The Great Wool Debate

The Great Wool Debate

What is the great debate of the 21st century? The pros and cons of unpaid internships? Whether it’s appropriate to take selfies at memorial services? Why French cheese in your fridge always stinks the house out, even when it’s wrapped in foil and put in a tupperware box, I mean gosh, does it have to smell SO much?!

None of the above.

The great debate of (my) century is … why does some wool come in hanks and some come in balls?

Answers, please!

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53 Responses to The Great Wool Debate

  1. Barbara Griggs says:

    And some on cones!

  2. Helen says:

    And when you only need a small amount it only comes in 800g and when you need a lot it is only available in 50g balls

  3. itsmhuang says:

    Wow, this post came at such a coincidental time! I was just looking up how to wind a hank of yarn into a ball (gonna start making my first sweater – a Miette!), and it seems to have to do with how mass-produced a yarn has to be. So, hand-dyed yarn and luxury yarns are put into hanks, because hand-dyed yarns are dyed in loops. Skeins are machine wound, so these yarns are more mass-produced. I hope that demystifies the yarn wounding process a bit!

    • Diane says:

      If you can’t persuade someone to hold the skein between their hands while you wind it then put it across the back of a chair and wind gently. I have fond memories of being the skein holder while my Mum did the winding many, many years ago! Also helped with steaming wool across a saucepan of boiling water when we had reclaimed the wool from old knitting 🙂

      • LinB says:

        I put the skein on a lampshade, loosen the finial, and let the shade spin around as I wind the skein into a loose ball that feeds from the inside.

    • Stephanie says:

      I just put the loop around my knees, spread my knees a bit and wind around my palm. Easy peasy and I never get tangled up!

  4. victoriapeat says:

    In my head… hanks = better quality yarn/more expensive. I have no idea as to whether this is the case or not, but that’s what goes on inside my head! Every time I buy yarn by the hank I wish I had a ball winder. I always, without fail, get into a tangle!

  5. m.b. says:

    As a spinner, I know that when I wind my singles up, I tend to make them into small balls instead of doing the hanks. It really all depends on preference. Hanks are a bit more than balls. To answer Victoria…no, it has nothing to do with price… :D) m.b.

    • Caitlyn M. says:

      I wouldn’t say it has *nothing* to do with price. There isn’t a causal relationship between how the yarn is wound and how much it costs, but I do think there’s a fairly strong correlation between the two. And I think the reason for that is something like itsmhuang said: hand-dyed and hand-painted yarns are typically dyed in hanks or skeins, whereas large-scale commercial yarns are typically package-dyed. Hand-dyed and hand-painted yarns tend to take longer to produce and be more labor-intensive, which necessitates a higher price.

      For a little more info, here’s a brief article from Quince & Co.:

      • m.b. says:

        Thank you for the info. I know all about how long it takes to hand-dye… I do the same 🙂 It is easier to dye hanks that balls. I guess my answer was the size they come in. … but the price of a hand-dyed and hand-painted are quite higher than commercially made yarn. Thank you again Caitlin. :D) m.b.

  6. Emily says:

    If I’m not mistaking, a hank does not put as much tension on the yarn and so it stays truer to its original intended form.

    • Roobeedoo says:

      I agree – you should never wind from a skein into a ball until you are ready to start knitting!

      • Lorna says:

        Oh, that’s interesting – thanks for this! I tend to wind as soon as I buy so that I’m ready to go whenever inspiration strikes, but I’ll try to restrain myself from now on.

  7. Veronik says:

    It comes down to the equipment owned by the mill, and to marketing. Yarn is first put up on cones and remains on cones for commercial uses. At that point, it retains sizing which is necessary for commercial applications such as weaving or mass machine knitting.
    Smaller producers do not have access to balling equipment, which varies in the ball put-up. Others have noted the consumer’s association of skeins with higher quality and produce skeins for marketing alone.

  8. Ros says:

    I have never regretted spending money on my swift and ball winder. I can’t wind from a skein without them – I always end up in a huge tangle.

  9. Tilly says:

    Believe it or not, I know the answer!!! Sort of. I took my first knitting class the other evening and I asked the same question. The teacher said it’s to do with the way they are dyed, and that more expensive ones tend to come on hanks.

    I can’t confirm whether that’s true, but what I CAN confirm is that HANK is a great word.


    • Veronik says:

      Mmmm… Not exactly. Yarn is either dyed before or after being spun. If after, it’s always dyed in hanks – very large ones on a commercial level. Hand dyers or painters work with smaller hanks.

      • Ros says:

        But commercial spinners/dyers are more likely to have the capacity to wind the dyed skeins into balls before selling them.

      • ereonoe says:

        In large scale production and for thiner/finer yarns they dye it on cones when dyed after spinning. I’ve visited some dying mills and those machines are HUGE! The small ones swallow something like 60 two kilo cones in one batch. There where also extra small ones for test batches witch take everything from half a kilo to 3-4 kilos or so.

        Cones are rarely sold on the commersial market and when they are it’s mostly for weaving or knittingmachines.

    • Ha, ha! Tilly, I honestly never thought I’d see the day where you voluntarily took part in a knitting debate! Can’t wait to see what you knit.

  10. H says:

    In those days of yore when knitters knit quietly in their homes while the rest of the world ignored them, wool used to come in balls and hanks, and cones if you bought it straight from a mill. Now that knitting is a born again pursuit, its no longer wool, but yarn, and it still comes in balls or on cones, but now hanks have become skeins! Hanks used to be a nuisance but now they’re called skeins, they’ve become a knitting fetish to squish and smooch over, that gives one an excuse to get out one’s skein winder. Strike that out, it’s called a swift. I love knitting and all its changes, and thank goodness that more folks have taken it up again or I’d still be winding my hanks round the back of a chair or some unhappy persons tired arms.

    • That’s an interesting comment to me, because in my long ago youth the words “ball” and “skein” were interchangeable but a hank was a hank was a greater yardage and considerably more work! That might also depend on geographical location, I suspect. Either way, there’s a lot of choice out there and, like you, I’m grateful for that.

  11. paigesato says:

    I think it’s a manufacturing thing–yarn that came in wound skeins (balls?) are an added step in the manufacturing process, and hanks, when they appeared, had that “indy, hand-done” look. Now the bigger manufacturers are putting up their mill dyed and spun yarns in hanks as well to (adding a premium price to go with it).

  12. I don’t even have a guess as to why the differences in the state the yarn is sold in, but I can say I really wish they all came wound into balls. While my husband only occasionally eye-rolls over my knitting pursuits, he is very determined to raise a fuss about what a “square old-lady” I’m turning out to be if I ask him to hold my yarn skein so I can wind it.

  13. lovelucie1 says:

    A great debate, this has turned out to be!

  14. EmSewCrazy says:

    The Queen of the World was missing her husband and wasting away from lack of time with him. She asked her fairy Godmother to fix this problem. The Godmother gave her a pile of yarn fresh from the spinning wheel and two sticks. She told the Queen to take up knitting.
    The Queen gleefully asked her husband to sit with her a moment after dinner, “only as long as it takes to wind the yarn.” Since it was for something that would keep his queen occupied the King agreed. The next half hour was delightfully spent by the Queen visiting with her husband and winding her yarn. Then next evening it was 45 minutes, the next an hour, and so it continued night after night getting longer and longer as the Queen requested more and more yarn from her Fairy Godmother.
    The King soon wearied of this and demanded that all yarn makers wind all their yarn before it was sold. But this caused a great division in the kingdom. Some of the spinners had caught on to the Queen’s idea and were using it with great effect in their own homes. Marriage proposals were on the rise since there was now a way for young people to spend time together.
    To keep the peace in his Kingdom the King threw a giant party with music and dancing. He called it a “ball” and only those who chose to wind yarn in this way could come. Everyone wanted to go to the splendid party so they did. It was such great fun that couples realized they could do other things together besides winding yarn.
    Yet some still enjoyed quiet evenings at home and continued processing their yarn into what they had christened “hanks” after King Hank, himself.
    This is why some yarn comes in hanks and some in balls. The End

    • Lindsay says:

      A wondrous tale!

      I made my husband help me rewind my yarn from hank to ball. He complained. I now have employed two chairs back to back to hold the hank, and put a swift on my Christmas list!

  15. Rachel C. says:

    The KnitPicks team addressed this issue in a podcast a while back (April 2011):
    I had been wondering why there is a difference since all of the cheap acrylic comes in balls, a lot of expensive yarn comes in hanks, but some expensive yarn comes in balls too. Hope you find this helpful

  16. Depends on how long it is left wound as a ball… it is better for the yarn to be left as a hank until you are ready to use it
    It’s a tension thing and relates to how the yarn eventually behaves and the drape of the yarn

  17. Sewingjen says:

    Well numerous comments re the hank/ball query, but what most ladies actually need on their Christmas list is a Swift, which is a piece of kit, usually wooden, onto which you place a hank. This spins around and allowing you to wind onto a ball winder. These two being the correct equipment to wind a hank onto a beautiful ball. I often rewind difficult balls again to make them easier to use.

    • m.b. says:

      I do the same thing 🙂 I don’t own a swift because I tend to wind my singles, straight from the wheel, into a ball…with my nifty ball winder that I purchased from Knit Picks for only $20.00 :D) it has helped keep me sane and the pretty balls stacked together look so lovely.

    • ereonoe says:

      Ooh, yes! Two must have items! When you weave or use a knittingmachine it’s impossible to work without a ballwinder (or conewinder but those are a bit big and expensive when not working in massproduction). After getting used to the ease of this helpful tool you can’t be without even on hobby projects!

  18. nita says:

    Wow! I don’t have anything to add. Really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments!

  19. helen says:

    I remember as a child holding out my arms for my mum to wind hanks into balls. I recently had one and had to use my feet to get the job done. I associate hanks with a higher quality, whether that is strictly true or not.

  20. Oli says:

    I am Czech and I remember that in the “old communist days” there were only hanks no matter the quality or the quantity of the yarn. How I hated to be used as a hank holder while my mom was winding the wool into a ball (and it was often). Balls came some time at the end of the 80ies and these days it is basically the only way yarn is sold, at least over here. It is probably just a matter of the manufacturer’s packaging technology.

  21. Karen, are you telling me I should wind my hanks into balls before knitting? Sorry but this is so new to me I have no idea!

  22. Zynthia says:

    The balls are usually made by big companies and the others are made by Indy companies, and are left the way they are dip died, this keeps cost low.

  23. Maureen says:

    My gran knitted most of the family’s knitted garments and she bought the one shilling an ounce wool which was the cheapest in the knitting shop in Retford and came in hanks, I was the one who held the wool while she wound the balls. The more expensive yarns were in balls, but we are talking about the 1950s and 1960s here!

    It sounds cheap, but it was bought at the rate of 2 and sometimes 3 ounces a week as it was all that could be spared. A knitted cardi or jumper came in at around £1 to make but to buy one, even from the market cost half as much again at £1.10shillings or £1.50 pence. Looking back it is incredible how little money there was. Gran also sewed most clothes we had, I pretty much lived with her and learned these things at her knee as it were.

  24. LinB says:

    A simple perusal of my dictionary yielded this answer: A “hank” is a specific measurement of length per unit of cloth or yarn. A hank equals 840 yards of cotton yarn; 560 yards of worsted. A “skein” and a “ball” are simply different arrangements for winding yarn, in any length whatsoever. Don’t know if this helps or hurts: Both “hank” and “ball” are of Old Norse derivation; “skein” comes to us from Old French.

  25. If you visit anyone in a care home for older people then you will have an amazing resource for winding skeins into balls. My mum has Alzheimer’s and can no longer knit but when I took some wool in and asked her to hold it while I wound, it unleashed a load of memories for her and we had a lovely time. Lots of the other residents joined in, including several men who remembered holding wool for their mothers to wind when they were little. It’s a great therapeutic activity as the texture of wool is so lovely and the activity so evocative.

  26. Claire says:

    There is one huge advantage of hanks over balls – you find the knots so they don’t take you by surprise! Of course, you could rewind a ball I guess, but who would….

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