Last Updated on February 9, 2020 by wendigratz
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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?
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!