What are the characteristics of different yarns?

OK. So I’m trying to start a project but I don’t know what kind of yarn to use. I don’t know how all the different fibers act and what their pros and cons are. Could someone explain to me the characteristics of various yarns? Like I’ve heard that cotton isn’t very elastic and that bamboo stretches? Or how warm or light are different fibers?

While I’m not intimately familiar with all yarns, I can tell you a little bit. Perhaps one of our resident spinners can give you more information.

For a beginning knitter/crocheter I’d say that brushed acrylic or cotton are probably the two best yarns to start with.

Why? Well, cotton has some stretch, but it’s forgiving, inexpensive, and a very smooth yarn most of the time with very little fuzz. It holds up well to repeated use, ripping out, and re-use. Also, when you’ve completed a cotton square (regardless of whether it’s knit or crocheted) it can be used as a trivet, hot pad, dish towel, washcloth, napkin or any one of a hundred other things. Besides these assorted characteristics, it’s not very slippery so it’s not as hard as some other threads/yarns to keep on the needle/hook, and it holds up well and is less likely to break when you have to pull hard on it to get some knot undone. Basically to sum up cotton yarn, think of your favorite blue jeans or t-shirts. That’s 100% cotton and after much use that’s what cotton items end up feeling like. (Hence the slogan “The look, the feel of cotton: the fabric of our lives”.)

Brushed acrylic is inexpensive, can be used for many craft type knit/crochet projects and stands up well to abuse from children and animals. When I’m crocheting for the local no-kill animal shelters, I use strictly brushed acrylic because of this durability. Depending on the manufacturer, brushed acrylic can be rough on my hands though. It doesn’t stand up to heat well so it doesn’t have as many uses as cotton, but it stands up to pulling, getting caught on things, etc better than cotton can at times. My primary use for this type of yarn is in crocheting things for outdoor use, children’s playthings (such as fall ponchos for playing in the garden, etc.), pet items, and other things that for one reason or another I don’t want to invest a lot of money in, and that I need to stand up to some pretty heavy abuse. It has some stretch, and comes in a miriad of colors and is becoming more and more a yarn that has no dye lot which means not having to buy all of your yarn for a large project all at once. (Red heart super saver is the main yarn I mean here. I Love This Yarn, found at hobby lobby still has dye lots, is quite soft and is my preferred yarn for doing inexpensive everyday baby items if I’m not using a cotton or bamboo/silk blend.)

The important thing to know is that while all fibers have a few characteristics that carry across no matter who the manufacturer is, no two manufacturer’s yarns will be identical. For instance Lyon Brand Homespun yarn feels completely different than a similar looking yarn made by a different company. “I Love this (Fill in the blank)” found at hobby lobby, I find feels superiour to most yarns available in chain stores in my corner of BFE, and on top of that this company manufactures wool, cotton, spa bamboo, bamboo/silk blends, brushed acrylic, and several other varieties. While it says that their percentages of fibers in a blend may be identical to another company on the shelf in any store within 100miles of me, I find that theirs tends to be softer, stronger, and more pleasant to work with.

So the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to 1.) Pick a simple project that is all one stitch, and preferably square or rectangular and small. 2.) Go to the nearest place that you anticpate buying yarn regularly and fondle it, feel it, pull on the end a little bit and see what it does for you. If the yarn you fall for is fuzzy, fluffy, or furry, pass it by for now and find yourself a nice smooth yarn that is soft and pleasant to the touch. Doing these things when choosing a yarn, will make the hours of frustration at trying to “get it right” a bit more enjoyable and less of a chore. If you hate the way the yarn feels, not only will you have frustration working against you, but you’ll also have a lack of motivation because you don’t like your materials.

I hope this helps even though it’s not EXACTLY what you were hoping for in an answer.


When you say ‘brushed acrylic’ I have Lion Jiffy in mind more than RHSS and ILTY. They’re smooth, not brushed; brushed is kind of fluffy. Lion Homespun is sort of a boucle type yarn, having a loose or not at all twisted strand with a thread wrapped it. Also, Spa bamboo blend is from Caron, not Lion.

There are so many different kinds of yarn and how people feel about it varies widely. Some people love RHSS, but although I don’t mind acrylic I would never use that one. So it’s a little subjective.

Cotton is generally non stretchy and therefore is hard for some people to knit evenly.
Bamboo tends to create a soft drapey fabric.
Acrylic can be fairly rough like RHSS or very soft so it’s difficult to classify.
Wool is warm and forgiving, but can be soft and smooth or fuzzy and can be an allergen.

I have this book and I’ve found it very informative. They may have it in your library if you don’t want to buy it.
Knitters Book of Yarn

Thanks for the answers. I might check out that book. I already know what I want to make I just don’t know what kind of yarn to use. I’m going to ‘try’ to make a shirt; like a long tank top thing. I was thinking a mix of cotton with a little bit of nylon; but then I found out about bamboo yarn and wondered what that would be like. What do you suppose would be best?

A cotton blend would be good, though cotton/acrylic tends to be a bit to warm for me as a tank top, depends on your climate. I like all cotton and if you knit at a looser gauge, like on size 10 or 10½s, it’s not too heavy. I haven’t knit with bamboo before, but it does tend to stretch so you need to knit it at a tighter gauge, or as a blend.

Bamboo has a lovely drape and sheen, which looks beautiful on garments. It is pretty heavy though, and as Sue mentions, it stretches… a LOT.
A cotton/linen blend would be a great mix for a top, I think!

I hadn’t thought about linen; what is it like?

I want this to be a pretty quick and easy knit; I was thinking size 6 circular needles and I had just about decided to use 100% cotton worsted weight. (Until you mentioned a cotton/linen mix snugglebugmom :slight_smile: ) But most of my 100% cotton t-shirts also say that they’re preshrunk. Will my shirt shrink in the wash? Is there preshrunk yarn I could/should buy? I read on here somewhere that cotton stretches as you wear it and then shrinks back to knitted size in the wash. So should I not worry about it? Or with such a lose gauge is it more likely to stretch?

Linen can feel somewhat rough, but softens up as you work with it and when you wash/block it afterward. I don’t believe it shrinks or stretches much at all.

Cotton or a blend doesn’t shrink in the wash, it could with repeated drying in the dryer at high heat. Just leave it in till still dampish, then take it out and let it finish drying flat. I knit my all cotton tanks at a very loose gauge and while they stretch somewhat, they do go back to the knit size after laundering.

okay, thanks for all the answers; they were quite helpful!
I think I’ll probably use cotton. :slight_smile: