Everything you need to know about reading yarn label symbols and what to do with the information
So, you bought a lovely skein of yarn. And now you can’t figure out what all the various symbols mean? Or it’s the other way round, you are looking for a particular yarn but you just don’t know how to read the yarn label? Well, then this tutorial will be able to answer all your questions.
Reading a yarn label is an essential skill for everyone who knits (or crochets). On that little banderole is all vital information you possibly need to know. It can be a bit overwhelming as a beginner but we’ll go through it step-by-step so you can decipher all the various symbols and what they mean for your knitting.
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A yarn label at a glance
Most yarn labels look fairly similar and provide you with the same kind of information – only the layout differs. Here’s what you should be able to find:
- brand name & yarn name
- fiber content (e.g. wool, cotton, alpaca, etc)
- yarn weight & recommended needle/hook size
- yarn length
- laundry care
- color and dye lot
While there may be labels with additional information, almost all mass-produced yarn (see below for small lot and indie-dyed yarn) will list these key stats somewhere on the label. Let’s go through them one by one so you can make sense of them.
Important tip: Don’t throw yarn labels away – especially if it’s a gift. The care instructions will ensure that it can last a lifetime. If you wind your own yarn cakes, you can place the label in the center so it’s easy to retrieve. Nothing is worse than having mystery yarn in your stash.
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1. Fiber content
This is probably the most important information. Somewhere on your label should be a small section where it says what the yarn is made of, e.g. 100% wool or cotton. If it’s a blend, then you will find a couple of different fibers. A very typical composition for a sock yarn would be “75% wool, 25% nylon”.
In recent years, many manufacturers started to certify their yarns. And thus you might find things like a GOTS certificate (global organic textile standard) or similar certificates for organic/fair trade/sustainability/mulesing-free, etc.
The fiber content itself will tell an experienced knitter a lot about the properties and the ways to use any given yarn. Every fiber behaves differently and not all yarn is equally suitable for every project. This is information you would have to gather from external sources (The Knitter’s Book of Yarn could be a good start). I have some more detailed posts on the more exotic fibers and their properties in case you are interested:
Some yarn will also be marketed as “superwash”. Superwash refers to a special chemical treatment of, particularly, sheep wool that prevents the yarn from felting. Typically, protein fibers are handwash only. But superwash yarn may be put into the laundry machine nevertheless – as long as you use a special wool program.
Yarn weight & needle/hook size
The second most important information you can read on any yarn label is the yarn weight. Sadly, yarn weight does not follow any international system so you will find lots of very conflicting information. In the U.S., the yarn crafts council put together a “standard yarn weight system” but that doesn’t mean it’s something you will find across the globe (luckily, I should say, because the system is very flawed).
As a matter of fact, I would personally say you can utterly ignore anything where it says: lace, superfine, fine, light, medium, bulky, jumbo, etc. These terms follow no standard and are used quite arbitrarily.
Dk weight yarn is a good example. A dk (double knit yarn) should be, by definition, 8-ply as it’s double the normal fingering weight yarn (which is 4-ply). Yet you will find 6-ply yarns marketed as dk, and so on. Similarly, the so-called “worsted yarn” can be either a medium or a light-sized yarn. If at all, you should always take this information with a grain of salt.
The same applies to the recommended needle or hook size. At the end of the day, every knitter knits with a different gauge. So, if you are a loose knitter, you might have to go one or sometimes even two sizes below what is stated on the label. And of course, there is no universally accepted industry standard when it comes to what a nice stitch definition/gauge looks like to begin with.
Still, both information – yarn weight and recommended needle size – can give you the first kind of inkling of what type of projects and patterns this particular yarn might be well suited for. But it’s important to verify the information yourself with a swatch.
E.g.: If your pattern calls for fingering weight yarn, you should definitely buy something that falls within that category. But you may still have to go one needle size up or down to get gauge.
Yardage & Gauge
Typically, you will also find the yardage and a gauge on the label. The yardage tells you how long this particular skein runs. For example, you might find something like 50g = 63 meters. Sometimes the information is split up into two parts and you will find the exact yardage of this particular skein (sometimes in both the imperial and the metric system) and then the yardage per 100 gram.
This is actually very important because good knitting patterns will typically tell you how many yards/meters you need and not how many grams. The latter can be quite deceiving because if the yarn is spun a bit thicker, then the same amount of grams will run a lot shorter. So, if a pattern tells says you need 650 yards or so, then you know that you’ll need to buy that many balls of a certain yarn.
A lot of yarn labels will also list a gauge. Typically this is a square or little checkerboard with measurements in centimeters or inches (like 10 x 10 cm) and a row and stitch count – like 16 st(itches x 22 r(ows). This information tells you that the average person knitting stockinette stitch with the recommended needle size would need a project that is that many stitches wide and that many rows high to produce a swatch in that size.
Again, this is a kind of take-it-as-you-will information you can maybe use for some rough guestimations. A good pattern will typically provide you with a gauge and then you could check if it’s somewhere in that range. Depending on your individual tension, knitting style, and knitting needles, you should calculate with quite a wide margin. Frankly, it’s another little bit you can more or less ignore if you ask me.
Color and dye lot
What’s one of the most common beginner mistakes? Ignoring the dye lot! Yarn is typically dyed in batches. While there are certainly exact recipes for any given dye/color, a lot of small variables can change the final hue of that particular lot. As a result, the same yarn from the same brand with the same name can look a bit different.
It might often be not all that noticeable when you hold two skeins next to each other, but in a finished project, this can often result in not-so-pleasant stripes. If you buy multiple skeins, always make extra sure that you buy yarn from the same dye lot.
Tip: Talk with the staff of your local yarn shop if you plan bigger projects. Often it’s possible to reserve skeins or they have a lenient return policy for unused yarn (make sure that it’s out of your cat’s reach, right?).
Anyone who owns a laundry dryer or an unsuspecting partner probably can tell you that you can turn a favorite sweater into a great gift for the next baby shower or a nice cleaning rag in no time. Typically, all protein fibers (meaning everything that comes from animals like sheep, camels, alpaca, goats, silk worms, etc), will shrink or felt when they are not treated correctly.
As a rule of thumb, hand-wash it, let it dry flat, and never get close to a laundry dryer or an iron. Any symbol that is crossed out with an X means “do not”. Typically tumbling, machine washing and bleaching are crossed out but depending on the fiber and the way it was spun, a lot else may not be possible. Here’s a little chart that shows you the most common symbols.
Very important: Just because something is theoretically possible doesn’t mean you should do it. The label will only tell you what kind of treatments do not harm the fiber/yarn itself. The manufacturer cannot anticipate what pattern you are using. For example, most fibers soak up quite a bit of water and the fabric can thus become super heavy. This can stretch out your stitches beyond redemption when you tumble things or even just put it on a hanger to dry.
A lot of yarn labels also feature a small section on yarn requirements. Often you will see a little sweater symbol with a number inside. This is to tell you that for a size M you need that many balls of yarn. Or there’s a symbol of a garment and a weight (like 250 g for a scarf).
As far as I am concerned, this is another part of the label you can absolutely ignore. It’s meant for beginners but I can only see how this will lead to frustration. Think about it. It’s not like there’s one universal scarf. A scarf can be as wide as 20 inches or as narrow as 6. Some want them very long and others super short and would thus need more or less yarn. Besides, if you are not a size M but XXL, what are you to do with the information anyway. Multiply it times what?
Just in case, here are some tutorials that really tell you how much yarn you need for a scarf or how to calculate the yarn requirements for a blanket.
Labels of indie dyed or small lot yarn
Now, there’s one big caveat to all the things I have told you so far. These days, there are (thankfully) a lot of indie dyers offering amazing colorways – you can easily find the perfect kind of color for every project and according to your very own preference. This yarn, however, typically comes with a bit less information on the label.
In these cases, you will usually just find fiber content (100% sheep wool or so), the brand name, possibly the colorway name, and of course the yardage and weight. Everything else is typically not available but it’s also not needed if you ask me.
Needle recommendations are, if you ask me, a very interesting concept anyway. You can use the very same fingering weight yarn and knit a nice lace shawl using 5 mm needles or socks using 2mm needles and both projects can look quite amazing. The yardage per 100 gram will tell you roughly what kind of yarn weight this is. And that’s all you need.
Important: Very seldom will you will detailed care instructions. When in doubt, stick to handwash only, dry flat. Since this yarn is typically dyed AFTER spinning, the colors may bleed out a bit. As a result, I would always wash them separately at least once or twice. If there are any chemical fibers involved (nylon, polyamide, acrylic), absolutely avoid ironing or any other form of intense heat as things will melt.
What should you do with yarn labels
I would always store the yarn label along with your finished project, in a special binder, or your knitting notebook. That way, you have the care instructions when you need them. Because let’s be honest, nobody will be able to remember if that particular fiber was suitable for machine drying or not.
For socks, you can even use the banderole to secure the pair. This can be an especially nice idea if it’s a gift. The yarn label will also come in handy when you want to knit a second pair years later but can’t remember which (exact) yarn you used.
If you wind yarn into a yarn cake, then you can put the label right into the cavity or place it on the outside before you wind the last couple of rounds if you plan to do a center-pull. That way, you can always access the yarn properties and name later on. Obviously, the same works for commercial skeins.
What can you do if you lost the yarn label?
Most experienced knitters will have a box full of scrap yarn, and possibly even one full of the famous “mystery yarn”. And now what… no label, no info? What do you do? Well, you just need to scrutinize your yarn very closely.
While the total yardage will be a bit cumbersome to determine, you can easily find out the yarn weight with the wraps per inch method. Just wind it around any cylindrical object (a pencil or so) and count the wraps per inch:
|Yarn Weight||Types of Yarn||Wraps Per Inch (WPI)||Stitch Gauge|
|#0||Lace Weight||30-40+||> 8.5 sts per inch|
|#1||Sock, Fingering||14-30||7-8 sts per inch|
|#2||Sport, Baby Weight||12-18||5.75-6.5 sts per inch|
|#3||DK, Light Worsted Weight||11-15||5.5-6 sts per inch|
|#4||Worsted, Aran Weight||9-12||4-5 sts per inch|
|#5||Chunky, Bulky Weight||6-9||3-3.75 sts per inch|
|#6||Bulky, Roving Weight||5-6||2.5-3 sts per inch|
|#7||Jumbo, Roving Weight||1-4||< 2.5 sts per inch|
You can also pick apart the plies to see how many there are. Analyzing the fiber content will be a bit harder. But burning a small little thread will tell you if it melts into a hard bead (therefore is a synthetic yarn) or if it burns or smolders (organic fiber). The kind of smell will also tell you if it’s an animal-based fiber (will smell like burnt hair) or cotton/linen (rather neutral paper-like smell).
Attention: Be very careful when you burn anything and only do it within a controlled environment (so in a glass/porcelain bowl). Never hold it in your hand and only use a tiny bit. A lot of fibers, especially cotton or Tencel, can burn very rapidly!
Reading tip: How to store yarn the right way