For this article I picked a topic that is not considered to be particularly interesting, more like a pain in the back. But I decided to tackle it anyway to hopefully find ways to minimize the amount of frustration we all get when our working yarn occasionally turns into a tangled mess.
It seems that all cases of tangled yarn can be put into three main categories – tangling that happens when you work
1) from a single ball of yarn;
2) from two or three balls of yarn (like you do when you double strand the yarn or work in a pattern that requires stranded colourwork)
3) from many different balls (or more often bobbins) of yarn (like you do when you knit intarsia)
Before describing possible solutions for each of the categories I want to clarify one thing – by tangling I mean a knotty mess that usually happens close to the ball(s) of yarn, not the twisting of yarns inside your knitting.
If you knit with double stranded yarn, the yarn will twist and it’s totally fine. You don’t need to straighten the strands to make sure they are parallel to each other. Let them twist. If you are knitting with solid colour, the twist won’t affect the look of the finished knit. If you are knitting with two colours, the twist will actually improve the look of your project because the colours will be better distributed.
Now that we determined what kind of tangling we want to fight, let’s see what exactly we can do to minimize it as much as possible.
1. IF YOU KNIT FROM A SINGLE BALL OF YARN
This case is the easiest of them all.
There are two occasions when your yarn can possibly tangle in a ball. It often happens when you work with bamboo, silk or ribbon yarn, or any other type of slippery yarns. Those yarns seem to have a mind of their own, and tangle even before you start knitting.
On the other hand these yarns are easy to tame – simply put the ball in a zip lock bag, find the tail that comes from the center of the ball, take it out of the bag and close the zip lock bag leaving a small space so that the yarn can easily be pulled from the bag. It will look similar to the ball of bamboo yarn in the photo below.
If you decide to use two strands of the same yarn in your project, I highly recommend using two tails from the same ball of yarn (see how to do it in this video).
Why? Because this way you will have no problem with tangled yarns unless you accidentally get a whole bunch of yarn from the inside of the ball while trying to find the “inside tail”. If that happens, untangle that bunch of yarn and align it with the yarn that comes from the outside of the ball. For a few rows you will have a long piece of double stranded yarn lying next to the ball. But once you knit that yarn up, there will be no more tangling.
2. IF YOU KNIT FROM TWO OR THREE BALLS OF YARN
In this case, we are going to use a well-known military strategy – “divide and conquer”. The main goal is to keep the balls separate. You can use two or three yarn bowls, boxes from wet wipes or any other boxes with a lid that has a hole in it so you could pass the yarn tail through. Even teapots will do (put the ball of yarn inside the pot and pass the yarn tail through the nose).
But frankly I personally don’t use any of it. When I knit I simply put one ball at my left side and the other one at my right side. If there are 3 balls of yarn in my project, then I put the third ball in my lap.
If the yarn is slippery, lock every ball of yarn in a separate ziplock bag.
Unfortunately, separating the balls is just one part of the solution. As you turn your work after every row, the yarns will inevitably twist. To prevent it, you can move the balls after every row to untwist them.
Or you can turn your work clockwise after one row and counterclockwise after the next one.
Or (and this is the easiest way) simply stop knitting after every 10-15 rows, move the stitches back from the tip of your needle, drop your work so it is hanging on the yarn and pull the two yarns apart to allow your work to spin until the yarns untwist (here’s a video that shows this simple trick).
If you plan to use two strands of the same yarn in different colours, wind those two strands together in one colourful centre pull ball. You can use a ball winder, or you can wind it by hand.
This will save you from untangling the yarn, but it will only work for yarns with same fibre content and thickness. Don’t do it if you plan to work with 1 strand of wool and 1 strand of bamboo, for example.
Why? Because different fibres have a different amount of stretch. Besides, we tend to take up more of a thicker yarn than a thinner one when we knit. All of this will cause one of the strands to get longer as you knit. That longer strand will eventually tangle in itself, and that kind of tangle is VERY difficult to deal with. So save yourself the trouble and wind together only strands of the same yarn.
3. IF YOU KNIT FROM MANY BALLS OR BOBBINS OF YARN
When you venture into intarsia or complicated stranded colour work, be prepared to deal with tangled yarn.
Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to prevent all those numerous balls or bobbins of yarn from tangling :-(
But all is not lost. The strategy “divide and conquer” still applies. But with so many balls, the big question is HOW.
If you are working from several (up to 5) balls of yarn, lay them separately around you while you knit, and move them around as you work to make sure they don’t tangle badly.
If you are working with many different colours, you don’t probably use big balls of yarn, but wind several meters / yards of each colour on separate bobbins or in small yarn butterflies. That’s what is usually recommended in such cases, and there is a solid reason for that – it is much easier to deal with bobbins than with balls.
So what can we do to keep numerous bobbins from tangling? I searched on and on and tried different solutions.
Some sources recommend to keep each bobbin in a small bag – didn’t work for me, the bags tangle even more than the bobbins do on their own.
My favourite reference book “The Principles of Knitting” by June Hemmons Hiatt recommends keeping every other bobbin at the back of the work while knitting. This way the bobbins are better spaced out, and if the yarn between the bobbin and your work is not long, that will keep the bobbins from tangling. This solution is much better than the one involving zip lock bags. But the fact that I needed to move bobbins from the back of the work to the front of the work, and then back again was quite annoying to me (sorry for being so picky :-)).
So I kept looking and found an even better solution in another “book of knitting wisdom” "Knitting Tips & Trade Secrets" by Editors of Threads – to place a piece of a drinking straw between each bobbin and the needles.
Here’s how to do it (click this link to watch it in a video tutorial):
1. Wind the yarn on a bobbin, secure it and leave a tail about 10cm /4” long.
2. Cut a piece of a drinking straw (about 5cm / 2” long) and thread the yarn tail through that piece of straw.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 for every yarn you plan to use in your project and start knitting.
What happens next? As you knit, keep the tail just a bit longer than the piece of a drinking straw, and the straw will keep the yarns from tangling. If the bobbins are very close together they will still tangle occasionally, but no more than one or two twists that are quite easy to fix.
Now nothing can stop you from playing with colours and textures in your knitting. Have fun!