Yarn Detective: Ballbands Are Liars

The ubiquitous yarn label: is it a crystal ball into what is right and good about a yarn, or a pulpy torture device?

The answer is yes.

I’ve learned through trial and error (so much error) that a yarn label is very much like the Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie The Princess Bride: not everything it seems.

Many knitters spend lots of time berating themselves and their knitting for not matching exactly what the yarn labels say, especially when it comes to the needle/gauge match up.

Other knitters cavalierly start knitting with the suggested needles and are disappointed in the result and themselves.

A yarn label is an important part of the toolbox to make your project. But like any tool, the more you know about it, the better use it is to your project.

A yarn label is more guideline than crystal ball. It gives you a starting point, but there are lots of ways to get from skein to sweater.

The best way to know a yarn is to swatch. You do have to hit the gauge numbers in a pattern if you want it to fit, but you don’t have to use the needles specified. Swatching doesn’t just tell you gauge, it tells you if this yarn is a good fit for you and your project. Swatching holds the answers to hand, drape, stitch definition, gauge, and perhaps the identity of the six-fingered man.

I have a lot of questions about yarn labels, mostly where do the numbers come from? To get answers to my yarn label questions, I went to two very knowledgeable friends in the yarn industry.

The Panel (of Two)

Jill Draper has been designing, dyeing and selling her own yarns since 2008, first her own handspun, then working with mills to make yarn based on Jill’s specification. The current range of Jill Draper Makes Stuff yarns are all grown, scoured, and spun in the United States. All yarn bases are custom designed and dyed, and most of the wool is purchased directly from the farmers raising the fiber.

Amy Christoffers has been a knitwear designer since 2010. For five years, she has also been Design Director at Berroco, where her job includes developing new yarns and matching yarns to patterns.

These two know yarn inside and out both from the creative and the business ends. They know how to build a yarn, by hand and with a mill, and they know how to design knitwear, putting them in a great position to discern fact from guideline on a yarn label.

Reading the Labels

I asked Jill and Amy about the information on their yarn labels and how it gets there.

Here’s a sneak peek: gauge is not an exact science. We knew it all along.

I’ve been dying to ask these questions for a long time. My sense has always been that only some label information is factual, and the rest is subjective, depending on lots of things. I’m not looking to point fingers or say something or someone is right or wrong. I am looking for information to share to help knitters understand yarn and how it works with the rights and not-quites in knitting. The more information you have, the more you’ll love your knitting and your knitting selves.

Labels: The Four Big Things

There are four big things on a label that are important to knitters:

  • fiber content
  • yardage
  • weight
  • gauge

Why? These characteristics tell you how the fiber will feel, how (and if) fabric will drape, clues to durability, the key to how many skeins for a project, and a starting point for gauge.

Shall We Storm the Castle?

Here’s what I asked these two intrepid yarn women, followed by their answers.

How do you decide what goes on the label?

Amy: The labels at Berroco have fiber content, yardage, weight, and country of origin. These are all FTC (Federal Trade Commission) mandates. We also include washing instructions with the symbols. When we have found additional information really useful, we add that too. For example, Berroco’s superwash yarn Ultra Wool performs best when both machine washed and dried, with a garment bag.

Jill: I include the most standard information, fiber content, yardage, weight of the skein, and suggested gauges.

This explains why almost all labels have the same information. It was a little surprising that the government is involved in what goes on the label.

How is the length of a skein measured?

Amy: Berroco yarns are sold by weight rather than length, usually in standardized put-ups of 50, 100, or 150 grams, except for some unique yarns. Many Berroco yarns are shipped from the mills already in either 50 or 100 gram hanks/balls/cakes, but Berroco has both hanking and balling machines that are able to be programmed to measure out specific length or weight skeins/balls.

Jill: When yarn is skeined, which in my case is always done at the mill, it’s wound on giant winders, 6-10 skeins at a time, that count rotations which gives the length. I then usually subtract about 10 percent of length for labeling purposes. When yarn is skeined under tension on the winder, it shrinks a little when it’s removed from the winder. Then, when I wash and dye the skein it constricts again. I don’t think these factors, combined, ever reduce the length in a skein by 10 percent, but I like erring on the side of people getting a couple extra yards versus a couple too few.

Here’s the answer to the conundrum of a skein of yarn sometimes running shorter than the label indicates: machines hold the yarn while it is counted. A machine is great for the consistency of counting, but the skein is held under tension to hold it in place, stretching the yarn. The yardage is counted while the yarn is stretched, when we knit with the yarn it is under much less tension, so yardage is a little shorter.

How do you decide what weight classification (fingering, DK, Aran, worsted, etc.) the yarn is?

Amy: Berroco labels the yarn following the Craft Yarn Council standard yarn weight system. We have been known to debate at some length the finer points of labeling a yarn as one weight classification versus another. There are yarns about which the debate continues even years after they have gone out onto the market.

Jill got a different question here since she doesn’t include a yarn weight classification on her labels.

Why did you decide not to add a yarn weight classification to your labels?

Jill: I think yarn weight is often mislabeled. If you see a pattern that calls for DK of one brand but another brand’s DK is quite different, you’ll end up with a bad yarn-to-pattern match. I tell people that when subbing yarns the best practice is to match yards per ounce or grams per meter instead of a suggested gauge or labeled yarn weight.

(Editors’ note: Jillian’s eye-opening article on grist is an excellent guide to doing as Jill suggests when substituting yarns.)

This is our first really gray area on yarn labels. Clearly not every yarn company follows the Craft Yarn Council chart, and some choose not to use a weight classification on their labels at all.

I’m with Jill 100 percent on this one. I see so many yarns labeled in a way that makes me mutter under my breath, before I even swatch. But I also understand knitters and shops need a shorthand way of organizing yarns, at least as a starting point.

The best way to know if this is the weight of yarn you need to get the gauge for your project is to swatch, especially if you are suspicious of the weight stated on the label.

How is gauge measured?

Amy: Usually three to four members of the Berroco design team swatch and finish a yarn, usually with a few different needle sizes to decide which needle/gauge/fabric we like best for a yarn. Once there is agreement, we give the yarn to one of our team members, Brenda York, who is our swatching gold standard. Brenda then knits an official gauge swatch based on the needle consensus of the whole team.  More and more, we like to push for dual gauges: a range with different suggested needle sizes.

Jill: For me, gauge is just a suggestion. When I develop a new yarn, I swatch it on lots of needle sizes. Then I wash it and see what range of gauges I would knit the yarn for a project. The range usually is in the middle of the reasonable gauge possibilities. I do knit my yarns at many different gauges, even beyond what’s suggested on the label. For instance, for mittens I’d probably knit tighter than the suggested gauge, and for shawls or a drapey style sweater, more loosely.

BOOM! There is no secret to gauge or getting gauge.

Gauge is set by human knitters. Being human, even knitters who knit for their jobs have variable gauge. They use different needle sizes, but they have to pick something to put on the label, so the company comes to a consensus on a gauge or gauge range, or has a person who is the gauge standard.

Every gauge snafu you’ve had is not your fault; you just knit to a different gauge from Jill or Brenda.

My knitted swatch photos below show how far off my knitting is from the suggested needle/gauge combo. The left swatch was made with the recommended needle size; the right swatch hit the recommended gauge—but required a different needle size. For the gray Jill Draper Makes Stuff yarn, I went down three needle sizes to get gauge.

mohonk by jill Draper Makes Stuff, swatched by Jillian.

For the blue Berocco yarn, I went down four sizes.

Ultra Alpaca by berroco, swatched by Jillian.

Some knitters take a yarn label needle/gauge combo as sacrosanct, and feel awful about their personal knitter worthiness if they can’t make the yarn work as the label demands. Here’s the truth: your needle/gauge combo is as unique as you are.

So yes please, come through, Carol Kane, and shout “Liar!” at the proponents of “perfect gauge,” and those who deny true love.

In her answer, Jill touches on what I call “incredible gauge shifter” yarns. IGSs are happy at multiple gauges. I talked about these lovely, versatile yarns in a previous article here on MDK.

Are label numbers ever rechecked?

Amy: Gauge is such a subjective thing, because the truth is there is no right gauge for any yarn—there is only a right gauge for what you want to make. We’ve gone back and added dual gauges to yarns, but never changed the official gauge completely.

The yarns are regularly rechecked. Random skeins are selected to be weighed to be sure that they are consistent and as expected, and some even get measured to be sure we have the correct yards/grams as stated on the labels. Colors are checked to be sure that dye lots are as consistent as possible from year to year.

Jill: Every time the yarn is skeined, it is done on the winder and wound to the right number of rotations and yards/meters. As for gauge, I knit with my yarns a lot, so I guess in that way I’m always “checking” the gauge.

Here are a few more words: even if you knit a yarn to the gauge specified by the yarn label or a pattern, you may not like how it looks or feels, and it’s OK to not use that yarn for your project, or knit it to another gauge.

Yarn labels have information to be used as a tool: part fact, and part suggestion. Don’t let a label or pattern dictate what yarn or needles to use. You get to decide what works for the result you want.

Learn to love (or at least accept) swatching. It’s the best way to know whether a yarn will work for the project you’d like to make.

The more you know about your yarn and the way you knit, the more you’ll be knitting as you wish.

This Could Come in Handy

It would be nice to be able to find this article again when you need it, wouldn’t it?
Here’s how to save this article in your MDK account with one click.

Bonus: Easter Egg!

Your reward, dear reader, for reading to the end of this post is this so-bad-it’s-good music video of Nick Lowe’s “All Men Are Liars.” (It scans perfectly to “Ballbands Are Liars.”) You’re welcome!

Love, Your Devoted Editors

Categories:   Knitting