Yarn Detective: Ballbands Are Liars

February 13, 2019

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60 Comments
  • I could hear a Hallelujah chorus on repeat through the entire article! ❤️❤️❤️❤️

  • What a great article!

  • Thank you once again for a fantastic article. I especially appreciated learning how (some) yarns are measured to be put up.

    If you hear someone else muttering over some labels, it might be me…xo

  • Thank you!!! Ann and Kaye, I don’t know how you do it, but it is always interesting and useful!

  • Terrific article! I’m always trying to explain all of this to customers at our LYS. You have given me more great tools to help them succeed.

  • Kate Davies had a post on this very subject recently, saying that she reluctantly puts suggested needle size on her ball bands only because knitters insist but knitting gauge is so individual it can be very misleading.

    • Thank heaven! Imagine being a less experienced, non-expert knitter and having to swatch by taking as guess at needle size to start. It may not be exact, but at least it gives you a place to start.

    • I like having the suggested needle size on the ball bands, so I know where to start when I go down two needle sizes!

  • Thank you for yet another fantastic article and what a cute vid! One thing on a label (which I feel knitters could benefit from learning about) is the word “superwash”. Perhaps instead of abbreviated SW it needs to be spelled out, front and center. It’s a whole different breed of yarn having been processed and polymer coated. I know many knitters who aren’t aware of the difference. And wow, there is a difference. Again, thanks and love what you do!

  • It’s so interesting. I am an experienced knitter and don’t worry much about my skill, and feel comfortable with my products. These technique articles aren’t usually solving a problem for me. Despite that, they are so useful and gratifying! They support my knowledge-of-the-hands with an intellectual framework that will help me refine and fine-tune my knitting. Thank you! It’s really excellent content.

  • I enjoy knitting swatches because it creates the fabric that you may want to work with or not. I only use the ball-band to estimate my yardages. But, it’s taken me years to learn how to enjoy the process

  • Great article! The video- well that’s why I love MDK, these gems are priceless.

  • Who’s Brenda?

    • The official swatch knitter at Berroco. Amy says above
      “Usually three to four members of the Berroco design team swatch and finish a yarn, usually with a few different needle sizes to decide which needle/gauge/fabric we like best for a yarn. Once there is agreement, we give the yarn to one of our team members, Brenda York, who is our swatching gold standard. Brenda then knits an official gauge swatch based on the needle consensus of the whole team.”
      I love the idea that Berroco has a Brenda!

    • Brenda York is Berroco’s pattern writer—she’s been with the company for more than 35 years and all of our patterns flow through her.

  • Knitting a gauge swatch is like taking a car for a test drive. You never know if you’ll like the way it drives,(looks and feels) how it handles, cup holders not withstanding. LOL

    • Agreed!! Or like dating before becoming engaged, maybe married. Maybe it’s a match made in heaven…or not!

  • How I wish I knew these things in my early knitting years. I went through many years believing I could never get out of scarf/hat land because I could NEVER meet recommended gauge on ball bands. But I kept knitting because I loved the scarves and hats, and over time I learned MY gauge with various yarns: I am an incredibly loose knitter, and usually find myself knitting on size 1-3 needles for almost all projects, and all yarns. So what if the label recommends size 7? I had to learn to ‘read’ my own knitting and not worry about the label at all.

    • Yes, yes, yes!! I knit socks and hats/scarves. I have been so afraid of anything else because of ‘gauge’. This article (and your response) gives me hope!!

      • I am glad – you should totally veer out of scarf and hat land for something new! If you didn’t read previous article here in MDK on ‘grist’ (also by Jillian Moreno), that was so eye-opening about making good yarn subs too. You can do it, believe me! 🙂 And you can always travel back to scarf/hat land, they are so comforting!

  • With. Dancing. Flowers.
    Makes me wants those skirts and petticoats.
    Also, makes me glad I’m not the only one who has to go down several needle sizes for anything approaching gauge. Suggestion for future column: how super loose Knitters can successfully knit fingering/sock yarn?

    • I know! Seeing that Jillian has to go down so many sizes was a real shot in the arm for me!

      Fun fact: I knit closer to gauge on finer yarns! So I can knit fingering weight on a 2 or 3. What really messes with me is linen. I think I could go down to 00 and it still wants to be loose. So I generally just adjust the pattern for the fact that I am not going to get gauge in a million years.

      • That’s interesting because I knit closer to gauge on DK and above. I used to knit a lot of socks, and I usually used 0s or even 00s, and even then, my fabric was floppier than I would have liked.

        • I am so loosey-goosey in every yarn I have ever tried. I need to befriend a tight knitter – I could give them all of my needles that are size 5 and higher – I never use them!

    • Yes! I was just thinking that about knitting socks. I am also a super loose knitter and have learned that I have to go down at least two needle sizes on any pattern to get anything approaching gauge. So when I see a sock pattern that calls for size 1 needles, I generally say, “Next!,” as the thought of socks knit on size 00 needles or smaller makes my hands cramp just thinking about it! Most of my socks have been knit with worsted weight on size 3 needles, though I like the look and feel of finer socks.

      I find ball band gauge statistics somewhat helpful, but there is no substitute for fondling and swatching to provide me with needed information.

    • This is the first time I can remember a thread of loose knitters! I fall into this category and everyone on the planet (that I know) is a tight knitter. I feel better. (It’s a given I’ll go down 1 needle size and occasionally 3). I’ve just decided to get the fabric I like and then (God help me) I do the math.

      • I made a pair of fingerless mitts once and had to use 00 dons. I felt like I was working on toothpicks!

  • Alison Green, our Technical Editing guru, did a really cool experiment with swatching (and explains why we base our gauge recommendations on Brenda’s swatches) https://blog.berroco.com/2018/10/11/the-great-swatch-experiment/

  • I have been a knitter since about age 8 and do not remember ever doing a swatch. When my children were young, for some years, I knit fashion sweaters for someone who sold them but they were all ordered ahead, so were to be knit a certain size. I decided that since I was getting paid for these items, I should do swatches. The tension I got in the swatch, was never the same as the tension I got when I was knitting the actual sweater.

  • I’m a super new knitter (like three months), and I burned myself pretty bad with a few projects subbing out yarns that were labeled the same weights. Ergh. I had switched to checking Ravelry’s database versus the wrapper to try and get a better sense of a yarn substitutions for projects. Using the WPI at least let me see if yarns in my stash might be a good sub, for seems to for me. As an inexperience day knitter, I can’t tell at all yet by touch and sight if a yarn is a certain weight or if it is comparable to what the project calls for. Is there another useful source for comparing yarns before committing to a gauge swatch or to using yarns in our stash with some confidence?

    • Hi Kirbee,

      Substitution is challenging even for us venerable longtime knitters. Jillian’s article on “grist” really opened up a new world of good substitution to me. Here’s the link: https://www.masondixonknitting.com/grist-secret-measurement-substituting-yarn/

      It’s a simple calculation. The other factors would include the fiber content, as it can be tricky to substitute one fiber for another (although I sub cotton for wool quite a bit), but if the fibers are similar, Jilian’s grist trick really helps get a good match.

      Happy subbing!
      Kay

      • Yes, that recent article on grist was such an ‘ah-hah’ moment for me! It finally hit me as to why some of my yarn subs through the years either disappointed or surprised me. I do much better, now that I try to meet ‘grist’ in subbing, rather than relying on ball bands, or some of the (almost worthless) descriptions of ‘fingering’ or ‘DK’ or ‘sport’.

    • Yarnsub.com is a wonderful resource to at least suggest some options and explain how they might differ.

  • My other bugaboo is how inaccurate yarn requirements can be for patterns. I’ve learned over the years which companies tend to “over suggest” and “under suggest” number of yarns for a pattern.

  • Great article

  • Jillian,

    This is the absolute best article I have ever read about gauge. What great detective work you did, and fantastic explanations. I wrote but never published an article initially titled “Gauge from a Gauge-Impaired Knitter,” because I have never, ever “knit to gauge” when I used the recommended needle size. Like you, I must go down in needle size. My explanation — I am a relaxed knitter.

    There are so many factors that affect gauge. Needle composition is an important factor. A knitting friend who mostly used addi turbo needles had to go up a size or two in needles. When she switched to the Noble wooden needles she knit to gauge. When using the slippery addi turbos she was concerned her stitches would slip off her needles. Because of the natural grip of Noble wooden needles she knit to gauge.

    I find that my emotional being affects gauge. If I am stressed I knit tighter than I do when I am relaxed.

    Oh, so many things that make knitting an individual art. You have made is wonderfully clear there is no one “right needle” to use to “get gauge.” You have, in so many ways, Elizabeth Zimmermann’s knitting spirit.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    Myrna A.I. Stahman

  • I never worry about what the ballband says because my mini poodle’s favorite pastime is to steal my ballbands and then shred them. All of them. She leaves the yarn, thank goodness.

  • Truth.

  • I love this site so much. I learn, I’m entertained. But seriously, I learn so much!

  • Found myself singing ball bands are liars with Nick Lowe
    Excellent article thank you.

  • EVERY DAY I see beginners on social media lamenting that they cannot match the ballbamd’s gauge with the suggested needles. They don’t get that they need to match the PATTERN’s gauge and may need to go up or down in needle sizes. I’m so bookmarking this page!

    Seems to me a better measurement for yarn weight would be WPI because that would help people quickly understand the yarn’s weight. Perhaps with a conversion chart that shows something like 5wpi is worsted, 4 is bulky, etc.

  • What a reassuring article! I know I’m a loose knitter (as in, I knit loosely….) and always go down a size or two to hit gauge. I try not to blame myself for this, but thanks for telling me it’s not really my fault! I Also – thanks so much for Nick Lowe there at the end….

  • i’ve been wondering about this for a while. it occurred to me recently, as i struggled to achieve ballband gauge on new-to-me yarns, that there are not knitting machines for every companie, furiously knitting perfect little swatches and assessing the optimal gauge, that it’s all done by wonderful human hands. i not only feel better about my gauge, i feel better i realized this.

    but after i read this article i ended up on youtube and during a video heard the artist say, “every artist should swatch in their medium.” after i closed my mouth in shock i just laughed aloud. swatching is everywhere! and everyone with experience and knowledge is encouraging others to swatch.

  • Perfect article! I’ve told many a knitter this before & they still don’t get it! Maybe if I share this one, it’ll sink in!

  • This is a wonderful article and comforts me that I’m not a bad person because I always go down in needle size to get gauge. I also appreciated once again the reference to grist: what a game changer! I’ve been playing with that ever since I read about it. I asked this questions in the Lounge: when using grist to substitute yarns, how close do the numbers need to be to make a good substitution? If they’re off by 10% is that too much? 20%? 30%? Some guidance on that would be helpful.

  • Thank you for Nick Lowe. ♥️ He is someone I would knit a sweater for.

  • I am not a knitter ( shameful I know) I crochet. Do these same rules/ hints apply to crochet?

    • They certainly do. While reading the article I was a bit miffed that it didn’t mention crocheters, but I do understand that this is a knitting website.

      • Thank You Beth for answering my Crochet question.

  • Stumbled on this article and really liked it. Liked getting 2 answers to the questions and really understanding that the labels are not exact. Thank you.

  • I have been given mounds of beautiful yarn with no ball bands. I’ve labeled them with WPI information, but it’s hard to correlate patterns to the yarn with this. Is searching the only answer?

  • Swatching, not searching in last post.

  • You state that you had to go down 3 needle sizes to reach gauge on the Mohonk swatch. But the label has a gauge range of 5 – 6.5 sts/in and lists needles US 3 & 4, so what gauge were you aiming for? If you were trying to reach 5 sts/in and you mean that you went down 3 sizes from US 4 that is quite different than going down 3 sizes from US 3 to reach 6.5 sts/inch.

  • I enjoyed laughing through this serious subject. Loved your references to “Princess Bride.”

  • I was greatly interested in this discussion because I have been teaching knitting and crochet for quite a few years in several different venues–each with different yarn preferences–and problems about yarn had become so prevalent that I devote time to every student that has never been in one my classes to try to help them make good choices that work well with individual project needs and economic availability. Many of the talking points and issues in the article include information that I have been preaching to everyone, particularly that each person has a unique way of working and should take general advice as a suggestion for a starting point, which needs to include a swatch of some kind.This seems to apply to all ages and backgrounds. I rarely make formal comments about content I read in the many emails I receive, but this topic is something that needs to be kept in mind when making decisions that require time, money, and effort in order to be completed successfully. Thanks for airing these concerns.

  • Thank you so much for this article. I’m knitting 60 years and every time I log onto this site I learn something new ( and sometimes get a good laugh-which we all need in this time in history).

  • When I first learned to knit, from my mother, I knit so tightly, you could hardly slide the knitting on the needle. Many (cough-cough) years later, I knit much more loosely, so that I invariably start with needles 2 sizes below the recommended size. The only problem with this is that I find very small needles kind of hard on my hands.

  • One question – if a ball band includes a dye lot number, is it fair to assume that it means that skeins with the same number will match? I knit a beautiful lace shawl, only to find upon blocking it that there was a huge discrepancy in the two skeins. ( Really not sure how I didn’t see it when I changed skeins) The mfgr. told me that dye lots are only an internal control, not intended to indicate that the skeins will match. Has anyone else ever heard this?

    • A dye lot number implies but I suppose does not guarantee matching. Pretty sure manufacturers know that knitters use dye lot information in this way and with this expectation. Conversely, this is why most hand-dyers don’t use dye lots, and advise the knitter to handpick their skeins and not expect them to be entirely consistent.

  • Awesome this is a fun informative article… I’m falling in love with swatching….well trying to anyhow!