Hanks, balls, and skeins are often used interchangeably in the knitting community, but there are some differences between the terms. Learning these different terms can help add to your knitting knowledge. It will also ensure that you know exactly what you're ordering from that fancy yarn website you found!
What Is a Ball?
Most yarns that you will find at the big craft store chains or at discount stores that sell yarn comes either in a ball or a skein. A ball is literally a round conglomeration of yarn. The yarn can be pulled from the outside of the ball, and sometimes from the inside as well. A ball gets its name from the circular ball-like shape of the yarn. Many knitters will roll their yarn from a skein or hank into a ball for ease of use. Rolling skeins that have lost their shape because of how little yarn they have into a ball is an easy way to keep your yarn from tangling as you knit. Yarn balls do make tempting cat toys which is something to keep in mind if you're a knitter with a new kitten.
You can use a yarn swift and ball winder to wind yarn into a ball—or just use your hands. Many knitters find a center-pull ball is easier to knit from, as the yarn stays in one place and is less likely to unravel.
What Is a Skein?
A skein is similar to a ball but it is formed into an oblong shape. It’s the classic shape most people think of when they think of yarn. Yarn can be pulled either from the outside or the inside of a skein of yarn. As you use the skein it will begin to lose its shape and the yarn will be more at risk of tangling. Most knitters find that winding the remaining yard into a ball fixes this problem.
What Is a Hank?
A hank is a different way of selling yarn in which the yarn is loosely wound into a large ring shape and then twisted on itself to make a package that’s easy to ship and store. Untwist the hank and you’ll find yourself faced with a big ring of yarn that needs to be wound into a ball before it is used. The twisted shape of a hank is visually appealing if you're storing your yarn in the open.
Which Type Should You Use?
Hanks, balls, and skeins are all fine to work with; one is not a better choice than the others. Many luxury yarns and high-quality yarns are only available in hanks, so you’ll likely have to work with one sooner or later. If you like using yarn bowls to keep your yarn clean and neat as you knit or crochet with it then a ball might be the best shape for you to use. There are also yarn containers that serve the same purpose as a yarn bowl but made to fit skeins. One of the great things about yarn is no matter which style you prefer you can always wind it into that shape. Many knitters find the act of winding yarn into balls or skeins to be almost mindless (in a good way).