What is a skein? Demystifying names for yarn bundles.

Skein. Hank. Ball. Cake. You may have heard these terms thrown around by ‘yarnies’, but what do they mean?

Today, I’ll tell you! Now I’ve talked to a lot of yarn people in my time… and what folks don’t seem to admit is that there’s a little bit of wiggle room/variation in what these terms mean. Sound confusing? Yeah… it sorta is. But don’t worry about it! We’ll sort it out!

What is a hank?

A hank is a long loop of yarn that you’ll usually spot twisted into a cute bundle, like this:

Featured Yarn: Stonehedge Fiber Mill’s Shepherd’s Wool Crazy

You can’t knit/crochet directly from a hank, you’ll need to use a ball-winder, a nostepinne or your hands to wind a cake or ball (see below) that you can work from.

Why does yarn come in hanks? Since a hank is just yarn looped around, it’s how spinners and dyers work with their yarn, and it’s a real time (read: cost) savings to sell it to the consumer that way. I’m not actually sure if it’s a time saving-issue for big-production-factories, but a hank still has a ‘classy’ feel to it, so it contributes to a yarn looking high-end. Finally, from a yarn-store perspective, hanks lie neatly on the shelf, making display easy.

What’s a skein?

Ooooh… that’s the tricky one!

Most people say that a skein is an oblong center-pull bundle, like this:

Featured Yarn: Ella Rae Classic Wool

This configuration is how you’ll find most of the yarns from ‘big yarn brands’ wound. It sits nicely on the shelf and is ready-to-use (no winding!) by the customer.

I’ve also heard that once upon a time, both ‘hank’ and ‘skein’ were used to refer to the hank-like configurations of yarn, but indicated different measurements. Oh, the controversy.

In my experience, it’s very common to hear the word ‘skein’ used to refer to ‘a unit of yarn’. For example, the book One-Skein Wonders doesn’t refer to things you can make using oblong bundles of yarn… it’s things you can make with one unit of yarn, no matter how it is wound.

In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter which one of these definitions you stick to… just as long as you acknowledge that other folks might use the word differently from you!

What is a ball?

A ball, stereotypically, refers to the sphere that results from hand-winding yarn:

Featured Yarn: Stonehedge Fiber Mill’s Shepherd’s Wool Crazy

Because it looks like a ball!

But, alas, there’s a little wiggle room here, too. Some people use the word ‘ball’ to refer to any round-ish bundle of yarn (hanks, excluded). For example, the label of Vickie Howell’s Sheep(ish) (which is a skein, as pictured in the last entry) says “1 ball” on the label.

Why don’t we see a lot of ‘balls’ for sale? A true spherical ball is usually the result of hand-winding and isn’t typically how yarns are sold (although they seem to be more popular in Germany: Schoppell Wolle -Zauberball- and Jawoll sell yarns in balls). They roll off of shelves, and therefore, are also a tricky way of storing your stash. I would recommend storing your hanks as-is or winding them into cakes (below) for storage.

What is a cake?

A cake is what comes off of a ball-winder, a cylinder with a flat top and bottom:

Featured Yarn: Cascade Eco+

These bundles are center-pull, which means that you can pull the yarn from the center for knitting/crocheting.

Some small companies are beginning to sell yarn in cakes, usually to demonstrate a long-colorway (like Freia Handpaints).

What is a donut?

I’m not sure if a donut is a technical term… but it’s something that comes up a lot in conversations with my yarn-store-owner friends. It looks like a donut:

Featured Yarn: Cascade 220 Superwash

These are center-pull, which distinguishes them from ‘balls’ in the classic sense. Is this a relevant distinction? I don’t know. I just wanted to be thorough!

What is a cone?

A cone is a yarn that is wrapped around a conical cardboard cylinder:

Yarn is usually only sold in cones when it’s a large quantity. For example, in weaving, it’s important to have a long length of yarn (so there are no knots from joining skeins), so cones are sold with these long lengths of yarn.

What is this?

Just when we thought we had it all figured out… there’s this mystery:

It has a cardboard core, but it’s not a cone shape. It’s not really a ball…


What have we learned?

There’s lots of different names, and it’s confusing! Fortunately, there’s no ‘council of yarn dictators’ that will behead you if you use the wrong term.

It’s good to know that there are lots of different names kicking around, and hopefully, I’ve given you a resource if you want to learn them!

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20 replies on “What is a skein? Demystifying names for yarn bundles.

  • Nicole

    Wait….donuts are center-pull!?!? For all these years I’ve been unwinding them from the outside and then chasing them around the room….how did I never realize they were center-pull!!!???

  • Victoria

    I love this! My in-laws got me a yarn winder for my birthday (squeee!) and my FIL asked me “what is the name for a ‘thing of yarn'”. After thinking about it for a few seconds, I said skein… but tried to explain (without boring him to tears) about the different types of yarn winding – like how the hank is different to a skein.

    I will have to show him this tonight :)

  • Regula

    Very helpful information. Thank you. I was wrong about the skein. I thought it was a hank (never hear of that). And the ball a skein. Now I know. I don’t know if there is an expression for the donut. It might just be a skein (Knäuel).

  • yennygb

    thank you for that, so helpfull I kept on seeing different names and didnt know the difference, now I do. thanks again,and congratulations on your work, so inspiring and helpful, easy to follow, I am loving my crochet more and more every day.

    xoxo from Venezuela

  • Cindy N

    Hi Stacey!
    Thanks for yet another informative post :)

    I agree and am thankful that there’s no ‘council of yarn dictators’ … it is good, though, to review the terms so that I know what I’m talking about and can try to be relatively consistent.

    As for the “what is this” shape … my only thought is that a TP roll has a cardboard centre, so I’d call that a roll of yarn (I’m hungry now with all this roll and cake talk – tee hee).

  • Heather

    THANK YOU! It’s amasing how many sites hum and haw and dance around answering this question! I really appreciate your time and clear descriptions.

  • Lynnette Wilkie

    Should hanks be stored as cakes when bought or is it ‘better’ for the yarn to be left in hanks until project started as not so stretched?
    Thanks so much for a great explanation – fab!

    • Stacey

      That’s a great question, Lynnette! I’ve often head that it’s better for the yarn to be left in a hank because (as you say) the yarn could be stretched. However, from personal experience, I frequently wind my yarn into a cake (and leave it for years) and I haven’t noticed that it’s been damaged. Perhaps there are some yarns sensitive to the winding, but I don’t think it’s most yarns. In any case, winding the yarn loosely (and not super-tight) seems safe enough to me.

  • Christine

    Sometimes, inside of 4 oz. skein comes out in huge tangled clump. I was thinking I could use winder to neatly wind skein from outside start. Does winder work on such skeins? Thanks in advance.

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