Of course, there’s no point in finding a yarn that is the right weight, density and texture and fits your washability demands if that yarn is badly made. So what indicates a badly made yarn?
Signs of a bad yarn:
- Breaks in the plies
- Color bleeding
- Pilling quickly
Breaks in the plies
As fibers are commercially spun by machine, some of the plies may snap under the tension. When this happens, a conscientious yarn manufacturer will snip the yarn and splice it together, ideally leaving an undetectable or barely detectable join. A less conscientious yarn manufacturer will snip the yarn and knot it– many knots in many skeins is also a sign of low quality. A yarn manufacturer totally lacking in conscientiousness will simply let the yarn keep spinning, leaving the knitter with a yarn where as many as half or more of the plies are snapped. In that case, your best bet is to cut the remaining plies and splice the yarn together yourself.
Splitting happens when a yarn is loosely plied together or the plies initially did not have enough twist, so the plied yarn is not held together very firmly. As you knit with this yarn, the tips of your needles may occasionally go through the body of the yarn instead of under it and through the stitch. Lack of attention to this can result in stitches that are only half-knitted, with the orphaned and unknitted plies sitting like snags on the knit side of the fabric (see photo, above). Wool yarns are unlikely to split, plant fiber yarns slightly more likely (because they lack the scales and hooks of animal fibers that help hold the plies together), and acrylic yarns vary all across the scale. Splitting is more likely with sharp-tipped needles or needles that are very small in relation to the yarn.
Happily, splitty yarns can be detected from examining the ball of yarn. Simply find an end, pull out about two inches of the yarn and look at it in the palm of your hand. Can you see the flesh of your palm between the plies when the yarn is relaxed? The yarn will probably be very splitty, like the yarn on the left of the photo. Similarly, if the plies appear to be slack and straight rather than wound together and twisted, the yarn will likely split. Yarn that is unlikely to split will look more like the yarn on the right of the photo.
As mentioned in the previous post in this series, knitted fabrics do occasionally need to be washed. If your yarn is dyed, there is the possibility that it will bleed, that is, that excess dye will leave the yarn and come off into the water, other nearby yarns, other nearby clothing, etc. In really extreme cases, the yarn may even stain your needles before it is wet! Some amounts of excess dye are typical in certain kinds of handdyed yarns, etc, but a conscientious dyer will warn you if the knitted fabric needs to be given a final wash to remove any excess dye. You can also help to fix the dye by soaking the yarn in vinegar (if the yarn is an animal fiber). Most acrylic yarns are not going to bleed because they are colored in a different way, and cotton yarns will also bleed but require a different, more exotic chemical fixative than vinegar. Bleeding is especially alarming if it happens in colorwork.
This photo shows the armpit of an older knit of mine. The white line outlines a particularly long section of pill, but you can see many other signs of wear as well.
“Pilling quickly” is a category that encloses yarns that show any kind of wear quickly; yarns whose knitted fabrics rapidly appear old and worn. However, the amount of wear a yarn can take before it is considered “low quality” varies considerably by context and intended use of the yarn. For example, a soft, loosely spun yarn like Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran will definitely pill faster, and after less wear, than harder-wearing, tightly-spun yarn like Jamieson Shetland Spindrift. The unfortunate fact is that softness results from loosely spun fibers, and loosely spun fibers result in pilling. Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran should instead be compared to other soft, loosely spun yarns of a similar composition (merino, microfiber, silk) to determine whether it’s a good example of its type.
Note: Of all the yarn materials I’ve known, microfiber has been the most likely to pill. Microfiber yarns (and clothing) are appealing because they’re soft, stretchy and drapy. Unfortunately, microfiber is made of very, very long fibers spun together. Those very long fibers catch on things or are pulled up by friction, and pills happen. Because the fibers in microfiber are so very long, these pills happen easily and often and are hard to get rid of– it takes a long time for the whole fiber to work its way out of the fabric so the pill can be pulled off.
How can you determine if a yarn will pill, bleed color, split on your needles or have breaks in the plies?
First, you can try visiting a knitter’s review site like Wiseneedle or Knitter’s Review. Wiseneedle is made up of user-submitted reviews, with all the attendant inaccuracies, biases and weirdly incomprehensible comments that entails. Despite this, the Wiseneedle consensus is usually right, and the user reviews cover a wide range of current and discontinued yarns.
Knitter’s Review is a regularly-issued online magazine about knitting. One of its features is a yarn review, in which a particular knitter knits a swatch of a yarn, washes that swatch and then subjects that swatch to wear and abuse. The review is complete with photos, and the yarn is compared to others in its class (similar construction, similar fiber type, etc). Knitter’s Review has much fewer reviews, but they are thorough, well-documented and reliable.
Ideally, we’d all be able to swatch, wash and mistreat a swatch of our own before making the commitment to buying yarn. Unfortunately, most yarn stores won’t take back a ball of yarn that’s been swatched from if the swatched yarn can’t be unravelled or is in poor condition. Also unfortunately, the swatches in a yarn store won’t be very helpful to you, since they’re intended to sell a yarn– all the broken plies will be spliced out of sight, the splits will have been mended, any color-bleeding will have been repaired and the swatch won’t have seen much wear. If you have a good relationship with your local yarn shop they may be willing to give you the real skinny on a particular yarn, but I’d remain skeptical– no shop proprietor wants to tell a customer that one of their products is defective. A fellow knitter’s experiences, either online or in person, are the best substitute for your own experimentation.
Note that the one thing I didn’t mention as an indicator of quality was price. Aside from my attempt to only purchase local yarns and fibers this year, I’ve been a huge fan of Knitpicks since the beginning, when I was a poor college student and they were just starting out. The quality of their yarns has been steadily increasing since then, but the prices have stayed the same. In contrast, yarns like Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran cost a pretty penny but may not last as long or look as good after a few weeks.
Similarly, even though I talk a lot about wool yarns here and tend to neglect the cottons and acrylics, fiber content is no real indicator of quality. The specificity of my fiber-based comments is due to the fact that I tend to talk about what I know (animal fibers) more than what I don’t (cottons, acrylics). Lately I’ve been trying to branch out, and any recommendations for high-quality cotton or acrylic yarns would be greatly appreciated.