I’ve noticed a spate of questions from newer knitters of late – via eMail, on wiseNeedle, in the mailing lists and in Live Journal forums – all asking about how to wind balls, or start skeins, or asking about the different yarn put-ups. I thought I’d help.

Part I – Shapes of the Beast

Knitting yarn is sold in many different configurations. Here are a few of the more common.

1. Large amorphous glob. Actually this is a hank or skein, similar to #6 and #7, but it’s massive and rather shop-worn. Like all hanks or skeins, it has to be rolled up into one or more balls before knitting can begin. Examples: Rainbow Mills Pebbles (shown); Schaefer Elaine and Miss Priss.

2. A spool-like ball, with the yarn rolled around an inner form. In this case, there’s a large cardboard tube inside. I’ve also seen yarns rolled around spongy centers and plastic foam cylinders. I would not recommend long-term storage of yarn wound on cardboard for long periods (read 7+ years) because cardboard is acidic, and the yarn in the center might discolor or become brittle over time. Spooled yarn can be knit as-is, without rewinding by finding the end and just starting. The spools will skitter around a bit, so keeping them in a bag while you’re working can be a good idea. Some of the ribbon yarns sold on spools benefit from beingunreeled toilet-paper-roll style instead of being pulled off the top while the spool sits on its flat end. Doing so can minimizethe number of twists as you work. I sometimes use an improvised axle type arrangement for unreeling (more on this in another post). Example: Plymouth Colorlash (shown); Berroco Suede

3. Cones. The thinner machine knitting yarns are often sold on cones. Sometimes you can find heavier yarns on cones, too – especially from mill-end shops. Coned yarn can be a great buy because the maker didn’t need to pay for the machines or labor to wind it off into balls or skeins. Coned yarn can be knit as-is, although just pulling it off the top of the cone can also introduce twisting. Some people prefer to unreel coned yarn using an axle set-up, or to wind the yarn into balls. While coned yarn also has a cardboard core, the high yardage on a cone means that relatively little of it is in direct contact with the yarn compared to the short yardage spool style balls. If Ithought a coned yarn (especially a white or light color yarn)might languish in my stash for a decade or more I might be tempted to wind it off into balls. Example: Classic Elite Believe – bought at the CE outlet in Lowell, MA (shown)

4. Mushroom stylepuffballs, usually speared in the center by an arrow-ended tag. I hate these. They’re always 50g, short yardage, and they appear tobeamong the most favored put-upsused by high end makers of expensive yarns. They behave especially poorly on the shelf or in the stash, losing their tags andfalling into floppy messes at the drop of a hat. They can however be knit directly from the ball without rewinding. Sometimes if your fingers are clever they can fishthe tail end outof the center, and they can be used either as center-pull balls or from both ends at once. Example: Grignasco Top Print (shown): Debbie Bliss yarns; On Line Linie 157 – Tessa.

5.Log-style wound skeins. These come in many sizes and price ranges. The giant format here is most common among lower cost mass-market yarns. The same format (but much smaller) is often found for more expensive yarns – notably European import cottons. These log skeins do not need any preparation. Most have both ends accessible on the outside, and can be knit from either end. Examples: Red Heart Super Saver (shown); Marks and Kattens Indigo Jeansgarn; Southmaid Cotton 8

6. and 7. These are standard issue hank style skeins. They are the most economicalput-up for makers to use, and the most common among small producers and hand-dyers, although they exist across the entire spectrum of yarns. Typically they’re made from yarn that’s been wound into a large diameter circle, then twisted a bit with one end inserted into the other. It’s easy to reduce them back to a single big circle. While some people claim they can untie the little strands holding a hank together, place it on the floor and knit directly from it – I wouldn’t recommend the practice. It sounds like an excellent opportunity to make a tangled mess. Save your sanity. Wind hanked yarn into balls before knitting from it. [More on this in another post]. Examples: Bartlett 2-Ply Worsted, Rowan Rowanspun 4-Ply (both shown)

8. Wound cheeses without center cores. Some yarn shops take coned or hanked yarn and wind it into these machine-assisted balls before selling it, often marketing the result as an in-store house brand. If you buy an inexpensive ball winder you can make these, too. Cheeses can beknit from either end and do not require rewinding before use. Example: Ball I made myself from Paternayan 3-ply

9. Small logs. These skeins are cousins of #5. They can be used as-is from the outside end. Very clever fingers can feel around the inside and pull out a glob to retrieve the inside end. That way these logs can be used as center pull balls, too. Example: Lana Grossa Melienweit Fantasy; Schoeller/Stahl Socka/Fortissima

There are other put-ups out there, this is not the full roster of what’s out there, but it’s pretty representative.

Why are there so many forms? Why isn’t everything sold knit-ready? Mostly it boils down to economics. Industry pals tell me that the machinery to make nice, neat ready-to-knit balls is expensive and hard to find. It just isn’t being made any more. For example, I’ve heard tell that Classic Elite uses some winding machines that are upwards of75 years old. If one of those machines breaks beyond repair, it can’t be replaced. They’ve had to reformat several of their yarns because of this problem.

On top of the machinery issue, winding is labor-intensive. Again, older machines require constant attention by operators, and using them is a multi-step process. For the most part, the industry just doesn’t have the volume of say a soda bottling plant. Except for the very largest producers (Caron, Coats & Clark), all knitting yarn makers/distributors rely on a level of labor that’s uncommon today. Labor is expensive. In an effort to minimize these costs, some makers have turned to less labor intensive put-ups, most notably selling in skein rather than in ball.

The sticker shock factor is another force contributing to the multitude of different forms – especially the prevalence of 50g sales units. Yarn is expensive. I’ve seen people shy away from larger 4 ounce skeins with hefty price tags, yet buy the equivalent dollar amount of yarn marked at $5.50 per 50gball. That lower per-ball price is a very seductive thing, even if the same total purchase price was expended. People also hate having to buy extra. If yarn came in 200g skeins and the typical project required 275g, a knitter would end up having to buy 400g to complete it. That’s 125g more yarn than needed. If the yarn came in 50g balls he or she would only have to buy 300 g – only 25g more than necessary. That overage translates to added cost and decreases the chance that the purchase will be made.

Does form factor influence purchase choices in general? I’d have to say yes. It does influence some people. I know several knitters who flat out refuse to wind hanks. They won’t buy any yarn that’s not ready to knit. On the other hand, I also know several that won’t touch aballed yarn, preferring to knit from yarns that come in hanks (I think there’s a snob factor here – theybelieve that allhanked yarn is superior to all balled yarn, although we all know thatblanket statement "alls" are rarely true).

I can also point toone yarn that’sa business-case poster child for the psychology of put-up influencing yarn purchase. That’s Classic Elite Wings. Although there are no reviews yet, it’s a nice yarn – a classic finishalpaca/silk/wool blend that’s soft and comes in attractive colors. It’s relatively pricey, but no more so than other soft alpaca blends of similar weight. I saw it on the shelf at my LYS but noticed that people would pick it up yet buy other yarns instead. So I asked why. It turns out that the new format CE was trying out – sort of a hank folded in thirds and wrapped around the middle with a paper ball band -looked floppy and small compared to other yarns of the same weight/fiber/yardage. Those yarns came in happy little fat balls. They may have been the same 50g and within a yard or two of the Wings, but that wasn’t evident from the put-up. The balls plain old LOOKED bigger, even though they weren’t. Buyers were choosing the other yarn not because of color or price, but because they thought the balls were better buys.

Does form factor influence my own purchases? Generally not. I detest the mushroom ball, but if the yarn is attractive enough and priced right, I’ll buy it and use it. Ido admit non-rationality in that I always feel rooked when a big,beautiful, squishy ball ends up being a thin veneer of yarn on a big, fat, sponge center, even if I’ve studied the per-ball yardage and know exactly how much I’m getting. I don’t mind winding hanks into balls. I figure that having to do so myself is saving me around 75 cents per skein; or is part of the entrance price for getting to use a custom-dyed or artisanal yarn.

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