Sometimes when you pick up that beautiful skein of yarn at the store, it can be a little overwhelming trying to decipher what the label is really telling you. It can feel like it is written in another language. In a way, it is. It is written in the language of fiber craft. I thought perhaps it would be helpful to deconstruct a common yarn label step-by-step. There is a wealth of information that can help you be more successful in your fiber adventures. Once you know what to look for, you can successfully choose a yarn for a project with confidence.
1. The brand of yarn is usually on the front of your label. This is fairly self-explanitory but useful information if you want to buy the yarn in the future. Even if you are unable to remember specifics, if you can remember the brand you can often times find your way back to a yarn. Also, the fiber content is easy to see and useful to remember. Cotton, wool or acrylic are worlds apart when it comes to uses, care, drape and feel. Usually the fiber is broken down into percentages. The examples shown here are 100% of their respective fibers, but you can have combinations. For example, something can be 70% Alpaca and 30% Rayon.
2. Beyond the brand and fiber content, things start to look a little scary. Another important tidbit would be the weight of the yarn. (Tutorial on yarn weights coming soon.) Most of the time, this information will be communicated in the form of a number, 0-7. It can often be found in a cute illustration of a yarn ball. This numbering system follows the Craft Council of America's standard system for yarn weight. The link I have provided will take you to a useful chart of numberings, yarn types and other information about yarn weight. The labels pictured here show a number 4. This means it is a medium weight yarn which includes your worsted, afghan and aran weight yarns. While one of the labels does not explicitly state the type of weight yarn it is, the other includes the information "Worsted Weight."
3. Once you know the weight of your yarn, you can start to think about the needle size you will need to obtain the gauge you want. This information is crucial if you are substituting a yarn in a pattern or you wish to draft your own pattern. Sometimes you will see a graphic of a little square that will tell you the stitch count on a single size needle for a four inch square. For example, it could say on size 8 needles, you should get 20 stitches and 24 rows in a 4x4 inch square. The labels shown here do not include that square, but the information is still there! The labels here, which I see a lot, show you how many stitches to expect in one inch. They also include a range of appropriate needle sizes. This is because every knitter is different, and your stitches may be tighter or looser than a knitter sitting next to you. So, where one knitter needs size 7 needles, another may need size 8. This is also why it is so important to swatch before you start a project where size matters.
4. Dye Lot is another important piece of this puzzle, especially if you are working on a project that requires multiple skeins of yarn (like a sweater). You can see, the color often is associated with a number, like "157W Boysenberry." Think of this as a catalogue number; Brown Sheep Company, Inc. makes this particular color, along with many others. However, within this 157W Boysenberry color, the yarns are died in batches. Makes sense, right? It would be unreasonable to think they can anticipate and dye all the yarn they will ever need in a given color at the same time. Dying yarn in batches introduces the possibility of different variables playing a role in the ultimate color of the yarn. This can lead to slight variations in the color from one batch, or dye lot, to another. This means you will want, when possible, to get all of the yarn for your project from the same dye lot to minimize the chances the yarn will be different from one skein to the next. The dye lot shown in the example above is 033. It would be awful to have half a sweater done, and then the next skein be a slightly different shade of Boysenberry. Where you wanted one cohesive piece, you may end up with a two-toned garment.
5. The last bit of information we will discuss here is the garment care. This is directly related to the type of fiber your yarn is made from. The care instructions, however, are possibly the most confusing of all the symbols you might see, since there are quite a few different ones. To help you, I found a general chart of care symbols you can reference, here. This site provides a key for all of those triangles, squares and circles that make up the hieroglyphics of yarn care. However, one of the most important things to notice is whether you need to hand wash the fiber, which is often depicted by a hand dipping in to a basin of water. If you are able to machine wash the fiber, this is depicted by a wash basin without the hand. If there are lines underneath the basin, as there are in one of the labels featured here, it means you need to use a gentle cycle. Lastly, how do you dry the fiber? If it needs to be air dried, you will see a square with either one horizontal line or three vertical lines inside. The horizontal line means to dry flat whereas the vertical lines mean to drip dry. If the square has a circle in it, like the cotton label above, you are in luck! You can throw that sucker in the dryer. Once again, if there are lines underneath it, you should use a gentle cycle.
Without muddling the issue more, I hope this was a helpful tutorial. The labels of your yarn really provide invaluable information for the success of your project. Choosing the right yarn really makes all the difference. If you are going to put the hours of sweat and tears into a project, it would be discouraging to be tripped up with the wrong yarn choice. So, walk in to a yarn store with confidence, you now speak the language of yarn labels!