Break Up With The Ball Band

It’s time for a little truth-telling, my friend. We need to break up… with the ball band. You know the one. I want you to break up with the cute little band of paper tied to your skein of yarn.

There’s a lot of information on a ball band and I don’t want you to break up with all of it. But I do want you to know that not every piece of information on the yarn tag is an actual fact. I’m not saying it’s lying to you, per se, but I am saying it has a tendency to mislead. Big time.

Let’s break down what you can find on a ball band (i.e. yarn tag), and what to do with the information once you have it. First, here are the three parts of a yarn ball band that are super duper important and I want you to ALWAYS be sure to check these three things before buying yarn for a specific project.

  1. Yarn weight: This is obviously an important piece of information. This is one of two pieces of information (see #2) that will help you determine whether or not you are choosing yarn appropriate to the project you are trying to knit.
  2. Yardage: This portion, in combination with the yarn weight will help you compare apples to apples. If a pattern calls for a fingering weight yarn that weighs 100 grams and has 440 yards, but you buy a fingering weight yarn that weighs 100 grams and has 390 yards, these two yarns – though both called “fingering weight” – are not all that close in actual yarn weight. This disparity will affect your stitch and row gauge, the fabric that you are able to create when knitting in pattern and the drape and final fit of your garment. We’ll talk about this more in a minute. Keep in mind that yardage can vary ever-so-slightly from what’s on the tag, and can even vary a few yards from skein to skein.
  3. Fiber content: This last piece of the puzzle is important. We need to know the fiber content so we can make sure it’s right for the job we’re asking it to do. Fiber content affects stitch definition, wearability, drape, fit and so much more. While it’s perfectly okay to make fiber substitutions, I recommend making sure you know the qualities of the fiber you’re using so you can get the results you anticipate.

Now, for the rest of the story…

Depending on the brand, the rest of the yarn tag can contain a variety of additional information. It may tell you the dye lot (also important if you’re trying to match skeins for a large project), where it’s made (good to know), and it may give you an estimated needle size and swatch gauge.

Woah, woah, woah. Hold up right there.

Swatch gauge? Needle size?

A yarn tag that provides you with an approximate gauge and needle size is merely giving you a suggestion based on a basic fabric recommendation. It’s information that someone came up with as a general guide for a basic fabric knit with their yarn. The problem with this information is that it’s only helpful to you if you’re planning to knit some stockinette stitch squares – it has nothing whatsoever to do with the pattern you’re about to knit.

Designers do more than simply design a garment. They also design the fabric of the garment, which means a wide range of variation that likely has nothing at all to do with a suggested gauge on the yarn tag. A design may be meant to knit densely, or at a very light, loose gauge. The gauge of a pattern can be affected by cables, lacework, colorwork or other details that can mean a dramatic difference between how that yarn is knit in the garment vs. what is recommended on the yarn band.

This also means that the needle size used in a pattern may be different than the recommended needle range listed on the yarn band – sometimes dramatically different.

Here’s how to make sure you are making a love connection between the yarn and pattern you are about to knit:

  1. Compare apples to apples. Look at the weight and yardage of the yarn the pattern recommends and find something in a very similar range. This will give you the most accurate gauge results. (I wrote about this in more detail recently here.)
  2. DON’T worry about the recommended needle size or recommended gauge on the ball band. (That information is merely a suggestion – not a rule.) Use the needle size recommended in the pattern with yarn in the correct weight/yardage range and swatch as directed in the pattern. If you swatch per the ball band, your swatch will tell you absolutely nothing about the pattern you’re hoping to knit.
  3. Trust the pattern. If a professional pattern tells you to use a size 8 needle with fingering weight yarn, it’s doing so for a reason. Don’t overthink it – go with what’s recommended and take the beautiful journey the designer has planned out for you.
  4. Don’t believe everything the ball band tells you. Just because it calls itself “worsted weight” doesn’t mean it will be an appropriate substitution for the worsted weight the pattern recommends. Be sure to check the yardage and weight and look for something comparable.

And now, I’ll let you get back to your knitting.


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