Not long ago I was asked why some yarn is sold in hanks, some in skeins and some in balls. The only answer I could proffer at the time was that it must depend upon the manufacturer but I couldn’t let it go with that. Somewhere in the recesses, I thought I recalled a valid and good reason but couldn’t dredge it up. When the question came up again in a knit shop and they didn’t know the answer, I decided to do a little bit of research.
First, to be clear on the terms. According to Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitting Book, “A ‘hank’ is a loosely wound coil of yarn that is twisted around itself . A string tied in several places keeps it from tangling.” This is the familiar figure 8 that we see in the shops.
Vogue explains “Skeins and balls come already wound and are available in a variety of shapes. A skein has been wound so that the inner strand can easily be pulled out from the center.” This could also imply that one of the differentiators is that balls are pulled from the outside whereas skeins are pulled from the inside however, I have seen skeins that could be pulled from either inside or outside.
Since I still don’t have the answer to the original question, I consult a few standard dictionaries and at least better understand the cause for confusion;
1. a skein, as of thread or yarn.
2. a definite length of thread or yarn: A hank of cotton yarn measures 840 yards.
3. a coil, knot, or loop: a hank of hair. (same as Webster’s definition and very similar to American Heritage)
1175–1225; ME < ON hǫnk hank, coil, skein, clasp; akin to hang
(well, it’s no wonder ‘hank’ and ‘skein’ are used somewhat interchangeably)
a “Skein” (– noun) per Dictionary.com is defined as;
As for the origin, the word skein references the term ‘hank’ as follows;
skein c.1440, from M.Fr. escaigne “a hank of yarn,” from O.Fr. escagne (1354), of uncertain origin.