Skein, Hank and Ball

When reading Yarnplay last night, I noticed that the author (Lisa Shobhana Mason) defined the term skein differently than I think of it (from my spinning background). Today at lunch, SS used the terms skein, hank and ball in the exactly the same way as Mason.

A hank is yarn that’s been loosely looped and then twisted and tied. It must be wound into a ball before you can knit with it. You can wind it by hand or with a swift and ball winder.
A skein of yarn is oblong in shape, and the free end is usually drawn from its center, which keeps the yarn from rolling around.
A ball of yarn is, well, a ball. It’s round, and the free end is usually on the outside, which means it will do a fair bit of rolling.

Most balls that I am familiar with are actually center pull and made with a ball winder or nostepinne, but basically I agree with the definition. I have also been seeing the term “yarn cakes” applied to the thing that comes off a ball winder.

I don’t exactly disagree with the term “hank,” but it isn’t a term I use. Instead, I call these things skeins because they are made with a skein winder (or a niddy noddy).

The OED does not give very different definitions of skein and hank. I believe the main difference is an Old French or Norse origin of the terms.

skein, n. [ad. OF. escaigne (1354 in Godefroy; mod.Picard dial. écaigne, écagne), of obscure origin. Cf. med.L. scagna (1294 in Du Cange).]
1. a. A quantity of thread or yarn, wound to a certain length upon a reel, and usually put up in a kind of loose knot. A skein of cotton consists of eighty turns of the thread upon a reel fifty-four inches in circumference.

hank, n. [Found in 14th c.; app. from Norse: cf. ON. hnk fem. (:*hanku), genit. hankar hank, coil, skein, clasp; also hanki m., the hasp or clasp of a chest; Sw. hank m., string, tie-band, rowel; Da. hank handle (as of a basket), ear of a pot.]
1. A circular coil or loop of anything flexible.
2. A skein or coil of thread, yarn, etc.; a definite length of yarn or thread in a coil. A hank of cotton yarn contains 840 yds.; of worsted yarn 560 yds. to make a ravelled hank, to entangle a skein hence fig. ‘to put anything into confusion’ (Brockett).

This definition of skein obviously doesn’t match everyone’s common usage. Perhaps this means I should avoid the word skein and use instead use the term hank.

That leaves the question of what to call an oblong machine wound length of yarn that can be pulled from the center. I don’t think it is a skein, but some people call it a skein. I call it a ball, but it isn’t exactly globular, which is the OED definition for a ball (A globular mass formed by winding thread, a clew or clue. L. glomus.) I think we need a new term for this thing.

And because I care about the historical usage of terms, here are some excerpts from an article which just adds another term (lea) to the whole hank/skein issue.

A Tale Untangled: Measuring the Fineness of Yarn
Author: Biggs, Norman
Source: Textile History, Volume 35, Number 1, May 2004, pp. 120-129(10)
DOI: 10.1179/004049604225015701

An Act of 1610 (7 James I c.7) concerning the wool trade in Essex mentions a
‘Reele Contayning Two Yards about’, and the worsted weavers of Norwich and
Norfolk gave more details in a petition, laid before the Privy Council in 1616:

a paire of iron pinnes were driven into a post at half a yearde distance, for measuring the said yearne, and . . . every rowlestaffe of yearne (as they terme it) did containe a sett number of threades . . .

From this, and other contemporary documents, such as those listed by Kerridge, we may conclude that the system was as follows. The yarn was wound around two nails fixed in a piece of wood, known as a reel-staff. The unit was called a thread, a certain number of threads forming a continuous piece was a lea (or cut), and a certain number of leas bundled together was a hank (or skein).

In 1630 the Privy Council sanctioned a settlement that specified that ‘as hath beene accustomed’ yarn should be measured by a ‘Reelstaffe being a full yard about, and conteyninge fourteen leys and every ley forty threads’. This wording almost certainly implies a thread of one yard, a lea of 40 yards and a hank of 14 x 40 =560 yards.

But the fineness of cotton yarn was important before the introduction of the machines, and John Wyatt’s investigations in London in 1739–43 provide ample evidence of this. Wyatt uses the word skein, but he remarks that ‘hank is another word for skein’. He speaks of coarse yarns at ‘12 skeins per lb’ and discovered that more was paid for yarns ‘above twenty-four’.

A few other interesting bits can be found in

British and American yarn count systems: an historical analysis by David J. Jeremy The Business History Review Vol. 45, No. 3, Autumn, 1971 pp. 336-368

It was important to know how much yarn one was buying, so some consistency was important. The reel size was variable, but it seems to be limited by what one person can easily hold, or 3 yards. The tensile strength also went into the reel size, with some weaker yarns having a smaller reel. Other factors that the effected how much yarn was wound onto a reel include the fineness, ability to count easily (larger reel so fewer revolutions) and the ability to easily measure various lengths (1/4 yard multiples). It was also important to be able to load the skein winder/reel smoothly and without distortion, about 200-300 strands depending on the thickness.