Is there a huge markup on yarn? Why is yarn so expensive often?

Sometimes. But mostly, not.

I had a little adventure into yarn production some years ago. I purchased the fleece, had it spun as a worsted-spun 4-ply, and wound into undyed hanks.

As I recall, the fleece, a rare-breed Galway (my Unique Selling Point (USP)) was £11 a kilo. I bought 10kg – £110.

I drove it to a spinning mill – around £200 by ferry plus 500miles petrol. Total in the region of £600 – lucky it was a multipurpose trip…

The mill charged £56 per returned kilo. I got 60-ish 100g hanks back, so about £336.

The resulting yarn was shipped to me at a cost of about £60.

>> 110+(600/2)+336+60=806 (travel costs halved because it was a multipurpose trip)

>> 806/60= 13.43333333

So, just to break even, I’d have to sell each hank for £13.50. And that’s without a ballband, gauge testing, packaging and posting, Etsy listing and selling fees, etc. A 50% markup would bring it to just over £20. And you’ll find, as you look around, that £20 is an average price for a hank of good-quality 4-ply yarn with enough yardage to make a pair of socks.

But that’s a profit of only £405 – half as much as I’d need to repeat the process the following year.

Rare-breed Galway sheep with characteristic top-knot.

A non-profit business, just bringing attention to the lovely Galway, would need to charge £30 per undyed 100g skein – and that leaves nothing to plough back into a breeding programme, fodder, housing, veterinary bills, or my time and expenses! Salary? Don’t make me laugh…

I could, of course, have shipped the fleece instead of delivering it, at about £100 for the 10kg. I could have gone for a less expensive woollen treatment, costing a mere £52 per returned kilo – and if you think that’s still expensive, you should watch this:

Fleece processing is intensive both manually and mechanically. Neither the expertise nor the machinery (£1mn startup costs) comes cheap!

I could even have used any old fleece at half the price, instead of rare-breed Galway – but that would have eliminated my USP. I’d have to find some other way of adding value, such as hand-dyeing. Sadly, while I can do and enjoy dyeing… I’m not really ‘valuable’ as a dyer. I have no unique vision that allows me to create exquisite colourways that are Art in the skein, like my neighbour EweMomma does:

Skein of hand-painted yarn in shades  of pink. green, purple and yellow.
Ewemomma hand-painted yarn.

I’d produce plain solid colours like wot i dun ere:

7 hanks of yarn dyed in solid maroon, red, salmon, burgundy, lime, turquoise and orange.
Sooooo boring. But at least I got a good R-O-Y range.

The way you need to look at fibrecrafts is as a hobby, like golf, wine-tasting, or astronomy. A decent golf club can set you back £100 – and you’ll need more than one, plus balls, tees, club fees and funny trousers. Wine tastings can be as little as £30 – for a couple of hours, and you don’t even get to drink the wine! Astronomy costs – are astronomical. But a decent yarn is lovely and squishy in the hank, provides hours of knitting pleasure, and an end product that – with a little care – will last 1,000 years…

Egyptian sock fragments, c. 1000–1400CE, with colourwork geometric designs in black, white and blue cotton.
Egyptian sock fragments, c. 1000–1400CE. From L to R: Textile Museum, ca. 1000 – 1200 AD; Victorian & Albert Museum, ca. 1100 – 1300 AD; Textile Museum, ca. 1300 AD

Quora linky.

Are knitted yarn sweaters better to keep you warm than wool or polyester sweaters? Why?

What kind of “knitted yarn” are you talking about? Both wool and polyester are yarns that can be knitted to make sweaters. Polyester is a lousy yarn for knitting: the fabric knitted from it is not warm in cold weather, and in warmer weather, it quickly becomes sweaty and damp. Like its synthetic counterparts, it is dirt cheap, which is why virtually every cheap sweater you see in the shops is made of some kind of man-made fibre.

Lots of things can be made into knitting yarns. Plastic shopping bags, for example. PaperStainless steelSilverTorn-up clothingMilkEyeballs. Some make warm sweaters, some don’t, some aren’t meant to.

I’d suggest you join Ravelry, and spend 6 months or so in the Yarns section, studying all the different fibres, constructions, weights, blends, and drafting methods and how these influence each yarn’s qualities, dyeability, fulling/growth, draping, etc., etc. Spend some time learning from others on the Yarn and Fibre Forum, even ask a few questions. Discover and follow Rav yarnies like Clara Parkes. Take in a handspinning class. KNIT SOMETHING.

Quora linky.

Why is synthetic wool better than natural wool?

It isn’t.

Synthetic yarn (NB: NOT ‘wool’) is sometimes cheaper, and some people with allergies to wool or lanolin find it safer to wear next to the skin. Vegans also tend to prefer it.

There are two basic types of synthetic yarn: petroleum-based, such as acrylic or nylon, and plant-based, such as rayon or cellulose.

Petroleum-based yarns, as you might imagine, are not eco-friendly or renewable. They are often flammable if not treated with kemikalzzzz, melting onto your skin. Every time they are washed, they lose tiny microfibres which make their way into the oceans, just like those banned micro-beads in cleansers. Plus, being basically plastic, they degrade like plastic bags: good news for archaeologists, not so good for the environment.

Plant-based fibres will bio-degrade, but the process of creating them can be polluting. For most, the process involves blending the plant material into slush and extruding a thin fibre from that slush, which uses electricity. The process also involves the dreaded kemikalzzz, some of which are genuinely nasty. There’s also significant waste which needs to be dealt with, preferably not by dumping it in a nearby river, which does happen too.

Other, more ‘natural’ plant fibres are not much better. Cotton is famously bad for the environment, both in the growing and the processing. Linen requires the flax plant to be rotted under water for a period of time, then washed repeatedly to extract the phloem (IIRC: it might be xylem, or both). On my family farm, there is a stream-fed pond we call the linsteep, where my ancestors performed this task. It’s now an amusement park for our ducks, and a handy watering-hole for our cattle, but when it was in use, we – and our down-stream neighbours – had to drive our animals to other water sources. The process for making hemp yarn was similar.

Wool is renewable, bio-degradable, non-flammable, need not use the genuinely nastier chemicals in processing (check out the suint method – the residue can be used as a natural fertiliser, which apparently works wonders on tomatoes), all while the sheep mows and fertilises your lawn, provides milk which can be made into ice cream, lanolin for your beauty products, and in the end cuddly sheepskins and yummy meat. Plus, wool is warmer, waterproof, dyes easily with no more than food colouring and vinegar, and when you’re bored with your sweater, you can felt it into pot-holders or cushion covers, or cut it up without unravelling to patch other clothes or make new ones:

Katwise Rainbow Magic coat, made from recycled wool sweaters.

Quora linky.

Why do we use sheep wool?

Because painting ourselves blue turned out to be a tad redundant?

Because somewhere along the route out of Africa, we figured out that wearing skins meant a dead animal who couldn’t provide us with milk, whereas wearing fleece meant a living animal AND more baby animals who could provide fleece and milk?

Because it’s insulating, waterproof, fireproof, and easy to manipulate into textiles?

Because a renewable resource is better than polluting the planet with plastic fibres derived from non-renewable fossil fuels?

Quora linky.

What’s your favorite non-wool yarn when knitting for folks who are allergic?

Most people who claim to be allergic to wool have simply been wearing (or were forced to wear) wool that is not fit for purpose.

Wool comes in many qualities, from soft enough for baby skin (e.g., most merino, Blue-faced Leicester, Wensleydale) to fire- and chemical-resistant industrial carpeting. Historically, people wore underwear in the softer wools,

Model wearing an Aran bodysuit and a tasseled stole in a super-bulky weight yarn

and outerwear in progressively rougher wool, up to Melton fulled twill for weather-resistant coats. Even then, there were differences: trousers or skirts for indoor wear were typically in softer wool, and usually worsted-spun*; outdoor clothing was more usually in sturdier, coarser wools, often blended with mohair, woollen-spun*, and ideally should be lined if you’re not wearing your merino long-johns or cotton petticoat underneath.

In addition, a lot of these ‘wool allergies’ come from a time when wool blends became A Thing because (1) the wool industry was going into decline and (2) more people had washing machines and wanted to wash their woollens in them. So your granny couldn’t afford the quality wool when she was knitting your school jumpers, and used a crappy wool blend with scratchy plastic in it, the washing machine battered the crap out of it, part-felted it á la Melton – and you blamed the wool.

So, the simplest solution for people who find wool scratchy – apart from buying better-quality woollen goods – is to wear something else next to the skin, such as a shirt under Granny’s Christmas sweater that she knitted specially for you with her crippled, arthritic hands, you ungrateful brat. Or you can try ‘superwash’ wool, which has the sticky-outy scales on each fibre chemically stripped off, which means it won’t felt, and isn’t (as) scratchy.

However some people are allergic to lanolin, the natural grease in wool. This is a pretty serious issue, as lanolin is the skin-softening ingredient in many lotions and moisturisers, and finds its way into soaps and makeup too.

To my knowledge, only sheep’s wool contains lanolin. That leaves a huge range of yarns available – note, I say ‘yarn’. Wool comes from sheep, yarn comes from everything else. You can choose from –

  1. Animal
    1. Angora:
      1. English
      2. French
      3. German
      4. Giant
      5. Satin
    2. Camellid:
      1. Alpaca
      2. Huacaya Alpaca
      3. Suri Alpaca
      4. Camel
      5. Guanaco
      6. Llama
      7. Paco-vicuña cross
      8. Vicuña
    3. Cervid:
      1. Cashgora (Cashmere-Angora cross)
      2. Cashmere goat
      3. Mohair
      4. Nigora cross
      5. PCA (Pygmy-Cashmere cross)
      6. Pygora (Pygmy-Angora cross)
    4. Silk:
      1. Bombyx / Cultivated / Mulberry
      2. Eri (Peace Silk)
      3. Muga
      4. Tussah
    5. Other:
      1. Arctic Fox
      2. Bison
      3. Cat
      4. Chinchilla
      5. Dog
      6. Highland Cattle
      7. Horse
      8. Mink
      9. Musk Ox / Qiviut
      10. Possum
      11. Reindeer
      12. Wolf
      13. Yak
  2. Plant
    1. Cellulose:
      1. Bast Bamboo
      2. Flax (linen)
      3. Hemp
      4. Nettle
      5. Paper
      6. Ramie
    2. Cotton:
      1. Acala / Upland
      2. Egyptian
      3. Naturally Colored Cotton
      4. Pima
  3. Manufactured:
    1. Acrylic
    2. Angelina
    3. Carbonized Bamboo
    4. Corn (Ingeo)
    5. Chitin
    6. Microfiber
    7. Milk (Casein)
    8. Nylon / Polyamide
    9. Pearl
    10. Polyester
    11. Rayon / Viscose
    12. Rayon from Bamboo
    13. Rayon from Banana
    14. Rose
    15. Seaweed/SeaCell
    16. Silver
    17. Soy Silk
    18. Stainless Steel
    19. Sugar Cane
    20. Tencel / Lyocell

Full disclosure: I haven’t tried all of these.

Of those I have tried, I would recommend the following as a substitute for wool:

  • Alpaca – any;
  • Cashmere;
  • Muskox/Qivuit for next to skin softness;
  • Angora – if and only if you aren’t afflicted with the scratchies. Angora is incredibly soft, but fuzzy and therefore tickly;
  • Bamboo bast or rayon – suitable for baby-soft skin;
  • Pima cotton – even though it dries the hands out as a knitting yarn;
  • Banana or soy silk – baby-soft;
  • Milk or milk and cotton blends;
  • Sugarcane;
  • High-quality acrylic, if you absolutely, positively must. It fills the seas with plastic micro-fibres, so think long and hard before you spend (serious, like cashmere-serious) money on this.

Of these, in terms of value for money, I’d go for alpaca, bamboo and cotton, in that order.

* – Worsted spinning sees the wool combed before spinning, so that all the individual fibres are parallel. It produces smooth, non-fuzzy yarn which weaves to a superior fine fabric. Woollen-spun yarns are simply carded without combing: the fibres are higgledy-piggledy and produces a fluffy, round yarn which is wonderfully warm – one example being Melton fabric, used for coats and blankets. While woollen-spun fibres are popular with handknitters, and worsted-spun with weavers, it is possible to use woollen-spun in weaving and worsted-spun in knitting.

Quora linky.

Why do clothes made from cotton feel softer than those made from wool?

Because you’re weak and soft.

Wool comes in hundreds of different qualities, some suitable for next to the skin, others better suited to outerwear. For thousands of years, people wore wool – either as fabric or fleece – from swaddling to shroud, with none of this crybabying about thquatching their thoft dewicate thkin. You got used to it, or you scratched.

Nowadays, people haven’t the skill or knowledge to select the right quality of wool for the purpose, and are too precious to give themselves time to get used to wool. They pronounce themselves ‘allergic’ (only a very tiny proportion are allergic to wool; ETA: Claire Jordan reminds me that more people are allergic to lanolin, the oil in sheep’s wool – that one is nasty), and never wear wool again.

Here’s an experiment. Grab a cotton wool ball or a face flannel, and scrub it, dry, over your skin. Or actually look when you’re towelling off after a bath. They all scrape your skin. In the case of the towel, you might well see what looks like dandruff flaking off your body as you dry. You’ll probably need to slap on a load of moisturiser, because the cotton strips the oils off your skin as well, adding to the flakiness.

The only reason cotton “feels” soft, is because the specific cotton fabric in your clothes has been chemically and mechanically treated to feel soft. Untreated cotton sandpapers the top layer of your skin off.

Quora linky.

Isn’t taking wool from a sheep a good thing? I thought they were kind of like dogs.. they need to be groomed then we use the wool.

Any animal with hair, fur, wool, etc., benefits from grooming – including humans1.

There are primarily two kinds of sheep, one hair (kemp) and one which produces a woolly undercoat in winter. Hair sheep have been domesticated primarily for milk and secondarily for meat. Wool sheep were domesticated for primarily for wool production, and secondarily milk and meat. There are still wild sheep of both hair and wool varieties. The wild wool sheep and some domesticated primitive wool sheep still shed their woolly undercoat in spring2,3, but the majority of domesticated wool sheep need to be sheared annually as the shedding genes have been bred out.

The majority of domesticated sheep are now kept for meat and milk, and have poor quality fleeces which are often unfit for any use – though some can be used as a natural home insulation. It costs the farmer to have such sheep sheared, and the farmer then has disposal costs. As a result there’s a trend towards breeding natural shedding back into some breeds, such as the Wiltshire Horn:

So yes, whether natural shedders like the Soay, or shearing sheep like Merino, sheep need to get rid of their winter undercoat, and we would use the cast-off or sheared fleece either way. Wool is strong, insulating, water-repellent, breathable, anti-microbial, hypoallergenic, non-flammable, renewable, and (if you buy locally) low carbon-footprint4,5, unlike synthetic substitutes. Its processing is non-polluting and very easy on the environment (sheep graze otherwise unusable land, and improve it), compared with many plant-based substitutes[6]. Accept no substitutes!


[1] What does it feel like for a sheep after it gets sheared?

[2] How do sheep get rid of their wool naturally?

[3] Do wild sheep exist anymore?

[4] Characteristics of Wool Fabrics | Properties of Wool Fabrics

[5] 7 Properties of Wool That Might Surprise You

[6] 7 Eco-Friendly Fabrics That Will Green Your Wardrobe

Quora linky.

Why are animals of the cooler region able to produce wool?

Some, not all, animals (including some birds) in cooler regions have a seasonal requirement for a warm undercoat. In warmer weather, that undercoat is usually shed or moulted: you will notice your pet cat or dog doing so in spring.

In domesticated (but not wild) sheep, the shedding function has been eliminated wholly or partially by selective breeding.

Quora linky.

Is organic wool better?


Not really. It depends what you’re looking for.

Organic anything is not necessarily better, and in many instances much ‘worse’. Organic vegetables, for example, are often smaller because they are grown in natural fertiliser (dung) which has fewer nutrients; they may have minor blemishes and scabbing, because they are not treated with commercial pesticides which produce better results, and so on.

Organic wool comes from sheep who are grazed on naturally-fertilised land – which may have less grazing, of less nutritive value. The sheep themselves are not given certain medications, and not put through certain dips, so they are potentially less healthy. The wool itself undergoes processing without the usual chemicals. Undernourishment, and limited veterinary intervention, can produce a finer wool*, though usually in smaller quantities. The finished yarn, organically processed in organic-only mills, can be greasy and full of VM**. Some people love this, others get hives at the thought. Come to market, it’s pricey and usually in limited supply – so no wandering in a month later when you realise you need just one more ball.

I rarely use organic wool myself, but much of my knitting is for pattern-writing – there’s no point in me writing a pattern for that limited-run almost-organic mohair-Wensleydale blend produced by a nice lady vet locally, because by the time it would be written, she’d be sold out of this year’s shearing. But I do bagsy a few batts to spin myself, and make a cowl or gloves just for me, and I know she doesn’t starve her animals or deny them treatment. Lesson being: buy organic when you can visit the sheep it comes from.

* – The best cashmere comes from half-starved desert and mountain Cashmere goats, not their well-fed and well-cared-for brethren in the south of England (ND: half-starved because the native forage is so poor. Not because they’re denied food).

** – Vegetable matter. Twigs, hay, thorns, and occasionally poop.

Is there such thing as ethical silk and wool?

Of course there is.

Tussah silk is made from silk cocoons the silkworm has abandoned. It’s a bit rougher and nuppy, because the single thread from which the cocoon was spun has been broken, but it’s still silk and quite lovely.

To my way of thinking, ALL wool is ethical. NOT shearing sheep is animal neglect at the very minimum.

There is a rather unpleasant practice, limited to Australia – and even there they’re trying to end it – called ‘mulesing’, which traditionally involves no-anaesthetic surgery to a sheep’s anus and tail. However, mulesing could be done with anaesthetic, and there are other measures being put in place to prevent flystrike. It’s pretty nasty for an animal-lover to read about, but the alternative is for the sheep to be eaten alive by blow-fly maggots. If it were me, I think I’d go with the no-anaesthetic surgery, but then I was once threatened with an emergency no-painkillers episiotomy. If you want to avoid Australian wool completely, until mulesing is history, just check at the yarn label. Alternatively, buy local, from artisan mills and dyers who source their fibre locally.

Originally appeared on Quora.

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