This week, I set out to write about types of yarn balls and put-ups, but things were not as simple I’d expected. The thing I’ve called a skein my whole life? Other people call it a hank. The thing I call a ball? Other people call it a bullet skein. Whoa! And so we enter the real debate of the 21st century: skein or hank? Ball or skein?

If you’re scrunching your nose and thinking, “What is she talking about?” Well, let’s take a step back. Yarn is made in long strands that have to be cut and packaged into a form that can be labeled, shipped, and displayed on store shelves without getting hopelessly tangled and deformed along the way. Those units come in different forms. Maybe you’ve purchased a unit of yarn and had to wind it into a ball before you could knit with it; maybe you were able to slide the label off and cast on right away. This is what I’m talking about—the ways yarns are packaged into single units, and what they mean for you, the knitter.

I opened the Skein vs. Hank vs. Ball debate on my Facebook wall and realized quickly that I needed help. So I called on the experts—the people who make yarn—to help me untangle this crazy Hankenskein monster. Thanks for your help, guys!

For video demos of how to handle these ball types, including using swifts, ball-winders, and other tools, check out this video (FULL DISCLOSURE, IT FEATURES MY MOM).

Okay, here we go.

12 TYPES OF YARN BALLS AND HOW TO KNIT WITH THEM

1. HANK
So consensus points to HANK being the correct term for a loop of yarn, fastened into a continuous circle with ties. Hanks are good for dyeing or painting yarn (see #3 for more on this). You will have to transform a hank into a ball or cake to knit with it, and a swift helps keep the loop open and neat as you wind it off. Hank is cool, but he requires some effort. As some folks pointed out to me, you make a hank on a skein-winder. Not a hank-winder. Go figure.

2. FOLDED HANK
Take that tied-off loop of yarn and fold it over, slap a label round its belly, and you have a folded hank. The label really holds this guy together. It’s great for bulky yarns and novelty yarns, as it shows off the character of the yarn without restricting it in some tight twisted or ball form. To knit: Remove the label, suspend the open hank on a swift or your friend’s outstretched arms, cut the ties, and wind off into a ball.

3. TWISTED HANK
This is where things get cray. Yarn professionals admit that “twisted hank” is the correct term for a loop of yarn, tied off and then twisted into a braid, but they also admit that they often use the term “skein” interchangeably here. I know many knitters call these things skeins. Hand-dyers usually dye their yarn in hanks and sell it in twisted hanks. This is a practical production option for them, and as Felicia Lo, author and owner of Sweet Georgia Yarn, says: “It’s easier for us to display the different nuances and variations of colour when it’s in the hank/skein format.” (Excuse her Canadian spelling.) Twisted hanks do require winding into balls/cakes before knitting, but Beth Casey of Lorna’s Laces waxes poetic on that point: “There is something to be said about touching the yarn and getting to know it a little bit before you start a project….Kinda like a coffee date vs. a dinner date.”

This gradient yarn set includes 5 twisted hanks of yummy merino.

As Katie Rempe from Skacel noted, the proliferation of high-end hand-dyes in twisted hanks has conferred a sense of quality onto the twisted hank form. “Don’t put down the put-up,” she told me recently at TNNA, wagging a ball of Hikoo Kenzie in my face. Good yarns don’t ONLY come in twisted hanks! But plenty of them do.

4. SKEIN

Skein is a generic term, the way “ball” is. Many people call the twisted yarn braid a skein, and so I am calling it a bonafide synonym for twisted hank. It can also mean a machine-produced ball, which usually isn’t round. See #5 and #6.

Okay, so let me interrupt here to say that I call #5 and #6 balls, and that the machines that produce these things are called “ball-winders.” So I’m not WRONG. We’re not talking a little plastic ball-winder clasped to your dining room table; these are industrial ball-winders “the size of a locomotive” according to Caroline Sommerfeld of Ancient Arts. This machinery is expensive and takes up a lot of space, which is why many hand-dyers don’t make balls—it’s a big investment for an operation that usually starts out small, in a garage or basement, and their yarn looks so nice in twisted hanks, anyway.

This is a pull skein!

5. PULL SKEIN
So online sources call this thing a “skein,” but my yarn pals elaborate on that—they call it a pull skein or center-pull skein. You can knit from this unit directly off the store shelf—just slide off the label and pull from the outside or the center and you’re ready to go. These pull skeins will collapse as you work, so I find that rewinding their spilled guts into a hand-wound ball helps avoid HANKENSKEIN. We’ll get to that later.

This is a bullet skein!

6. BULLET SKEIN

The bullet skein, a term I stole from Courtney Kelley of The Fibre Company , is a shorter, rounder version of the pull skein. It’s a machine-made ball that is not round. It kind of looks like a fat football or a weird melon. It’s great just the way it is—pull off the end and start knitting. It doesn’t collapse into a mess the way long pull skeins do. I LOVE BULLET SKEINS. So easy, so compact! And they stack nicely on the shelf until I get to them. I have an epic amount of Brown Sheep Nature Spun Sport, which comes in bullet skeins, stacked on my shelf. One ball in every color, cuz it’s GREAT for Fair Isle swatching when I get THAT weird urge. Plus, those little guys can lose a few yards every couple years and they’re still lookin good.

7. BALL
The yarn ball. A true, round ball, often hand-wound or sometimes mass-produced by companies such as Schoppel Wolle (their Zauberball line is made up of balls). If you hand-wind a ball from a hank or from some other put-up, you get a BALL’S BALL. A round, hard unit from which you can knit easily; it does not collapse. But, hand-winding a ball can lead to stretching the yarn tightly into place, which can affect your tension and/or the final behavior of the yarn in your fabric. Wind gently and wash your knitting after working from a ball to let the yarn bloom again.

This is a yarn cake!

8. CAKE
Ahh, the yarn cake. Knitter’s bliss. A cake is produced from winding hanked yarn onto a ball-winder. The personal ball-winder kind, not the locomotive-sized kind. Plop your hank onto an umbrella swift, thread the end through the piggy tail of a ball-winder, hand-crank that winder, and watch your cake form, all neat and orderly. It’s a ball, of sorts, but the yarn can be taken off the side or from the center, and the thing doesn’t roll around; it sits on its flat cake bottom and whispers sweet nothings to itself. You can knit directly from a cake, and you should. Some yarn companies do package their yarn in cakes; Freia Fibers is one. Cakes show off the gradient range of Freia’s colors, from outside to inside. Mmm. Cake.

9. DONUT BALL
This guy. He’s great for packaging slippery luxury yarns that need to show off their loft and luster on yarn shop shelves; yarns that come in smaller-yardage put-ups because they’re so precious. Please note, I did not find any yarn professionals using the term “donut ball;” they all just call this a ball. But I’m taking a stance here. You can call it a Bagel Ball if you want, but this is DEFINITELY DIFFERENT from a round ball.

Donut ball or bagel ball… call it what you will.

The donut often depends on a label piercing its open center to give it structure, so you might find that it falls apart once you remove the label and start knitting with it. Buy donuts and gently rewind them into balls, without stretching the yarn, and then knit with it in that form. Or knit directly from the donut and curse your late-night sequined cashmere decisions. It’s your life, sweetie.

10. HARD CORE BALL
I had no term for this put-up, and Stacy Charles of Tahki-Stacy Charles gave me the words: HARD CORE BALL. For the rockstar in all of us, this is a ball wrapped over a rigid cardboard core, keeping it solid and presentable for display and storage. You will see this put-up in fine cotton yarns, metallics, synthetics, and other yarns that tend to be slippery. These yarns need a little mmmph to keep them together before they hit your needles, but knitting from a hard core ball is easy. As you near the end of the ball, you might have a HANKENSKEIN mess, and I suggest that you find the center end and wind a round ball as you near that point, in order to keep things rockin.

11. CONE
The cone is the put-up of cheapskates, weavers, and enterprising young knitters who stumble into the yarn inheritance of their hoarder grandmas. None of that is true, except the weavers part. Or maybe it’s all kinda true. In any event, coned yarns are often affordable, come in huge yardage put-ups, and just require a little love from knitters. Yarn does not look glamorous or soft or particularly sexy on a cone, but don’t be fooled. That ugly duckling will come to life on your needles.

When yarn is wound onto a cone, it undergoes a lot of pressure, stretching the yarn in place, so consider winding off into hanks (using a skein-winder or niddy noddy or even your arm), washing it, hanging the hanks to dry, then balling it and knitting from it. Many coned yarns still have a waxy coating on them from the milling process, which makes them ideal for weavers who need to poke tons of ends through tiny heddles, but knitters might not love the waxy coating. So wash it, kids. With cones, you can buy a couple thousand yards of incredible yarn for pennies on the dollar because no one has had to pay for ball-making equipment, labels, or quality control of tons of wonky little donuts. STEAL.


12. HANKENSKEIN
This guy is not an official kind of ball; rather, he’s the monster at the bottom of your stash after your cats and your kids have discovered your hanks and balls and played “fiber arts” with them. He’s what happens when you’re careless with your pull skein, or when you try to wind a hank into a ball without securing the loose hank. He is hopeless. You can’t knit from him; you might not even be able to salvage his alpaca parts. Your best hope is an hour of silence, some incense, a well-lit room, and your Boy Scout knot-making skills, played in reverse. Best of luck.

What do you call your yarn balls? Do you know of another ball or hank type that I’ve missed? I LOVE hearing from you guys. Leave a comment below that starts with “HANK” or “SKEIN” and elaborate from there.

I got a HANKering for some loose yarn,
—Lisa