A detailed guide to finding the best knitting yarn for beginners. Everything you need to know about the different materials and weights.
Every time I enter a knitting store, I feel like a magpie. I just want to buy all those beautiful yarns. Touch them, feel them, have them. There is a word for people like me: Yarn hoarders! But as a beginner, you are more likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of different choices. There are just so many different colors, materials, sizes, and shapes available. But which is the best knitting yarn for beginners?
In this little guide, I’m going to introduce you to the wonderful world of all yarny things. We are going to talk about different materials, the ideal weight categories (thickness), and how easy they are to knit. It’s lesson 3 in my free knitting school. The focus will be on putting you in a position to choose the yarn that suits you and your next project perfectly, though I will recommend brands and specific yarns as we go.
In the beginning, all yarns will probably sort of look the same to you. I mean, not the same in appearance, but in terms of knitting. And of course, how should you know that the beautiful white mohair lace skein might be your first step into the asylum and the extra big bargain acrylic yarn in that beautiful pink can be a nightmare to knit and wear.
So, let’s have a closer look!
PS: If you haven’t read my guide to knitting needles for beginners yet, do so now.
Different Yarn Materials
Here’s an easy rule of thumb: If it has fur or fibers, there’s yarn available. You may be aware of wool from sheep, goats, lamas, and alpacas, but there is also rabbit, possum, camel hair, and even the extremely rare vicuña wool. In Madagascar, they even create yarn from the silk of the golden orb spiders.
For your first project, I would stick to more affordable and commonly available yarns and not Qiviut (yarn spun from the undercoat of Greenland’s muskox). It might sound tempting to have this nice cashmere headband, but your knitting skills are probably not up to producing something worth investing a small fortune into (yet!).
At the same time, I wouldn’t pick too cheap a material either. Yarn that is badly spun will split easily, will often have a lot of knots. Here’s an overview of the most common materials and their characteristics:
Note: The yarn will also have a big influence on how much material you need. Here’s a guide to help you calculating yarn requirements for a scarf or other beginner projects.
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The most popular and accessibly priced yarn is spun from the fleece of sheep. Wool is a great yarn for beginners because it’s a great combination of four things:
- It’s very durable, so it’s both up to a lot of strain and tensions while knitting AND it will create works made to last. You can easily unravel and it will forgive most beginners’ mistakes.
- Wool is very stretchy and elastic as well. So, it’s easy to knit and slips across the needles quite fast.
- There is usually a full range of colors available. So, if you find a yarn you like, the chances are high it’s also available in your favorite color. It also comes in all sizes and there are a lot of blends available (e.g. for sock knitting, etc)
- A natural and recyclable material.
On the negative side, wool tends to pill over time and it’s sometimes a bit scratchy. In this case, the more expensive Merino wool is a good alternative for sensitive persons who like it a bit softer. Also, you have to be a bit careful when washing pure wool as it can shrink or even felt. A nice way around this problem is picking a wool blend with some nylon or other artificial fibers.
Verdict: great versatile yarn for beginners that is easy to knit and inexpensive – especially when picking wool blends.
For my easy beginner’s scarf knitting pattern I picked the Malabridgo Rasta yarn. Quite gorgeous, very chunky (so fast and a bit uncomfortable to knit), but sadly a tiny bit on the more expensive side of things.
Cotton is a wonderful yarn for beginners as well – especially if you are starting in the warmer months. Not only because, you probably don’t want to wear a wool jumper in April, but mostly because your fingers will be slightly moist in high summer, and that will create a lot of friction when knitting wool. Generally speaking, cotton is a bit slower to knit than most wools, though.
- Cotton is the perfect yarn to show intricate patterns and clear stitches (this is the reason why you’ll see a lot of cotton yarn on this blog)
- It’s considerably inexpensive
- It’s a plant-based fiber (so a good alternative for vegans; there are also hemp and bamboo yarns)
- Easily washable
On the negative side, cotton yarns split rather easily. You can unravel once, but after the second frogging, it’s often becoming a bit unsightly. Cotton is also not very stretchy and doesn’t really have a memory effect like wool. Because it shows stitches so well, you can also see mistakes very well (so beginners should opt for a blend of bamboo, nettle, etc). On top of that, cotton, sadly, doesn’t have the best ecological footprint (actually by far the worst of all fibers), so that’s probably something to consider as well. Linen is probably the better choice here.
Verdict: Good & inexpensive choice, especially for warmer temperatures and baby clothes.
Polyester & Nylon
I personally rarely knit with synthetic yarns. I don’t like the feeling on my skin at all, plus they are prone to triboelectric charging. The breathability is also an issue for me. Wear a synthetic sweater for an hour and you’ll feel like in a sauna. Most of the synthetic yarns are also flammable and can melt. It’s not like you would burst into flames when standing in the sun for 10 minutes too long. But in summer, there can be campfires, or cigarettes, etc and even the tiniest spark can leave a big hole in your efforts.
At the same time, polyester, acrylic, or polyamide yarns are incredibly affordable. The synthetic yarns are often very smooth and shiny, easy to launder, and very durable. A lot of them fall/drape very prettily as well, though not all of them show a nice stitch definition (like cotton or silk does).
Verdict: Very cheap yarn that can be great for a first tryout project.
My personal favorite everyday yarn? Alpaca! It’s so much softer than sheep wool and feels quite luxurious – without the exorbitant price tag of cashmere, yak or Qiviut. It’s a good option for sensitive people because Alpaca wool is hypoallergenic. I do have to mention, however, that pure alpaca wool is a bit harder to knit and requires a lot of experience to create uniform stitches. So, for beginners, blends with wool and other natural fibers are recommended. Then, you get back the durability and stretchiness that makes wool such a great yarn to knit.
Verdict: A bit more expensive, but incredibly soft and lovely for baby knitwear.
My favorite brands for alpaca yarn: Pascuali, Wolle Rödel (both probably hard to get in the US). A good alternative is the King Cole Baby Alpaca
Last, but not least I do want to mention Cashmere. Everyone wants to own a cashmere pullover or shawl, and you might be tempted to go for that. Why not treat your self? Well, I’m not sure if it’s a good yarn for beginners. First of all, cashmere yarns are often quite delicate. Pull a little bit too tightly, and they will tear. It’s also very expensive if you want good quality.
There are some cheap blended cashmere yarns out there (if you check the label often just 5 or 10% cashmere content), but most of them will be not much softer than regular wool and you are better of with merino or alpaca wools.
Also, cashmere is very fluffy and sometimes even slippery. Typically it comes in 2ply (because it’s so warm!) and that’s not exactly the best yarn weight for beginners either. The deciding factor for me is the fact that it does not show stitches very well. This means, all the advantages of hand-knitting are more or less lost. Cashmere looks most beautiful with simple stitches (like stockinette stitch) where you can see the famous cloudlike halo. But simple stitches are very boring to knit and it’s faster and cheaper to buy these things in the store.
Verdict: Hard to knit, expensive and actually not the best fiber for home knitting.
Like I said in the introduction, there are many other beautiful materials around, but as a beginner, these are the ones you should focus on. Later, you can check out Mohair, Angora, Silk and everything in between. But don’t start a fortune on yarn for your first project. Most first projects end up looking…let’s say they make a nice memory.
Brands I can recommend for cashmere: Pascuali, Jade Sapphire
Yarn weights & colors
When it comes to the thickness of a yarn, the industry will talk about its weight. Think of it as how much do 100 yards of yarn weigh. The thicker the yarn, the heavier it will be. The names for the different yarn weights are a bit chaotic. The flimsiest yarns are referred to as lace weight (or even cobweb), then there is fine and superfine. These are often also called fingering and sport-weight.
As a beginner, you can more or less forget about these names and focus on worsted weight. These are yarns made for needles sized 4-5. Why do I recommend that weight? Because it’s a good combination of fast and easy to knit. The lighter your yarn, the more stitches you will need to finish the same sizes work. Also, seeing the single stitches and inserting the needles will be much harder.
There are also bulky or chunky yarns that are spun for the biggest needles around. I really can’t recommend these for beginners either. It may seem like a nice choice. After all, you will need only 2 or 3 stitches per inch and a big jacket will be finished in no time. BUT holding these big needles is actually quite a bit harder. The work will also be very heavy and you will have to move your wrists and fingers quite a bit more. If you are just learning knitting, this often makes the whole process much harder.
I also quickly want to talk about the yarn color. Now, don’t call me crazy. Please, choose whatever color you like. I do have to mention two things, however.
- the darker the yarn, the harder it is to see individual stitches. Black can be especially annoying.
- most natural yarns are bleached or otherwise treated to achieve a certain color. Some delicate yarns are best used in their natural variant.
Yarns come in different shapes – which one is the best for beginners?
There’s probably one more thing you noticed when looking at yarns. They all appear in different shapes. The three most popular ones are balls, skeins, and hanks (for knitting machines, yes there are things like that as well, cones are available as well).
The difference between a skein and ball is more or less just the winding method, and usually, commercially available yarn only comes in skeins anyways. Balls are very easy to knit and won’t tangle as you unwind them further, but they roll off easily. If you use a yarn bowl/holder, then this is actually the best way to knit.
Hanks, on the other hand, may look very beautiful and allow you to see the texture and color of the yarn (especially if it’s multi-colored) way better. That’s why most more expensive yarns are sold in hanks. You do have to unwind them before you can start knitting. This process can be quite tedious, may require special tools and is best left to more experienced knitters.
Typically you use a yarn-winder to unwind them (Here’s a comparably cheap one). This will result in a so-called “yarn cake”. This allows you to pull the yarn from the center (though I’d not recommend this to beginners), so you don’t need a yarn bowl.
At the end, I do want to talk about yarn labels with you. Now, don’t skip to the end and bear with me. It’s quite important to understand them. It’s also incredibly easy.
On the label of almost any type of yarn, you will find the most important information any knitter will need.
Apart from the fiber content, the weight, and the amount/length, it will also contain a couple of other essential information you need to be aware of:
- Suggested needle size and gauge: This will give you a hint for the ideal needle size to knit this yarn and how much yarn you will need for your project. Typically it will tell you that knitting with size X needles you’ll need Y yards per 5×5 inch patch.
- Dye-lot number: This one is very important if you buy more than just one skein. Most yarns are dyed in lots. Think of it as the size of the cauldron used by the manufacturer. The hue of different lots will vary a bit due to a number of reasons. If you have two balls from a different lot, chances are quite high you will see the difference in your finished work. So, take care and ask for skeins from the same lot.
- Care instructions: Most yarns also provide you with information on how to launder your knitted garment. This is even more important if you are knitting a present. Then, make sure to pass this information along.
Summary: The best knitting yarn for beginners
For knitting beginners, I recommend blended wool yarns for needles sized 5-6. Make sure to buy your worsted yarn in a decent quality and be aware that lighter colors will make it easier to see the individual stitches. For bigger projects, remember to buy skeins from the same dye-lot and maybe stay away from those beautiful hanks, as they are a bit difficult to unwrap.
If you just want to try out some first stitches and knit a couple of sample patches, then cheaper qualities in polyamide or polyester can be an option as well.
As a general rule of thumb, however, I would also buy the best yarn you can reasonably afford because the yarn quality will show quite visibly in your final work. Also, simple patterns can turn into real eyecatcher when you pick nice wool.
Next lesson: How to cast on stitches for beginners