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Knitting yarns

Knitting wool is very often not WOOL! Or not entirely… wool tends to be a general term for knitting yarn - which can actually be acrylic, cotton, linen, or bamboo as well as real wool from goats, alpacas and varieties of sheep.

Very many good yarns are a mixture of some of these, combining the best qualities of each. There is so much yarn on the market that it is really down to the knitter’s choice, not forgetting budget. 100% acrylic is often cheapest and easy to machine wash and dry but in my experience it may stretch and look less good quite soon.

Yarn with any wool in it will look nice and spring back into shape well, but you may have to launder with more care though more and more wool yarns are made to be machine washable (look for the term ‘superwash’.)

Cotton and linen can look superb and are cool in summer, but do not have the stretchiness of wool. I’ve found it annoying that cotton often knits up bigger than expected so checking your tension (see left) is important ESPECIALLY when substituting another yarn for the one specified in a pattern.

There are also luxury yarns on the market such as cashmere which is lovely and soft… but expensive! Check out yarns on Ravelry  - it’s free to join.


When discussing yarn thicknesses, we talk in the UK about ‘ply’ - this means how many fibres are twisted together. For example, if you untwist a short length of four-ply yarn you will end up with four wispy fibres. Three and four ply yarn are used for summer-weight cardigans or jumpers, or newborn baby clothes. Double knitting (abbreviated to DK) is 8 ply and is the most common thickness for knitwear. Aran weight is slightly thicker for a more bulky jumper, and chunky yarn thicker still. The bulkier the yarn, the thicker the needles required.


In the USA, yarns are identified as fingering, sport and worsted going from thin to thick. My research in trying to give British equivalents shows there is some overlap, so if you are using American yarn for a British pattern or vice versa, it’s probably best to check your tension by knitting a small square. Knitting patterns give a tension guide which you should compare with your knitting (see panel).

Check your tension

Tension is key to the size of your knitting. For example, if you knit a square 20 stitches wide in double knitting yarn, it will end up much bigger than a 20 stitch square knitted in thinner 4 ply wool on the same needles - the ‘tension’ is different.

Many types of yarn (e.g. cotton compared with wool) have slightly different tensions, too, even if they claim to be the same thickness!

Other factors include the size of needles, and how tightly you work. Knitting patterns always give a tension guide at the start of the instructions. This is for the yarn recommended in the pattern, so if you are using a different one you should knit a square first to check the tension matches up. You can adjust needle size if necessary to get closer to the tension guide.

As well as in the pattern, there is often a tension guide on the wool label.