When I first returned to knitting, yarn classification baffled me. I heard all of these exotic sounding appellations ("fingering weight" -- which always sounded a little dirty to my pervy mind, "DK," "chunky" [hey, who you calling chunky?!]) and didn't understand what they meant, or how they fit in relation to each other. Eventually, I figured it out, and was kind of pissed that it had taken me so long to decipher the code.
One of the most common questions that customers ask at the shop is how to substitute one yarn for another when purchasing supplies to make up a pattern. You really have to understand the big picture of how yarns are classified in order to do that well. I can talk about yarn substitution if you want -- you can tell me if it's something you'd like me to discuss, or if it's old hat to you and I should skip it-- but today I'm going to blather on about general ways to categorize yarns, or ways that you can think about different yarns in your head in order to get a more intuitive understanding of how yarn classification works.
Here are a couple of strands of yarn from my voluminous stash.
Some sort of bulky weight yarn is on the left, then an unidentified worsted weight, and then a strand of Regia sock yarn. We can think about classifying them in three different ways, each of which gives you the same end result, more or less.
First of all, and most intuitively, we can think of them in terms of thickness. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the yarn on the left is biggest and fattest. The sock yarn on the right-hand side is skinniest and the worsted weight, in the middle, is about medium ("Just right!" if you're Goldilocks). One way to look at yarn classification is by thickness, and it's the most simplistic; it makes a lot of sense intuitively but doesn't get you all the way to where you need to go.
This translates pretty well into the standard yarn classification chart. Looking at yarns in order of thickness, going from fattest to skinniest, you have Bulky Weight; Chunky Weight; Aran Weight; Worsted Weight; DK or Doubleknitting Weight; Sport Weight; Fingering Weight; and Lace Weight. I'll talk more about the specific categories later, so don't get your panties in a wad yet.
A second way to look at yarn classification, and one that will be more helpful to you in a practical sense, is by gauge. When you knit with thick yarns, you get fewer stitches per inch of knitting. When you knit with very thin yarns, you get more stitches per inch of knitting. Again, common sense: think of books sitting on a library shelf. Fat tomes like the Oxford English Dictionary take up lots of space; you might fit only three of them in a foot of library shelf. Thin volumes, like The Collected Wisdom of George W. Bush, with very few pages, take up much less space on the shelf. You probably could fit, oh hell, ten or twelve of them in that same foot-wide section of shelf. So it is with stitches: you can only fit about two stitches of the blue yarn in an inch of knitting, but maybe 7 or 8 stitches of the brown sock yarn in that same inch of knitting, and maybe 4 1/2 or 5 of the pink yarn in an inch of knitting.
That means that you can look at a yarn classification chart in terms of how many stitches per inch the yarns knit at. Starting with bigger yarns/fewer stitches and going to finer yarns/more stitches, you get: Bulky Weight (3 or fewer stitches per inch); Chunky Weight (3.5 to 4 sts per inch); Aran Weight (4 to 4.5 sts per inch); Worsted Weight (4.5 to 5 sts per inch); DK or Doubleknitting Weight (5.5 sts per inch); Sport Weight (6 sts per inch); Fingering Weight (7 sts per inch); and Lace Weight (8 or more sts per inch).
Finally, you can also think about how weight plays into yarn categories. Harken back to my discussion of how fine yarns are more economical and heavier yarns cost more; remember how I said that thicker yarns are more expensive than finer ones because they have more wool in them? That means thicker yarns also weigh more. (Again, common sense.) Now, one way that people can buy yarn without going crazy is because yarn companies tend to sell yarns by a standard weight per ball, say, 50-gram balls. (Wouldn't it be unbelievably irritating if your pattern was written for, say, twelve 35.76g balls and your yarn shop had only 21.38g balls? That kind of math gives me hairballs.) The heavier and thicker the yarn, the fewer the number of yards in a ball. A bulky weight yarn may have only 45 yards in a 50-g ball, a worsted may have about 110 yards in a 50-g ball, and a sock yarn may have as much as 200 yards in a 50-g ball.
This is good to know when you're presented with a mystery yarn. Every once in a while you may stumble across a ball of yarn that doesn't have any information about where it fits on the classification chart -- no appellation like "worsted weight," not even a notation that it knits at 4 to 5 sts per inch. But if you know that it's a 50-gram ball and it's got 109 yards in it, you can be pretty sure it's going to knit at around worsted weight, four to five sts per inch. You'll still want to check the gauge by knitting a gauge swatch (what - you thought I was going to tell you to skip that vital step? Hah!), but you'll at least have a sense of what kind of needles to start with.
Tomorrow: about the names given to specific weights of yarns, and why I hate the new Craft Yarn Council classification chart.
Because Franklin is my idol and role model, I submitted a short essay to Cast-On, and was very excited to hear that it's been accepted for Podcasting. Fear not, dear readers; I am not going to impose my dreadful Philadelphia accent on you. I've opted for a stunt-voice. I'll keep you posted when I learn more details. In the meantime, because Franklin is my idol and role model, I present to you this little cartoon. Whaddya think?
Last but never least
Happy birthday to my beloved husband, Tom!