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.