Yarn buying guide

With so many beautiful yarns to choose from, selecting the right one can be overwhelming. If you're looking for advice from our LoveKnitting experts and some top designers to get you started, you're in the right place.

Your pattern will recommend a yarn to use for your project, but if you want to be inspired by a beautiful yarn first, find the right substitute for the one the pattern recommends, or just learn more about yarns before buying, we're here to help you make the right decision on:

Fiber types | Sensitive skin | Yarn weights | How to read a ballband | Dye lots and colors | Ball shapes | Substituting yarn | Yarn care and washing

Yarn fiber types

Yarn is made from fiber that comes from different sources, plied in different ways. Sometimes a yarn is made from one fiber, or perhaps a blend of different fibers, combining specific qualities of each. There are three main types of fiber: animal, plant-based and synthetic.

Animal fibers

Wool

Wool is is one of the most well-known and common fibers. Made from sheep, wool is warm, breathable, and natural; and because it absorbs moisture so well, it can even keep you dry. Different breeds of sheep produce wools with different qualities, for example:

Merino: Sumptuously soft, the wool from the Merino sheep is well known for its springy, fine finish. Spun on its own, or with other fibers, it produces a glorious yarn that has become a favorite with knitters all over the world. The biggest Merino wool producers are Australia and New Zealand, but it’s often spun in Italy.

Blue-Faced Leicester: Produced mostly in the UK, the fibers from the Blue-Faced Leicester sheep are long and lustrous, creating a fabulous drape and sheen together with a deliciously soft finish.

Peruvian Highland: A strong and sturdy wool that will keep you super warm, Peruvian Highland is perfect for everyday knitwear that will last. It’s not as soft as merino, but it is less likely to pill.

Falkland Islands wool: An excellent alternative to Australian Merino. Falklands wools come from sheep selectively bred for fine fleeces.

Alpaca

The Incas called alpaca fiber “the fiber of the gods” for good reason! It is beautifully soft, hardwearing, and breathable. Its hypoallergenic qualities make it a good substitute for those who cannot tolerate the lanolin in wool. Baby alpaca yarn is made from is the first shearing of the alpaca cria (baby), and is even softer! Deliciously soft to knit, alpaca has fabulous drape making it a good choice for garments.

Silk

Silkworms eat the finest leaves to produce silk that is spun from their cocoons, making the most exquisite fiber of them all! Silk is famous for its luster, drape, and luxurious softness, and it is perfect for shawls or fine knits. Silk is often blended with other fibers to combine these decadent qualities with the softness of alpaca, or merino wool.

Mohair

Exquisitely fine, with a glorious halo, mohair is made from the hair of the Angora goat. This beautiful fiber is perfect for cardigans, sweaters, scarves and hats. It picks up dye beautifully, which is why you’ll see such fabulous color combinations and ethereal ombres in mohair and mohair blend yarns.

Yak

The Yak is a much prized animal in Central Asia, and its undercoat is as soft as cashmere, and just as warm! The hair is combed from under the belly of the yak and spun into yarn that is wonderful to knit. It is often combined with other fibers to bring softness to a blend. Perfect for garments and accessories.

Designer insight

“For both lace and fair isle, I like to use 100% wool, or a blend that is predominantly wool. The type of wool I use varies depending on what I am knitting. If I am knitting a fair isle garment in the round that is going to be steeked, I want to use a coarser, "hairier" wool like shetland jumperweight. This is because the wool tends to stick to itself once the steek is cut and there is pretty much zero chance of it unravelling. when steamed with an iron, it felts a bit, so the cut edges stay put and the garment will last for generations. For a fair isle piece that is not going to be steeked, like a cowl, any wool works well, and I love using a soft merino for these types of projects.” -- Wendy Johnson

Plant fibers

Cotton

Cool, comfortable and easy care -- cotton has been a popular textile for over 8,000 years. Its long staple fibers come from plants grown in the US, Australia and Egypt. It makes a strong, hardwearing yarn that is a great favorite for warm weather knits. Some cotton yarns are mercerized, which gives them a glorious sheen. It can also be blended with other fibers to create a yarn that can be worn in all seasons.

Linen

Made from fibers of the flax plant, linen is gorgeous, comfortable and durable. Taking care of linen is easy, and it becomes softer and more lustrous with age. Linen is a popular choice for summer knits. It feels cool in the heat but appears crisp and fresh even in hot weather.

Bamboo

Yarns made from bamboo are cool to wear, and naturally anti-bacterial, so they are perfect for babywear and nursery accessories. Bamboo is often combined with other fibers to add lightness and drape. It’s machine washable and super soft next to the skin. Bamboo is one of the world’s most sustainable resources.

Hemp

Yarn made from hemp is fabulously hardwearing. It’s perfect for warm weather knits, and won’t stretch or fade thanks to its long staple fibers that absorb dyes well. Even better, the more you wash hemp, the softer it gets!

Paper

While paper would not be the first fiber you think of when you think of yarn, it has a long tradition in Japanese culture, and can be fun to knit or crochet. It comes in rolled, spun, unspun, and folded varieties, each having unique characteristics for different patterns.

Synthetic fibers

Synthetic yarns are man-made, usually from chemical sources. Perfect for those who are allergic to the lanolin in wool, and vegans, synthetic fibers are spun into a rainbow of shades and an array of textures. Easycare and machine washable they are perfect for baby wear, garments, accessories and homeware.

Acrylic

Loved for their practicality, acrylic yarns are easy to care for, and perfect for knitting kidswear and baby essentials which are going to need a lot of washing! Acrylic is also a great choice for homewares -- for afghans and pillows, seasonal knits and toys. It is an easy fiber to dye, so you’ll find stunning spectrums of color in acrylic ranges.

Nylon

Nylon is the company trade name for polyamide. It is often blended with other fibers to bring ease and some stretch. Sock yarns are often spun from natural fiber with nylon added to keep finished socks in shape and hardwearing.

Polyester

You’ll often find polyester blended with other fibers to help your knitting keep its shape. It adds strength, support and softness to many fashion yarns with unusual structures.

Fashion yarns

Exciting combinations of fibers and other components such as ribbon, sari silk and faux fur can all be found under the heading “fashion” yarns. Make speedy scarves and original garments with fashion yarns and even combine them with your favorite fiber -- great fun!

Sensitive skin

For people with sensitive skin, even the softest alpaca yarn can feel prickly. This is because animal fibers have tiny scales on them, and despite their softness, they can feel like thorns. Plant fibers, such as cotton, bamboo, and linen have thinner and more pliable fibers, and are often more comfortable to wear for those with sensitivities.

If you are allergic to lanolin, alpaca yarn is a good substitution for wool because the fleece of the alpaca contains no lanolin.

Designer insight

What is your favorite fiber or blend to work with for lace patterns?

“I have many favorites when I choose yarns that work with lace... it is certainly easier to use a yarn that is a bit sticky (i.e. that doesn't unravel easily), so I tend to use yarns with a bit of wool in them. The weight of the yarn varies as that depends on the project, but my current favorite weight is a light fingering weight.” -- Laura Nelkin

“My favorite fibers are yak and wool. Yak is generally finer than most wool, but both display similar qualities. I love them both because I find there are generally no surprises when working with these fibers. With a lot of other fibers, or treated fibers, I tend to be surprised by how much drape, or how different gauge becomes once you begin to knit something larger than your swatch. Other animal fibers like alpaca tend to have more drape too.” -- Michele Wang

Yarn weights

There are eight main categories of yarn weight. These describe the thickness of the strand itself, rather than the weight of the ball of yarn.

Each yarn weight has a recommended needle size to produce the right size stitches to fit the gauge of a pattern (see our handy table below for a general guide) although the designer of a pattern may suggest a different sized needle for perhaps a closer knit effect, or a looser result.

International yarn weight conversions

US weight Equivalent UK and Australian terms
Thread Thread
Cobweb Cobweb / 1 Ply
Lace Lace / 2 Ply
Light fingering 3 Ply
Fingering / Sock Fingering / Sock / 4 Ply
Sport Sport / 5 Ply
DK / Light Worsted DK / 8 Ply
Worsted Aran / Worsted / 10 Ply
Bulky Chunky / 12 Ply
Super Bulky Super Chunky / 14 Ply
A word about ply

Ply refers to the number of strands that are twisted together to make a type of yarn. This can be confusing, because you might think that a 4-ply yarn is going to be a heavier weight than a 1-ply yarn, which isn’t necessarily true. What determines the weight is the diameter of the actual plies and how many there are. You can have a very fine yarn made up of four plies and a very heavy yarn made of only a single ply.

Designer insight

What is your favorite fiber to use when you knit socks? Why?

The short answer is, of course, wool! But wool is an awfully broad category, so there's a bit more to it than that. For socks, you need a sturdy yarn that will stand up to the abuse socks are subjected to. There are three things you can look for to help find sturdy sock yarns.

The first is the kind of wool. In general, the softer a wool is, the more delicate it is. That means those super soft 100% merino yarns, tempting though they are, may not last long as socks. Consider looking for a slightly tougher fiber. Blue faced leicester is a great first step to exploring other fibers. It's easy to find, still nice and soft, and just a bit more resilient.

The next thing to look at is what else is in your yarn. You'll often see some other material (most often nylon) added for durability. You can sneak up to about 25% nylon into a sock yarn before you start to lose that woolly feel, and your socks will last a lot longer for it. If you really don't like the idea of nylon, you can keep an eye out for yarns with a bit of silk instead. Silk is shockingly strong and will do a lot of the things nylon does.

The last thing to consider is the structure of the yarn. The denser the yarn is the better it seems to hold up (so if I were looking at two 400 yard skeins from two different companies, and one weighed 100 grams and the other 115 grams, I'd be inclined to pick the heavier one). And the more plies and the more tightly twisted the better.

-- Hunter Hammersen

How to read the ball band

When you look at your pattern, it will tell you which yarn to use, and how much of it you will need. The band or tag on the ball will tell you everything else you need to know about the yarn, including:

Yardage: The amount of yarn in the ball or skein, in yards and meters.

Fiber content: What the yarn is made from and percentages of each different fiber.

Dye lot: The dye lot of that given balls/skein.

Needle size: The label will tell you which size needle is recommended to reach the correct gauge for the yarn.This is just a guide and you may need to use a different needle size depending on your gauge.

Gauge: You will see a square with measurement around it, this is the ideal gauge of the yarn, and it tells you how many stitches and rows make up a 10 x 10cm square of stockinette stitch. This is important when following a pattern to ensure your knitting comes out the right size and you achieve the best performance of the yarn.

Dye lots and colors

How to choose colors

The crucial question when you are choosing a shade to knit a garment is “will I wear it?” If you’re making something for someone else, “will they wear it?” You will be spending time, money and effort to make something very special, and if the color is wrong, it won’t be worn.

If it’s for yourself, think about your wardrobe and what would work with the color palette you already wear. There are countless sources of inspiration online - Pinterest, fashion websites or knitting blogs. If you want to explore the science of color, find a color wheel online, or explore our color packs of co-ordinating shades in some of our most popular lines.

The most important advice here is to choose a shade you will actually wear - unless you really love wearing neon fuchsia, don’t choose it on a whim!

Dye lots

Yarn is dyed in batches called lots, and because there can sometimes be a very slight variation between lots, you will see a dye lot number stamped on the ball band or tag of your yarn. If you’re buying yarn for a garment, make sure you buy all of your yarn from the same dye lot to avoid shade differences. We'll always supply you with balls from the same dye lot in a single order. If you order again, if we have enough of that same dye lot in stock still, we'll match your previous dye lot again.

Hand-dyed

Yarns that have been dyed by hand either in small batches in kettles, or painted by hand, are miniature works of art. Hand dyed yarns are unique and full of character, and a wonderful choice for a smaller project such as a scarf or shawl.

Expert tip: The exact color of a shade can vary a lot between every single skein of hand dyed yarns, and even within the ball. It's part of the beauty of creating with hand dyed yarns, but can catch you out if you're not prepared. Buy two skeins of the same shade and alternate every two rows if you want to avoid pooling (unless you want to pool deliberately). Pooling is when colors clump together and knit up into big splotches.

Self patterning, self striping and ombré prints

Yarn technology is so exciting today, with manufacturers introducing techniques to print dye yarn so that as you knit, you produce a pattern, defined stripes, or a color change.

Self-patterning yarn produces a print that looks almost like advanced colorwork, such as fair isle, and self-striping yarn produces stripes of color without you having to switch shades. In color changing yarn, there is either a short color repeat, to produce narrow stripes, or a long color repeat, that produces wider bands of color.

This color changing process is also used to create an ombré effect, where one color graduates very subtly from a deep shade to light, or from one color to another.

Designer insight

What do you think are the best patterns for variegated yarns? Why?

“I love variegated yarns, but the more complex the coloring, the simpler I like the pattern to be. I find that patterning often competes with variegated coloring, so that you end up not really seeing either to great effect. For a yarn with fixed stripes, a chevron or bias pattern that “tilts” the rows or one of the classic feather & fan variants that causes the rows to wave, can look fantastic.” -- Kate Atherley

Ball shapes and what they mean

Yarn comes in a variety of types of packaging:

Hank: A long open twist of yarn, usually used for artisan spun yarns, or delicate fibers. You will need to wind this into a ball before knitting.

Skein: A rectangular shaped ball of yarn which often has a center-pull.

Ball: A spherical ball of yarn.

From left to right, a hank, a skein, and a ball.

How much yarn to buy

The amount of yarn you purchase depends on what the pattern says. Patterns will specify a number of balls or a length in yards (or meters). If it's give as a length, you’ll need to look at the yardage length of a ball and calculate how many balls you will need.

For larger projects, it can be worth buying a bulk value pack.

Substituting yarns

It is best to use the yarn recommended in the pattern. However if the yarn is no longer available, or if you want to change the look of the garment, yarns can be substituted as long as a few guidelines are followed.

The substituted yarn must be the same thickness. Check this by making sure the new yarn is the same gauge. The length of both yarns also needs to be checked to make sure you have sufficient yarn to complete the pattern.

Converting weights and lengths

Imperial / Metric Conversions
oz = g x 0.0352
g = oz x 28.35
in = cm x 0.3937
cm = in x 2.54
yd = m x 0.9144
m = yd x 1.0936

How to care for your finished projects

Washing

Hand-knitted garments are not as resilient to repeat washing as machine-made clothes, therefore need to be treated with extra care. There are three different ways to launder knitwear: hand-washing, machine-washing and dry cleaning. Before laundering, read the washing instructions on the ball band of the yarn. If in doubt as to whether a yarn is machine-washable, do not cross your fingers and chance it. A decision like that could result in your beautiful knitted garment shrinking to doll size!

A great way to check how your garment will stand up to washing it to take the swatch you’ve knitted before starting the project and wash it. Before you risk your precious finished project, you can get a good idea of the color-fastness and stretch post-wash.

However you decide to wash, for natural and delicate fibers, use a specialist washing liquid to take care of your finished projects.