Those who know me in person are aware that I often knit with coned yarns. And it’s a topic on which I get lots of questions - especially as recently, more shops and online marketplaces are making coned yarns available for retail purchase. My last 3 garment projects were all knitted from cones, which has sparked some interesting discussions with fellow knitters. I have summed up some of the things discussed with the following FAQs, which are hope are useful -
1. What is coned yarn and why does it come that way?
Coned yarn is a fairly large quantity of yarn (typically 1kg) wound onto a single cone rather than broken up into individual hanks or skeins. Typically, yarn in this form is sold directly by the spinning mill or factory, to wholesale customers. Often (but not always) coned yarn is intended for knitting machines rather than hand-knitting, and for that reason it is permeated with a greasy substance which will need to be thoroughly rinsed off. Note that yarn which is greasy with spinning oil should not be confused with yarn which is naturally greasy with lanolin! The grease in coned yarns is a chemical lubricating agent (usually machine oil) and is definitely something you want removed from the yarn.
2. Why buy coned yarn? Is it ‘worth’ it?
There are various reasons a knitter might find it worthwhile to buy coned yarn. The most obvious one, is that they require large quantities of a specific yarn. This could be for professional reasons - for instance, if they are a designer, knitter of bespoke garments, or knitting instructor. Or it could simply be because they do a lot of knitting and have a fixed preference for specific yarns. In both of these scenarios, purchasing yarn on cones is more economical, going by cost per meter.
There are also knitters who like to hunt for rare and intriguing yarn blends at bargain prices. Mills and fashion houses will sometimes sell off random quantities of seconds, limited run, or overstock yarns, available through various auction and discount sites. As these yarns come straight from the factory, they are usually only available on cones.
Finally, if you are knitting a large sweater, a blanket, or other voluminous item and like to work with an unbroken quantity of yarn sufficient to cover the entire project, buying a cone will make that possible.
As for whether it’s worth it? I get that question a lot and don’t really know how to answer it, as we all have such different knitting backgrounds. Financially, it makes sense if you actually use up the entire cone. Otherwise, you are better off buying individual skeins on an as-needed basis.
3. How do you knit with coned yarn?
One common complaint I hear from knitters who’ve tried working with coned yarn and did not like it, is that the yarn does not ‘flow’ easily from the cone. Granted, a cone of yarn is not the same as a ball or cake. It is large, heavy, and immobile, and therefore needs to be positioned thoughtfully in relation to the knitter. For best results, a cone should stand on the floor, directly underneath the knitter’s chair, so that the yarn is coming straight from below. This is the only configuration in which the yarn is able unravel from the cone smoothly. If you place it beside you on the sofa, table, or bed, you will be pulling at the yarn from the side; it will be hard-going and the cone will have a tendency to topple over.
4. What about the spinning grease? Does it make the yarn unpleasant to knit with? And how do you wash it off?
Some knitters get used to working with yarn permeated with spinning oils, and actually grow to like it. But objectively speaking, I would say it is not as pleasurable to knit with as a soft fluffy yarn from which the spinning oils have been removed. So if you are a ‘process knitter’ and the tactile experience of working with yarn is important, give this some serious consideration before committing to cones. With the grease left in, the yarn will feel ‘ropey’ and somewhat harsh, and may leave an unpleasant residue on your hands.
Furthermore, it is worth being aware that different mills use different types of grease/spinning oils. Some of them are more or less harmless, others may be downright toxic to handle for prolonged periods of time with bare hands. (You can generally tell which it is by the smell!) In the event of the latter, you will definitely want to wash the yarn before knitting with it. This can be done by winding the yarn into hanks (or one enormous hank, if you wish to keep it unbroken - see Yarn Baby!), securing the hank(s) with ties, and washing in hot water, with liquid soap or dishwashing fluid.
When it comes to blocking items knitted out of the greased yarn, you will likewise need to wash them in hot water using some sort of soapy agent. I know this contradicts the ‘block gently in lukewarm water’ instructions we are all accustomed to, but the spinning oils will not come out using the ordinary, gentle method. Don’t worry about the hot water making your yarn felt. Unless you willfully agitate the yarn as you are washing it, hot water alone will not felt it. You are perfectly safe filling a basin with proper-hot water, adding liquid soap, then dumping your yarn/finished item in there and letting it soak for a good hour. Then rinse, and repeat a second time. Only that will get rid of the grease.
So… in the end of all this, have I made working with coned yarn sound unappealing? It was not my intent! But in summary, there is definitely a reason why yarn producers take the time and resources to thoroughly wash and prepare their yarns before skeining them up and selling them to the hand-knitter! With coned yarns, this process is usually bypassed, and the knitter must weigh that against the benefits of wholesale pricing. Does it make sense for you? Examine your knitting process, the stability of your yarn preferences, and your volume of output - then decide for yourself!