job lot of knitting machine yarn
machine knitting,  wicked

Knitting Machine Yarn

Machine Knitters prefer to buy yarn on a cone so that they can quickly and smoothly knit a garment without having to worry about yarn running out.  Today it is not easy to find coned yarn in your local shop but there are several online sources in the UK (you will find a list of suppliers in my next post on Resources).   As a beginner, my two favourite places are BSK for industrial yarn at clearance prices and Yeoman Yarns for a wide range of yarns, with bargain mixed yarn packs to practice with. As I look for better yarns, I am enjoying Yarn on Cone for a variety of acrylics and cottons (also BUBZ on eBay) and Yarn2Cone (Woollyknit) that offers a range of acrylics and merino wool on cones.

You may already have a starter pack of mixed yarns or have been given/bought a job lot of mixed yarns that you are not sure about.    Is the yarn suitable for your knitting machine?  You need to check the label of the yarn.  If there is no outside label, then there should be an information label stuck to the inside of the cone.  This label should indicate the type of yarn and the thickness of the yarn.  (NB: it is possible that the cone has been reused and so the label is not valid).

If you thread up your yarn mast and turn dial to 1 (loosest) if the yarn wire does not move then the yarn is too thick for your machine. If the yarn is too thin, then use more than 1 strand.

For a typical standard gauge machine, you are looking for the UK 2 ply, 3 ply and 4 ply yarns. These are also known as lace weight and light fingering in the US.

Types of Yarn Content.

hand spinning yarn into a single strand called a ply

Spinners pull or comb fibres from a mass of basic material and spin them into a single strand of yarn. This single strand of yarn is called a ply. Yarn makers could twist two or more stands/plies together to make a thicker and stronger yarn. Basic materials can be natural (wool, silk, bamboo etc.) or man-made (acrylic, rayon, nylon etc.) or a mixture.

The characteristics of spun yarn vary according to the material used, fibre length and alignment, quantity of fibre used, and degree of twist. The more strands or plies in the yarn, the stronger denser it will be. Thus 3 strands of yarn or 3ply yarn was used to make a sturdy sock and is often called sock yarn.

Man-made yarns became popular because they were less expensive, washed better, and came in a wide range of colours and varieties.  However, a garment made with natural yarns can look better and last longer.  Mixed fibres are popular because they mix the best properties together.

Styles of Yarn

fancy knitting machine yarns
fancy knitting machine yarns

Yarns can also have different types or style of yarn. There is smooth which is the best type of yarn for machines and fancy. Some fancy yarns are hairy like mohair and angora which can be difficult to knit as the fibres can clog up the wheels and brushes. Other fancy yarns may have a fine metallic or sparkly thread in them. These need to be tested on your machine before making a garment out of them. However they are very useful as a weaving yarn. You can do this manually or by the use of a weaving arm attachment for your carriage.

boucle yarn
large cone of boucle yarn

An interesting style of yarn is knobbly or boucle yarn. This can give a lovely texture to your knitting. There are many machine knitting patterns that use boucle yarn, but it can be tricky to knit with.

Testing your yarn to determine its type

If you are not sure what type of yarn you have then you can find out using the Burn Test, where you use a flame to burn the yarn (but be careful, do this in a controlled way).  Here is a great video that shows you how to do this:

  • Wool:  If there is a smell of hair, the yarn stops burning and it turns to ash.  This is wool.
  • Cotton:  catches on fire, smells like burned paper and burns yellow colour, it does not form ash.
  • Bamboo: it catches fire, burns orange and continues to burn, smells of burn paper, will burn to strands which can fall apart into ash.
  • Acrylic: it catches on fire fast, it keeps burning for longer, burns white with black smoke and gives a chemical smell, it does not form ash, more like black plastic.

Plied yarn

cotton with 6 plies
double knitting cotton with 6 plies

In the UK hand and machine knitters and patterns tend to describe yarn in terms of ply. A 4 ply yarn is usually 4 times thicker than a 1 ply yarn. This is because traditional yarns were spun to a standardised thickness.

Today, however, strands of yarn can be of varying thickness so you can have a very thin 3 ply yarn (e.g. laceweight) or a very thick 3 ply yarn (e.g. bulky). Thus you need to make sure that you read all the suppliers information about a yarn before buying it. They should say that it knits to a certain ply of thickness of yarn. Email them to make sure that the yarn is suitable for your machine.

Yarns in the US are often described in terms of its relative thickness, laceweight being a very fine yarn and bulky being a very thick yarn. More information is given in the yarn count table later in this post.

Industrial yarns

BSK industrial yarn purchase
BSK industrial yarn purchase

Industrial knitting machines needed lots of yarn to make garments. They were also able to use very fine yarns to make a variety of materials to make a range of garments. They created a demand for large cones of yarn at a lower price. The home knitter can often take advantage of this by buying these finer yarns and twisting them together to make a thicker yarns.

The most common type of industrial fine yarn is described as 2/30 or 2/28 and is approximately a thick 1 ply or very fine 2 ply. Two ends of 2/30 make a 3 ply and 4 ends of 2/30 can make a thick 4 ply. Thus these industrial yarns are suitable for fine gauge and standard gauge knitting machines. Using this type of yarn can be 2 or 3 times cheaper than a regular cone of yarn. Mixing colours can give a wonderful variegated effect. It is possible to mix different types of yarn.

Yarn Counts

Industrial yarn is described in terms of yarn count. The yarn count is based on the number of units (length) in specific unit (weight). This differs across countries and sometimes yarns. In the US and the UK before 1971, this would be the number of yards in a pound of wool often called the worsted count (WC). In Europe and the UK after 1971 the yarn count was based on NM (numero metric) and relates to the number of metres in a kilogram of yarn. There is also a CC count for cottons. Because of the different systems, it is not easy to interpret yarn count numbers.

For acrylic and wool yarns using the NM system, the count is seen as a fraction e.g. 2/30 or 2/15. The first number relates to the number of strands in the yarn (the more strands the stronger the yarn) and the second number relates to the thickness of the strand (the bigger the number the thinner the yarn).

yarn counts
yarn counts

I have compiled the following table for common industrial yarns that might help machine knitters to find a suitable yarn for their machine. Please refer back to my previous post on suitable yarns here.

One small problem that I have found is that some people say DK is 6ply (2 strands of 3 ply yarn) and some say is is 8 ply (2 strands of 4 ply yarn). You can see from the above table that DK (2/6) is equivalent of 2 strands of 3 ply (2/12).

Airedale Yarns has a webpage (here) that gives some more information about yarn counts and thicknesses.

  • 3 strands of 2/30 (1 ply) make a 4 ply
  • 2 strands of 2/30 (1 ply) make a 3 ply
  • 2/8 = 4 ply, 
  • 2 strands of 2 ply make a 4 ply
  • 2/6 = double knit (DK)
  • 3 strands of 2 ply make a double knit
  • 3 strands of 2/20 make a double knit
  • 2/4 = aran thickness

How much Yarn?

If you are following a pattern it should state the amount of yarn that you need of the yarn specified. But what happens if you use a different yarn? then it is difficult to say. But you will need less of a finer yarn and more of a thicker yarn. You also need to consider the weight of the yarn. A woollen jumper weighs more than an acrylic and less than a cotton. One idea is to find one of your garments that is similar in size and thickness to the one you want to knit and weigh it. Another idea is to find a hand knitting pattern that is similar and look at the amount is asks.

Yarn Amounts
how much yarn for my jumper?

I find that you should get some cheap yarn and learn how to make the garment first. You can make a back and a sleeve. Weigh them and double the amount (and then add some more for tension squares and mistakes).

For those of you who work in length then the following info might be useful.

  • 500g of 4ply acrylic yarn  2/8 nm is about 1950 metres or 2133 yards
  • 500g of 3 ply acrylic yarn 2/12 nm is about 5200 metres or 5687 yards
  • 500g of 2 ply acrylic yarn 2/30 nm is about 7000 metres or 7655 yards
  • 400g of 2 ply cotton yarn is about 3380 metres or 3697 yards
4 ply fairisle jumper
4 ply fairisle jumper

My 4 ply lightweight, acrylic, fairisle, long-sleeved, round-necked jumper for 36 inch chest (actual chest size about 40 inches) weighed about 390g.   More will be needed for a heavier wool or cotton yarn and for slip or tuck stitched versions.  You also need to add some for tension squares and errors

I hope that this information on yarn will prove useful to you as you start your knitting adventures.


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