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Newer knitters (hi and welcome!) are often curious or disappointed about why a project didn’t turn out as expected. From my experience, it’s never you; it’s always the pattern or the yarn.

From left to right: Atlas, Nua Sport, Organic Studio Worsted, Secretos, Léttlopi, Freia Merino Fingering, Handknit Cotton, Felted Tweed

The wise women of Modern Daily Knitting have asked me to go over the components of yarn construction and what each component means to your knitting.

I hope by sharing the whys and hows of a yarn behaves, I’ll help you make more informed yarn choices.


Fiber or fiber blend is the backbone of your yarn. The fiber (or blend) determines softness, durability, and elasticity versus drape. I have three yarns from the MDK Shop to illustrate what’s going on. Let’s take a peek.

Nua Sport in Kitten Fluff up top; lower left is Atlas in Shale, and lower right is Handknit Cotton in Slate.

Nua Sport is a wonderful blend of soft, fine, elastic Merino and fine, soft, warm yak with linen, a plant fiber that is strong and drapey.

Atlas is 100% Rambouillet, a breed of sheep that produces fine, soft, elastic wool.

Handknit Cotton is 100% cotton, a plant fiber that is strong, drapey, and smooth.

All-Rambouillet Atlas will be wonderfully soft on your skin and keep its shape. Because the fiber is so soft and fine, stitch definition will be softer, and it will pill if it’s used in something that gets a lot of abrasion.

Handknit Cotton has great stitch definition, in a type of cotton that is very soft on your skin. Cotton is durable—perfect in patterns for kids. It might fuzz rather than pill. It is a heavy fiber which makes a heavy yarn, and its lack of elasticity will cause garments to sag with use.

With Nua Sport, yarn designer Carol Feller blended different fibers to promote their best qualities and support their weaknesses. Merino is soft and elastic, but pills and makes soft-looking stitches. Add some linen—which is stronger than cotton and not as heavy—and you now have a more durable yarn with crisper stitch definition. Adding yak adds softness that puts both butter and baby bottoms to shame; and yak is warmer than wool, and very durable. Nua Sport is a yarn that is insanely soft, elastic, and durable with very good stitch definition.

You’ll find a deeper dive into wool fibers in my post “Better Know a Sheep: Breeds and Yarn.” And you can take a closer look at Atlas here and at Nua Sport here.


How a yarn is spun—physically pulled and twisted from fiber to yarn—is called drafting. There are two methods of drafting, worsted (not related to size or gauge in this instance) and woolen.

On the left is Organic Studio Worsted (this “worsted” means size/gauge) in Thomas Circle, and Dark Grey heather Léttlopi is on the right.

When a worsted style (rather than size) yarn is made, the fibers are smoothed down on the outside, and the air is squeezed out as the twist enters the fiber. This gives us a yarn that is smooth and has clear stitch definition. Studio Worsted is a worsted drafted yarn.

A woolen drafted yarn is made by letting the twist run into the fiber without smoothing or squeezing. This creates a lofty, fuzzy yarn like the Léttlopi.

Knitted up, Organic Studio Worsted will have crisp stitch definition and feel smooth on your skin. It will feel cooler than a woolen yarn, but it will also be heavier than a woolen yarn because the air is pressed out of it while it’s being spun.

Léttlopi makes garments that are both light and warm, since air is encouraged into the yarn while it’s spun. All that air makes a woolen yarn fuzzy which can obscure some stitch patterns. The air inside also makes the yarn less durable both in strength and pilling than a worsted spun yarn.

Of course, how a yarn behaves in the different drafts, also depends on the fiber or blends used. It all works together like Legos.

For more info on the draft of a yarn, check out “Woolen and Worsted: What Does It Mean?” You’ll find more about Neighborhood Fiber Co Organic Studio yarns here (including more about what organic means) and a deep-dive into Léttlopi here.


Ply is about the number of strands twisted together. As plies are added, the shape of the yarn changes.

Freia Merino fingering in Sulfur Springs at the top, Rowan Felted Tweed in Boulder on the lower left, And Laneras Secretos in Merlin’s Beard on the lower right.

Freia Merino Fingering is a soft single-ply yarn that looks round-ish viewed straight on from the end. Felted Tweed is a 2-ply yarn and has an oval shape. Secretos is a 4-ply yarn and is as round as a piece of spaghetti.

The more plies added to a yarn, the more durable and stronger it becomes. As plies are added, they interact differently and differently affect your knitting.

A single-ply yarn has nothing to interact with, so it just stays the way it is, soft and roundish. Add another ply, and the pair of plies tend to spread out and push or roll away from each other. When a yarn has three (or more) plies, the plies roll toward each other and push in.

How does ply change your knitting? Just look at the stitch definition in the stockinette swatches. With a single ply it’s easy to count stitches, even though they look soft. Single-ply yarns have moderate stitch definition. Lace patterns look lacey in single ply and texture patterns show, but seem a little squishy.

The difference between 2-ply and a 3-ply yarns always blows my mind.

4-ply Secretos makes stitches that are crisp and look tight (in a good way); it’s easy to count stitches, rows, and columns, even in a variegated yarn. The fabric looks even and smooth. The plies roll toward each other and push up, texture stitches look toothy, with clear edges. Lace, however, can look different in a multi-ply yarn—that rolling-in roundness can close yarn overs, and a multi-ply yarn’s love of making beautiful towering texture stitches, can make lace decrease show more than lace holes.

2-ply Felted Tweed has texture. Even if this yarn were perfectly smooth, the stockinette swatch would still look textured. The two plies make stitches that spread away from each other, making soft stitches that don’t line up like 3-ply yarn. The surface of the fabric is busy, and it’s harder to count stitches and rows. This sort of opening out of the stitches makes lace patterns with holes that stay open and decreases that stay flat. 2-ply yarns make pretty good textured fabric, but nothing close to the epic texture stitches of 3-ply yarns.

See more about ply with “The Why of Ply.” I do a deep dive on marling with Freia here and I explore Felted Tweed here.

Is your yarny curiosity piqued? Every bit that you learn helps to piece together the “why does my knitting do that?” puzzle and makes you a better knitter.

Save it for later. Here’s how to save this article in your MDK account with one click.

Rowan Handknit Cotton is this month’s MDK Gem! Savings last through Monday, May 30.

About The Author

Jillian Moreno spins, knits and weaves just so she can touch all of the fibers. She wrote the book Yarnitecture: A Knitter’s Guide to Spinning: Building Exactly the Yarn You Want so she could use all of the fiber words. Keep up with her exploits at


  • And my husband the physicist used to think that knitting was just “play”. Thanks for a super informative summary Jillian, I am linking to your suggested readings for a deeper dive.

    • Hi, Jillian. Very interesting — thank you. One other element I’d be curious to hear you discuss is the difference in twist, the reason for the choice, and the effect it has on yarn and knitting. I’ve been knitting with Atlas this month, and I’m very curious about (what looks to a non-spinner like) its very loose twist.

  • Thanks for such an in depth look at the mysteries of yarn! I did not have much awareness of the differences when I was a new knitter. I just chose what colors and skeins that I liked that were on sale. One of my first scarves was a proud gift to my mom, who wore it daily. To my horror, the stitches became all loose and saggy. I wrote to the company who answered that the chenille yarn was “worming”. WHAT? Shouldn’t there be some warning on the label??? To this day,20 some years later, I avoid chenille.

  • Thank you for putting these definitions in one place. I have all these deeper dives saved but when I’m searching for a particular topic, I have to hop around to find it. One thing you didn’t include is “grist”. Was that in the “Mystery Date” post?

  • I’m curious how people catalogue their saved swatches. I would like to figure out a better way to keep track of swatches such as the ones in this article that Jillian uses to illustrate the various qualities she discusses than just stacking them in a box and rifling through them now and then.

    • I keep track of my swatches on Ravelry as finished projects. I label them Swatch – name of yarn. I take photos and add lots of notes. I find it really helpful as I prefer to knit with the same yarns over and over. And it helps me greatly when choosing yarn for a project. I also keep my swatches in individual ziplock bags with notes. So I can choose with my eyes on Ravelry and with my hands in stash.

      • What a fantastic system! You are so clever.

  • Excellent article! Thank you for posting it. I’ve learned much!

  • So odd that ‘worsted’ has two distinct meanings … wonder how/why a yarn weight is worsted? If it describes a drafting method?

  • Thanks for this….it eally takes my knitting, and my understanding of it, up a notch! I’m going back to some of my swatches….I bet this explains what I liked and didn’t like about some of them!

  • This was a great article. I learned so much. I have bookmarked this in my favorites. Thank you!

    • I wish that more of this information could be found on the ballband. Is there a way to tell by looking whether yarn is spun worsted or woolen?

      • Check out the “Woollen and Worsted” article linked in today’s piece.

  • You always have the best way of explaining things! I knew this on a certain level, but your explanations with pictures really make it come together. I’ll be referencing this post for a long time to come! And you may have saved me from a shawl that wouldn’t turn out exactly as I hoped. Thanks! Also, LOVE the Nua Sport, it’s a favorite of mine.

  • Jillian, I’d love to see an explanation of yarn categories such as fingering, DK, worsted, etc. I’m working on a project that called for worsted-weight yarn held double (no brand name given) and size 17 needles. I got the needles and a yarn labeled “worsted-weight”. The fabric I was getting was way too loose. To get fabric like that in the pattern’s picture, I’m using size 13 needles! “Worsted-weight” must be a pretty broad category, but what the heck went wrong here?

    • There’s an article on this – search on “grist”, I think.

  • Thanks! Wish I could save this article but the option doesn’t seem to be a available.

    • You have to log in under ‘my account’ if the website doesn’t remember who you are. Then you can flag it as a saved article. Hope that helps!

  • Are there different methods of drafting for cotton or linen?

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