What is the Best Yarn for Knitting?

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.

First things first: choosing the right yarn.

It’s amazing how tempting a simple ball of yarn can be, and even inexperienced knitters know how easy it is to fall in love with a beautiful colour or a soft texture. But, cost aside, there are a few things to consider before buying great armfuls of yarn, especially if you don't have a project or pattern in mind.

Simply put, you need to select the right material depending on the demands of the project. For example: a deliciously fat and squishy yarn will work really well for warm and wearable quick-knit accessories like hats and oversized cowls, but of course wouldn't be suitable for making a delicate lacy stole.

Most of the time you will be working from commercially published patterns, and these will always recommend a specific yarn. Many yarn manufacturers publish patterns to showcase their products, and the patterns are designed to make the most of that yarn's particular qualities. It is best to use the suggested yarn, as you can be confident that this will work well for the project.

A brief note on yarn substitution

Sometimes you might not want to use the recommended yarn, the particular yarn line is discontinued, or perhaps you want a particular colour, or would prefer to use a different fibre. A good yarn stockist should be able to advise you on selecting an alternative, but if you don't have access to expert help then a simple rule of thumb is to make sure the substitute yarn is fairly similar to the original in weight, feel, and fibre. This will help to ensure a good result.

Fibres, natural and synthetic

Yarn can be made from a wide range of materials. Wool, produced from the fleece of sheep, is probably the most familiar, widely available, and versatile textile fibre. Lambswool and merino are two common examples. Other natural fibres are derived from plant sources, like cotton, linen, and bamboo. There are several types of synthetic fibre such as the widely available acrylic, but also rayons, nylons, and polyesters. New and unusual yarns are constantly being developed and the adventurous knitter can find yarn made from ribbon or strips of sari silk, from twisted paper; and even yarns made with seaweed extract or fine metal filaments.

Many yarns are made up of a mix of two or more fibres, combining the different qualities and advantages of more than one material into a single product. Sock yarn is a good example, which is most often a wool and nylon mix -- wool for warmth and breathability, and nylon for durability.

Animal fibres

Wool

Sheep's wool is the most well-known fibre. It’s a commonly available and versatile animal fibre used for producing yarn. It is warm yet breathable, with thermo-regulating properties. It also has moisture-wicking and moisture-absorbing properties that help to keep skin dry, and it’s naturally fire-retardant. Wool comes in an extraordinarily wide range of varieties and textures, and the right type of wool can be found for just about any knitting project you could think of. Here are just a few examples:

Merino: Originally the merino sheep came from Spain, but merino wool is now mainly produced in Australia and New Zealand. It has an exceptionally soft, smooth feel against the skin, making it ideal for affordable but luxurious garments. It is not quite as hard-wearing as other wools, and has a slight tendency to 'pill'.

Blue-Faced Leicester: This unique British wool is fine, dense, and lustrous. It is an exceptionally smooth wool, and produces a fabric with wonderful drape and a satiny finish.

Peruvian Highland: Valued primarily for durability, and for the way it takes dye, Peruvian Highland wool is not quite as soft as merino. It is fabulous for producing items that won't be worn directly against the skin, outer garments or accessories such as bags and it is brilliant for felting projects.

Other animal fibres

Alpaca

Like the llama, the alpaca is related to the camel. Alpaca is one of the smoothest animal fibres, and was highly valued by the Incas as 'the fibre of the gods', that they reserved for royalty. Unlike wool, it is hypoallergenic, and therefore especially good for sensitive skin that can't tolerate the 'scratchy' texture of wool. It’s also great for those who have a lanolin allergy. Baby alpaca 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

Made from the cocoons of silkworms, silk is the ultimate in luxury. Unmatched for lustre and drape, it is often blended with other fibres to create beautiful yarns and fabrics that excel in wearability and comfort. Silk is the perfect choice for making those really special heirloom knits to treasure for generations.

Mohair

Made from the fleece of Angora goats (not to be confused with angora yarn from the Angora rabbit) mohair is considered a luxury material. It is a high-sheen, silk-like fibre, producing yarn with a characteristic fuzzy 'halo'. It takes dye extremely well, and can come in vivid jewel-like tones, or sublime, softly blended ombres.

Yak

A less well-known fibre, yak can be as soft, downy and fine as cashmere. Wonderfully warm and almost velvety, yak is most often mixed with other fibres to produce soft-touch, light and luxurious garments and accessories that have surprising durability.

Plant fibres

Cotton

Cotton yarn is spun from the fluffy inner-lining of the seed heads of the Gossypium plant, and is produced world-wide. It makes a strong, light, non-elastic yarn, which is often mercerised to give a smooth sheen. It’s a cool, breathable fibre, particularly suited to producing summer knits.

Linen

Processed from the fibres of the flax plant, linen is cool to the touch and to wear. Like cotton, it lacks elasticity, but knits up with a really crisp, clean feel – great for casual summer wear. It is a durable fibre that wears well, softening nicely over time and with repeated washing.

Bamboo

Bamboo yarn is cool and soft-to-wear, with a nice lustre and even some antibacterial properties. It is also light and easy to care for, and is eco-friendly as it comes from one of the world's most sustainable resources. It’s gentle on sensitive or delicate skin, making it wonderful for babywear.

Hemp

Hemp has long been used to make rope, but is now also a popular fibre for craft and hand knitting. It is similar to linen in texture and performance: firm, non-elastic, smooth, and durable. It takes dye really well, and is often used in mixed-fibre yarns.

Paper

While not an obvious source for yarn, paper has traditionally been used in Japanese culture for numerous crafts. Out of this interest came the development of paper-based yarns. Rolling, twisting, and folding are used to create a range of unusual effects.

Synthetic fibres

Acrylic

First produced by DuPont in the 1940s, acrylic yarn is now widely-used as an economical fibre for many textile products. It is manufactured first as a single filament, which is then cut into shorter lengths and spun together in the same way as wool. It can be made to mimic natural fibres, but will lack some of the advantageous properties of those such as wool's natural bounce. It’s a hard-wearing and easy-care fibre.

Nylon

A resilient fibre, nylon is mainly used to add durability and elasticity to a yarn when blended with other fibres. It is particularly useful in items such as socks that need to be very durable and tolerate lots of stretching without losing their original shape.

Polyester

Used in a huge range of textile applications, polyester fibres have wrinkle- and stain-resistant properties. In yarn production, polyester adds structural stability to fashion and novelty yarns.

Fashion yarns

Exciting combinations of natural and synthetic fibres with other materials like ribbon, metallic threads, sari silk and faux fur can all be considered “fashion” yarns. These can be used to make fun accessories such as scarves, or to spice up a plain garment with contrasting texture or a shot of bold, bright colour.

Designer insight

You have so many lovely patterns for kids, what is your favourite fibre to use for kids patterns?

Superwash wool! A nice merino or BFL blend, which is lovely and soft for kids' heads, but also perfectly machine washable and able to stand up to lots of use. Acrylic is often a popular choice for kids Hats but it doesn't always have the same elasticity as wool, and looks tired more quickly.

You use a huge range of yarn weights, do you have a favourite yarn weight for kids patterns? And adult patterns, is it different? Why/why not?

Whether it's adult Hats or kids Hats, my comfort zone is between 4ply and aran weight, with most of my patterns being in the DK range. It's thick enough to knit up quickly and fine enough to offer detail within the Hat. Besides, DK is one of the most popular yarn weights, so there's plenty to choose from!

Woolly Wormhead



What yarn is best for knitting blankets?

Blankets are extremely popular knitting projects, and for good reason! They're long term knits that will be appreciated and will hopefully become heirlooms, passed down through the generations. Baby blankets are a great place to start, as they're a quicker knit that a full size blanket, and the soft yarns made especially for babies is lovely to knit with. Some of our favourite baby blanket knitting yarns are: Paintbox Yarns Baby DK, Lion Brand Baby Soft Prints, Bernat Baby Blanket Big Ball, and Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino. For regular size blankets, you don't need to worry about baby's soft skin, so we recommend something soft and warm for adults like a merino wool, or Lion Brand Wool Easy Chunky for a fast knit!

Sensitive skin and allergies

For those with sensitive skin, even the softest animal fibres can sometimes feel a little prickly. This is because all animal hairs have multiple tiny scales. Modern processing techniques mean that much of this scratchiness can be smoothed out, but it can never be entirely eliminated.

In addition, some people are allergic to lanolin, the natural oil found in sheep's wool. For such people, llama and alpaca is often preferable. Failing that, plant fibres such as cotton and bamboo, which have a much smoother profile, are far more comfortable.

Yarn weights

Weight is used to refer to the size or thickness of the yarn. It can be a confusing term because balls or skeins are generally packaged by how much they weigh in grams or ounces, but it is the size, or the weight, that affects how the yarn behaves when knitted.

There are eight main categories of yarn weight, but different countries often use slightly different names for the same category, which can make it hard to match pattern recommendations. The conversion table below gives a basic guide.

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

Each yarn weight has a recommended needle size to produce a well-constructed fabric with nicely proportioned stitches, but it is the interplay between needle size, yarn weight and the individual knitter's technique that combine to affect the structure of the final knitted fabric. A pattern will always suggest a needle size depending on the particular effect the designer wants to achieve.

A word about ply

A single strand of yarn is called a 'single' or a 'single-ply', and most yarns are made up of two or more plies twisted together. A yarn with two strands is a 2-ply, three strands make a 3-ply and so on. This can be a little confusing - a 4-ply yarn might sound 'heavier' than a single ply but this is not necessarily the case. If each individual strand is very fine, then a 4-ply yarn could be much lighter than a single-ply yarn made of one very chunky strand.

Designer insight

We love the lace and colour work that you do, does one fibre work well for both of them or do you find you need to use different fibres?

Generally I use 100% wool for both types of project. However I lean a little more towards smooth yarns for the lace work so that stitch patterns have good definition. For the colorwork I often use woolier yarns that have a "stickier" quality so that the fibers blend well and are safe and easy to cut if steeking is involved!

Do you find a particular material (wood, plastic, metal) in needles works better for lace compared to colour work?

I think if you are newer to lace knitting then sticking to bamboo needles is very helpful. If you use metal then you may feel a little exposed as it is easy for stitches to slip off the needle! Having said that I personally prefer to use metal as I like to be able to work a little faster and have the yarn moving smoothly and easily over the needles. I'd say the same is true for colourwork too.

Gudrun Johnston

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 around the ball, or the label on the skein will tell you everything else you need to know about the yarn, including:

Yardage: How much yarn is in the ball or skein in yards or metres.

Fibre content: What kind of fibre the yarn is made of, or the percentage of each different fibre in a blended yarn.

Dye lot: Each dye lot is slightly different, so if you need to order more yarn, you should make sure the dye lot number is the same so that your new yarn is a perfect colour match.

Needle size: The label will recommend a needle size to achieve the recommended tension shown on the ball band. It is important to understand that this is just a guide, and you may need to use a different needle size depending whether you knit tightly or loosely.

Tension or gauge: This is described by a square grid with a measurement around it, this is the ideal tension of the yarn, and it tells you how many stitches and rows make up a 10cm x 10cm square of stocking stitch. This is important when following a pattern to ensure your knitting comes out the right size and you get the best result from the yarn.

Dye lots and colours

How to choose colours

Choosing a colour is an important decision, and one made even more difficult because yarn comes in any colour imaginable. There’s no simple, one-approach-fits-all solution to choosing the “right” colour for any project. Hand-knitted items take a lot of time and effort, and can be costly if you use high-end yarn. Choosing the right colour can mean the difference between an item being worn or used over and over again, or being tucked away in the deepest recesses of the sock drawer, never to see the light of day.

If you are knitting for yourself, then choose a colour you love and know you will wear or enjoy having in your home. If knitting for others, take time to observe the kind of colours they prefer, and pick something similar or complementary.

The LoveKnitting blog features articles that give detailed guidance on working with colour, and picking shades and palettes.

Dye lots

Yarn and fibre is dyed in 'lots' or batches. The dying process is complex, and subject to a host of variables, so even though several lots may be dyed the same colour, each batch will actually turn out slightly different. This can cause problems with colour matching, so all yarn dyed in the same lot is assigned a dye lot number, which can be found on the ball band. If you are making a sizeable item or garment, and know that you will want an exact colour match, always make sure that your yarn comes from the same dye lot.

Hand dyed

There are many hand-dyed artisan yarns available. These will have been dyed in very small batches, or perhaps are individually hand-painted, skein by skein. These yarns are truly unique in colour and character, and might be regarded as miniature works of art. Hand-dyed yarn makes a great choice for small projects such as scarves or shawls that really are special, one-off creations.

Space dyed

Space-dyed yarn is similar to self-striping yarn, and is sometimes referred to as dip dyed. Many hand-dyed yarns will be space dyed. The technique involves two or more different colours that typically repeat themselves throughout the length of the yarn to create a self-striping or collage-like effect.

Self patterning, self striping and ombré prints

Yarn technology is amazingly sophisticated. Print dye techniques mean that yarn can be produced that will create a range of regular and recognisable patterns as you knit.

Self-patterning yarn knits up to mimic advanced colourwork, similar to traditional Fair Isle. Self-striping and colour-changing yarns are designed to result in stripes or bands of colour without you having to switch shades. Colour-changing yarn can have a short colour repeat to make narrow stripes, or a long colour repeat, resulting in wider bands of each colour.

Some colour-changing yarn is designed to create a more subtle ombré effect, where one colour graduates slowly from a deep shade to a light one, or from one colour to another.

NB: Self-patterning yarn is designed to be used in specific patterns which will work with the design of the print on the yarn. For example, if you used a self-striping sock yarn to knit a jumper, you wouldn't get stripes because the striping pattern is designed to go around an ankle rather than around a chest.

HOT TIP: Self-patterned, space-dyed and hand-dyed yarn can be particularly prone to pooling, where the colour changes end up making splotches in a way that you may not want. This can be remedied by using two balls or skeins of the same yarn, and alternating every two rows. It should be noted, though, that pooling is the very process that allows self-patterning yarns to work, and that some knit designers work with this effect to create wonderfully patterned knits that look like Indonesian-style Ikat weaving.

Ball shapes and what they mean

Yarn is packaged in a few different ways, and the names for different styles of packaging are often used interchangeably.

Hank or skeins: A hank or skein of yarn is usually a loop that is twisted into a neat, secure, and easy-to-handle unit, though sometimes it can come as a loose untwisted loop as well. Artisan and specialist yarns are often packaged this way. It is usually better to wind a hank or skein of this type into a ball to make knitting easier.

Ball: The more way to see yarn packages is the oblong-shaped ball, with the yarn end tucked into the middle, ready to use. These are generally known in the UK as balls , although it is less common to see yarn packaged as a properly round ball, mainly because it is less economical to pack and transport. Usually home knitters will convert skeins into balls to make things simpler, with the yarn being unwound from the outside of the ball. Some balls are more like a flattened doughnut shape, or are wound into a cylinder shape. These usually have a centre-pull yarn end.

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

How much yarn to buy

A pattern will state how much yarn you need to purchase to complete it. This will be specified either as the number of balls or skeins, the weight in grams or ounces each ball or skein should be, or the length in an amount of metres or yards. If amount is stipulated in yardage you will need to refer to the ball band on the yarn and calculate how many balls or skeins you need.

Converting weights and lengths

Information on a ball band may not necessarily match the instructions in a pattern, particularly if you are using a substitute yarn. It is therefore useful to have a conversion-guide to the equivalent weights and measures you are most likely to come across. This short list of conversion formulas will help you to make accurate calculations:

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

Care instructions and how to wash

Washing

There are three ways to launder your knitwear: hand -wash, machine -wash, or dry -clean. But it is worth taking time to select the best way to care for those precious hand -knits. Hand-knitted garments and blankets are not as tolerant of repeated washing as machine-made clothes and knitwear. They are more likely to stretch, shrink, or distort due to the weight of water and active agitation of a washing machine. Items made of 100% wool can be prone to felting if not treated carefully.

It is a good idea to keep one of the ball bands or labels from your project, so you can refer to the washing instructions and avoid any laundering disasters. If you are not sure whether a yarn or hand-knitted item is machine-washable, do not be tempted to take the risk. You could end up shrinking or felting something beyond recognition.

The most clever and sensible knitters will test wash a decent sized swatch before embarking on their project. This preparatory work may seem time consuming, but it will give you really useful advance knowledge of how to treat your finished item. It will allow you to build any tendency to shrink into your sizing, give you a clear idea of how colourfast the yarn is, and a sense of how much post-wash wet-stretch your project will have. This small amount of effort at the start of a project can save a lot of painful disappointment later on.

Washing symbols: How to read them

Symbols What they mean
The washtub symbol indicates if your garment is suitable for washing. The recommended washing temperature is shown by the number inside the washtub. The amount of agitation is specified by bars underneath.
A washtub with no bar will use the maximum action with a normal spin. The number in the tub is the maximum temperature, for example 40°.
A washtub with a single bar (one bar) indicates a mild washing process. The machine will wash with a medium machine action and mild spin. The number in the tub is the maximum temperature, for example 40°.
A washtub with double bars (two bars) indicates a very mild washing process and spin. The number in the tub is the maximum temperature, for example 40°.
Hand-wash only as your clothes are too delicate to machine wash. The temperature is to be a maximum of 40°.
Do not wash.
Do not use bleach.
Only oxygen/non-chlorine bleach allowed.
Any bleaching agent allowed.
A box with a circle inside represents tumble-drying.
Tumble-dry possible at normal temperature.
Tumble-dry possible at low heat.
Do not tumble dry.
Dry flat.
Drip dry.
Dry hanging.
Hot iron. Maximum temperature 200°C.
Warm iron. Maximum temperature 150°C.
Cool iron. Maximum temperature 110°C.
Do not iron.
The garment may be professionally dry-cleaned. The P represents perchloroethylene solvent.
The garment may be professionally dry-cleaned. The P represents perchloroethylene solvent. The single bar indicates a milder process.
The garment may be professionally dry-cleaned. The F represents hydrocarbon solvents, which are part of a more environmentally-friendly and mild process.
The garment may be professionally dry-cleaned. The F represents hydrocarbon solvents, which are part of a more environmentally-friendly and mild process. The single bar indicates a milder process.
Do not dry clean.


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