. I'll talk more about the specific categories later, so don't get your panties in a wad yet.

A second way to look at yarn classification, and one that will be more helpful to you in a practical sense, is by gauge. When you knit with thick yarns, you get fewer stitches per inch of knitting. When you knit with very thin yarns, you get more stitches per inch of knitting. Again, common sense: think of books sitting on a library shelf. Fat tomes like the Oxford English Dictionary take up lots of space; you might fit only three of them in a foot of library shelf. Thin volumes, like The Collected Wisdom of George W. Bush, with very few pages, take up much less space on the shelf. You probably could fit, oh hell, ten or twelve of them in that same foot-wide section of shelf. So it is with stitches: you can only fit about two stitches of the blue yarn in an inch of knitting, but maybe 7 or 8 stitches of the brown sock yarn in that same inch of knitting, and maybe 4 1/2 or 5 of the pink yarn in an inch of knitting.

That means that you can look at a yarn classification chart in terms of how many stitches per inch the yarns knit at. Starting with bigger yarns/fewer stitches and going to finer yarns/more stitches, you get: Bulky Weight (3 or fewer stitches per inch); Chunky Weight (3.5 to 4 sts per inch); Aran Weight (4 to 4.5 sts per inch); Worsted Weight (4.5 to 5 sts per inch); DK or Doubleknitting Weight (5.5 sts per inch); Sport Weight (6 sts per inch); Fingering Weight (7 sts per inch); and Lace Weight (8 or more sts per inch).

Finally, you can also think about how weight plays into yarn categories. Harken back to my discussion of how fine yarns are more economical and heavier yarns cost more; remember how I said that thicker yarns are more expensive than finer ones because they have more wool in them? That means thicker yarns also weigh more. (Again, common sense.) Now, one way that people can buy yarn without going crazy is because yarn companies tend to sell yarns by a standard weight per ball, say, 50-gram balls. (Wouldn't it be unbelievably irritating if your pattern was written for, say, twelve 35.76g balls and your yarn shop had only 21.38g balls? That kind of math gives me hairballs.) The heavier and thicker the yarn, the fewer the number of yards in a ball. A bulky weight yarn may have only 45 yards in a 50-g ball, a worsted may have about 110 yards in a 50-g ball, and a sock yarn may have as much as 200 yards in a 50-g ball.

This is good to know when you're presented with a mystery yarn. Every once in a while you may stumble across a ball of yarn that doesn't have any information about where it fits on the classification chart -- no appellation like "worsted weight," not even a notation that it knits at 4 to 5 sts per inch. But if you know that it's a 50-gram ball and it's got 109 yards in it, you can be pretty sure it's going to knit at around worsted weight, four to five sts per inch. You'll still want to check the gauge by knitting a gauge swatch (what - you thought I was going to tell you to skip that vital step? Hah!), but you'll at least have a sense of what kind of needles to start with.

Tomorrow: about the names given to specific weights of yarns, and why I hate the new Craft Yarn Council classification chart.

Exciting news

Because Franklin is my idol and role model, I submitted a short essay to Cast-On, and was very excited to hear that it's been accepted for Podcasting. Fear not, dear readers; I am not going to impose my dreadful Philadelphia accent on you. I've opted for a stunt-voice. I'll keep you posted when I learn more details. In the meantime, because Franklin is my idol and role model, I present to you this little cartoon. Whaddya think?

Last but never least

Happy birthday to my beloved husband, Tom!


Franklin said...

Regarding Cast On: Well, hello, of course she accepted your essay. You write like a dream. Me, I wish you were reading it in your own voice which I know and love. But I understand.

Regarding the cartoon: Stay off my corner, bitch.


MsAmpuTeeHee said...

Yay for your essay!
I think I understand your desire to have a stunt double, I get that way sometimes with choreography...but I have to tell you, with the written word, it's always quite interesting to me to notice the differences in the way I read something and the way the author reads it themselves. I hope your double gets it out there the way you intended it.

"Purl Necklace" hahahaha.

Unknown said...

One piece I would add to your yarn classification is loft. I've worked with DK weight yarn that was as thick looking as worsted.

Congrats on your Podcast essay, as Franklin says, that was a no-brainer on Brenda's part, and you don't have anything to worry won't sound as faggy as Franklin!

Finally, as for the cartoon, I have to agree with Franklin again, stay off his corner, bitch.

Carol said...

[In Jan Brady voice] "Franklin, Franklin, Franklin..."

Anonymous said...

It's ALL about Franklin, center of the universe.
That is, when it's not ALL about Joe.
Me, I'm not at all surprised they snapped you up, love.
You're really quite snappy.

moiraeknittoo said...

*cracks up at the cartoon* Fabulous! And congrats on the podcast! :)

Anonymous said...


yes, carol, you knit beautifully and your essays are marvy, and your jokes are hysterical. but franklin draws better sheep. period.

oh well, we can't all have the same talents; it would be a dull world were that so.

anne marie in philly

Anonymous said...

How would you weigh in on the issue of the manufacturer's gauge recommendations? I've heard some bloggers mutter that, in their opinion, yarn is typically marked with a gauge that's too loose. (I'll wuss out and use the Fox News "Some people say" line, here.)

For example, a yarn may be marked as knitting up at 5 st/inch on 6mm needles, whereas the knitter feels that the yarn really looks its best when worked at 7 st/inch on 5mm needles (or whatever).

I am starting to lean towards this line of thinking, myself. It seems that the more I knit, the more I find myself preferring to knit a bit more tightly than the manufacturer's recommendation. Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Well good. I just started listening to the cast-on podcasts so I look forward to yours. Like the fabulous Franklin, I wish it would be in your voice, just 'cause I want to find out if you sound like what I think you would. I really wanted to make some smart ass comment about you being a cradle robber, but that was the best I could come up with. So nevermind.

Charity said...

I loved this! Thanks for all your info... and I would be happy to read your thoughts on substitution as well. As a fairly new knitter, I find your input so valuable, and really appreciate the way you put things into words - so easy to understand!

Anonymous said...

Still snickering over "collected wisdom of W"- a moment please...

Ok. Happy Birthday to Tom- hope it was and will always be fantastic.

Just do the thing yourself- we'd all love to hear you! I suppose we'll be alright with a double (it'll still be worth it) but honestly...

If Franklin said to stay off his corner, you have to wonder what Delores thinks...

Jennifer R said...

I'd like to hear about yarn size and substitution. Hell, I only just found out there WERE size classifications that made it easier to substitute yarn, at all!

Right now I want to find a substitute for "supposedly super chunky" yarn for a pattern in Vogue Knitting. But oddly enough, it appears that it's really a just plain chunky RIBBON (?!?) yarn. What the hell? Substitution is STILL confusing me.

Maria said...

Erika, I invariably use a needle at least one size smaller than that recommended on the yarn label. The problem with going by the label when BUYING yarn for a project is that they would have you believe it will go farther than it does (an awful lot of the time). And when it doesn't, it's quite possible to run short of yarn for the project. A local yarn shop owner was kind enough to make me aware of this fact early on in my knitting life. Apparently some yarn manufacturers are notorious for this.