This past season I’ve had the chance to do a couple of LYS workshops on yarn substitution, which is a regular challenge for many of us knitters since we just have so much fantastic yarn to choose from in the 21st Century marketplace. One of the key steps in this process (which becomes much more intuitive, the more you do it, I promise), is to be able to read the labels (or ‘ball bands’) on your yarn. Because if you don’t know what weight the yarn is, you won’t be able to confidently use it as a substitute for the yarn called for in the pattern. You might not be able to use the original yarn in the pattern, but you CAN look for a yarn of the same weight (i.e. does it call for a fingering weight, DK weight, worsted weight, etc).
If you’re trying to figure out what weight of yarn you have, the key bits of information you need are things like how many yards per weight of yarn (fingering weight yarn, for example, tends to fall around 400 yds per 100g/3.5 oz), and what gauge it’s recommended for (again, fingering weight yarn, will have a gauge in the area of 27-32 sts/4 ins or 10cm). This sort of information is huge, and if you are new to this whole adventure of figuring out yarn weights, even these two pieces of information will give you a fabulous place to start.
However, there’s a lot of info packed into these tiny slips of paper. Two years ago I made an anatomy of a yarn label post summarizing exactly this kind of info, and I’ve updated it here with some handy-dandy colour-coding, using 3 different yarns as examples. I pulled these labels from things in my own yarn stash.
Reading a Yarn Label:
1. Yarn Company Name (marked in red)
This is the company or dyer which produces the yarn. There will usually also be some contact information or company website/email along with this, somewhere on the label.
Examples above: Berroco, Knit Picks, Cascade Yarns.
2. Yarn Name (marked in dark orange)
This is the name of the yarn line itself. Often this will have the weight of the yarn listed within the name, as is the case with the Hawthorne Fingering, above. We know that one is a fingering weight. The others don’t tell us the weight within the name, so we can use the other information to interpret this.
Examples above: Ultra Alpaca, Hawthorne Fingering, Cascade 220 Heathers
3. Stitch gauge, sts/4 ins (marked in dark yellow), and
4. Stitch gauge, sts/1 inch (marked in pink)
One of the most crucial things you need to know about your yarn is what the recommended gauge is, in other words, the intended number of stitches per amount of knitted fabric.
Some companies will provide this in stitches per 4 ins, some in stitches per 1 inch. You can see the Ultra Alpaca label uses a little square icon to represent the gauge over 4 inches (20 stitches and 26 rows), and the other 2 labels indicate this just in writing. The Knit Picks label also adds the CYCA icon (a little yarn ball with a #1 on it) that represents its weight class according to their system. Many yarn labels will include the CYCA icon but don’t expect to see it all the time. (I had to search a bit in my stash to find a yarn that used it, interestingly enough. Also, you’ll see stitch gauge but may not always see row gauge (as is the case with the Cascade 220 Heathers label).
Moral of the story is, stitch gauge is one of the strongest indications of yarn weight, and there are several different ways it can be represented. Welcome to knitting world! We have many ways of doing everything! It is both confusing and delightful.
Examples above: Ultra Alpaca 20 sts and 26 rows/4 ins or 5 sts/1 inch, KnitPicks Hawthorne Fingering 7 sts/inch or CYCA category #1, Cascade 220 Heathers 18-20 sts/4 ins.
5. Yarn fibre content (marked in brown)
When substituting yarns, it’s ideal to get a yarn that has both the same weight and the same approximate fibre content as the original one called for in the pattern. For example, if it calls for a worsted weight wool yarn and you substitute a worsted weight cotton/silk blend, there’s a good chance your results will differ. Try to get something close to the original if you can. Also pay attention to your own preferences – if you knitted an alpaca hat once and found it irritating to wear, then you know what to avoid in future.
Examples above: Ultra Alpaca 50% alpaca/50% wool, Hawthorne Fingering 80% superwash wool/20% polyamide, Cascade 220 Heathers 100% Peruvian Highland wool.
6. Yardage of ball or skein (marked in light green)
This will be crucial in deciding how much of the yarn you need to purchase to complete your project. If you’re choosing Cascade 220 Heathers, and you need 1700 yds of worsted weight wool to knit your project, then at 220 yards per skein you need to buy 8 skeins. (Also don’t forget, most cell phones have calculators on them, if it’s been a long day and even basic arithmetic is feeling hard).
Examples above: Ultra Alpaca 215 yds, Hawthorne Fingering 357 yds, Cascade 220 Heathers 220 yds per skein.
7. Weight of ball or skein (marked in dark green)
In combination with the yardage information, this will also help you determine the weight category of the yarn. The more yardage you have per 100g/3.5 oz, the lighter the yarn is. The less yardage you have, the heavier the yarn is. Worsted weight yarns are around 200 yds/100g, Fingering weight closer to 400 yds, Bulky weight is around 125 yds. These is some leeway of course, but even a rough estimate helps you size up the skein of yarn you’re holding in your hands.
Examples above: Ultra Alpaca 100g/3.5oz skein, Hawthorne Fingering 100g skein, Cascade 220 Heathers 100g/3.5 oz skein.
8. Colour name or number (marked in light blue)
This is one of the most crucial reasons to keep at least one yarn label from your project until it’s finished. If you need more, you’ll certainly need to know the colour name, and in many cases dye lot number if it is offered. If it’s a commercially dyed yarn the dye lot will identify other skeins dyed in the same batch, so if you can match dye lots you’ll know you’re getting the same colour as exactly as you can. However, hand-dyed yarns are done in small batches and don’t usually come with dye lots, so ordering an additional hand-dyed skein is still possible but more likely to have colour variation than what you chose original.
Examples above: Ultra Alpaca Colour 6288, dye lot 804; Hawthorne Fingering, Compass Kettle Dye. (The Cascade 220 Heathers does have a colour number, but it got chopped off in this photo. It’s colour 9459, Lot 2K0093).
9. Needle size recommended (marked in dark blue)
This is the needle size the company recommends using in order to achieve the intended stitch gauge. It may be given in metric or US needle size categories, or both. They may give you one needle size or a range. It may be the same needle size you need to get that gauge, or it may not. If in doubt, use the recommended size as a starting place to make a swatch, then see if you need to adjust your needle size to get stitch gauge.
Examples above: Ultra Alpaca 5.0mm/US #8, Hawthorne Fingering US #1-3, Cascade 220 Heathers 4.5-5.0mm/US #7-8.
10. Washing instructions (marked in purple)
How to care for your finished item will relate strongly to the fibre content. For example, the Hawthorne Fingering is made with superwash wool, and is also listed as being machine washable. This is not likely to be the case with regular wool. Sometimes the washing instructions will be written out, other times through the use of laundry symbols, as is the case with the Cascade 220 Heathers. The Hawthorne Fingering uses both.
Examples above: Ultra Alpaca Hand wash in cool water, Lay flat to dry; Hawthorne Fingering, machine wash gentle/tumble dry low; Cascade 220 Heathers, hand wash and dry flat.
If you’re an experienced knitter, you have probably discovered that reading yarn labels becomes a normal habit and you can do it pretty quickly. If you’re closer to the beginner experience, this might seem overwhelming, but it’s also one of the best ways to “level up” in knitting world – know your materials! It’s all easier to learn with practice.
I hope you’re enjoying some fine knitting this Tuesday, and that your yarn labels have all the information you need from them. Until next time!