Saturday, July 19, 2008

n00b Corner: Your First Yarn (and Needles)

In the last month or two, as I've made an effort to clean up my finances, I've started reading some personal finance blogs. One of my favorites is The Simple Dollar. Trent knows about personal finance and saving money, and he writes about it in a way the average person can understand.

But a recent post entitled 100 Things to do During a Money Free Weekend revealed something about Trent. Here's number 17 on the list:
"Teach yourself how to knit. Knitting requires two needles (a dollar, or probably free if your closet looks anything like ours), some yarn (extremely cheap and also likely laying in the closet if your home is like ours), a lot of patience, and an instructional video or two. Try making a scarf or two for your friends or a small blanket for a new baby in the home of a friend or a family member. While it’s not quite free, if you stick with it, you’ll make things much more valuable than the input cost of a bit of yarn, plus you may learn a compelling new skill."
Trent knows finance. Trent doesn't know knitting.

But that's ok. I know knitting. And we're going to talk about what needles and yarn to start out with.

I'm going to try not to get too far into the types of fiber here. That's my criticism of a lot of beginning knitting books. The first chapter often goes into materials in great detail. It's valuable information, but too in-depth and overwhelming for someone just starting out. I'm only covering wool, cotton and acrylic, but actually, there are many, many more fibers out there. I'm going to focus on the information you need for your first yarn and needle purchase.

A Little Bit on the Cost of Knitting

I don't want to be too hard on Trent. But number 17 on his list seems to represent the common misconception that knitting is inherently cheap and thrifty.

I should point two of the main reasons I read The Simple Dollar are:
1. I already spent too much money on yarn.
2. I want more money to buy more yarn.

However, I don't want to scare people away. You don't have to go into debt buying yarn. But it's easy to start falling in love in fiber, and buying more than you need. Most knitters have a "stash" of collected yarn. And some talk about reaching (or avoiding) "SABLE" - Stash Accumulated Beyond Life Expectancy.

If you're more level headed, you don't have to spend nearly as much. But I wouldn't think about yarn as being "extremely cheap."

But I digress...

The Controversy of Acrylic

I know the "extremely cheap" yarn Trent's talking about. And if you've never been to a yarn shop, you're probably thinking of the same stuff.

It's this yarn, isn't it?

Unless they buy their supplies from a yarn shop or under the close guidance of an experienced knitter, most knitters start out with an acrylic yarn by Red Heart. Red Heart seems to be the most ubiquitous non-shop yarn out there. It's inexpensive and it's everywhere. It's almost a punchline in the knitting world. But, at least in my opinion, it's not a bad place to start.

The Red Heart you're thinking of is made of acrylic, a manmade fiber. (However, it's worth noting that Red Heart does have different yarn lines that aren't acrylic.) Many of the less expensive yarns sold in craft stores and discount stores like Walmart are acrylic.

It's also worth noting that online discussions of acrylic yarn online can easily devolve into flame wars. I can't really tell you why. No one knows for sure. I suspect it touches on a sort of class warfare. It brings up real world issues of income. Also, in the knitting world, there's often a sense that acrylic knitters "just don't get it" and non-acrylic knitters are looking down on them. I'm not subscribing to either viewpoint. But as a new knitter, you may not be prepared for the passionate debates about acrylic.

The main arguments for acrylic are that it's inexpensive and easy to care for. You can throw an acrylic item in the washing machine with little worry.

In an online discussion, Meagan said she got her friends started with the Red Heart yarn mentioned above.

"Most of them learned how to knit and never really went any further than making a few scarves, so they didn't feel the need for fancy yarn or needles," she said.

Someone suggested that a nicer yarn might have gotten them hooked on knitting for life. She responded, "Probably not, none of us really had a lot of money."

She makes a good point. If you don't have the money, you don't have money. Bev 801 believes that the important thing is just to get people knitting:
"I say ttp those too cheap to invest in a craft they may not want to dedicate pennies to yet, pull out the spare take-out chopsticks and a spool of dental floss. If they decide they hate it, they can still have clean teeth."
Very true.

The main downside of acrylic is the feel and the fact that it doesn't breath.

This is where the "you just don't get it" factor comes in. A lot of beginners can't really tell the difference, but after using wool and other natural fibers, many complain that acrylic starts to feel plastic and chalky.

Sarah points out that she really got interested in knitting when she started using nicer fibers.
"I have known how to knit since I was a kid, but I had only ever used acrylic and cheap wool, because I didn’t want to lay out any money knowing I would get bored and put it down. Then one day I had some time to kill and wandered into a department store with a lovely yarn dept. I fell in love with a crocheted afghan pattern, in a book with instructions, and bought some Cotton Glace in 3 colours to start it. I never managed the blanket but found some old knitting needles lying around and started a scarf, it was so luxurious compared to what I had used in the past, and I haven’t stopped since then. It certainly proved to me what a difference yarn you love can be, and thinking about it now, why should we make new knitters learn with yarn and patterns that we wouldn’t enjoy knitting ourselves? You wouldn’t teach someone to cook and start with liver and onions just because it’s cheap?"
Sarah makes a good point. Although it worked for her, I personally wouldn't recommend Cotton Glace as a beginning yarn, and I'll explain why later. But the point is, a nicer yarn can be more inspiring.


Wool seems to be the most universally recommended yarn for beginning knitters, for numerous reasons. The feel we talked about above is a big one. Wool has a reputation for being itchy. However, you have to keep in mind that all wools are not equal. It all depends on the sheep, and the way it's processed. Also, it softens a lot after being washed.

However, in my opinion the main benefit of wool is that has more "give" than acrylic. Wool has more of a tendency to snap back into shape after being pulled, which makes it easier to work with. This is subtle difference, but it's enough to even out the stitches. Also, some new knitters tend to knit really tightly, which makes give important.

While it's more expensive than acrylic, some wool yarns can be fairly affordable. I'll list some specific brands later on. Again, price depends on a lot of factors. There are also several blends of wool and acrylic and out there that have the best of both worlds. I'll name some of those as well.

A Quick Word on Cotton

Earlier I said I wouldn't recommend Cotton Glace for a beginner. That's because it's cotton, and cotton has very little give. Even less than acrylic. This will magnify your mistakes, and every uneven stitch. I even know a few experienced, finicky knitters who avoid 100% cotton altogether. They say it's heavy and hurts their hands. However, I think these knitters are in the minority. Most knitters don't feel that strongly about the feel of cotton, and eventually, you should try it. Just not the first time.

But if you want to knit a dishcloth, and actually wash dishes with it, needs to be cotton. Wool and 100% acrylic do not hold up to washing dishes. (Other fibers like hemp also work, but we won't get into that here.)

Dishcloths are a popular beginner project, and you may find the cotton is not so bad. But for your first knitting, I would avoid 100% Cotton if you're not knitting a dishcloth.

There are some cotton/acrylic blends out there, like the wool/acrylic blends, that provide a little more give. I'll list those later on. They would probably also work for dishcloths.

Yarn Weights

Yarns come in different weights, although the term "weight" is misleading. It has more to do with thickness than how much it weighs.

This chart details the different weights and classifications. I won't get into the details of the different weights now. I'm going to recommend finding a "worsted" weight yarn. Most beginning knitters seems to be comfortable with worsted weight, and worsted weight is easy to find. You can also go with yarn labeled "Aran" weight. (Technically, Aran weight is thicker than worsted weight, but the terms are often used interchangeably. For now either one will work.)

Yarn weights are almost always listed on the label. Some will have the official Yarn Standards symbol of a skein of yarn with a number 4 in it. Worsted is officially classified as category 4, medium.

A few people recommend chunkier yarns and larger needles, because the stitches are easier to see. This isn't a bad idea. I think the biggest problem is that it makes materials harder to choose, unless you have someone guiding you. Worsted is just easier to find.

Now that you have yarn, you'll need some needles.

Needle Size

Needle sizes are classified in two systems, a US system and a system the rest of the world uses. I don't know why the US has a separate system. It's probably related to the reason the US hasn't converted to metric.

The rest of the world uses the actual millimeters in diameter to describe the size of their needles. The US uses a set of numbers that corresponds to size. The larger the number, the thicker the needle. There's an "official" chart here.

So when you pick out a needle size, it's important to make sure you are reading the right number. The length of the needle is listed as well, but we are talking about thickness here. Make sure you are reading the thickness number, not the length. When people talk about needle size, usually they are talking about thickness unless they actually specify that they are referring to the length. (Or if they are talking in inches.)

For a beginner, length isn't really that important. As long as the needle looks long enough to fit all the stitches for your project, you're in good shape.

Needle size varies with yarn weight and the individual knitter. But there seems to be a consensus that US Size 8, or 5 mm, is a good size for beginners to use with worsted weight yarn. If you're using a different weight yarn, you'll probably need a different size.

Needle size matters more when you're trying to get a certain stitch size, as needed for getting a garment to fit, or working with a different weight of yarn. Also, some knitters learn that they need bigger or smaller needles depending on their knitting style. I know from experience that I will always need smaller needles than what's recommended. But if you've never knit before, you don't know your style yet. US Size 8 is a good place to start. If you later find that you want your stitches tighter, get a smaller size. If you want them looser, get a larger size.

Metal, Wood, Bamboo, Plastic and more

Needles come in a wide variety of materials, and every knitter has their own opinion about which one is best. Many say not to use metal needles at first because they're slippery. However, when I think about how tight my stitches were when I learned to knit, I couldn't imagine using anything but metal.

Yarn will generally slide better on metal needles than on wood or bamboo. Plastic is somewhere in between, although some people just plain hate plastic needles all around. It's another one of those "feel" things. The general rule is that metal is better for fibers with more "grip" and wood, bamboo or plastic for yarns that are slipperier.

Basically, I would just buy whatever you can find for now. Later on you'll have more opinions on what to use, and you may change your mind. It seems to be an intensely personal preference.

Circular or Straight

Straight needles are probably the needles you think of when you think of knitting. They are the ones most commonly depicted in pop culture.

But there are two other kinds of needles, circular needles and double pointed needles (aka dpns). For now, don't worry about double pointed needles. You probably don't need them yet.

Circular needles are two short needles connected by a cable where the other stitches sit. They're great for working in the round (basically, if you are knitting one big circle) or if you are knitting something very wide and don't want to worry about cramming all the stitches on your straight needles. But really, you can do anything on circulars that you can do on straights. In fact, you can go your entire knitting career without ever using straights. Circulars are more versatile than straights. Also, they take some of the weight off your wrists.

According to saracan:
"For needles, I’d suggest circular needles, as they are more versatile than straights, its easier to store your knitting (a hair tie wrapped around the ends will secure them just fine), and I find I don’t drop stitches as often. I think they are also easier to maneuver than big straight needles."
Then why do we use straights? I can't think of a better reason than "I just like them." There's something classic about straight needles. I like the way they feel. And there's usually a better selection of them at craft stores and discount stores.

Where to Buy

In the beginning, I've talked about the Red Heart you always see in craft stores like Joann, Hobby Lobby and Michaels, as well as some discount stores. When it comes to yarn, there is a distinct line between what a Local Yarn Shop (aka LYS) sells and what craft stores sell. You'll almost never see the same yarn in both a craft store as you will your LYS.

In general, your LYS will have more expensive products, but they'll also be higher quality. But to me the main reason to go is that you can guidance from someone who knows what they're doing. I'm sure that there are some yarn savvy employees at craft stores, but you can't count on it. I don't know how many times I've asked an employee at my local Hobby Lobby a question and gotten a response like "Maybe those needles are more expensive because they're for harder knitting" or "I don't know. I don't work in the sewing section." (FYI - Needles are not priced by the difficulty of the knitting. In fact, except for double pointed needles, there is almost no correlation between the needle and the difficulty of the knitting.)

BTW - The instructors at crafts stores are an exception. They know what they're doing, but unless you enroll in a class, they won't be there to answer your questions.

At almost any yarn shop, you should find an employee who will take you by the hand and help you pick things out. If they don't or can't at least answer some basic questions, I wouldn't give them your business. (Unless the shop is swamped or there are some unusual circumstances)

There are several directories of yarn shops online, including this one and this one. If you don't live near a yarn shop (and I've been there) at least go to a craft store. And if you don't live near a craft store (I've been there too), going to Walmart is better than nothing. (at least until they close the craft section.) And if you don't live near a Walmart, well bless your heart! (Wow, that was a really Texan moment.)

Seriously though, there are some online retailers you can go to. But it may be worth a road trip to get to a yarn shop if you are dedicated. It can be a magical experience. According to Mary:
"When I learned to knit as an adult, my next door neighbor told me to go down to the LYS and pick out the yarn that appealed to me and to ask for help getting the right size needle. Not having been in a yarn shop before, I was amazed beyond belief. I just started reading labels…..made in Turkey, made in France, made in Spain - talk about your eye candy."
Recommended Supplies

If I have failed in my mission not to confuse or overwhelm you, just buy one of the yarns below:

Yarns you can probably find at a Local Yarn Store (LYS):
Cascade 220 - Wool
Brown Sheep Nature Spun Worsted - Wool
Ella Rae Classic - Wool
Mission Falls 1824 Wool Yarn - Wool
Plymouth Encorse (Worsted) - Wool/Acrylic blend
Ella Rae Amity - Wool/Acrylic blend
Mission Falls 1824 Cotton - Cotton
Yarns you can probably find at a craft store (or maybe a discount store):
Patons Classic Merino Wool - Wool
Lion Brand Wool Yarn (aka Lion Wool) - Wool
Lion Brand Wool Ease Worsted - Wool/Acrylic Blend
Lion Brand CottonEase - Cotton/Acrylic blend
Red Heart Super Saver - acrylic
Sugar'n Cream Cotton Yarn - Cotton
Peaches & Creme - Cotton
KnitPicks is also known for it's affordable, quality yarn and supplies. However, they can only be found online. I recommend their Swish Worsted as a good wool yarn to start with.

Here are some needles you can start with:
Boye Straight Aluminum Knitting Needles - US Size 8
Clover Bamboo Straight Knitting Needles - US Size 8
Boye Circular Aluminum Knitting Needles - US Size 8
Clover Bamboo Circular Knitting Needles - US Size 8
I would also get a tapestry needle, like one of these. You'll need it to weave in the ends. Eventually you'll need other notions, but yarn, needles and a tapestry needle will get you started.

My Advice

Here is my advice about the materials you should start out with.

Whatever yarn you choose, get a light or bright color, and avoid multicolored or textured yarns. It's important that you can see the stitches. Avoid black, navy blue and other dark colors. I would also avoid yarns where two or more colors are twisted together, like this. Also avoid furry, hairy, fuzzy or textured yarns your first time knitting. Wait until you get the hang of things to try these out.

For all the reasons listed above, I recommend 100% wool, worsted weight. There are some relatively affordable options for wool listed above.

Unless you're knitting a dishcloth, avoid 100% cotton. It's too unforgiving for your first time out. In the absence of 100% wool, I think 100% acrylic or an acrylic blend is better than 100% cotton. (I've listed some cotton options above if you do want a dishcloth.)

If you can afford it, buy two sets of needles, one metal and one wood or bamboo. That way if one doesn't seem to work you can try the other.

If one type of yarn or needle doesn't work for you, try another. A lot of preferences are very personal. Hopefully I've given you an idea what to expect. So experiment until it works.

If you can afford it, go to a local yarn shop. You'll get good advice.

Be open to the advice of other knitters. A lot of people have different opinions, and I've only covered a small area. Another knitter may have a different yarn or needle for you to try.

Don't let lack of supplies stop you. I've given extensive commentary, in hopes of increasing your chances for success. But Bev108 was right. Even if you don't have perfect supplies, still give it a try. I would hate to think that our friend Trent wouldn't learn to knit because it was a "Money Free Weekend." But I'd also hate to think that our friend Trent would give up on knitting because he didn't have the right tools.

And always remember - Don't give up. And if you don't like my advice do what works for you. My feelings won't be hurt.

Thanks to everyone on Ravelry who answered my posts and contributed their experiences and advice.

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