Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ways to Improve Your Knitting - Learn About Yarn Weights

When we talk about “yarn weights,” we mean the thickness of the yarn.  Since the thickness of the yarn is critical to your projects’ success, yarn weight groups can be very useful.  Generally, if you can’t get one yarn in a group another yarn in the same group will probably make an okay substitute; however, each yarn weight group has a range of thicknesses.  A thinner yarn in the same group won’t substitute well for a thicker one, unless you do the math to adjust the pattern.

And let’s think about actual “weight” for just a moment.  Patterns usually specify so many ounces or grams of yarn.   Because some fibers have more heft, you get very different yardages for the same number of ounces of yarn, depending on whether the yarn is acrylic, rayon, cotton, silk, or wool, and also depending on the spin of the fiber.  When in doubt, buy more than you think you need and keep the receipt.  A reputable store will allow you to return an extra ball or two, if it’s new and unopened.

When you’re picking out yarn, it’s very helpful to get used to the various markings on the packages.  These skein-of-yarn logos with a number inside indicate the yarn’s weight group (thickness – we’re back to thickness!).  In addition to the group number logo, there’s usually a gauge diagram which gives additional information about the thickness of the yarn.  When you’re trying to get a good substitute, if you can get the gauge diagram to match, you’re all set.

Of course, you must rewind any skeined yarn for knitting with your machine.  Yarn gets clumpy and tangled in skeins.  Lots of hand knitters untangle the yarn as they go, but that just doesn’t work with knitting machines, which yank out and use a yard or two of yarn in a single pass of the carriage!  Along with a knitting machine, you need to invest in a yarn winder.

For reference on yarn weights, here’s a great little chart from the Yarn Council of America that you can print off and keep with your knitting notes:

These are the consumer yarn weights with the symbols on the label: 

Lace weight is really skinny stuff – you can expect to get 8 to 10 stitches per inch hand knitting the stuff.  This would be using a 000-1 size knitting needle!  Lots of times, hand knitting lace patterns use this yarn with a loose gauge to give a loopy, gauzy look.

I often successfully knitted lace weight yarn on the knitting machine, but it tends to be a little thin for the standard gauge machine.  When the yarn is really thin, you tend to get the following problems:
  1. The yarn slips through the upper tension unit too easily.  You want your upper tension unit to actually hold the yarn just enough so that the rabbit ears (excuse me, I should say take-up springs) go up and down as you knit. 
  2. The stitches might not knit off the needles but tend to stay on and clump. 
  3. The finished fabric might be too gauzy and see-through.

Some strategies to make very skinny yarn practical in your standard gauge machine:
  1. Use enough weight, evenly placed across the machine – but not too much.  You’re going to have to experiment to get this right!
  2. Use the fine knit bar that came with your ribber.  This long, skinny piece of plastic fits between the needles and the gate pegs on the main bed and presses against the needle as it goes in and out, helping to move the stitch down off the needle.
  3. Consider doing full needle rib stitches instead of stockinette-based stitches.  (In fact, if you’re learning to “full needle rib,” this is the yarn to start with!
  4. Do a lot of swatching and be flexible about trying different stitch patterns to see what works best
  5. Double-up the yarn (knit two strands at once)
  6. Play with the upper tension setting so you get a little drag on the yarn feed

·         Consider using the yarn for something lacy, deliberately going for a gauzy look

I would call this “fingering” or “sock” weight yarn.   Years ago this was “baby” weight yarn.  Now the stores are filled with much thicker yarns labeled “baby” weight, so don’t go by that designation anymore!  “Baby” can mean anything from fingering yarn to bulky yarn, since the yarn companies are marketing to beginners with quick, thick projects.  That’s fine, but can be confusing when you’re trying to figure out yarn thickness.

Lace weight yarn hand knits on a size 1-3 needle and give 7-8 stitches per inch, roughly.   This corresponds (roughly) to 2/12 yarn in the commercial cone yarns.

Every machine has a “sweet spot,” a yarn thickness that is ideal for that machine.  It simply hums along better with yarn in the right thickness.  It may work very poorly, or not knit at all, with other sizes of yarn.  For standard gauge machines, 4.5 mm in needle pitch, “fingering” is usually the yarn to use.

Not only is fingering weight yarn more pleasant to use than thick yarn, you’ll often get a more figure-flattering result with thinner yarns.   Most nice sweaters you see in the shops are not made with thick, chunky yarn.  Sweaters tend to add a little visual size to the figure, and chunkier yarns add more.  These thinner yarns can even be blocked so they’re soft and drapy for a high-fashion look.

If I were only allowed to give one piece of advice to a beginning machine knitter, I’d say, get some skinny yarn for learning!  If only beginning machine knitters will start right out with the right thickness of yarn for their machines, they have a much better experience with a lot less frustration and problems.  Even if you don’t want to knit socks, sock yarn may be the easiest thing for you to obtain in local stores for your knitting machine.

Cone yarn is fantastic for machine knitting.  Do not limit yourself to yarns you can get in the local stores – venture onto the internet and try cones of yarn intended for machine knitting.  First of all, they’re pre-waxed so slide easily through your machine.  Secondly, the yardage on a great, big cone is amazing.  You can knit and knit without having to join a new end.  And, coned yarn is wound in the ideal way to feed perfectly into your machine – no rewinding of yarn!

Usually, fingering weight yarn is a little too thick for full needle rib (FNR).  If you set your ribber up for FNR and look at the needle arrangement, you’ll observe that where you had 50 needles knitting on the main bed, now you have 100 needles in the same amount of space.  It follows that you need a much thinner yarn for FNR.

This is called “sport” yarn.  It’ll give 5-1/2 to 6-1/2 stitches per inch on a size 3-5 hand knitting needle. 

“Sport” is a very nice size for a lot of things.  I encourage hand knitters and crocheters to try sport yarn for a more professional finish than the thicker yarns – and especially encourage crocheters to use it.  It’s a little thick for standard gauge, 4.5 mm, Japanese flatbed knitting machines, though.
Your standard machine will probably knit sport weight yarn on every needle, but it may struggle with it.  

Some common symptoms of too-thick yarn include:
  1. Carriage is hard to push.  Never, never force the carriage!  If it’s hard, grinding, or extra-noisy to push, completely change your plans.  Why put that strain on your precious machine?
  2. The knitted fabric may be stiff, too tight, and feel “packed.”
  3. Yarn might lie on top of the stitches instead of knitting through.
  4. The lace carriage may refuse to transfer the stitches.
  5. Yarn may be too fat to fit easily inside the needle hook (and if it’s this fat, it will be nothing but trouble)

Some strategies for trying to knit thicker yarn include:
  1. Try knitting on every-other-needle. 
  2. Consider a 1x1 ribbing or a ribbing with half pitch and every third needle on each bed, then racked to center the ribber needles.
  3. Loosen the upper tension unit.
  4. Try playing with the carriage tension settings.  Sometimes a tighter setting will be easier to knit, and sometimes a looser setting.
  5. Use enough weight.

·       Again, don’t use yarn in your machine if it strains the machine.

“Sport” weight yarn is typically terrific in a mid-gauge machine, which has a 6 mm or 6.5 mm pitch.  It has a little bigger needle, which helps hold the fatter yarn.

Also try “sport” weight yarn on your bulky machine.  I really like the way it knits on my Brother bulky.  It’s nice for ribbed stitches on the bulky.  A lot of people think a “bulky” machine knits “bulky” yarn, but no, it knits thicker-than-standard-machine yarn…how thick, well, depends on the machine.

Sizes 3 and 4 are the DK/Worsted sizes.  3 is lighter, more like a DK (double knitting or light worsted) and 4 is thicker, more like Red Heart worsted (not my favorite yarn, but so very familiar to Americans, so you can visualize that thickness).
These yarns are typically too heavy for a standard knitting machine.  One of the first things beginners do is try to knit these, because they’re common, familiar yarns.  Yes, you can usually knit them on a standard machine on every other needle, but no guarantees, kids.  If you see those too-heavy-yarn symptoms, well, the yarn is too heavy.  If the yarn over-fills the needle, it’s too thick for certain.  If you’ve been in the habit of knitting worsted (group 4) yarns on every other needle on your standard machine, try much thinner yarn and experience a completely different, easier and better knitting session.

These yarns will sometimes knit on a mid-gauge machine but usually are too thick for that as well.
These yarns will usually knit on a bulky machine (8 or 9 mm pitch).  You might like group 3 better than group 4.   I just wrote a book of bulky machine projects, and I used category 4 yarn for every one of them – and I used 8 and 9 mm machines.

It’s time to talk about bumpy, hairy yarn.  Bumpy yarn might be thick-and-thin, crimped, or slubby, or it could be a twist of more than one yarn, some strands crimped, slubby, or uneven.  For the purpose of getting these yarns to knit successfully on the knitting machine, look at the very thickest part.  These tend to knit up thicker than they look like they will.

Hairy yarn is especially problematic on the knitting machine.  It knits up so much bigger than you expect it to – and the machine just magically smooths away all the fluff on the stockinette side.  You get fluff on the reverse stockinette side, but that’s not helpful unless you were planning to use that for the right side of the knitting. 

I use it, especially on the bulky, anyway.  I like that look.  First of all, I look for a thinner hairy yarn, and secondly, brush it very lightly after knitting it to fluff it up.  I use a baby hairbrush or a soft natural bristle brush and I don’t brush it much.  Just go easy on it, since you can always brush it more later, but you can’t fix it if you brush it too much.   

Ah, this is the thick stuff, giving 3 to 3-1/2 stitches per inch on a size 9 to 11 needle. 
Generally, this is too thick for your knitting machine.  Think of it as hand knitting yarn only.
It’s probably too thick for even a bulky machine.  You can try it on every other needle, but it’s a long shot at best.  I have nursed a very few brands through the bulky machine with the following strategies:
  1. I tape or shim open the upper tension unit dial. 
  2. I rewind it and wax it like crazy.  Yarn spray’s helpful, too.
  3. I might use every other needle or a very wide ribber needle setup.
  4. I use more weight than normal and knit very slowly.  After every single row, I check the stitches.

However, I have to be highly motivated to bother with this.  If I think it feels forced or hard on my machine, I stop, because I don’t want to ruin my machine. 

I don’t even like to bend a needle – to me, bent needles are an indication that I did something I should not do to my machine.  The machine disagrees – it just told me that bent needles are an indication of abuse.  J Okay, maybe your machine won’t gripe and will suffer in silence, but you know that if you’re bending machine needles you’re not treating your machine well.  I know from sad experience that if the yarn doesn’t fit fully inside the hook that it won’t knit through the machine decently. 


  1. THANK YOU! You promised you would and you did. Being new to machine knitting this really helps clear things up AND now I know I am not nuts!

    Can you explain for us un seasoned MK'ers what the coned yarn weights are in relation to the Yarn Council chart? What is a Yarn Council "1" equal to on coned yarns? Example: 2/10, 5/12 and etc.

    Thanks again!


  2. would the group 5 yarn work on the ultimate sweater machine?

  3. Usually group 5 is too thick for the USM!

  4. what group number do you use with keyplate 4

  5. It will usually be Group 4. I have gotten some group 5 yarn to work, but not usually.

  6. Hello I currently have a very large stock of worsted weight (4) yarn. Is there anyway to separate the yarn so it isn't as thick?? I am in process of purchasing a silver reed SK280 4.5mm. I really need to use some of what I have before ordering new yarn. Any suggestions??

  7. I would not suggest trying to split worsted weight yarn. It won't work.

    You may be able to use it on every other needle, but you would have a far better experience (and easier on the machine) if you purchased significantly thinner yarn, fingering weight on a cone.

  8. Hello Diana, thank you so much for your videos and useful tips! I'm trying to refresh my memory after 25 years and I'm watching all your videos one after the other!
    I know I saw it somewhere but can't find it right now - how do I place the fine knitting bar?
    thanks so much!

    1. I hope you get this - it's always better to email me directly.

      Look in your ribber manual for photos. I think I have a photo in the 100 Ways book, too, but not on this blog, at least not now.

  9. I am looking to invest in a knitting machine. I have an ultimate sweater machine and it's gotten its use that's for sure. I'd like to purchase something that is versatile. I like to knit fine lace shawls and I love bulky, chunky blankets and sweaters. I'd also like something that is heavy duty, although I love my USM, it's plastic and I'm thinking metal will withstand some wear and tear. What machine could I use that is versatile enough to work with fine, lacy patterns as well as bulkier yarns? Do you feel that electronic machines are better? There's so much to choose from. I really like that the electronic ones have a pattern book that you can just punch into the machine. That's amazing to me and I was thinking of going that route. I use my USM to make gifts for everyone for birthdays and Chirstmas etc. but I'm thinking of selling, so I'd need to be able to produce finished products quicker. Any help is much appreciated.
    Thank you,

    1. Because the needles are sized and in fixed positions, no one machine will knit all yarn weights.

      I love electronic machines. If I were forced to keep only one machine (oh! that would be a sacrifice!) I would keep a Brother electronic standard gauge machine.

  10. It seems more and more people are using the Silver Reed machines. I have a Brother 930. Is there an advantage to getting a Silver Reed over the Brother other than that the Silver Reeds are still being manufactured?