Lisa’s List: 12 Yarn Ball Types and How to Knit with Them

This week, I set out to write about types of yarn balls and put-ups, but things were not as simple I’d expected. The thing I’ve called a skein my whole life? Other people call it a hank. The thing I call a ball? Other people call it a bullet skein. Whoa! And so we enter the real debate of the 21st century: skein or hank? Ball or skein?

If you’re scrunching your nose and thinking, “What is she talking about?” Well, let’s take a step back. Yarn is made in long strands that have to be cut and packaged into a form that can be labeled, shipped and displayed on store shelves without getting hopelessly tangled and deformed along the way. Those units come in different forms. Maybe you’ve purchased a unit of yarn and had to wind it into a ball before you could knit with it; maybe you were able to slide the label off and cast on right away. This is what I’m talking about — the ways yarns are packaged into single units, and what they mean for you, the knitter.

I opened the Skein vs. Hank vs. Ball debate on my Facebook wall and realized quickly that I needed help. So I called on the experts — the people who make yarn — to help me untangle this crazy Hankenskein monster. Thanks for your help, guys!

For video demos of how to handle these ball types, including using swifts, ball-winders and other tools, check out this video (FULL DISCLOSURE, IT FEATURES MY MOM).

Okay, here we go.

12 Types of Yarn Balls and How to Knit with Them

  1. HANK
    So consensus points to hank being the correct term for a loop of yarn, fastened into a continuous circle with ties. Hanks are good for dyeing or painting yarn (see #3 for more on this). You will have to transform a hank into a ball or cake to knit with it, and a swift helps keep the loop open and neat as you wind it off. Hank is cool, but he requires some effort. As some folks pointed out to me, you make a hank on a skein-winder. Not a hank-winder. Go figure.
  2. FOLDED HANK
    Take that tied-off loop of yarn and fold it over, slap a label round its belly and you have a folded hank. The label really holds this guy together. It’s great for bulky yarns and novelty yarns, as it shows off the character of the yarn without restricting it in some tight twisted or ball form. To knit: Remove the label, suspend the open hank on a swift or your friend’s outstretched arms, cut the ties and wind off into a ball.
  3. TWISTED HANK
    This is where things get cray. Yarn professionals admit that “twisted hank” is the correct term for a loop of yarn, tied off and then twisted into a braid, but they also admit that they often use the term “skein” interchangeably here. I know many knitters call these things skeins. Hand-dyers usually dye their yarn in hanks and sell it in twisted hanks. This is a practical production option for them, and as Felicia Lo, author and owner of Sweet Georgia Yarn, says: “It’s easier for us to display the different nuances and variations of color when it’s in the hank/skein format.” (Excuse her Canadian spelling.) Twisted hanks do require winding into balls/cakes before knitting, but Beth Casey of Lorna’s Laces waxes poetic on that point: “There is something to be said about touching the yarn and getting to know it a little bit before you start a project. Kinda like a coffee date vs. a dinner date.”

    This gradient yarn set includes 5 twisted hanks of yummy merino.

    As Katie Rempe from Skacel noted, the proliferation of high-end hand-dyes in twisted hanks has conferred a sense of quality onto the twisted hank form. “Don’t put down the put-up,” she told me recently at TNNA, wagging a ball of Hikoo Kenzie in my face. Good yarns don’t ONLY come in twisted hanks, but plenty of them do.

  4. SKEIN
    Skein is a generic term, the way “ball” is. Many people call the twisted yarn braid a skein, and so I am calling it a bonafide synonym for twisted hank. It can also mean a machine-produced ball, which usually isn’t round. See #5 and #6.

    Okay, so let me interrupt here to say that I call #5 and #6 balls and that the machines that produce these things are called “ball-winders.” So I’m not wrong. We’re not talking a little plastic ball-winder clasped to your dining room table; these are industrial ball-winders “the size of a locomotive” according to Caroline Sommerfeld of Ancient Arts. This machinery is expensive and takes up a lot of space, which is why many hand-dyers don’t make balls — it’s a big investment for an operation that usually starts out small, in a garage or basement, and their yarn looks so nice in twisted hanks, anyway.

    This is a pull skein!

  5. PULL SKEIN
    So, online sources call this thing a “skein,” but my yarn pals elaborate on that — they call it a pull skein or center-pull skein. You can knit from this unit directly off the store shelf — just slide off the label and pull from the outside or the center and you’re ready to go. These pull skeins will collapse as you work, so I find that rewinding their spilled guts into a hand-wound ball helps avoid HANKENSKEIN. We’ll get to that later.
  6. BULLET SKEIN
    The bullet skein, a term I stole from Courtney Kelley of The Fibre Company, is a shorter, rounder version of the pull skein. It’s a machine-made ball that is not round. It kind of looks like a fat football or a weird melon. It’s great just the way it is — pull off the end and start knitting. It doesn’t collapse into a mess the way long pull skeins do. I LOVE BULLET SKEINS. So easy, so compact! And they stack nicely on the shelf until I get to them. I have an epic amount of Brown Sheep Nature Spun Sport, which comes in bullet skeins, stacked on my shelf. One ball in every color, cuz it’s GREAT for Fair Isle swatching when I get THAT weird urge. Plus, those little guys can lose a few yards every couple years and they’re still lookin’ good.

    This is a bullet skein!

  7. BALL
    The yarn ball. A true, round ball, often hand-wound or sometimes mass-produced by companies such as Schoppel Wolle (their Zauberball line is made up of balls). If you hand-wind a ball from a hank or from some other put-up, you get a BALL’S BALL. This is a round, hard unit from which you can knit easily; it does not collapse. But, hand-winding a ball can lead to stretching the yarn tightly into place, which can affect your tension and/or the final behavior of the yarn in your fabric. Wind gently and wash your knitting after working from a ball to let the yarn bloom again.
  8. CAKE

    This is a yarn cake!

    Ahh, the yarn cake — knitter’s bliss. A cake is produced from winding hanked yarn onto a ball-winder — the personal ball-winder kind, not the locomotive-sized kind. Plop your hank onto an umbrella swift, thread the end through the piggy tail of a ball-winder, hand-crank that winder and watch your cake form, all neat and orderly. It’s a ball, of sorts, but the yarn can be taken off the side or from the center, and the thing doesn’t roll around; it sits on its flat cake bottom and whispers sweet nothings to itself. You can knit directly from a cake, and you should. Some yarn companies do package their yarn in cakes; Freia Fibers is one. Cakes show off the gradient range of Freia’s colors, from outside to inside. Mmm. Cake.
  9. DONUT BALL
    This guy. He’s great for packaging slippery luxury yarns that need to show off their loft and luster on yarn shop shelves; yarns that come in smaller-yardage put-ups because they’re so precious. Please note, I did not find any yarn professionals using the term “donut ball;” they all just call this a ball. But I’m taking a stance here. You can call it a Bagel Ball if you want, but this is DEFINITELY DIFFERENT from a round ball.

    Donut ball or bagel ball… call it what you will.

    The donut often depends on a label piercing its open center to give it structure, so you might find that it falls apart once you remove the label and start knitting with it. Buy donuts and gently rewind them into balls, without stretching the yarn, and then knit with it in that form. Or knit directly from the donut and curse your late-night sequined cashmere decisions. It’s your life, sweetie.

  10. HARD CORE BALL
    I had no term for this put-up, and Stacy Charles of Tahki-Stacy Charles gave me the words: HARD CORE BALL. For the rock star in all of us, this is a ball wrapped over a rigid cardboard core, keeping it solid and presentable for display and storage. You will see this put-up in fine cotton yarns, metallics, synthetics, and other yarns that tend to be slippery. These yarns need a little mmmph to keep them together before they hit your needles, but knitting from a hard core ball is easy. As you near the end of the ball, you might have a HANKENSKEIN mess, and I suggest that you find the center end and wind a round ball as you near that point, in order to keep things rockin’.
  11. CONE
    The cone is the put-up of cheapskates, weavers and enterprising young knitters who stumble into the yarn inheritance of their hoarder grandmas. None of that is true, except the weaver’s part. Or maybe it’s all kinda true. In any event, coned yarns are often affordable, come in huge yardage put-ups and just require a little love from knitters. Yarn does not look glamorous or soft or particularly sexy on a cone, but don’t be fooled. That ugly duckling will come to life on your needles.When yarn is wound onto a cone, it undergoes a lot of pressure, stretching the yarn in place, so consider winding off into hanks (using a skein-winder or niddy noddy or even your arm), washing it, hanging the hanks to dry, then balling it and knitting from it. Many coned yarns still have a waxy coating on them from the milling process, which makes them ideal for weavers who need to poke tons of ends through tiny heddles, but knitters might not love the waxy coating. So wash it, kids. With cones, you can buy a couple thousand yards of incredible yarn for pennies on the dollar because no one has had to pay for ball-making equipment, labels or quality control of tons of wonky little donuts. STEAL.


    Make a hank from a cone, or any other put-up, using your arm! Sarah Anderson shows you how.

  12. HANKENSKEIN
    This guy is not an official kind of ball; rather, he’s the monster at the bottom of your stash after your cats and your kids have discovered your hanks and balls and played “fiber arts” with them. He’s what happens when you’re careless with your pull skein, or when you try to wind a hank into a ball without securing the loose hank. He is hopeless. You can’t knit from him; you might not even be able to salvage his alpaca parts. Your best hope is an hour of silence, some incense, a well-lit room and your Boy Scout knot-making skills, played in reverse. Best of luck.

Wind a Center-Pull Yarn Ball by Hand

Fear not if you get stuck with unwound hanks, folded hanks, twisted hanks, cones or even hankenskeins without a swift, ball-winder or skein-winder. You can easily wind your yarn into a manageable center-pull ball without the need for fancy winding tools. This isn’t to say that a swift or ball-winder wouldn’t make your life significantly easier. But this trick is great when you’re in a pinch, surrounded by unusable yarn balls and a list of unfinished knitting projects.

To get started, you’ll need yarn (obviously) and a thicker-gauge knitting needle or crochet hook.

  1. Tie a slipknot at one end of your yarn and attach it to the end of your winding tool.
  2. Use your thumb to hold your yarn to the winding tool and begin to wrap it around the tool and itself while keeping the slip-knotted end separate.
  3. Keep on winding and wrapping your yarn to create a round ball, making sure that the yarn is crisscrossing over itself.
  4. Once all of the yarn is wound into a ball, tuck the end under some strands in the ball to keep it in place.
  5. Gently pull your ball of yarn off of the winding tool without losing the slipknot end.
  6. You’re done! You can start knitting from the end that has the slipknot in it, which you can pull from the center of the yarn ball.

What do you call your yarn balls? Do you know of another ball or hank type that I’ve missed? I LOVE hearing from you guys. Leave a comment below that starts with “HANK” or “SKEIN” and elaborate from there.

I got a HANKering for some loose yarn,
—Lisa


Manage your yarns from hank to cake!

 

24 Comments

  1. Amy W at 5:03 am February 24, 2017

    I enjoyed your article so much! (Especially “Hankenskein”)
    My grandmother taught me how to make a hand wound ball into a center pull ball, a method I still use frequently. Starting in the center, winding a bit around my thumb or finger and leaving a tail, then just wind as usual, making sure to,leave the tail hanging outside as you wind.
    Happy winding! Thanks for a fun read

  2. Susan C at 6:55 am February 24, 2017

    This is the clearest description of the ins-and-outs of the many and varied forms that yarn can take. Thank you!
    As a weaver, there is the additional deep and painfully learned personal understanding of keeping warp yarn organized. Never lose the cross in your warp! Think of a warp as a 10 or 20 yard skein and it will be crystal clear to non-weavers. I agree that cones of yarn are a wonderful thing.
    I would love to see an in-depth article such as this on how yarns are spun differently for different purposes plus all the staggering variety of “fancy” yarn. If I missed it, point me in that direction.
    Happy knitting, crocheting, tatting, lace making and weaving!

    • Susan C at 7:06 am February 24, 2017

      The only addition I would make is when winding delicate yarns from your swift into a cake, the tension in the resulting ball can be a problem. I always wind lace weight cashmere from the skein using a non-electric ball winder and gently turn the swift to reduce the tension on the yarn. Then I wind it a second time pulling from the center onto a larger core electric ball winder. The resulting second ball will be noticeably larger, softer and is less likely to keep that delicate yarn under tension. Tension is one enemy of all natural animal fibers.

  3. Carol J C at 8:21 am February 24, 2017

    When winding my yarn I always wind into center pull such as Amy W does, beginning by winding around my thumb. The difference for me is that I leave my thumb in the center as I gently wind around the ball which leaves some space so that when I am finished winding I squeeze the ball so the extra space disappears. This little bit of space helps reduce some of the tension on the yarn within the ball and makes pulling from the center less stressful and wearing on the yarn.

    I enjoyed your article!

  4. heather l at 8:59 am February 24, 2017

    Learning to keep hand-wound balls soft is definitely an artform in itself. I actually have a swift I made but no ball-winder because I think the yarn cakes are too tight for my liking.

    When I wind center-pull balls, they’re mostly round, but if I’m doing just a normal ‘ball,’ I do what my great-grandmother did, and end up with an egg/football shape (funny thing is I never crocheted with her, my grandmother told me later I wound yarn the way she did). It looks weird but it’s actually handy because a dropped ball doesn’t roll away. Anyone else do this?

  5. Gail S at 9:12 am February 24, 2017

    Loved the article, cleared up some terms for me lol. However, as a Canadian I really don’t think you should be apologizing for someone who chooses to spell things correctly.

    • charlotte a at 10:59 am February 24, 2017

      ROFLOL You’re correct, of course.

  6. Maria S at 9:57 am February 24, 2017

    I loved the article! You forgot “yarn barf” – that mess that gets pulled out of the center of a pull-skein when you try to find the end to pull.

  7. Donna K at 10:46 am February 24, 2017

    Wow! Fantastic, educational article. Thanks for sharing all this info. I too thought everything was a skein or hank till recently. This puts it all in perspective. And of course, we have all met Hankenstein! I’m not as patient with any other puzzle or unknotting as I am when it comes to yarn. It’s like a zen thing! I just patiently spend the time it takes to save my precious yarn.

  8. charlotte a at 10:57 am February 24, 2017

    Great article – interesting, informative, and funny, too!

  9. Kathryn M at 11:44 am February 24, 2017

    There is a glaring omission in your definition of hank. This would also explain why your drawings of the hank and the twisted skein are identical except for their orientation on the page.

    Hank is historically a specific measurement of length.

    We get this from Merriam Webster:
    coil, loop; specifically : a coiled or looped bundle (as of yarn) usually containing a definite yardage

    And from Wikipedia:
    In the textile industry, a hank refers to a unit of yarn or twine that is in a coiled form. … For instance, a hank of linen is 300 yards or approx 270 metres, and a hank of cotton or silk is 840 yards or approx 768 metres.

    And from dictionary.com:
    a measurement of the length per unit mass of cloth or yarn, which varies according to the type being measured. For example, a hank is equal to 840 yards for cotton yarn and 560 yards for worsted.

    Over the years, this knowledge seems to have been lost to the general knitting population, which is a shame. Leaving it out of an article written specifically about the differences in the different forms is a major oversight.

    • vicki d at 10:04 pm February 24, 2017

      My stars, Kathryn M! That was quite rude of you.
      I think this is a wonderful and well-written article; I enjoyed it immensely.
      I do believe you would feel much better if you had that stick removed.

      • Merrilyn B at 9:55 pm February 25, 2017

        vicki d — I didn’t think that Kathryn M’s comment was rude (except possibly the last sentence..), but YOURS definitely was!

        I felt that a bit of history about the usage of the word hank was quite interesting, and not off topic at all.

      • Cassie T at 11:03 am March 2, 2017

        Luv you vicki d! I don’t think you were being rude to Kathryn M’s comment…you were merely stating a fact much like she was in her comment.

      • Kathryn M at 11:20 am March 6, 2017

        “My stars, Kathryn M! That was quite rude of you.
        I think this is a wonderful and well-written article; I enjoyed it immensely.
        I do believe you would feel much better if you had that stick removed.”

        Thank you so much for your constructive criticism, Vicki D. Of course, you’re right. Next time I write something in the comments on an article about fiber arts I’ll be sure to bash another reader’s comments and make it all about ME ME ME rather than stick to the subject at hand. Because that’s what the comments are for, isn’t it. I guess you did your good deed for the day and educated me!

  10. Eli V at 11:50 am February 24, 2017

    I really enjoyed this article. “Hankenstein” loved that. This article really put a smile on my face. Thank you.

  11. Anneke d at 12:15 pm February 24, 2017

    Hank? I have never heard that word before. I always said “ball of wool”, translating the word literally from Dutch. Until I learned the words “yarn” and “skein” and assumed they were the correct terms and “ball” was completely wrong. Super interesting article! The linguist in me looooves it! And I’m happy to know I can call my skeins balls again without sounding silly. Even if all of them are bullet skeins. Most people won’t know, right? 🙂

  12. Shaela F at 4:28 pm February 24, 2017

    And why pray tell must we excuse Felicia’s Canadian spelling? Perhaps an unnecessary comment ?

  13. Norrine T at 6:30 am February 25, 2017

    Hankenskein also known as “yarn vomit”.

  14. Donna B at 5:30 am February 26, 2017

    Loved your article! As a teenager MANY years ago I worked in one of the knitting mills in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, home of the well-known BERNAT YARNS. In the part of the mill where I worked, with seasoned machine operators, we made the 4-ply worsted weight yarns. We had 4 LARGE cones of single ply yarn that were set up on individal cone “spokes” and threaded overhead and twisted together into a 4-ply yarn onto large spindles. This is but one part of the process of how yarn is made and “put up” in large batches or “lots”. The machine was difficult to keep up with as it did not take very long for those 4 cones to be spun into 4-ply yarn on the spindles. There were 25 spindles on both sides of the “machine” (50 spindles altogether and running at the same time!) , two aisles where the worker has to walk around the machine to keep things moving, and on either side of those aisles were the rows of “spokes” where the single ply cones of yarn were set up. So, in order to wind 50 spindles, there were 200 individual cones of single ply yarn set up and threaded “up & over” onto the 50 spindles. It was quite an education for a high-schooler, let me tell you! It gave me a HUGE appreciation for the PATIENCE and skill that those ladies possessed, and I will always remember that experience every time I see or handle a machine wound skein of yarn. Thanks again for a very informative and interesting article!

  15. JENNIFER B at 4:49 pm March 1, 2017

    I love this list. 😀 However, I picked up calling Hankensteins “Yarn Barfs” from an acquaintance long ago, and I just can’t let that one go.

  16. Cassie T at 11:11 am March 2, 2017

    I personally (and do not profess to be an expert in the lingo) refer to the unfortunate mess that comes out of a centre pull or bullet skein (when you just can’t find that end) as a “yarn barf” Fun! And yes, I’m Canadian.

  17. Barb H at 5:43 pm March 8, 2017

    Loved this article, learned so much! Back in the 60s, my grandmother taught me to wind yarn into a ball, using the folded label as the core, with the brand, color, type, weight, dye lot, etc. on it Made sense to me so I still do it that way for those skein/hank type that look so good, but ALWAYS seem to have a knot or snarl in it just when I want to knit a few more rows. She also had me wind around a couple of finger tips so the yarn wasn’t stretched or too tight. This instilled a love of the feel of yarn/fabric in me that has continued long after many of my projects. So I always begin a project by first winding a skein onto a ball. I still meet hankenstein occasionally, usually when helping another knitter.
    Love the cones of cotton for washclothes- they never have snarls!

  18. Henrietta B at 10:57 am March 23, 2017

    Hee hee – “hankerstein”!
    The thing you call a “donut ball”, I call a “center pull ball”. I admit I occasionally have to rewind the center pull ball as the center drops out but I will take that over the “regular” ball continually bouncing around ( and across the room and under the bed and.. ) as I pull yarn from it. You can still knit from the outside yarn with this ball, just like you do with the yarn cake.
    As far as winding tightly goes, nothing winds as tight as a yarn cake, in my experience. To avoid winding tightly by hand, I keep a couple fingers over the ball and wind the yarn over the fingers, removing them when I turn the ball to wind some more.
    I always knit from the center. If I think the cake or ball is big enough that collapsing will be a problem, I cover the ball in a little “yarn sock” that keeps it together. I prefer this to toting those ceramic yarn bowls around.
    I’ve never knit sequined yarn. I imagine if I did, I might reluctantly be forced to knit from the outside.

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