Let’s assume you’ve gone through the other five dimensions, and you now have some yarns in mind of the appropriate weight, density, texture, washability and quality for the project in hand. If you have yet to narrow the field to one yarn, there is still on dimension left to consider: feel. What does the yarn feel like? What will fabric knit from that yarn feel like?
Why Feel Matters
Some people will say that the way something feels doesn’t matter very much, as long as it does the job and looks good. I will admit that prioritizing “feel” to the point of putting it on this list is an idiosyncratic choice, but I assume that many knitters become involved in knitting because they are tactile souls. I believe that the way things feel is important both to the knitting process and to the enjoyment and usability of the final project.
Most knitting projects involve a commitment of some hours. I often return to the thought that knitting is a luxurious hobby, pursued more for pleasure than for utility. Why, then, would we want to knit with yarns that have an unpleasant feel? Yarns that we don’t like to touch become projects that lie unfinished under the couch. In the same way, even if we do brave the icky feel of the yarn to the point of finishing the project, will we use the end product? I expect that, like a shirt with a seam that rubs, our hard work will end up in a drawer somewhere. Of course, “feel” is a subjective thing. If you’re giving away the project to someone else, your suffering may be rewarded. But in general, when we invest our time and money in a project, we might as well try to maximize the enjoyability of the knitting experience by choosing yarns that appeal to our fingers.
How to Investigate Feel
Yarns made from animal fibers (except silk) are more likely to be scratchy than other yarns, though hemp and some cottons can also be uncomfortably abrasive (washing usually helps this). The way that a yarn is processed strongly influences its degree of scratchiness, so fiber type alone cannot be relied on as an indicator.
Unfortunately, the feel of yarn in the ball can differ from the feel of the fabric of a washed swatch. Still, there are ways of investigating scratchiness even from a ball.
The Itch Test
Hold the ball of yarn (or the swatch, if available) to the side of your neck, your cheek, and/or the inside of your wrist for 15 seconds. These areas of skin are much more sensitive than fingers, arms, etc. If you start to feel an itch, then you’ll know the yarn is itchy. Washing only decreases yarn itchiness, so if a yarn doesn’t feel itchy from this test, you can be reasonably confident than the final product will not be itchy either.
Some acrylic or cotton yarns can be squeaky, meaning that they create a distinct quiet squeaking sound when rubbed against each other or when being knitted. Take two strands of yarn from the ball and rub them together with your fingers, listening intently. Squeaks are subtle but can drive certain people completely nuts, so if you feel like you may have heard a squeak, it may be best not to get that yarn. Squeaky yarns may result in squeaky final products, though if you’ve used an appropriate (or looser) gauge this is less likely. I don’t know of any way to prevent or remedy squeakiness in the final product, but squeakiness during the knitting experience can sometimes be ameliorated by replacing plastic needles with metal or bamboo ones.
Some yarns may feel hard and dense, even though they are described as light and lofty. If these yarns come on a cone, they are probably covered in coning oil, an oil applied to yarn as it is spun onto the cone to keep the coning process going smoothly and to make the yarn easier to use in weaving, the usual province of coned yarn. Coning oil can be removed by a soak in warm water with hair shampoo or woolwash, always being careful not to felt the yarn. If you decide to wash the yarn before knitting with it, wind the yarn into hanks, tie the hanks at four different places, and wash from there.
How Not to Investigate Feel
Unfortunately, feel can only be investigated in person. We all feel things differently, and have a different threshhold for scratchiness, squeakiness or hardness. Online reports of people who found a yarn scratchy, or conversely report that it was soft “like butter” cannot be relied on in almost any case. If you’re lucky enough to find a fellow knitter or knitblogger whose sensitivities turn out to be very much like yours, you may be able to use their input, but in general there is no substitute for your own experience.