textiles · exploration · misadventure


Some Call It Cheatin’: Handspun Versus Commercial Yarn; Which is Better?

Close up of small red, pink, yellow, green balls of handspun yarns in a bowl.

Yesterday I got some terrific questions from one of my readers, Susie, over at She has a down-to-earth blog where she tells stories about her life and practices writing. I particularly like this post:

Susie had this to say:

Out of curiosity, where do you get your merino and alpaca wool from? And is it better to use homespun yarn for knitting and crochet?

I answered the first question in the comments of yesterday’s post. The answer to the second question was a discussion, so I thought I’d blast out a post. For me, which kind of yarn I use is a choice based on what my values are for the finished item. For me, it comes down to durability versus cost.

On Durability: A Discussion Unto Itself

Generally speaking, commercial yarns are not as durable as handspun yarns. For instance, weavers tend to not weave with commercial knitting yarn. There’s too much warp breakage; the yarn is too unpredictably behaved. Handspun, on the other hand, is beloved by handweavers, and frequently used as strong, predictable, and beautiful warps.

The durability divide is not that extreme when it comes to knitting and crochet, and it is not an absolute. Handspun generally lasts longer and pills less than commercial, but there are variabilities dependent upon materials, construction, and source. Here are some examples:

    Materials: Merino is a relatively fragile fiber. Silk is very strong. A commercial silk yarn would plausibly wear better and pill less than a handspun Merino.

    Construction: The more plies, the longer the yarn will last and the less pilling you will see. This is true for both commercial and handspun yarns, and although I find them beautiful, I tend to steer clear of singles, or unplied yarns, for this reason.

    Source: Clara Yarn versus my early crap handspun, for example. Clara’s yarn is commercially made, with a deep knowledge and love of fiber and lots of experimentation to find the optimal twist. Conversely, you couldn’t make me knit with my early handspun.

Below is an example of three yarns, from left to right: a low-twist commercial yarn, a high-twist commercial yarn, and a moderate-twist handspun yarn. Note the deep angle of the twist in the two yarns to the right. These are more durable than the low-twist yarn to the left.

twist angle

Also, I’m not saying your handspun sweater will last fifty years and your commercial sweater will last three. The gap is not that wide. I’m saying that that durability depends on a lot of factors, and you have to know what they are and make your choices.

Where Does Cost Come In?

A well-made handpun yarn is more expensive than commercial yarn, whether that cost is your money that you use to purchase said yarn, or the materials and time it takes you to make it.

So How Do I Choose?

Funny how one question opens up so many more.

You need to decide where your project falls on the spectrum of durability and cost, decide what is acceptable to you, and choose from what’s available to you. Asking yourself these questions may help:

    How long do you want those socks to last? Are you knitting an heirloom you want to last for one hundred years? A baby sweater that will be worn for six months? How much time will you put into this knitting or crochet project? A lot? A little?

    How much money do you want to spend?

    What yarns are available to you? Are they plied?

    Do commercial yarns or handspun yarns offer you the color choices and/or fiber choices that you are seeking for your project?

    How do I know a well-made commercial yarn from a crap handspun?

I could write lengthy posts on these questions and on the subject of durability, and maybe I will, but the short answer is that the more knowledge and experience you have with yarns, the better you can judge what is crap, what to drool over, and when you want to use which, because it is not an either/or answer, but a weighing of priorities.

The less verbose answer is, while there is a divide between the durability of handspun and commercial yarns, most projects do not warrant the high cost of handspun, and commercial yarns will work anywhere from just fine to beautifully.

Gratuitous yarn photo. Note the orangy ball at the bottom with the gawd-awful loose twist. An early handspun.

Gratuitous yarn photo. Note the orangy ball at the bottom with the gawd-awful loose twist. An early handspun.

I encourage you to attend fiber festivals and events and study the yarns. Fondle, sniff, and ask questions. Find some handspun, knit with it, and see how you like it. The texture of handspun yarn is very different from most commercial yarns. It is less smooth and regular, more textural. I am besotted with it.

Check out Knitter’s Review for reviews of well-made commercial yarns. Clara Parkes is well known for her in-depth and trustworthy reviews, and is one of my major sources of textile lore.
OK, dudes, this is really long, and it’s really late. I’m going to knock off now. Susie, I promise to get to your other question in the next few days. Thanks so much for commenting and asking!