Yarn Cakes

When I was growing up we had “balls” of yarn, not cakes.  Mum would come home from the yarn shop with hanks of beautiful yarn.  I would stand with my arms outstretched and she would wind off the yarn into a ball. Yarn cakes were only something you bought in a store.

But nowadays around our house we have lots of yarn cakes. We have a swift (2 actually) and a ball winder (4 actually) and we make our own cakes. Big, small, handspun, commercial – all yarns are great in cakes.

Of course, I have met some knitters who don’t like cakes.  They say they get tangled and so they don’t like to use them. But that is a story for another day.

Today I want to talk about cakes that are wound in your local yarn store.

Buy a hank

I know I am lucky.  It’s just my Mum and I in the house, we don’t have any non-knitters messing up our yarn vibe.  Everyone around our house GETS the whole fiber addiction, and might even (dare I say it?) SUPPORT it!  The corollary of that is that we have lots of fiber toys. We have the toys, and we know how to use them.  Which means when I go into a yarn store and the wool or silk fumes overwhelm me I don’t have to worry about the put up of the yarn. (“Put up” is what they call the way the yarn is packaged: a skein, a ball, a hank, etc.)

No matter how they put up the yarn, I can deal with it.  But that isn’t always the case for everyone who works with yarn.  Some people don’t have ball winders, or swifts, or even adolescent children willing to stand with outstretched arms for ages and ages.

That means that many yarn stores are kind and generous enough to wind hanks of yarn that people have bought into cakes. This is a great value added to their purchase, and frankly the right thing to do.

Get a Cake

Yarn CakesHowever, here is where the cheese gets binding.  Sometimes, those lovely, kind, and generous yarn enablers who work in yarn stores don’t do what they should.  It’s not always their fault, maybe they don’t know, or maybe they are in a rush – they are doing a good thing by helping you – now you need to ask them to do one thing more.

When you buy a hank of yarn in a shop and they wind it into a cake for you, ask them to do it twice.

Now, I know that sounds like you are being a bit obnoxious, but I promise you it’s worth it – both for you and for them.

Wool

Let’s be clear here.  I am not talking about hanks of silk or cotton, or even alpaca or mohair (not as much, anyway). I am talking about WOOL.

Here’s the thing: wool stretches.  We like that about wool.  It’s part of what makes our socks fit so well, and our sweaters so warm and cozy.  We want wool to stretch, but we need to control that stretch.

When you make a cake from yarn on a swift there is tension.  When you turn the handle on the ball winder it pulls the yarn you have attached and the tension of the pull makes the swift go around. It’s a pretty simple mechanism.

However, when you wind that cake onto the ball winder it is being wound under strong tension.  Ball winders need some tension in order to create a cohesive and compact cake.  But when the ball winder has to pull enough to make the swift go around, and it does, then you have a LOT of tension.  And when wool, specifically, is wound under that MUCH tension it stretches.

One of the joys of wool is that when it stretches it will bounce back to it’s original shape.  But that happens when you get it wet – it doesn’t bounce back on it’s own. This can create problems.

Create a Treasure

Yarn CakesSo there you are – you get home with your lovely cake of yarn. You know exactly what you want to do with it, maybe it’s a shawl – no problem. Minor variations in size is relatively unimportant in a shawl.  But let’s say you want to knit socks or a baby jacket.

Your plan was to start that baby jacket RIGHT AWAY! That very day, but then things happened…you know, LIFE.  It sometimes gets in the way of our knitting!

You find yourself 3 months later finally able to cast on for the baby jacket.  That beautiful yarn has been sitting there wound into a tight firm cake for a while now and the 100 % wool yarn has stretched.  Imperceptibly maybe, but it has stretched.  And when you start knitting you are knitting with elongated yarn.

You create your little treasure and then you wash it and block it – and suddenly it’s not the right size! It’s a full inch smaller than you planned for.  You had your gauge right, you used the right needles, and the right stitch count! What went wrong?

What happened is that your lovely yarn got in your nice hot (or lukewarm, or cold) water bath and it relaxed.  Ahhhhhh…  No longer under the tension of the tightly wound cake, it relaxed and your 16 inch hem suddenly became a 15.

Or those amazing socks you knit with a really intricate pattern that you can’t wait to wear? They won’t go on over your heel.

Preventative Medicine

Yarn CakesOK, so I might have dramatized a bit.  (who? ME?) It might not be a full inch. And honestly, sometimes you don’t even notice it.

Maybe you think “Oh I am just a tight knitter.”  But stretched yarn DOES bounce back when you block it, and yarn in a tightly wound cake WILL stretch your yarn.

Yarn cakes MUST have some tension in order for the ball winder to work, but the tension created by the pull on a skein winder is TOO MUCH tension.

This is what I do with all my yarns. I wind them twice. And the GOOD yarn stores will do it for you, too!

I put the hank on the swift, and I wind the cake onto the ball winder.  Then I take the cake off the ball winder, put it on the floor and let it run through my hand (tension, but not too much tension) into the ball winder again.

Benefits

This actually does a few things.

First I feel all those knots or tangles and can deal with them before they get embedded in the cake.

Second I can feel if there are joins in the yarn.

Can I just say that almost nothing annoys me more about commercial yarn than getting a skein that has 2 or more joins in it?

I know, things happen.  I can always sew the ends in, it won’t kill me.  But more than two “things happening” in  a single skein of yarn seems just plain incompetent to me. I am a lot more understanding in handspun. Although if I have ANY joins in my handspun you get a discount or I don’t put it up for sale at all!)

My feeling is that if you have chosen to do this commercially and your yarn sells all over the world (Malabrigo, Noro, Skacel: I am talking to you!) you should have the skill and the common decency to create a proper yarn.  OK. Got that off my chest. Thanks.

If I feel a join, I can break the yarn right then, rather than find it later as a surprise.  That way if there is a part of the project that only needs a smaller amount of yarn I can use one of the partial cakes. Then I don’t have to make a break where I don’t need to in a larger cake.

And finally, winding the cake again, with a steady, but not hard tension will create a beautiful cake that is NOT under so much tension that the yarn with stretch.  I recently wound two hanks of this beautiful Cascade Heritage Paints to knit a shawl with.  You can see in the pictures that one is bigger than the other.  The smaller cake was wound once, the larger was rewound.

With a correctly tensioned cake it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to work on it – the yarn is happy.  We all want happy yarn!

Just Ask

The next time you are in a yarn store and they kindly wind the yarn for you, stop and think.

Are you SURE you are going to start immediately?  The yarn won’t have time to stretch if you start immediately.  Well, as long as you pull from the middle of the cake it won’t.  Pulling from the middle not only means your cake or ball sits still, but it also makes your yarn happy!  As you pull the middle of the cake out you leave room for the  rest of the yarn to relax. Relaxed yarn is happy yarn.

Is there a line in the shop? If there are lots of other people waiting to have their yarn caked, then maybe asking them to do it twice (if they are doing it out of kindness) might be inconsiderate.  I have heard (although I am not sure I actually believe it) that there are yarn stores that actually CHARGE people for this service. If that is the case then you DEFINITELY want them to wind it twice, and it should not cost extra because it’s part of winding the yarn correctly.  Honestly, the really GOOD yarn stores will already do this for you automatically, but if they don’t and there isn’t a line, then just ask.

If you have a ball winder at home you can always take it home and do it, so you don’t need to ask.  But don’t forget to rewind it!

If you don’t have a ball winder, you might want to consider making a hand wound ball.  You paid a lot for that bundle of woolly goodness, wouldn’t you want to make it happy yarn?

 

Speak Your Mind

*