What is a skein of yarn?

A helpful guide on what a skein of yarn is. What’s the difference between a hank and balls and the best way to use each of them.

Ball, hank, or skein of yarn – before you embark on the wonderous fiber crafts journey, it probably all sounds the same to you. Or you don’t even know what either of them means. But now you are confronted with the terms in every pattern or shop and quite frankly it can be quite confusing.

the difference between a skein a ball a hank and a cake explained with examples of each

What does skein of yarn mean?

A skein means yarn winded into an oblong bundle ready to be used for knitting, crocheting, and other fiber crafts. It’s the most common form to purchase yarn in bigger retail stores. A label or banderole with vital information on its fiber content & usage typically secures the skein (click here to find out how to read a yarn label and what the symbols mean).

four colorful skeins of yarn on a white table
Four skeins of cotton yarn

Skeins are produced by big commercial yarn manufacturers using special industrial yarn winders typically not available to crafters. The yarn can be pulled either from the outside or the inside. Both ends are typically lightly tugged into the cavity at the center of the skein and can be removed just as easily. Most of them will gradually lose shape as the yarn is being unwound. In the case of the center-pull, this can often result in a tangle.

Often the word is also used as a “unit of yarn”. So, frequently you will find people asking things in the knitting world like “what can I do with one skein of yarn?” or “How many skeins of yarn for a blanket?”. This might sound a bit counter-intuitive as the term describes a winding technique and not a standard weight. And this brings me to the next popular question:

how much yarn is in a skein?

Yarn is sold by weight and every skein comes with a label and it will tell you precisely how much yarn you get. Most manufacturers stick to a selected few sizes: 1 ounce, 50 grams, and 200 grams are popular units, with 100 grams being the most popular one. Typically, the latter is what most knitters think of when they talk about a skein of yarn.

close-up of a skein of yarn with a label that has more information regarding the usage

Depending on the yarn weight (= the diameter of the individual strand), this will result in different yardage. A skein of DK weight yarn will be much shorter than a skein of fingering yarn with the same weight. So, when you ask how much yarn is in a skein, the answer will almost always be: check the label.

Typically a fingering weight yarn has around 360 – 480 yards per 100 grams, a DK weight yarn around 240-300 yards. But you always have to check the label (or the item description if you are shopping online) for the exact yardage.

Reading tip: The best knitting yarn for beginners

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What is a ball?

colorful balls of yarn in different sizes next to each other

So, what’s the difference between a skein and a ball? Typically, a ball is created by hand winding and is rarely available for sale for that very reason. As they can easily roll around the shelves, it’s not the most ideal form for storage – especially as it does allow the center of the yarn to breathe.

Most knitters will use a special yarn bowl or a project bag to keep the ball from running around wildly across the floor (check out my list of essential knitting tools here). Since winding yarn into a ball does not require any special knitting tools, it’s still a method favored by the majority of knitters.

a ball of yarn in a yarn bowl so it doesn't roll away

The big advantage of balls has to do with twist. As the yarn is being wound into either a ball, skein, or yarn cake (see below), you add a clockwise or counter-clockwise twist to it (depending on the direction you wind it). Since a sphere can move freely around its own axis, you automatically untwist the thread as you unwind it, resulting in a well-balanced working yarn.

A skein or a yarn cake will remain stable without using a spindle and thus the stored twist is directly transferred to the knitted fabric when no counter-measures are being taken. This can potentially lead to a biased fabric.

What is a hank?

yarn hanks in different colors on a table

A hank is yarn wound in a long loop, twisted into a cord, and secured with a knot (and sometimes further threads). Typically, indie-dyed yarn comes in hanks. The loose loops of yarn facilitate the dying process immensely (think of it as loops hanging on sticks in a big vat) and make it possible for the dye to permeate all strands equally.

Sidenote: Most yarn that comes in skeins has been dyed before the spinning process. The result will be a much more uniform and very solid color.

a yarn swift and a yarn winder in action creating yarn cakes out of beautiful yak yarn
A hank of yarn being unwound using a swift and a special yarn winder

You cannot knit directly from a skein. It needs to be placed on a special swift, the back of two chairs, or someone spreading it open with their arms before you can unwind it into the shape of your choice. Otherwise, tangles are more or less guaranteed.

The reason why yarn is being sold in hanks is simple: First of all, it allows a buyer to see the colorway a lot better and approximate the way it could look in a piece of finished fabric. On top of that, winding yarn into skeins takes time and manual labor – and this typically conflicts with the current pricing structure of yarn. Some shops offer winding services for a small fee.

Note: Often, actual hanks are still being referred to as skeins in the knitting community. This can be either a lack of knowledge or using the term as a unity (see above).

What is a yarn cake?

yarn cakes in different sizes and colors with knitting tools in the foreground

A cake is yarn wound around a cylinder with a flat platform at its base in an undulating way. Typically this is done with a yarn winder, though it can also be created by hand around any stick.

Much like skeins, yarn cakes allow for center pulls and are very easy to store and work with. In ages past, this allowed crofters to knit while walking. The cake was secured to the belt with a special metal hook.

a yarn cake mounted on a yarn dispenser on a white table
A yarn cake mounted on a yarn dispenser

But again, depending on your individual knitting style and the yarn, doing a center-pull can result in a biased fabric. There are special yarn dispensers that enable the cake to rotate freely around its axis when you pull from outside to avoid this problem.

Reading tip: How to store yarn the right way

Yarn donuts & wraps

5 skeins of yarn wound into a donut shape and various knitting tools

Some yarn also comes in donut-shaped skeins. Other than the shape, there are literally no differences compared to regular oblong skeins. Typically, the label is attached to the hole in the middle with arrow-shaped ends on both sides.

This way of winding is often – but not exclusively – used for slightly fuzzy and lighter yarns (such as mohair, alpaca). If you ask me, there is no significant difference other than the fact that it allows for lighter winding.

three skeins of yarn in the shape of a wrap next to each other

There are also skeins that look a bit like a wrap or a rolag. For all practical matters, you can treat all these different shapes the same. It’s yarn ready to knit.

What is a Cone?

two cones of yarn in red and white

Wholesale quantities of yarn typically come in cone shapes. This is yarn wound around a conical cardboard cylinder (think of it as a toilet paper roll). That’s because most industrial knitting machines work with these.

The advantage is obvious. A lot of knitting patterns need more than just one skein. As a result, hand knitters will have to join a new ball a couple of times throughout a project. This is not only time-consuming but also a bit annoying. A cone allows for miles and miles of yarn without a knot and thus a much more seamless knitting experience.

They can be quite cumbersome to store and are, due to the sheer amount of fiber, a lot more expensive and thus rarely used by non-professional knitters. Also, most yarn available as a cone is rather thin – often lace or even cobweb weight. While knitting machines can easily handle the fine thread, most hand knitters shy away from these qualities as it would take ages to complete even a moderately sizes project.

Comparing the different types of yarn bundles

So, let’s wrap things up. As a beginner, I would recommend buying regular skeins of yarn. While hanks may look pretty, they can be sometimes quite difficult to unwind (on average 1 out of 10 hanks gets tangled badly), and this will just add further stress where none is needed. Leave that for later.

If you ask me, there’s also no need whatsoever to buy a yarn winder in the beginning. Yarn cakes may look pretty but in terms of knitting there is no advantage compared to balls – in fact, the opposite can be true when handled the wrong way. Likewise, there is no need to wind a skein of yarn into a ball. YOu can already use it as it is and there’s nothing wrong with it.

Anyway, I hope this answered the question what a skein of yarn is. Comment below if you need further help.

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