yarn, yarn shopping

Hank-y Panky

L to R: Cake, Cone, hank, and 2 variations of the center-pull skein.

I’ve recently been seeing a lot of discussion about different yarn put ups (how a yarn is wound for sale) and there’s been a lot of hate for the hank. So here’s a look at some different put ups, and why some companies use the hank instead of other options.

Center Pull Skein: If you’ve ever used big box store yarn, then you’re familiar with this one. This is how brands like Red Heart, Carron, and Lion Brand are wound for sale. It makes them easy to ship without tangles, the log shape is easy to stack, and there’s a center pull strand. You can also make them pretty massive, good for super bulky yarns or bulk skeins, like the Carron 1lb yarn.

Donut ball: popular for novelty yarns and fuzzy fibers like mohair, this method of winding helps prevent tangles that are always a risk with a center pull skein. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any samples of this style handy, but you can see examples here.

The hank: Much to the surprise of those new to yarn crafts, hanks are not ready to work with. Hanks are formed with a big ring of yarn is taken off the swift, twisted, and then allowed to fold back on itself. One end is then tucked into the other to make it more secure.

One of the biggest complaints about the hank is that it is so much more likely to tangle when being wound, and that only increases if you don’t have a swift. And don’t think you can just sit down and knit with a hank as-is; you have to wind that sucker unless you want to make a bird’s nest out of yarn.

So what are the advantages of a hank? Well, for starters, it can easily be done without any special equipment. Even the swift is optional, though it does make things easier. This means hand dyers and spinners can make hanks in the their kitchen, living room, or studio space without investing in large, expensive equipment.

The second reason is the dying process itself. Typically when yarn is dyed, it’s in that big, straight-from-the-swift loop, which measures about a yard in circumference. This makes it easier to make repeating colorways. These loops also make it easier to dry.

Handspun also need to be in this format for the process, as it is often hung with a weight to help set the twist and prevent kinking.

Not only does this mean the hank is more convenient for the manufacture of yarn/dying yarn, especially for small businesses, but once that loop is twisted back on itself to make the hank, it gives a much better idea of the color repeat than say, a center pull skein or a donut ball. Instead of seeing tons of overlapping colors that compete with each other, you can see one full repeat of the colorway.

By why don’t manufacturers–even larger companies like KnitPicks–wind all of their yarns into balls for their customers?

Well, aside from the aesthetic reasons above, there are a few more things to keep in mind:

  • the shape of a hank makes it easier to stack and store in bulk than a donut ball, hand wound ball, or yarn cake.
  • The act of hand winding a ball or cake puts tension on the yarn, which can stretch it out and distort it if it’s stored that way for long periods.
  • Again, we have to look at the equipment used to make skeins and donut balls, which are big, loud, expensive, and take trained personnel to operate. They add an extra step to production, and those machines are made to run 6 or more skeins at a time, making them impractical for small businesses, who are the primary sellers of hank yarns.
  • Balls and cakes can both roll away.
  • Balls are more difficult to put labels on.
  • If you’ve never been to a fiber festival, what is going to catch your eye more: A big wall of artfully displayed hanks, showing off their colors for the world, or a large bin of balls of yarn, which will probably tangle by the end of the day as they roll around?

Look at the picture of the ball and hank above. These are the same yarn, from the same dye lot. From across a crowded convention hall, which option is more attractive? Which one shows the color progression better? Now imagine you’re shopping online. Which one shows the colors best in a small format? The ball on the left reads as mud when you make it smaller, while the skein retains the orange, grey-blue, and brown.

The last thing to consider is the global textile market. While we as knitters and crocheters like to think of yarn as big business, hand knitting in general…is not. More and more companies are downsizing their production facilities, out sourcing to bigger facilities in China, where more than one brand of yarn might be made in the same factory, or closing their doors altogether. This isn’t to say that the handknitting industry is dwindling or in trouble; merely that companies have had to make changes to how they produce, package, and ship yarn so that they can be as efficient as possible. And selling yarn in hanks instead of skeins or balls saves them both time and money, while increasing the chance that a fancy colorway or hand dyed yarn will sell by being a more aesthetic–and accurate–representation of the colors. **

There are, of course, other put ups I haven’t mentioned here. Lion Brand has started selling some of its more colorful yarns in cake form, and then there’s the O-Go, which is a modern twist on the center pull skein. You can even get custom yarns wound onto a cone, such as that pictured above. Some companies do sell their yarns wound up like softballs, so there are plenty of options out there, even if hanks do make you want to pull your hair out. Think of it this way: The hank is the flat-pack furniture of the yarn world. Is it inconvenient? Yeah, usually. But in the long run it means better prices and quality for the end user–you. It’s a little something that helps your favorite indie dyer stay in business, so pop open that swift and get to winding. The hank is here to stay.

Like what you see? Check out What’s in my Knitting Bag?

** I would like to note that a lot of fiber fairs and LYSs offer ball winding services where you can use their swift and ball winder if a hank really drives you nuts and you don’t have those tools yourself. Just be away that the yarn might be negatively impacted if you wind it into a cake say, a year before you actually use it due to the stretching/tension issues mentioned above.