For a first-timer, a visit to the local yarn store can be equally inspiring and intimidating. There’s all this wonderful yarn on display, but how do you go about to pick the right one? Don’t worry! We’ll help you through it in a few steps.
The quick-and-easy guide
If you’re about to start your first knitting project, do yourself a favour and take the easy way out. Just pick a pattern, look for the suggested yarn, pick a colour you like, a pair of needles in the recommended size (check the yarn ball label in case it’s not mentioned in the pattern) and knit away. If sizing is important (if you’re making a hat for example), take the time to check your gauge, but if you’re still in the process of learning the basic stitches, you should choose a project where size is of less importance, such as a scarf.
You see, yarn manufacturers and pattern designers are really mindful of the yarn they choose for each pattern, so going with the out-of-the box yarn options won’t get you terribly wrong. When you’ve finished a few projects, you’re ready to dig in deeper.
The 5 point guide to choosing yarn
First a disclaimer: this article does not cover the concept of gauge, which is of crucial importance when it comes to choosing yarn. You'll always want to obtain the same gauge as the pattern, but as this is affected by yarn, needles and each knitter's personal way of knitting, it's not strictly a matter of yarn choice. Please read our article on gauge and swatching as well.
1 What is it made of?
While this is perhaps not the most important question considering the outcome, i.e. your finished garment, it is an important one. Different materials all have different characteristics, and the look and feel of your garment will depend quite a lot on your choice of material. Yarns can be roughly divided into three major categories: those made of animal-based fibres, those made of plant fibres and finally synthetic, i.e. man-made fibres.
Sheep wool is by far the most common of all animal fibres, including wool from merino sheep (which is extra soft compared to other sheep wool). Alpaca wool is also extremely popular thanks to its softness. Other wool fibres from animals, such as angora (from rabbits), camel, cashmere (from goats), mohair (different goats), are also available, but are more commonly blent with sheep wool. The rarer the fibre, the more it costs, and you might consider twice before knitting a sweater from, say, 100 % yak yarn. Check out our 100 % wool and wool blend yarns.
Plant-based fibres include cotton, bamboo, linen, hemp and a few more. Cotton leads the race, and other fibres are frequently blent into cotton to vary the look and feel of the yarn. Cotton can also be mixed with wool, such as in Novita Wool Cotton. Check out our plant yarns.
Synthetic fibres, finally, are generally made from acrylic. While not as popular as animal fibres, they are useful e.g. for those with wool allergy. They are also machine-washable. Polyamide is added to sock yarns to make the yarn more durable. A sock from 100 % wool will have holes in the heels in no time. Check out our acrylic yarns.
The choice is yours - try different fibres and find your own favourite. But if your using more than one kind of yarn in your project, make sure they are roughly alike, as different fibres can behave differently, both on your needles and in your garment.
2 How will it look?
Besides colour, there are other factors that will affect the way your knitted garment will look (and feel). The density of the yarn is one of the more important ones. If you’d knit a project with lots of texture, you’ll want a yarn that’s fairly tight, because the yarn highlights the texture better. The same goes for detailed colourwork. If you want sharpness in detail, choose a tight yarn. Choosing a looser yarn for these projects is by no means wrong, just be aware that the outcome will look somewhat different.
Yarn density and fabric density, i.e. how tight your knitted fabric is, are two different things. You may knit with a tightly plied yarn but leave the gauge somewhat looser, or choose an airy yarn but knit it more tightly, thus increasing the fabric density.
3 How much yarn do I need?
While material and density matter in terms of look and feel and general qualities, yardage is a much more practical question. It comes down to how much yarn you’ll actually need for your knitted garment and how you can or cannot substitute one yarn with another.
Most patterns include a note on yardage or yarn demand, expressed either as yards/meters or balls/skeins of a particular yarn. It helps you pick the correct amount of yarn for you garment in your size. At Novita, we’ve made it all easy for you: Each of Novita’s patterns include a product kit, where you can choose your size and order the correct amount of yarn for just that pattern.
But if you’d like to replace a suggested yarn with another, or if you simply can’t find the suggested yarn anywhere? That’s where yardage is really useful. By comparing yardages, you can easily find a match. Any yarn with roughy the same yardage as another can be used as a substitute. The thicker the yarn, the smaller the yardage (a bulky yarn could have around 60 m of yarn per 100 g, whereas a thinner yarns can have around 500 m in a 100 g in a ball).
4 What do Aran, Worsted and DK mean?
As you make your way through your newly discovered universe of yarns, you’ll soon come across some strange terms, which obviously refer to yarn, but make no common sense. Sure, “lace” must be a thin yarn and “bulky” is thick – but what about the rest of them?
All of these are yarn weights. Yarns can be categorized according to the Standard Yarn Weight System, which includes eight categories from the lightest to the heaviest:
Each of these main categories include a number of subcategories such as Fingering, Baby, DK, Aran or Afghan. Each category of yarns has roughly the same recommended needle size and gauge.
So what’s the use of all this? Well, it’s a brand-neutral way to categorize yarns and tells you a bit more about the yarn than if you used yardage alone. But at the same time, it can also be a source of confusion. Different subcategories mean slightly different things in different countries, and the terms are by no means exact.
5 WPI - when all else fails
Yarn brand, material, yardage and/or yarn weight all help you choose the right yarn for any project. What what if you inherited aunt Molly’s old yarn stash, where the yarn labels are long lost? Then Wraps per inch or wpi is your final resort.
To measure yarn in wraps per inch (or WPI) you need a ruler, and something to wrap the yarn around that has a consistent circumference, like a pencil.
Begin by wrapping your yarn around the pencil for a few inches. The yarn should be snug, and the wraps should lay side by side without any over lapping, or large gaps between strands. Don’t pull the yarn too tightly to avoid skewing the measurements. If you’re unsure of your tension, practice with a yarn that you know the weight of.
Once the yarn is wrapped, use the ruler to measure how many wraps are in an inch. Measure a few places as you would a gauge swatch. Use this chart to compare your WPI number to the weight category to determine the weight of your yarn, and what hook or needle to use to reach a standard size gauge.
Keep in mind that wpi is subjective, and results will vary depending on how tightly the yarn is wrapped. Always work up a gauge swatch before starting a project.