What Is A Skein of Yarn? Unraveling The Mysteries Of This Yarn Form

By Jodie Morgan

| Updated:

New to knitting? An item you need is a skein of yarn. It’s important to understand what a skein is. I’ll explore why it’s called a “skein”, how to identify it, and ideas for projects you can make with one skein of yarn!

Skeins of yarn on white shelving in grey, white, yellow, brown and pink

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Table Of Contents

What Is A Skein Of Yarn?

What does a skein of yarn look like? A skein of yarn is a length of yarn that’s been wound into an oblong, cylindricial shape.

This makes it easier to store and transport than balls or cones of yarn, which is why you’ll see this form of yarn galore in big retail stores. They’re distinctive shape is created by industrial yarn winders in factories.

Skeins also come in different sizes and types including wool, cotton, acrylic, bamboo, alpaca, and silk. Each has its unique characteristics like texture, color variations and stretchability.

Skeins of cotton acrylic yarns in red, blue and green on a wooden table

Tips For Working With A Skein of Yarn

Winding your yarn into a cake shape makes it easier to work with when knitting, but it’s not necessary. (I still highly recommend it!) To create a cake, use a wool winder to wrap the strands around each other in circles until you’ve reached your desired size.

Avoiding tangles and knots while working with your skein of yarn is essential for successful projects. Don’t pull too hard on a strand as this could cause knots. You can knit from the outside or inside, but I’d suggest the outside.

I’ve had far too many instances of transforming my perfectly normal skein into a yarn monster with too much tugging!

When not using a skein of yarn, store it properly. Yarn should be kept in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and moisture. Also, keep the yarn in its original packaging or an airtight container so it doesn’t become tangled.

Projects To Make With A Skein of Yarn

What do you do with a skein of yarn? Scarves are an easy project, and they’re great for adding color to your wardrobe. Hats are a popular beginner project. Some shawl patterns only require one skein.

Hanks Vs Skeins Vs Balls Vs Cakes

Confused? When I first started knitting I didn’t know either. Let me clear it up.

What Is A Hank?

A hank of yarn has been wound into a large loop and twisted together, rather than being wound into a skein. Hanks of yarn are used for hand-dyed or specialty yarns, as they allow the yarn to be dyed in a particular way. The hank allows the fibers to retain their natural loft and elasticity.

Many different colored hanks on yarn hanging up on hooks.

Also, hanks are often more expensive than skeins. I know it’s confusing, but some people use the term skeins/hanks interchangeably.

To use a hank of yarn, it must first be wound into a ball or cake. Don’t attempt to knit with it! You’ll make a mess and regret everything. This can be done by hand or using a swift and ball winder.


I recommend a winder if you have the budget and space for it, otherwise you’re stuck using the backs of some chairs. It’s a tedious process!

What Is A Ball?

hand wound ball of Hedgehog Fibers Yarn next to my Hermoine's Everyday socks

A ball is a round shape of yarn that’s pulled from the outside. If you don’t have a yarn winder, this is a great shape to make your pesky unknitable skeins and hanks into. However, yarn balls may also attract the attention of curious cats!

What Is A Cake?

Yarn Trader Yarns wound into cakes

These are lengths of yarn that’ve been wound into a circular shape with a flat top and bottom. They work as a center-pull ball, which means you pull the yarn strand from the center without it rolling around. Goodbye tangles!

Don’t store them like this for later, though! They’ll lose their elascticty and mess up your tension. That tunic you’d planned on might become a cropped top.

So, what’s the difference? I’ll give you a short breakdown. First, here’s a little infographic to show you what I mean.

The ways yarns come.

What’s The Difference Between A Ball And A Cake?


  • Wound by hand, and it’s wrapped around until a bigger ball forms.
  • It’s impossible to pull from the center, and it’s round.


  • Wound using a winder, and the string is wound around a cylindrical bobbin. It’s easy to pull the yarn tail from the center.
  • A squat cylinder with a flat top and bottom

Here’s an excellent video tutorial by Lia Griffith explaining the difference between a hank and a skein, and how to wind them into a ball.

I’m sure you’ll find these tips super helpful!

FAQS About A Skein Of Yarn

How Much Yarn Is In A Skein?

A skein of yarn typically contains anywhere from 50 to 400 yards, depending on the weight and type of yarn. The yardage is always printed on the label. Lighter weight yarns (lace or fingering) contain more yards per skein than heavier weights (bulky or super bulky).

Check the yardage before starting a project so you know how much you need!

Why Is Yarn Sold In Skeins Not Balls?

It makes the yarn easier to store and transport. When knitting with multiple strands of yarn, it’s difficult to keep them from tangling if they’re balls.

Some knitters prefer working with skeins because they allow for better control over tension while knitting compared to using balls of yarn.

Why Is It Called A Skein Of Yarn?

The word “skein” comes from the Old French “eschaine” meaning a hank of yarn, which first appeared in the 15th century. In the 14th century, the word was spelled “escagne.”


Knowing how to identify and use a skein of yarn helps you get the most out of your knitting. Have fun creating beautiful knitted pieces with skeins!

About The Author

Jodie Morgan From Knit Like Granny

Jodie Morgan (Author & Founder)

jodie@knitlikegranny.com | Lives In: Regional Australia

Author: Jodie Morgan is a passionate knitter and blogger with 40+ years of experience currently living in regional Australia. Taught by her mother and wonderful grandmother “Mama”, she fell in love with crafting from a young age. When she’s not knitting, you’ll find her enjoying a cup of coffee with cream, or sharing helpful resources and tips with the online knitting community. Get to know Jodie and the team on our meet the team page.

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