Ever wonder exactly what is a skein of yarn and exactly what is the difference between a skein, a ball, and a hank of yarn? Me too! We’ve got all the answers!
When you pick up a new skill or hobby or learn something new, does the new vocabulary stress you out? Learning the new words for things is one of the things that definitely cause some people to have imposter syndrome, you know that feeling that you don’t quite fit in the club?
I know I feel that way sometimes. A good example is that I’ve learned a lot about photography since I started this job, but I still don’t feel completely confident with the lingo. Hearing “real” photographers talk about f-stops and ISO makes me nervous!
Knitting and crochet have their own complicated vocabularies and I know that can definitely be intimidating at first. I’m not even talking about the stitch abbreviations or charts which are entirely different language. But there is “working yarn,” “superwash”, “cast on’ and “rounds” versus “rows”. It’s a lot. It’s completely common to ask yourself, what IS a skein of yarn? And what in the world is the difference between a skein, a ball and a hank of yarn?
The good news is that, in my experience, knit and crochet lovers tend to be really nice people and will answer your questions about things like this with no judgement. I mean, we all had to learn once, right?
So today I thought we’d talk about hanks vs. balls vs. skeins of yarn and what exactly are the differences between them. The other good news is that many people use these terms interchangeably, so even if you call something the wrong name, another knitter or crocheter will know what you mean!
What is the difference between hanks, balls and skeins of yarn?
Hanks, balls and skeins of yarn are basically just different ways of winding a bunch of yarn up in an orderly fashion that won’t get tangled. That’s really it! The different names generally refer to different ways the yarn is wound up for storage or use.
What is a hank of yarn?
Hanks of yarn are basically what you will see right after yarn has been dyed. A hank of yarn is a length of yarn wound into one big loop (the big loop is usuall about 2-3 feet across). Then in order to keep the loooped yarn from getting tangled after that, the big loop can either be folded over on itself with a label around the center or it can be twisted into the classic twisted hank that you will see filling the walls at most of your local yarn stores (and what is shown in the image above). The twisted hank is common because it keeps its shape really well, can hang on a peg, and doesn’t require a label around the middle to hold it.
The most important thing to know about a hank of yarn is that you should never knit or crochet from the hank just as it is. Your yarn will definitely get tangled. Whether it’s a folded hank or a twisted hank you need to undo the folding or twisting until it’s just one big loop again and then wind the yarn into a skein or ball.
You can do this by hand if you want, but it’s much faster to use a swift and winder. To do this, you put the big loop on a yarn swift (another fancy vocabulary term) which is literally just a spinning hank holder. There are swifts that look like a big spinning plus sign (an amish yarn swift) and swifts that expand like an umbrella and are called…umbrella swifts.
Once your hank is on the swift, one end is threaded onto a ball winder and then you spin a crank and the ball winder winds the yarn. It’s delightfully fun to watch, my kids always love it. THEN you can use the yarn for your next project!
What is a ball of yarn?
A ball of yarn is just what it sounds like, yarn that has been wound into a ball. You can do this by hand and get a literal ball of yarn which looks just like what you would see a cat play with in a cartoon. With a ball of yarn like this, you pull the yarn from the outside of the ball as you go. The advantage of a simple ball of yarn is that it’s super easy to wind a ball yourself by hand. You just wind yarn around and around until you form a ball. It’s also really easy to see how much yarn you have left as you work from a ball.
The disadvantage to a ball of yarn is that it can roll around when you’re working on your project (yarn bowls solve that problem). The other disadvantage is that if you pull the yarn tightly while hand winding a ball, it can stretch the fibers and do weird things to your yarn. To avoid that, just wind reasonably loosely. Your finished ball of yarn should be squishable, not hard and solid.
The term “ball of yarn” is also used generically to indicate any single unit of wound yarn.
What is a center pull ball of yarn?
If you used a swift and ball winder as I explained above you, will get a ball of yarn that is actually pretty flat on the top and bottom. It will also have an open center which means you can pull the STARTING end of yarn out from the middle and use that to work with. The advantage to a center pull ball of yarn is that it sits nicely on a table or other surface and won’t roll all over the place.
A disadvantage to a center pull ball of yarn is that it can be harder to gauge how much of the ball is left when you’re getting close to the end. Also, as you get close to the end, the center pull ball can collapse on itself and you will have to take care not to tangle the remaining yarn. Some people will re-wind them into hand wound balls for this reason.
What is a donut ball of yarn?
I don’t believe that a donut ball is actually an official term, but it’s exactly what it sounds like, a center pull ball of yarn that’s flatter and shaped like a donut. Donut balls are most often used with FANCY expensive yarn. I can only speculate as to why that is. Maybe because they look nice stacked on a shelf? Or maybe because it makes a smaller amount of yarn look like more? The shape is usually held with a label that goes through the center and sometimes, after you remove the label, the yarn won’t hold its shape as well. If that happens, you can rewind it into a ball.
What is a yarn cake?
Technically any center pull ball of yarn with a flat top and bottom is a yarn cake. But most of the time, when someone is talking about yarn cakes, they actually mean something more specific. They are talking about a center pull ball of self striping yarn that is wound in a cake to show off the different colors in the stripes or gradient. These colorful cakes of yarn are often used for big projects like shawls, scarves and blankets. You can start knitting from the center or the outside depending on which color you want first.
What is a skein of yarn?
A skein of yarn is what you will see stacked in the shelves at a craft store. It’s an oblong ball of wound yarn. I’ve also heard it called a bullet skein because of the oblong shape. Skeins like this stack up well and stay looking nice so I think that’s why they’re popular. The nicest way to use a skein of yarn is to pull from the center without removing the paper label, but it’s also the hardest way to start because inexplicably, no one has invented a way to make easy center pull skeins and it’s often really difficult to find the center end buried inside. If you pull from the outside of a skein, you will need to remove the label and the skein shape may collapse and need to be wound into a ball.
“Skein” is also used as a generic term for one unit of yarn. So for example, when someone is telling you to make sure your yarn matches, they might say something like, “make sure each skein has the same dye lot number so the color matches.” In that case, it could be a skein or a hank or a ball, it’s just being used generically to indicate one unit of the yarn.
So what’s the takeaway?
Hopefully this has cleared up your confusion about the various names for wound yarn. There are a few other yarn terms floating around like cones of yarn (just what it sounds like) or I have even heard of a hard core ball which has something hard like a toilet paper tube inside to help it hold its shape. But the main takeaway from this post should be that all of the names really just describe various ways to wind yarn for storage and use. In many cases “ball” and “skein” can be used generically and you won’t embarrass yourself!
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