Yarn Hank, Skein or Ball?

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;

According to, a “Hank” –noun is;

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 is defined as;

1.   a length of yarn or thread wound on a reel or swift preparatory for use in manufacturing.
2.  anything wound in or resembling such a coil: a skein of hair. (matches Webster’s and American Heritage Dictionaries)
3.  something suggestive of the twistings of a skein: an incoherent skein of words.
…and a couple more non-knitting references.

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.

(“skein.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 29 Mar. 2010. <>.)
It would appear that the term ‘hank’ predates the term ‘skein’, can be used to define a specific yardage however, it is also very clear why these two terms are used interchangeably.  For purposes of the remainder of this article, I’ll refer to ‘hanks’ as the loosely wound, figure eight configuration.
As for the ‘why’, it could still be simply a matter of manufacturer’s preference however,
I have been able to find a couple of viable reasons for manufacturers winding or not winding prior to shipping.
The first is that it is supposed to be much easier to store and ship yarn in hanks (take up less space, don’t roll around a lot).  This one makes sense but then why don’t they all ship that way?
The second is that it is better on the yarn if not wound prior to shipping.  Yarn that may sit in store rooms or on shelves for some time before use that may develop undue creases and kinks.
Finally, a wound ball that has been stored for some time may not result in a consistent gauge.   This would make sense if you consider that the outermost lengths of yarn may be stretched more than the innermost lengths.
There must be a cost factor associated with the argument that I haven’t yet found.  Interestingly, I’ve never seen an inexpensive yarn packaged in hanks and while most luxury yarns are packaged in hanks, there are exceptions.
If in fact, the shipping, storage, and care of yarn are all valid arguments, then why don’t all luxury yarns ship that way?    I’ll keep on digging but if you have any ideas or input, I’d love to hear what you think.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply