• skein – The word “skein” is used freely to mean “some quantity of unknitted yarn, wound loosely” but I think this definition is so vague that knitters have been struggling with it a bit. I’ve noticed that “Vogue Knitting” specifically uses it to refer to yarn that’s wound loosely but ready for knitting. But in reality, the word is also commonly  used to refer to yarn that’s wound loosely but needs further preparation for hand-knitting (a hank).
  • hank – This is yarn that’s wound in large loops and then the whole quantity is folded over and twisted on itself. From what I can tell, it’s not incorrect to refer to it as a skein but since this arrangement requires further preparation (it has to be wound into something you can knit from without getting into a tangle), I think it’s helpful to differentiate! I try to call a hank a hank.  Here’s a picture:
Hankf of Adirondack Silky Sock Yarn in the
  • ball – Nothing special here, just the classic round arrangement of yarn that cats love best! It will roll across the room whenever it gets a chance, but it does have its advantages. Lace weight yarn is best worked from a ball (in my limited experience) because a ball holds the unused yarn firmly in place and reduces the chances that it will get all knotted up.
  • cake – I’ve only run into this term in online discussions, it isn’t described in “Vogue Knitting”. I’m wondering if it’s a recent development? My guess is that it came about because “skein” is such a general term. There was a need to refer unambiguously to yarn that’s wound into a center pull arrangement, ready for knitting. A center pull skein is prepared such that the inside end of the wound yarn is peeking out and you can start your knitting from it. This is nice because it sits quietly and can be kept tucked in your knitting bag while you knit. If you knit from the outside end, the skein needs to be free to dance about … which attracts cats and collects dirt. A ball winder can be used to create a center pull cake, but you can also create a center pull arrangement manually. This is really handy when you get down to the end of a skein and your orginal winding is starting to fall apart.  You can rewind the yarn while it’s attached to your knitting and keep going!   There’s a nice video of how to do it at the bottom of this page at KnittingHelp.com.  Here’s a picture of a couple of cakes (in use, see the yarn coming out of the middle?):
Zitron Trekking (XXL) yarn, Ladder of Life Socks
  • WPI – “Wraps per Inch”. There is so much variation in yarn that it’s difficult to come up with a uniform convention for “How much do I have and is it enough to make what I want to make?” I mean, the same length of yarn will knit up differently depending on its thickness, how it was made, what it’s made of, etc. But this measurement is intended to help. You simply wrap the yarn around something like a pencil and count wraps for some number of inches, then take an average.  Two different yarns with the same WPI and the same length should (in theory) knit into a piece of fabric of about the same size (given the same tension and the same pattern).  There are nifty little tools you can buy with markings already on them, and there are charts here and there around the internet of WPIs for some popular yarns (for example, this one … and this one).  It would be so cool if manufacturers included this tidbit on their ballband!

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