It’s All About The Yarn: Yarn Construction

My last “It’s All About The Yarn” post I discussed getting to know fibers. In this post, I look at the part of the manufacturing process, in which the fibers are spun into yarn – yarn construction.


Yarn selection is an enjoyable part of knitting. The variety of yarns has expanded enormously since the late 1950s when only a few types were available. Yarns are produced like fashion; some are trendy, others are classic or have been around for many seasons. Walking into a yarn store is to experience an extensive color palette and tactile pleasures. The success of any hand knitted project is dependent on choosing the appropriate yarn.

Most manufactured yarn is composed of either spun or filament yarns. Spun yarns are made of short lengths of fiber called staple fibers, the length the fiber grows naturally. Most of the natural fibers are staple fibers including wool, the hair from sheep, and cotton, the seeds of the cotton plant. Filament yarns are made of continuous strands of fiber that can be meters long. The only natural fiber that is a filament is silk; the long fibers extruded from the cocoon of the silk worm.

During manufacturing, synthetic yarns are produced in filament form, extruded from the holes of a device called a spinneret. The holes of the spinneret come in a variety of shapes and sizes producing filaments with different properties. Initially, extruded filaments are smooth and lustrous, and their properties can be changed to produce different types of yarn. By texturizing filaments, a fluffy yarn is produced. The filaments are cut into staple or short lengths, then spun to make hand knitting yarns.

Spun yarns must be twisted a certain amount so the fibers adhere to each other. The amount of twist affects the yarn’s performance. Twisting is accomplished through spinning. Spinning is done in textile mills, small cottage industry operations, or by hand. Filament yarns do not need to be highly twisted to adhere because of their smooth texture and length.

Yarns are further classified into two categories: simple yarns and novelty (specialty) yarns. Simple yarns are divided into the following types: a single fiber twisted into one continuous strand; two or more singles twisted together into a plied yarn; and two or more plied yarns twisted together into a cord. The degree of twist can range from low to high. Plied yarn affects yarn strength and durability. For example, a tightly twisted 4-ply yarn will wear better than a low twist single ply yarn.

Single 3-ply (plied yarn) 8-2ply cord (each ply is further plied)
3-ply (plied yarn)
8-2ply cord (each ply is further plied)

Novelty yarns are created by special spinning, twisting or combining these processes. An example is boucle yarn, formed by allowing one yarn to form loops around a core or central yarn, while a third yarn holds or binds these two yarns together. Slub yarns are made by uneven twisting of yarns creating thick and thin areas.

Yarns are also categorized by weight or thickness. Yarn strands vary in thickness from very fine to bulky. Weights are a guideline to help you choose yarn. Check out my post on yarn weights.

Dyeing is the application of color to textiles. There are natural and synthetic dyes. Dyes are organic compounds dissolved in water or liquid, so they penetrate the fibers. Dyes are chosen based on their compatibility with fibers. For example, a dye formula used to color polyester fiber is different from the dye used to color wool fiber. Textile fibers are dyed in the fiber (prior to spinning), yarn, or garment form.

I want to mention a few terms, because of the popularity of hand dyed and hand painted fibers. Most yarns are dyed a single, uniform color. Kettle dyed yarn is an advanced technique for coloring yarn that involves manipulating the dye in the pot to produce different looks. A common “look” is a subtle gradation of one color or lighter and darker areas of one color. Popular brands using this technique are Malabrigo and Manos del Uruguay. Hand dyeing in kettles has no true dye lots, but the hanks are dyed in batches, so each hank is a little different.

Space dyeing gives yarn a multi-colored effect. A skein of space dyed yarn is two or more colors that are repeated throughout a length. The effect is collage like or uneven horizontal stripes. This can be produced at home, but the effect is less precise.

Variegated yarn is dyed with more than one color. There is a wide selection of variegated yarns including: heathered or tweed with yarn flecks of different colored fibers; ombre with light and dark shades of a single color; multi-colored with two or more distinct hues; self-striping with lengths of color that automatically create stripes in a knitted project; and marled, made from strands of different colored yarn twisted together, sometimes closely related colors. The effects vary depending on the technique, pattern used, and the frequency of color changes. Examples of effects include “flashing” (lightning bolt effect) and “pooling” (patchy effect). Pooling has varied appeal amongst knitters. Some knitters find pooling a problem, so they will try to diminish its effect by alternating yarn from two different hanks every few rows.

Marled Yarn
Marled Yarn

In addition, many finishes are applied to yarns. Common finishes are mercerization and superwash. Mercerization is a chemical finish applied to cotton increasing its strength and adding sheen. Superwash wool is an applied finish that softens and alters the scale structure of wool so it is machine washable without shrinking or felting.

When shopping for yarn you’ll find it packaged in a variety of formats. Hand knitting yarns often come in a ball (round) or skein (oblong), already wound. Skeins are wound so that the inner strand can be pulled out from the center minimizing tangling while knitting. Slippery yarns such as bamboo or mercerized cotton are often wound around cardboard or a foam core, while other yarns used for machine knitting are wound as cones or spools.

Skein, Ball, Hank
Skein, Ball, Hank

A hank is a loosely wound coil of yarn tied in at least one area to keep it from tangling. Today more yarn is found in this format, due to the popularity of hand dying. Before using a hank it must be wound into a ball. A ball winder, a swift, and a nostepinne are tools which speed up the winding process.

Most yarns are packaged with a paper ball band containing important information including name of yarn, manufacturer, fibre content, color code and dye lot number, weight in grams and ounces, yards/meters, recommended gauge and needle size, and care instructions. As with all textile products, labels must contain the fiber content indicated by the percentage of each fiber that makes up the yarn. For example a label might read 100% merino wool or 80% wool/20% nylon. Special finishes or processes such as mercerization, bamboo sourced viscose, or superwash, may also be indicated.

The amount of yarn in meters and/or yards, color, and dye lot numbers are stamped on the band. It’s always a good idea to buy a little extra in the same dye lot for your project. Yarn is dyed in batches so it’s not uncommon for the same color to vary from one dye lot to another. When knitting an item in a solid color, you may notice an obvious line where a change in dye lots has occurred.

Suggested needle size and gauge for a 4 inch (10cm) swatch in stockinette stitch is included on the label. This information serves as a guideline in choosing yarns. In addition, care instructions are given by symbols, written instructions or both.

Detailed Ball Band
Detailed Ball Band

I hope you will take a closer look at the yarns you purchase, and experience the variety beyond the basic types.

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