Ask Nancy: Yarn Sizes

Ask Nancy: Yarn Sizes

Posted by Nancy on Sep 10th 2020

We got lots of detailed questions about how yarn sizes work after our Can you knit with weaving yarn? blog post. Nancy took the time to write up her explanation of yarn sizes that she includes in her weaving classes in this special edition of Ask Nancy! 

Some of you will have heard this lecture before; it always sneaks in somewhere in the first half-day of my weaving classes. Since it seldom gets met with a blank look there, and lots of light bulbs go on instead, I’ll bring it in here.

Basically, we are just talking about gauge, and wire is a really good place to start. Those of you old enough to remember wired telephones may recall that 22-gauge wire was phone wire (or doorbell wire); very small stuff. 18 and (more commonly) 16-gauge was referred to as lamp cord, sufficient to power 1 to 3 lightbulbs. Plug in an electric dryer, and you’d better have 10 gauge. The service entrance cable was 3 gauge. You get the trend though, the bigger the number, the skinnier the wire; you get more yards per pound when you make the wire skinny, and that number can be thought of as representing yards per pound; bigger number, more yards. That explains the first number, the gauge of the yarn. Does it show that I started life as an electrician?

The second number, /2 for example, means the number of plies at that gauge, so 8/2 would be 8 gauge, 2 plies at that gauge. 8/4 is 8 gauge, 4 plies at that gauge. Here (as a slight departure), I will sneak in the fact that there is just a little more to it than that; the amount of plying twist can impart far more strength to the yarn; and less twist will make a drapier, more flexible, and more absorbent yarn, so not all 8/4s are created equal. But that is wandering off into the weeds, and we can talk more about that part later.

In cotton in broad general terms, sewing thread is 50/3 (!!), 16/2 is fine napkins, 8/2 is the stuff you weave dishtowels with, and 8/4 is rag rug warp, and 5/2 does well for inkle weaving a strong dog leash. That part is easy enough to get a handle on, but now we’ll add history.

The guild system in England separated the spinners and weavers by fiber, and each guild came up with their own standards for gauges, because of course they did. At least they all followed the same conventions, so we know which way the numbers run; but in essence, 8/2 in cotton and 8/2 in wool are profoundly different yarns, and silk and linen are different yet, and the smart scout will look further when shopping for yarns.

Yarns put up for knitters are primarily wool (ish), and are set up in wool size terms like lace, fingering, sport, worsted, etc., at least in the US (and there are yards per pound ranges associated with each of those names). The other fibers will not conform to this at all; there isn’t a “sport weight” silk, or linen, yarn, since primarily, we WEAVE with those yarns. So in shopping for wool yarn, a knitter has years of experience to guide her; but if she ventures off into knitting with other fibers, it may be safest to call and ask questions, buy color cards, and compare like-fiber yarns in the all-important Yards Per Pound, the great equalizer. And then sample (or swatch); we can knit with any yarn, but not everyone possesses the fortitude for 5/0 needles.

If you don’t know, ask; one of us would be happy to talk about yarn sizes with you, and clear up any confusion. Yarn is our lives, and whether you want to weave, knit, tat, crochet, nålbind, or macrame with it, we can help out.

Weaver’s philosophy of life... if you tug on anything, it will affect everything.