The Importance of Yarn Weight

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a large, well-known yarn store in California. As Thor parked the car, my eyes hungrily drank in the yarns and knit goods hanging in the windows. Stepping into the store, I was impressed both by amount and variety of (mostly) high end yarns. Wow.

As Thor found a quiet spot to read, I started exploring the inventory. I found a skein of wool in a great color in what I guessed was between fingering and sport weight, but while the tag noted its yardage, it contained no information about the skein weight. A woman was sitting behind a computer working, and I approached her. Here is a summary of our conversation:

Me: “What’s the weight of this skein?”
Her: “It’s 330 yards.”
Me: “So I read. But what’s its weight?”
Her: “What’s important is the yardage.”
Me: “Only in relation to the skein weight.”

I think I lost her, so I tried another approach. I grabbed a ball of a bulky mohair,

Me: “If I want to know if I could substitute the first yarn with the second yarn, I need to compare them – their yardage relative to their weight.”
Her: “No, you could knit them both at the same gauge, so they are interchangeable.”
Me: “No. If you fit these two yarns at the same gauge, one would make a dandy suit of armor and the other a shapeless rag.”

At that point we had reached what is probably called a stony silence, and I gave up.

A teaching moment:

In order to ensure that the size of the finished project is not a surprise, a correct stitch gauge is critical. (Row gauge is generally not too critical unless you are knitting or crocheting sideways or if the pattern has a specific motif.)

If you would like to use a yarn different than that called for in the pattern, it is not merely a matter of getting the same gauge. You should use a yarn of a similar weight. Yarn weight (e.g., lace, DK, sport, worsted, or bulky weight), reflects the relationship between the length of the fiber (i.e., yards or meters) in each unit (i.e., skein, ball, cone, hank) relative to the unit weight (e.g., 4 oz, 50 g, etc.).

20120905-174715.jpg

This picture shows different diameters but same length material: Maglite Flashlight, spaghetti, a knitting wire, and a network cable. If they were all yarns, you can visualize that they are not interchangeable! This is an obvious exaggeration, but I wanted to be as clear as possible that the weight of a yarn is critical to the finished project. To ignore it creates unpredictable and – frequently – disastrous results.

While you may be able to get the same gauge with very dissimilar yarns by changing needle sizes to knit or crochet more or fewer stitches per 4 inches, the resultant fabric will be quite different than the designer intended – the fabric that originally caught your attention. Knitting or crocheting bulky yarn, for instance, down to 5 stitches per inch creates a fabric that could probably repel arrows. Knitting or crocheting a lace weight yarn at 3 stitches per inch will give you a misshapen rag.

By the way, it turned out the “only gauge is important” clerk turned out to be the yarn store owner. I was flabbergasted. I can only conclude she is an efficient business owner but a unskilled fiber artist. (I hope she does not teach classes at her store.)

Does this make sense? As someone who has taught both math and knitting, I will happily write another post explaining the mathematics behind gauge, yarn weight and finished project!

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About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
This entry was posted in Crocheting, Fibers, Knitting, Weaving. Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to The Importance of Yarn Weight

  1. Anything to help! πŸ™‚

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  2. knitnkwilt says:

    Thank you for the shortcut! (Took me a long time to get back because my computer was in the shop. It is all well again.)

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  3. I will grab that Droid version the minute it’s out!

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  4. Before yesterday yes, but not now! my new app Yarn Pro is now available for iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. We’re working on the Droid. I have 2 pages on my blog about YarnPro. πŸ™‚

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  5. I would have hoped that a high end yarn store would know about weights and yardages. Siiiigh. So, now you know you have to carry a weight chart and a food scale to that store, eh?

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  6. Hi! This post is so funny… I also love the one about the hat for your friend Andy. Thank you for stopping by my blog! As a beginner I would actually love you to write a post on the maths behind yarn weights and gauges, I like understanding the ‘science’ behind what I’m doing. And I’m off to check out your YarnPro app… I’ll be following you for more tips!

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  7. Pingback: The Importance of Yarn Weight « Aventures with wool and cotton

  8. MimisMommy says:

    Very helpful post. I too took a long time to understand skein weight and yardage and wpi. Now, I always make a swatch before starting any project. πŸ™‚

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  9. Pops De Milk says:

    I love those trolls! Still have three pencil toppers (one of which is the one in the picture hehe).

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  10. It sounds as though you have a great LYS. No, the owner wasn’t confused or busy; in fact, we had a conversation about it and she was adamant and actually said – and I quote – “I know I can knit those at the same gauge so they are interchangeable.” An example of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”?? Would I go to that yarn store again? Sure – but I’ve got decades of knitting experience (and once worked in a yarn store like your LYS). Would I send beginners to the yarn store? No, only with a shopping list – not for help. (Granted, her clerks may be good; I don’t know.) It makes those with good LYS grateful! πŸ™‚

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  11. Wow! The owner?? Makes me grateful for the ladies at my LYS. I have never had a problem with them answering any questions since I started knitting (and whenever I went to do my homework on the advice I got, they were always right too). And I would think helping a customer SUCCESSFULLY substitute a yarn in a pattern is probably the most important skill an owner should have. It’s probably the number one question they get asked all day…Yarn weight, yardage, how that stuff is probably going to behave after it’s washed compared to the yarn called for in the pattern…all that’s important for that-not just gauge (and I love your example…I can get the same gauge with 2 different yarns and the fabrics be light years apart!). Maybe she was just too busy to fully concentrate on the question?? She had to be…

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  12. Thanks for reading the post. Yup, I too was so very surprised at her lack of knowledge and even understanding of why weight is critical. By the way, I love the picture you use … reminds me of the troll collection my daughter had many years ago! (She loved ’em!)

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  13. Pops De Milk says:

    Hi! Thanks for visiting my blog.
    This post makes SO much sense. Substituting a type of yarn for another is something I learned in the beginning that you cannot always do – the yarns must be of similar weight or you end up with something too small or too big. It’s surprising that the store owner didn’t know that!

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  14. It was a first for me – I mean, meeting a yarn store owner who seemed to have a weak understanding of working with yarn! It takes a lot to make me speechless, and I have to admit I think my jaw dropped! Thanks for visiting and commenting. πŸ™‚

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  15. Tanya says:

    Makes perfect sense and it is very scary that this person OWNES the store. But it is amazing how many people don’t get it. And substituting same “weight” of yarn but different fibers (say cotton for wool) and don’t get why it doesn’t look the same as the pattern picture!

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  16. Yes … Quite surprising – so I assume she is a good business owner, just not a knit or crochet expert. I finally got the gauge, drape (etc) in a gauge for your pattern, started knitting and ran out of yarn! I am traveling and my stash is at home. πŸ™‚

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  17. I am stunned to hear that a yarn shop owner knows so little about yarn substitution! There are so many elements to consider, as you point out: drape, weight, feel, fibre as well as yardage. When the guage/tension is spot on and you adore your swatch it is time to start your project! I am delighted that you have chosen one of my designs and cannot wait to see some photos! Thank you for yet another great post!

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  18. streepie says:

    Thanks for this Karen – you are right, these are also important points to consider.

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  19. Some soakers (with 4 ply held doubled for a DK pattern πŸ˜‰ ), a lone sock and tomorrow I’m starting a KAL for a shawl. It’s terrifying stuff! You? πŸ™‚

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  20. My husband dabbled in knitting but only got half way through a bullet proof garter stitch scarf, his tension is incredible! πŸ˜‰

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  21. A great local knitting shop is indeed a find to be treasured!

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  22. Wow … I’ve met people like your mother who are then near tears to find out the yarn in the pattern they really really really want to make was discontinued 2 years earlier. They won’t consider substituting 😦

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  23. Math is VERY important in weaving too … as evidenced by the send of cotton handtowels I had warped on my loom at 40 epi that ended up making one washcloth. No kidding! I forgot to calculate in pesky little measurements like take up, shrinkage, etc. Ahhh, keeps one humble. πŸ™‚

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  24. Good … because you will have less problem understanding how to end up with finished garment that actually bears some resemblance to the planned garment! πŸ™‚ What are you working on now?

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  25. He and Thor would get along! By the way, Thor’s working on a gauge swatch right now. Once he’s done with it, I will show him how to create a hat out of his head measurements!

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  26. Indeed there is a lot of math in it! In fact, I told this to one of the math professors in our women’s faculty group who was pleasantly surprised. We talked at length about it (with me sketching madly on cocktail napkins), and she eventually used some of what I taught her in her classes!

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  27. Okay. I will start working on that. πŸ™‚

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  28. And I once knit something at a gauge way too large for it and it looked like a raggedly swim suit cover up! πŸ™‚

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  29. Or take some classes! πŸ™‚

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  30. You may be right: experienced knitters develop an intuition about things. I definitely intuit a lot but given my background, I always check the math … and then check it again. πŸ™‚

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  31. Jaw dropping shocking! πŸ™‚

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  32. I think you touched on something important: being able to do the math! That escaped a lot of the beginning and intermediate knitters I’ve helped over the years. πŸ™‚

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  33. Yup, I was stunned. And I’ll tell Thor you loved the picture. That was his idea. He walked in the room holding a Maglight and a computer cord and suggested taking a picture of different diameter cylinders! I added the spaghetti and knitting wire. πŸ™‚

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  34. I remember from working in a yarn store that the vast majority of our customers were not designers and highly experienced knitters; they were people who regularly asked for help: What yarn would work best, what yarn could they substitute, how to pick up dropped stitches, forgetting how to bind off or cast on or how to do the Kitchner stitch, etc. So I am WISH YOU … a knitting shop store owner who doesn’t grasp knit design and fiber construction is like having a butcher who’s a vegetarian or who eats only hamburgers.

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  35. Yes … I was really, really surprised. I keep coming back to my impression she must be a business owner more than a designer or fiber artist.

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  36. Thank you! I am glad you found it useful.

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  37. I guess because what’s “common sense” to folks like you and me is neither common nor sensible to others. πŸ™‚

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  38. Oh, lots of things affect gauge, and not just your mood (e.g., tired, anxious, angry)! For instance, you can get slightly differing gauges on different colors of the same yarn; on the same size needles but by different manufacturers; on the same size needles but of different materials; and, especially, whether you’re knitting in the flat or in the round. So if the pattern is knit in the flat, knit your gauge in the flat. Likewise, if your pattern is knit in the round, do your gauge in the round.

    To get around having to knit a 10 or 12 inch tube to measure a gauge, this is what I do: In garter stitch, knit a couple of rows. * Now, with the (live) yarn in your hand, go back to the beginning of the row you just knit. Leaving a large loop of yarn dangling behind your knitting (large enough so that you can flatten out the gauge to measure), knit the second row.* Repeat between the *s until you’ve knit enough rows for your swatch. Then knit a few rows of garter stitch, take off the needle, and press the gauge flat and measure. Ignore all the long loops of yarn hanging the swatch. πŸ™‚

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  39. I had heard a lot of good buzz about her store, so I assume she has hired good clerks and teachers. The store’s yarn selection was impressive.

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  40. To say I was stunned is an understatement! Years ago I worked at Soft Horizon Fibres in Eugene, Oregon. It is owned by Mona Rummel: BFA, MFA, a skilled knitwear designer, and creator woven tapestries I have always thought of as museum quality. So I ASSUMED that all yarn store owners were like Mona. Hah! (Oh, Mona is also a great person too who carries an impressive array of yarns!)

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  41. I was SO surprise. Thor was sitting a bit away reading a magazine. When we got outside, he asked me what happened because he said I looked so stunned (his word) when I was chatting with her. I don’t like to use the names of either clerks or yarn stores with whom/which I have not had good experiences, but I will sing like a canary about those that impress me. The next day I went to K2TOG in Albany, California (www.k2togonline.com, 888-722-9276), and chattd with the owner (Elen Graves). A GREAT store and a SKILLED and KNOWLEDGEABLE fiber person! (Great selection too!)

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  42. That is not always the case. Understanding how the actual yarn weight (yardage relative to skein weight) compares to the weight of the yarn you’re thinking about substituting (plus/minus above/below the weight of the original yarn), is important when you would like your project to resemble (in drape, feel, weight), the original design. I know a lot of people group yarns broadly (worsted, bulky, etc.) and then go from there, but there are variations within each, variations that are exacerbated by fiber content and the actual construction of the yarn. This helps the artist avoid surprise outcomes. πŸ™‚ Earlier this week I worked on gauge swatches and different yarns for two days. I am knitting one of Linda Marveng’s (marveng-puckett.com) patterns that used cotton and I wanted to use wool. So I have been making fairly large gauge swatches in order to get an accurate feeling of the drape of different yarns. (I finally found something that both worked and that I liked, and I just finished a sleeve. I think it will be lovely.)

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  43. streepie says:

    a little post-script….
    I actually only came across yarn weights (and wpi) when I was introduced to ravelry. You don’t necessarily need to know about the yarn weight when you want to make substitutions – the gauge (i.e. no of stitches and rows per 10×10 square) as well as the recommended needle size give you all the information you need…. (and that’s the info you have on most yarn labels).

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  44. I consider myself a novice in the knowledge of knitting but this seems pretty elementary! I can’t believe she has a yarn store! Do you mind sharing which one it was, so I can avoid it? (I live in Cali). But I would really love a post breaking down the mathematics of gauge, because the explanations I’ve encountered are inadequate and I think in terms of mathematics so I’m sure it would help me immensely. Thank you for sharing this post!

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  45. Wow, I can’t imagine ever shopping at a store like that. It’s frustrating when a salesperson (or worse yet, owner!) doesn’t know what they’re selling, but I would be *furious* about someone actively spreading misinformation like that.

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  46. Don’t think she will be in business for long. Wow!

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  47. knitnkwilt says:

    Whew! Let me add my “unbelievable” to everyone else’s! I am intrigued that you say you cannot adjust gauge to make a different weight yarn work, though. I’d have thought to just do a gauge swatch and do a proportion math equation to get the new stitch needs. I wouldn’t do major variations in weight that way, I guess, just slight ones.

    I faithfully do my gauge swatches, but find that as my mood changes, and as I change from flat to round knitting my gauge changes unpredictably…I’ve redone several items that had fit involved.

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  48. Yes, the owner was the person behind the counter. Sadly. It seemed to be a good yarn shop in terms of fiber selection, books, etc., which is why her lack of knowledge about knitting design etc. startled me. I just hope the owner doesn’t teach intro to knitting or crocheting classes. πŸ™‚

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  49. Northern Narratives says:

    Sad to say that I been to a few stores like this myself. So happy that my local knitting shop has both friendly and knowledgable staff πŸ™‚

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  50. How did she not understand weight? It’s not just about fiber, it’s about common sense!

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  51. Tami says:

    Wonderful article I have shared it on facebook and google+

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  52. MJ says:

    In fairness to Karen’s story and to this shop, whichever it was, the individual behind the counter was not identified as the shop owner.

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  53. ethgran says:

    Being a non- math person yet one with spacial relationships ability, it seems obvious how weight plays into ‘getting it right’ in knitting. Rarely do I knit something in the recommended yarn but usually close to the same weight, and sometimes not if I want something denser or lighter than the pattern shows but don’t want to change the number of stitches Sounds like the store owner (and I have run into the occasional owner like that) knows more than any customer by virtue that she/he is the Owner – as in “How dare you contradict me!”

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  54. caityrosey says:

    I’m very surprised that a shop owner would not understand your question or be able to answer it properly. This seems like basic knowledge for a knitter, and don’t-do-business-without-it knowledge for a shop owner. Ye Gods! (said just like that girl from The Music Man).

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  55. reWOLLuzza says:

    I’d thought that the importance of yarn weight was self-evident – even to a beginner or non-knitter… but a yarn shop owner?!? By the great Flying Spaghetti Monster, that’s almost too much to believe!
    I like the way you compare the maglight to the knitting wire, btw. That’s a great way to get the concept across to really, really everyone. πŸ™‚

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  56. streepie says:

    Yardage is obviously important – we don’t want to run out of yarn, do we?
    But then, to substitute one yarn for another, yardage is less important (in my view) – yarn weight and gauge much more so. I do substitute a lot – and always try and find a yarn that has the same weight and approximately the same gauge as the original yarn. (If the gauge is off a bit, I can always do the maths!)

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  57. Tina says:

    I’ve actually had many people tell me, including shop owners that have knitted a very long time, tell me the most important thing is the yardage. I agree with them to a point and as one that has knitted for more than 20 years very seldom use gauge but I think that’s because I know what weight of yarn and needles to use to be able to interchange.

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  58. minaandme says:

    Wow, I can’t believe the owner of the store would be that clueless! Perhaps she needs to re-evaluate a few things…
    ~Lacey

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  59. kiwiyarns says:

    LOL! I had to laugh at the suit of armour reference. I have knitted one of those… much to my chagrin. Fortunately, I have learned a lot about the importance of yarn weight since then!

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  60. Heidi says:

    I would love to read a post on math and gauge – I’m about to teach myself how to make a pattern from scratch or modify an other so I would love to hear more. I’ve started making samples to check my gauge so that I can calculate how much I need to cast on in order to get the size and so on.

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  61. There are all kinds of stores. I hate the ones that only say you have to use the yarn specified in the pattern. No imagination! If that’s all they do, why bother going to a store? Yes, there’s a lot of math in knitting! Great way to teach both!

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  62. PS. I have just tested my non knitting husband on this theory. He thinks it’s baloney because you need to know the yarn weight. πŸ˜‰

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  63. Oh my days. Who let her loose?! I might not get gauge very much and rarely knit a tension square (hey but I’m only just starting on garments) but I know about YARN WEIGHT. I cannot just use aran instead of DK or 4 ply because I have the same length. This was something that I grasped almost straightaway and I’ve been a slooow learner. The mind boggles. πŸ™‚

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  64. I’m crap at maths, but even I know gauge is important (not that I knit, but i do weave)

    I’ve been getting grumpy lately too, ever since Nancy sold handweavers in london they’ve been getting less and less helpful – I’ve had similar problems with them

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  65. Pia says:

    Uh, wow… She either doesn’t knit, is not very critical about her finished items or, because she has it all in the shop, just always uses the yarn that goes with the pattern. My mum does that, doesn’t even pick another colour than the one in the product photo, her knitting is even and very nice, but she hasn’t got one ounce on creativity or math sense in her.

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