Gouache

I had been waiting for Carol to post about why she hates the new yarn weight standards, and I see she has done it. I had started writing a verbose diatribe on the subject (was that redundant?) last year, but like lots of other things, it got lost in the pile of drafts. And when Carol mentioned on her blog that she was going to write about them, I wanted to read what she said first, because she works in the field and she writes so much more succinctly than I do.

(Whoa. I just looked at the old timestamp on this post–August 2005. Since I had started writing this post after the standard had been published for quite some time already, I suppose we’d better stop calling it “new”, and just “crap” instead.)

But now I’ll cut all the pendantic stuff I had written and get (closer) to the point.

The standard is vague and overbroad, just as Carol said. And, just as Carol said, the use of numbers to label the categories is confusing as well. Using numbers that increase as yarn diameter increases, and needle size decreases, is just plain confusing. If numbers are such an important label, one could point out that there’s already a number on the label: it’s called gauge. Perhaps if the labels were printed with a small gauge range, such as 4-5 stitches per inch instead of 18 stitches over four inches, some of the problems the CYCA standard purports to solve would be solved, without the use of additional fancy graphics.

But while gauge is the most important number to define the appropriate range of yarn weight for a pattern, it’s not the only factor that needs to be considered when choosing a yarn. Yes, your pattern might call for yarn to be knit at 18 sts over 4 inches; but what does that mean? I can buy a “chunky” yarn, whose label recommends 14 sts over 4 inches, and force it down to 18 using smaller needles; I can buy an “aran” yarn, like bainin, which knits directly to gauge very easily and creates a fabric with a substantial feel; I can buy a mohair yarn that also knits exactly to gauge, but it will feel very different from the bainin.

So, just how important is this attempt at yarn categorization, anyway? This isn’t a situation where manufacturers must comply with specific standards with narrowly defined tolerances in order to guarantee interoperability of their products with equipment manufactured by other companies. In that case, compliance with standards provides the consumer with assurance that if you choose this product, it will operate in a predictable way. However, there are very few circumstances where a knitting designer would promise a knitter that “if you use this pattern with category 4 yarn, it will turn out the way you expect.” Certainly not when category 4 covers both Jo Sharp Silkroad Aran and Multi-Fizz.

My own view is that the CYCA standard is simply a tool to make business easier for the larger enterprises, not for the consumers in this market. For the experienced knitter who has the insight to recognize that a range of yarn weights might work for a design, or that certain yarn types will obscure the design, the CYCA categorization probably won’t add anything to what is already present on the label. On the other hand, the category designations won’t hurt that experienced knitter, either. But these are also the knitters who, as yarn shop or craft store customers, are less likely to require any of the sales staff’s time.

In dealing with the less experienced knitter who more slavishly follows pattern instructions (remember, there really are knitters out there who think they need to knit a sweater in the same yarn and the same colour as the original), the CYCA guidelines are a boon to the retailer: the non-knitting big-box craft store employee can just gesture vaguely at the yarns that fall within that category, without having to explain the difference between “fingering” and “light worsted”–an explanation that requires a (not much) training or experience. The guidelines also provide deniability to the retailer; if the customer returns and complains that the yarn from category 5 isn’t working out at all, the retailer could claim that the fault lies with the publisher or author who specified category 5 in the first place. (Yes, I am aware that many large stores can provide better service than this.)

Alternatively, the categorizations work better for projects that are not seriously gauge-dependent. Scarves, blankets, and other generally two-dimensional objects can tolerate large changes in gauge. Even drop-shoulder sweaters, and loose-fitting raglans, will still fit well enough as long as the gauge isn’t changed too much. Pompons and plant hangers, or whatever else it is that people do with yarn if they don’t knit or crochet, will still work. Assuming (which I do) that these types of projects are more popular with the customers of generalist craft retailers than with specialized shops, again, the CYCA standard is of use to the big-box stores, but not so much to anyone else.

I do remember a time when I needed more guidance than I do now for yarn substitutions. But I remember that I’d flip back and forth between the pattern instructions and the information page in Vogue Knitting, to figure out whether a substitute yarn might be suitable according to their yarn weight table (which had about half a dozen categories, I think), and conclude that this yarn weight table was almost no help to me. When it came right down to it, I needed to match that gauge and produce a suitable fabric, and I did it based on observations of the yarn’s physical characteristics (fuzzy? smooth? length per unit weight?).

If a pattern publisher wants to provide unambiguous information that will allow the knitter to find a suitable substitute yarn, then the pattern should contain more information than simply stating a yarn category and a gauge. For example: “Gauge: 23 stitches over 4 inches (Category 3). Choose a solid-coloured, smooth yarn that knits to the above gauge to ensure that the cables in this design stand out.”

This works with sewing patterns. If you’ve ever looked at a sewing pattern envelope, you’ve seen that the information printed on the back includes fabric suggestions: “Crisp fabrics like poplin or lightweight denim.” “Soft fabrics like challis, chambray or lightweight linen.” Why? Because a soft, flowing blouse with gathered sleeves will simply not work in melton or wide wale corduroy, just as a winter coat would have no practical utility if made up of georgette. The pattern doesn’t quantify the weight of the fabric; that information is usually unavailable to the home sewer (sewist, whatever). Words — real words that have meaning, like “organza” or “batiste” — convey a lot more information about the desired objectives.

Of course there’s a learning curve; a newcomer to the craft won’t learn what seersucker is by osmosis. Similarly in knitting, it takes time to figure out that double knitting (8 ply) is twice the thickness of fingering/jumper weight (4 ply). The CYCA standard sought to eliminate yarn weight terminology confusion by dropping all of those idiosyncratic weight names, and replacing them with a tradition-neutral numbering system. What it actually does is defer the confusion to a later stage of a project: the part where the knitter starts wondering why her project doesn’t match the pattern schematics.

This entry was posted in design. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Gouache

  1. lori says:

    mind boggling, really. on a traditional level, many different descriptions all meaning the same thing have confused folks for years, in terms of a succinct description for each particular weight/gauge. but, over-simplifying things (which is really what the CYCA is doing) really doesn’t help.

    it’s all the more compounded by the introduction of ‘novelty’ (non-round) yarns and by ‘big-box’ knitting supply (which is even more compounded by traditional yarn spinning/milling being outsourced to mills which arbitrarily change the structure and gauge from one run to the next – e.g. Canadiana, milled in Canada — btw, not something i use regularly, but it’s a case in point — for over 50 years is now going to be processed in an overseas plant and it’s going to become an aran-weight because that’s what the mill processes, when it’s been a worsted-weight up until now, all due to a group of men (i have no idea if they knit or not) who oversee the bottom line of the company (no longer Canadian) and determine the best buy for the best dollar so they can sell to the best big-box scenario (their stated preference), not caring if the folks who have used Canadiana for eons won’t get the same results as they’re used to).

    additionally, what IS on the ball-band is not always based on test-knitting; it’s more often based on a total length per total weight system. so you see cases of light fluffy yarn which, because it’s light-weight has lots of yardage per ball (implying a thinner yarn), would knit into a reasonable light fluffy fabric on 8mms, but the recommended needle listed is 4mm and the gauge shows 22st/10cm, which knits up relatively unreasonably (even for fluffy yarn ;) ). so even if you see the CYCA number on the band it’s rather useless, in some cases.

    really, what works is common sense and swatching… not great for folks who haven’t got that kind of know-how or experience. but if they are able to buy from a reputable shop which would be able to lead them in an appropriate direction there shouldn’t be much of an issue. if they buy from a big-box which is not staffed by experienced knitters, there is not much which can be done, really.

    the CYCA site has been down today… coinkydink? ;)

  2. fillyjonk says:

    I think she hit it on the head when she described the “standards” as allowing the big-box stores to have people to just “wave” questing knitters over to the wall of “5″ yarn or whatever. Rather than, you know, having customer service and, you know, employing people who know their stuff.

    It seems that in the past 10 years, every retail outlet – save for, perhaps, the highest-end ones (which I don’t shop in any way) or maybe some of the small, ultra-traditional ones, have gone more and more to the mentality of “do you your own damn self” – self-service checkouts, stuff on high shelves with no one in sight to help get it down, no one who knows boo about what they’re selling. (Totally “caveat emptor”).

    The yarn standards do nothing for me. If I’m looking to substitute a yarn in a pattern (which I usually do), I want to know:

    recommended needle size and “average” gauge
    fiber content (if I don’t have a ball of it to try out that at least gives me a rough idea of how it will drape)
    meters/yards per weight (again, tells something about drape)
    sometimes, wpi is also helpful to me.

    a graphic with an arbitrary number on it doesn’t help me much. What it does is tries to simplify a lot of detail into a single number. More information, not less! is what I say.

    I have noticed that some of the lower end, novelty-type yarns sometimes leave gauge off now, in favor of the dreaded number. Not helpful. (But then again, a lot of those yarns are truly nasty and I’d not knit with them any way).

  3. kbsalazar says:

    I can’t agree more. These standards are more harmful than they are helpful, and seem to have been devised mostly through compromise and convenience for makers rather than with any consideration whatsoever of the needs of yarn consumers.

    Rather than repeat myself I provide links to my own diatribes against this Brave New World:

    http://string-or-nothing.blog-city.com/yarn_labels_101.htm

    and their difficulty label standards, too:
    http://string-or-nothing.blog-city.com/difficulty_labeling.htm

    and the lack of attention to something that would be REALLY useful – standardized symbols and layout for pattern notation:
    http://string-or-nothing.blog-city.com/trendy_yarns_and_standards_again.htm

    Knit on! -k.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I agree. I am a newish knitter and I have substituted yarns in projects. And it’s definitely a process that is still full of frustration, worry and second guessing. Luckily, I’ve done enough knitting at this point to know that if you’re substituting for a smooth yarn, you should probably pick another smooth yarn, but it’s still difficult. I can’t imagine that the new yarn categories are going to help me with this frustration.

  5. mamacate says:

    Great post.

    Personally, I have tried to retrain myself to *think* in terms of a 10cm gauge, and try not to do math back to the sts/in, because metric translates internationally, and because it’s a better way to measure. I’m not always successful, though.

    In the end, I think yards per pound (why isn’t there a meters per kilo measurement in common use?) is the best. As a spinner, *grist* is what’s important to me. I think you’ve pointed out before that the recommended gauge on many yarns is ridiculously loose. I’m not sure what that’s about, but I don’t really want to knit 1400ypp at 16sts/10cm (http://www.yarn.com/yarns-knitting/filatura-tweeddy.html), and that’s not uncommon for labeling. There are problems with grist calculations too, I suppose, with different fibers having different weights. But yes, reducing it to a numeric, and therefore non-mneumonic list is just a mess, I’d say.

    Maybe the worsted count standards (from which I think the commonwealth “ply” system may be derived) are the best. But I’ve been trying to get my head around that one for a couple of years now, and it’s still not intuitive to me.

    I suppose this is what makes us craftspeople, right? We need to understand our materials and know how to use them. And maybe if stores that give lousy customer service have enough yeti-sweaters knitted by beginners who substituted the wrong yarn, maybe they won’t be around so long. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

    Just call me pollyanna. ;)