The brief description is: a long length of thread or yarn wound into a coil with double looped ends for knitting, embroidery and weaving. It’s sometimes easier to manage skeins by winding the threads or yarns into balls.

The word skein is usually  applied to embroidery threads and fine wools, a hank is usually used for thicker  yarns.

The wool photographed below is 2ply and these would generally be called skeins, but they are also hanks…..

Skeins of 2 ply wool recently spun and dyed – Northern India 

When yarn or twine  is coiled for dying or wrapped for selling it is done so by a set length and description – hank, ball, cone, bobbin, spool, cop etc. 

The differences here are that skeins are sold in loops which might be twisted as below,  or kept straight with a band ( embroidery thread for example), whereas balls, cones, bobbins, spool, and cops are rolled by themselves as a ball  or over a solid centre column or wheel.

In the coil, these lengths might look random but they are standardised, or at least known by the weaver and dyer. For example, when hand dying small quantities the dyer needs to know exactly how much has been dyed in order to plan for it’s sale and use.

As a general industry measure, we expect  linen to be 300 yards –  270 metres and cotton or silk around 800 yards – 770 metres.

Again with hand dying the lengths can be specific to the dye shop by the amount  of dye, the size of pot etc. the dyer uses.

The loose hanks are dyed as they are and once dry are easily twisted to make neat coils.

Hanks and skeins are often less expensive to buy than rolls  or balls – but for crochet and knitting the yarn only works in practice when it comes from a ball. The back of a chair or the outstretched arms of a small child who will stand still for 2 minutes  ( yes that was me… and my siblings ) are perfect – the hank just needs to be held still whilst the knitter rolls it into a ball.

Generally wools and threads are rolled or twisted and sold by weight;  patterns also  list the materials needed by weight. So a ball may be 25 –  50 grams, but as  lace mohair and chunky aran wool are clearly at opposite ends of the weighing scales, common sense alongside manageable ball size governs the decision for each fibre.
Embroiderers need to know the length for most stitchwork, especially for running lengths and couching,  where the main threads are laid onto the material to follow a given or freehand design.
A skein is 1/6th of a hank, and just to confuse matters this can be by length or weight. Depending on its type, weight and strand thickness  cotton tends to be around 8 yards ( 7.5 m ), tapestry weight wool  10 yards ( 9 m ) and   crewel wool as being 33 yards (30 m).

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