The Big Picture: Part 2

Welcome back, everyone!

First, I have to thank you all for your tremendous response to this blog series! Your enthusiasm and your feedback have been so encouraging! You’ve really made writing this series a joy.


Last week we talked about some of the aesthetic qualities that we look for in yarns, those that are pleasing to the senses. We covered color, luster, hand, and drape…

And then I ran out of room.

So thank you for returning to Part 2 of our first topic, The Big Picture: Qualities of Yarn and Why They Matter.


The beauty of a yarn, of course, is only half of the big picture. It must also be useful- it must meet the needs of our finished product. We judge a yarn’s appropriateness for a project by its functional qualities- those that describe the behavior of a yarn or fabric when used. Some examples of functional qualities are insulation, absorbency, elasticity, and washability.


Warmth is probably the reason people started knitting in the first place. Of course, heat retention not quite the issue for us that it was for our knitting ancestors…but its opposite, breathability, certainly matters in our climate! Whether you want more or less insulation from your yarn will have a huge impact on your selection. Yarn weight and fiber content in particular will affect the insulating properties of a yarn. Below, compare the bulky weight alpaca on the left with the dk weight bamboo cotton on the right- which would you choose for winter, and which for summer?


As you might think, absorbency describes the ability of a yarn to soak up liquids. But have you ever considered how this affects the end uses of a yarn? Obviously high absorbency is a must when knitting dishcloths or bath sets- hence the popularity of practical cottons like Sugar n’ Cream, at left below. Low absorbency has its benefits, too- yarns like Dreambaby (below right) that shed liquids rather than retaining them don’t stain easily, making them perfect for children’s garments and accessories. Absorbency is closely related to fiber content- natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk, and wool tend to absorb well, while synthetic fibers like acrylic and nylon do not.


Have you ever knitted a garment that fit perfectly the first time you wore it, then mysteriously grew over time? You might be tempted to complain about stretching- but stretch is not to blame! The true culprit it elasticity: the ability of a yarn to return to its original shape after being stretched. Many yarns have excellent stretch and elasticity, allowing them to fit snugly and still keep their shape over time- which is especially crucial for projects like the socks on the left below. Other yarns can stretch but are not elastic, so they simply expand. These yarns can make wonderful scarves, shawls, or even skirts…just be prepared for their size and shape to morph, like the dishcloth on the right below. Elasticity is the result of fiber content and yarn structure. Synthetics and many animal fibers are highly elastic, but cotton and linen are notorious for having very little elasticity. Plied or tightly spun structures help add elasticity to any fiber, while singles or loosely spun yarns are more relaxed.


One of the most often-requested functional qualities of a yarn is washability. There are many factors that affect the washability of a yarn. Will it shrink? Stretch? Fade? Bleed? Fortunately, most yarn companies provide specific instructions for washing their yarns, which we’ll discuss during the last week of this series. To make a long story short: the degree of care a yarn requires is determined by its fiber content, structure, the dyeing process used, and more. For example, we’ve all experienced (by accident or on purpose) a wool project which felted in the wash- this is a reaction to moisture and agitation unique to animal fibers (see the photo at left below). However, the same fiber may be treated with a finish that prevents this process- and viola! Superwash wool, as seen in the photo on the right below.

The aesthetic and functional qualities we’ve discussed during the last two posts are just a few of the many qualities we seek in a yarn. Next time you’re yarn shopping, ask yourself what you love about this yarn or what you need from that yarn. I hope you’re as curious about the answers as we are! Share your experiences in the comments below.

Next week we’ll be talking about yarn in a less theoretical sense was we move on to Week 2: Yarn Weight- It’s Not Just a Number! Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time!


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sandra David
    Aug 24, 2016 @ 10:45:32

    When someone tells me that “you can’t wash wool” I always laugh. All wool is washable, just not always in the same way with the same amount of care. So is most fiber for that matter. You’ve given a great description of the variables that make the method and amount of care paramount for yarn users to understand . Way to go for fruthering yarn education! Knowledge is power, and it makes us happier yarn users.



  2. Marsha Moore
    Aug 24, 2016 @ 10:49:52

    Very much enjoying the yarn knowledge.



  3. mrsmarshamoore
    Aug 24, 2016 @ 11:01:55

    Hi all – know this is not related to the blog subject but thought I would share this URL which I came across this AM that could be of interest to those of you, like me, wonder what to do with a sweater to recycle.  Check out this link: good idea for “last resort” fixes:):):)Marsha Moore Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Tab®4



  4. Rebecca
    Aug 24, 2016 @ 11:14:31

    Thank you for the informative blog. Too many times I have said “oh wow what a great color ” . But have been disappointed in the finished project because I chose the wrong yarn. This information will assist me in making better choices



  5. Gail
    Aug 24, 2016 @ 12:26:39

    Thanks for another great blog. I think I need to be asking myself more questions when I yarn shop, I am a sucker for color and touch but I need to ask myself more questions before choosing.



  6. Trackback: Yarn Weight: It’s Not Just a Number! | The Yarn Patch

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