Knitting Basics: Intro and Info on Choosing Yarn

January 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm Leave a comment


Over the last couple years as I’ve taken knitting more and more seriously, word seems to have gotten around that this is what I do and that I’m the person to ask when newer knitters of my acquaintance hit a wall in their own pursuit of the craft. I love getting these questions, often I don’t have all the answers, but I usually can get them going in the right direction.

As I was answering an email today, I realized that each of these questions could turn into marvelous little blog topics and that blogging gave me a unique opportunity to explore a topic with a bit of depth and then it would be out there and available for others with similar questions. Now, I don’t flatter myself that I’m the first blogger who has ever addressed these topics. But the internet is a big place, and having good info in multiple places means that a new knitter will be more likely to come across something helpful, weather it’s my blog or someone elses.

Choosing Yarn

So the question I wanted to address today was choosing yarn. The world is a very, very big place when it comes to yarn, and it’s only getting bigger. There are more yarn companies and indy dyers popping up all the time. It’s wonderful to have all these wonderful options, but for someone just getting started, it’s really overwhelming. It wasn’t that long ago that I was completely ignorant of yarn fiber content and how to choose the best yarns for each project I tackled. But I actually got up to speed pretty simply, because in spite of  the zillions of options, most options seem to be some variation of the same simple concepts. Here’s how to approach choosing yarn.

Phase 1: Consider

You’ll want to start by assessing your project, recipient, timing and the pattern you’re using.

1) Consider your project.

Most people, especially new knitters usually have a project in mind when they go to buy yarn. The kind of project you’re working on will dictate what the best yarn options will be. Is it a sweater? A scarf? A blanket? Socks? Mittens? For each of  these types of projects you’ll want to look for some specific features in your yarn.

  • Blanket – The sky is the limit here, you can pretty much get away with using anything.
  • Scarves – Most scarves are worn next to the skin, so you’ll want to choose something soft.
  • Sweater or other top – you’ll want to figure out if this is something you’ll wear next to your skin or will be layered over another shirt. If it’ll be next you your skin, you’ll want it very soft, if you’re going to layer it, you don’t need the fiber to be quite as soft, although typically, the more fitted the the garment, the softer you’ll want your fiber. There are some great yarns out there that work wonderfully for some projects that would make very uncomfortable sweaters.
  • Sock – These are interesting, while they are worn next to the skin, I have discovered that feet don’t seem to care quite as much about how soft the fiber around them is as your arms and neck seem to. You’re feet may be different.
  • Mittens – Again, close to skin, so the same rules apply. However much like your feet, your hands seem to be little less picky.

2) Consider the final recipient of your project.

This is very, very important. Is it for yourself, someone you can trust to care for your hand knitwear with the utmost care? Is it for a baby and are you going to want to be able to throw it in the washing machine? Is it for a dear friend, who loves your knitting but may forget to wash it properly? These are very, important things to consider.

3) Consider how long you’d like this project to take. 

Do you have a year to finish it? Or does it need to be done for a baby shower in a couple weeks? Yarns come in different weights, or thicknesses, and the thicker the yarn, the faster it’ll go. I’ll touch on this a bit more ins step 5.

4) Consider the pattern.

Does the pattern call for a specific kind of yarn? Usually the designer intended the pattern for that specific yarn, and you’ll get the best results by just following what they say. However, there are some very good reasons for substituting yarns, but it should be done carefully. At minimum, you should try to get the same weight and fiber content that is called for. I will go over all that should be considered in yarn substitutions in another “Knitting Basics” blog post.

Phase 2: Determine

Now it’s time to make some decisions!

5) Determine Fiber Content.

Based on the decisions you’ve made in the previous steps you’ll have a list of criteria for the yarn you choose. So you walk into your local yarn store or start shopping online. The options are endless. So let me give you a little outline of the various features you’ll get from different yarns. Generally speaking the fiberworld is divided into three categories, plant fiber, animal fiber, and synthetic fiber. Each one has it’s pluses and minuses. I’ve put together a chart to give you a general idea of the difference between each of these fibers.

Merino Wool Merino is sort of considered top of the food chain in the knitting world. It’s incredibly soft, fairly durable, and comparatively inexpensive when compared with your luxury animal fibers.
Peruvian Wool This is your basic wool yarn. It’s a bit scratchy, so I wouldn’t make a cowl neck sweater out of it. But it felts beautifully, and if you want to make a cheaper blanket, it’s a great option.
Superwash Wool Excellent for baby and kid knitting as well as socks as it’s essentially washable. This fiber goes through an extra treatment process that makes the yarn resistant to felting when washed.
Alpaca This fiber comes from animals that look like mini llamas. It’s very soft, however the tougher guard hairs can get into the yarn and make it a little “pokey” on occasion. It’s also about 4 times as warm as wool is.
Silk We all know what silk is. In the knitting world it is just as luxurious of a fiber. Often it’s combined with wool. And makes simply gorgeous final projects. One interesting note though is that silk is actually quite a bit warmer than wool, so it’s an excellent choice for hats and mittens to match your classiest coat.
Cotton This is baby knitting favorite. Totally washable, usually quite soft, it can also be very hard wearing as well. It does tend to pill a bit.
Bamboo Bamboo fiber is made from the pulp inside the bamboo plant. It is very soft and is often blended with other fibers to give it a beautiful sheen. Occasionally you’ll find a pure bamboo yarn.
Rayon/Modal This is a fiber that’s manufactured celulose out of naturally occuring polymers. That’s all I know about it’s orgin. I do know it’s a wonderfully smooth fiber that adds a lot of luxurious sheen when blended with wool or cotton.
Nylon A fiber that’s made from synthetic polymers. You will find nylon in most yarns designated as “sock yarn” as it gives the wools some extra durability.
Cheap Acrylic Avoid. I’ve heard it described as knitting with plastic grocery bags, and I couldn’t agree more.
Quality Acrylic Not all acrylic is created equal. Acrylic blends, especially ones manufactured by the higher quality brands can be quite nice to work with, and again acrylic is washable which is usually a bit win with people.


A more detailed PDF version of this chart can be downloaded here.

Take all this info with a grain of salt. There are huge variations between brands using the same fibers. It really is best to get your hands on the actual yarn and make an assessment for yourself. At the very least, I recommend reading the comments for a yarn you plan to buy on ravelry or some other favorite yarny site.

6) Determine Weight.

Usually a pattern will tell you what weight yarn you’ll need. Yarn weight terminology isn’t very intuitive at all. But here’s the rundown: Super Bulky and Bulky yarn is the thickest, then comes heavy worsted, and worsted, followed by double knitting, sport, fingering, then lace, in that order. Like I said earlier the thicker the yarn the faster it knits up. However, it’s also worth pointing out that some weights typically work well for certain types of projects.

  • Lace – As you may have guessed, this weight yarn is usually used for lace work.
  • Fingering – Typically used for socks
  • Sport – This is sometimes called baby weight yarn, probably because this weight is often used for baby knitting.
  • Double Knitting (DK) and Worsted  – These are your typical sweater weight yarns.
  • Bulky – Lots of “quick knits” are designed with bulky for obvious reasons.

So there you go, you’ve got the basics of navigating your Local Yarn Store. I will say that the information in steps 5 and 6 is just to give you a frame of reference. Any yarn that you get your hands on and want to work with could work for whatever project your looking to start.

Have fun shopping!


Entry filed under: Knitting Basics. Tags: , , , , , .

And So My World Changes Lots of Knitting

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