There is nothing like knitting with handspun yarn, no more
unique yarn to knit with than handspun. It feels livelier than
millspun yarn, behaves differently.
It’s spring and spinners are pulling out the yarns
they’ve spun all fall and winter. Knitters are heading
to fiber fairs, farmers’ markets and craft fairs and
falling in love with handspun. There are
many people who spin yarn and buy handspun yarn and
never knit with it. They
know it acts differently than commercial
yarn, but they’re
not quite sure how or what to do.
with handspun, whether unearthed from your
stash and undocumented, or purchased, here
are three tips to keep you knitting on the happy side of
At its most basic it's simply this: Know Your Yarn; Swatch Your
Yarn; Use Your Yarn
Know Your Yarn What are you working with? You fell in love with this yarn
because of the color or the feel, what else can you find out?
Before you start knitting, it would be good to know all or
some of these things:
What kind of fiber is it?
Yes, you can guess.
Why is this important?
Even if it comes down to saying it’s soft or not so soft,
that’s something. Would you wear it next to your skin?
Is it superwash? I wouldn’t want to take a chance on
lovely lace socks if I wasn’t sure the yarn was superwash.
Even a little bit of fiber knowledge
is important before spending time knitting
for yourself or a gift.
What kind of spin is it?
Worsted-ish? Smoother, more
lustrous, denser feeling, drapey.
Or woolen-ish: fuzzy, matte, lighter
Why is this important?
A fuzzy yarn will likely get fuzzier.
Do you like that look? A fuzzy yarn
may obscure some stitch patterns. Woolen
yarns are visually softer, as well
as being softer to the touch.
Do you want your cables to have a soft
look to them or do you want them to
pop and look crisp? If you want a relaxed-looking
cable, a softer, fuzzier, woolen yarn
is for you. If you want crisp, popping
cables, a smooth, worsted yarn is the
way to go.
This super close-up photo shows
a worsted and woolen yarn plied together.
You can see the woolen spun yarn is all
fluffy and the worsted spun is smoother
and shinier; the two plies are the same
fiber and colorway.BFL
fiber from Three
How many plies does it have? Why is this important?
The number of plies can affect stitch
definition. For example, a 3-ply
shows great stitch definition for cables
and texture stitches. Because it is
a very round yarn, 3-ply tends to fill
the holes of lace stitches, but less-round
2-ply is great for lace. The number
of plies also affects strength: the
more plies, the stronger the yarn.
How much yardage is there?
What can you make with it? Even if
you have just a little bit of laceweight,
it can be an accent or edging,
or use it as a lace repeat for a
pop of color. Be sure to see
the chart below for approximate yardage
What is the gauge - approximately? You can figure
it out with Wraps Per Inch (WPI)
Before I talk about WPI, there’s something important
to do: Wash your yarn. Unless you yourself
have just finished spinning and plying
and have set your yarn, it’s a good idea to give it a
wash. If you’ve purchased
it, the seller may not have washed
it. If you’ve dug
it out from your handspun stash, it
may be flat and sad.
To wash: soak it in a bowl with a little
wool wash and tap hot water. Let it sit for a few minutes.
Rinse in water that’s the same temperature, squeeze gently,
roll in a towel, squeeze or stand on it, hang to dry.
Washing your yarn does a couple of things. It sets
the twist in your yarn and it allows
the yarn to relax and bloom if it wants
to. A woolen yarn
can change a lot from the time it is
spun to after washing, as much as 2
or 3 wraps per inch or more, which
changes the gauge.
Imagine knitting a sweater with a smooth
yarn that knits at 5 stitches to the
inch. You are finished and it’s beautiful. You put it
in water to block it and the yarn blooms.
Now it's no longer a smooth yarn, it’s
fuzzy and the gauge has changed to
4 stitches to the inch. Ouch. Here’s a tissue.
A singles yarn is really feisty before
it’s had a good hot soak. It has a lot of energy and
twists on itself when the skein hangs open and has a definite
slant when knit.
Wash your yarn.
One bobbin full of handspun
singles that I wound off into two skeins,
but washed only one. Look at
the difference. One's twisty, the other's
open. The WPI is also different by 1-2
These are swatches knit
from the unwashed and washed skeins.
Notice the unwashed swatch [on left]
is slanted to the right and the stitches
look twisty? The swatch looks like it
wants to crawl across the screen, which
I kind of like, but not in a garment
I want to hang straight. BFL fiber from Three
Now on to WPI. If you know the Wraps Per Inch (WPI) of a yarn,
you can find a starting point for the
gauge of your yarn. Here’s
a handy-dandy chart:
WPI & Knitted
Wraps Per Inch (WPI) measures how many times a yarn can be
wrapped in a 1" length. To determine
WPI using a ruler or a WPI gauge, wrap yarn snugly
(not tightly) around ruler for 1”. Yarn should just touch
each other, not be crammed together.
Swatch Your Yarn
These are three yarns that measure
6 WPI, bulky. The middle yarn (red/oranges)
is handspun. The others are a commercial
single on the left, and a commercial
two-ply on the right. BFL fiber from Three
Spend a lot of time swatching, more than you would for a
commercial yarn, and knit a bigger
swatch. Handspun yarn is rarely uniform.
That’s one thing
I love about it, but it can make me
crazy when it comes to gauge. I like
a 6-to-8" swatch for handspun.
After you determine the WPI for your yarn try a needle one
to two sizes bigger than you would
normally use for a yarn of that type
(according to the chart above). Handspun yarn is somehow bigger
than commercial yarn of the same general size. It’s due
to the variation in handspun and to the fact that commercial
yarns are made by machines and tend to be compressed.
All three bulky yarns knit
to a 3 stitch to the inch gauge, a
happy gauge for all three, mostly. The
swatches on the left are the commercial
yarns. The swatch on the right is the
handspun. The bottom part of the handspun
swatch is the yarn knit at 3 stitches
to the inch -- looks fine, maybe a
little tight. The top part of the swatch
is the yarn knit at 2 stitches to the
inch -- a much happier fabric.
Even though this yarn measures the same
WPI as the commercial yarns, it was
a better knitted fabric when knit 1 stitch
per inch bigger.
Vary your needle size and stitch patterns as you swatch, you
will be surprised and excited by how your handspun behaves.
If it is a variegated yarn, you’ll also see how the colors
behave or misbehave. I have many skeins of yarn that I didn’t
like how the colors looked in the skein, but turned beautiful
as knitted fabric and the opposite, too. Swatching is
the best way to get to know handspun
Use Your Yarn
When you’re first starting out using handspun yarn for
knitting, you probably won’t buy a sweater’s worth.
Here’s a little chart for how much yarn ish for
Use it as a ballpark amount; stitch
patterns and gauge make a huge difference in yardage. Buy some
yarn and play.
Hat – 20"
Woman shoe size 8/ Man shoe size
solid stockinette at stated gauge.
Lacey shawls approx.
use 30%-50% less.
If you have your heart set on using handspun in a sweater
but don’t have enough, use it as an accent. Use a commercial
yarn as a base, in a color that will
make your handspun yarn sing, and have
your hand spun for a yoke, button band,
cuffs or collar. A great example is
Ann Weaver’s sweater King
of Confidence [shown below]:
the main part of the sweater is knit
in Cascade 200; the yoke – handspun.
The bottom line is don’t be intimidated by handspun
yarn, use it for everything. Spend a little time getting to
know a few handspun yarns and soon you’ll be reaching
for handspun as often (or more!) than commercial
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jillian is the
editor of Knittyspin. She is also fun at