What types of yarn are there and what should I use?
Different types of yarn have different properties, each with their own set of pros and cons. The most important things to consider when deciding which yarn to use are:
- Where your piece will end up when it is finished?
- How durable does it need to be?
- How flexible does your piece need to be?
Generally speaking, all yarn will fall into one of two categories: synthetic and natural.
Features and characteristics of yarn types
Wool is the 'go-to' fiber for floor pieces, having been used in carpet making for many hundreds of years. Wool pre-dates any synthetic fiber and plastic in general, so most commercially available carpets are made of wool yarn. Wool is durable and tends to hold its shape after much foot-traffic which makes it ideal for any floor piece that will be treated as a typical carpet or rug. Depending on the quality of wool yarn you are purchasing, and its size, there can be great variation in how soft and malleable wool is. Typically, wool is slightly coarser than other variations of yarn (which is in part due to its durability). By nature, wool yarn sheds slightly though this will depend on the type and quality of wool yarn used, how it has been processed and its length and diameter of fiber. Keep in mind that some people are allergic to wools, which is particularly important if you are intending to sell your work.
Acrylic yarn is a very popular yarn fiber, in part because of its relatively lower price point and availability. Acrylic yarns tend to come in many colors and are available at most craft and hobby stores in abundance. Acrylic is a fantastic place to start and perfect for beginners who want to work on a piece that will not be subject to repeated interaction. Depending on the quality of acrylic yarn, its size, and the length of your pile there will be some variation in how soft acrylic yarn is. Generally speaking, acrylic fibers are soft to the touch (especially when compared to most wools).
In researching acrylic yarns and tossing up between different products you are likely to come across two different, more common variations. Polyester is characterized by its soft touch and can be cleaned easily. Polyester is typically combined with other fibers in order to improve its strength. Polypropylene is a strong and durable synthetic fiber, characterized by its resistance to staining and dirt buildup. As is typical of polyester, polypropylene is also commonly combined with other fibers to improve its shape holding capacity.
The major drawback of acrylic yarn is that it absolutely does not stand the test of time when used for floor pieces where it tends to pill and fray easily.
Cotton Yarn is a form of vegetable yarn (along with linen) which is another popular choice for tufting. As far as natural fibers go, cotton is a cheap alternative to traditional wool yarns. Often available as organic or recycled, cotton yarn is a great option for tufters who are wanting an environmentally conscious option that is relatively more durable than acrylic. Cotton is not ideal for cut pile tufting or carpet making in general as it does not have the strength to maintain its shape. Unlike wool, cotton yarn is not 'bouncy' in that it does not spring back into shape when stretched. Cotton tends to be lighter weight than other natural fibers, making it a good option for tufters who want to make wearable pieces. Like any yarn, variation in quality means variation in features such as durability and softness. Variability in lustre of cotton yarn (shiny versus matte) is an indication of mercerization, a treatment process that strengthens the yarn making it easier to dye and less likely to shrink. Cotton yarn is ideal for tufting bath mats that are no pile (not suitable for cut pile) due to its breathability.
Silk yarn is traditionally used to create ornate and intricately patterned rugs. Silk is among the most expensive fibers with which you may construct your piece, and is also very fine, meaning that you may need more product to complete your piece opposed to wool or acrylic.
Viscose yarn is an incredibly soft yarn which is semi-synthetic, meaning that it is a blended yarn comprising natural and synthetic fibers. Viscose is made of regenerated wood cellulose. Viscose may be used as a cost-effective replacement for silk, however it is still significantly more expensive than most yarn varieties. Unlike most synthetic fibers, viscose can be dyed quite easily which may account for its relative difficulty to source in multiple colors. Compared to wool yarns viscose lacks durability and clean-ability, making it similar to acrylic yarns in that it is not ideal for an area of the home that gets a lot of foot traffic (bath mat, hallway runner). Furthermore, viscose does not perform well when wet. For these reasons, viscose is very often mixed with other fibers (typically wool or synthetic yarn) to improve its elasticity.
Bamboo yarn is another less common fiber of yarn used for tufting. Bamboo yarn is made of 100% bamboo pulp fiber and is characterized by its softness and permeability. Bamboo is softer to the touch than cotton and like viscose, is a cost-effective alternative to silk. Bamboo is flexible by nature and responds well to stretching with relatively high elasticity compared to other natural fibers such as wool. Bamboo dyes significantly better than cotton or viscose. Despite these positive features, bamboo is not commonly used in carpet making (traditionally used in garments) so its specifications in ornamental or carpet pieces is not yet clear.
Jute & Sisal
Jute & Sisal are popular materials used in creating floor coverings for high traffic areas such as kitchens or door mats. They are natural fibers that are dried and processed before being woven (often by hand). I am not familiar with anyone who has tested this material in a tufting gun, and given its inherent rigidity and low flexibility, I would approach with caution when testing this fiber.
What size yarn should I use?
"If it fits, it sits"... generally speaking, anything that will thread in your machine can be used to tuft.
Here is a visual guide from Tuft the world that will help you visualize what is meant by 'yarn size', and give you an idea of how much variation there is: https://tufttheworld.helpdocs.io/l/en/article/uggjxgjgtw-what-size-and-kind-of-yarn-can-i-use
With this being said, be reasonable about your expectations and approach with common sense. Of course, you could use embroidery thread in your tufting gun, however, given the nature of primary tufting cloth, it is unlikely that it will maintain consistency or give you an appealing pile. Conversely, if you were to push through 3 strands of very thick wool, you may put pressure on the machine and create larger than an ideal hole in your backing fabric.
Can I thread more than one strand of yarn in my tufting machine?
Yes! As stated just above, anything that fits in the eye of your tufting gun will work.
What is the difference between threading one strand of yarn versus many?
This will come down to what aesthetic you want in your final piece. For a sparse, less dense feel you would want to thread less into your machine. Conversely, for a denser and tighter pile, you may thread 2 or more strands into your machine. This decision is entirely yours to make and warrants some testing before you dive into your main project to see what works best for you.
How much yarn do I need for my piece?
This will depend on several factors, namely how dense you want your final piece to be and what fiber yarn you are using. For wool, 12 mm pile height, it is about 2.5 kg per square meter.
Can I thread multiple lengths of yarn into my machine at once?
Yes! Especially if you want a thick/dense-looking finish, or if you want to provide some depth by including different colors. This is particularly good when coloring hair or something similar.
Choosing the right yarn for your tufting project can make all the difference in achieving the desired look and durability. Consider the location and purpose of your piece, as well as your budget and personal preferences when selecting a yarn type. Remember to also take into account the size and amount of yarn needed for your project, as well as whether you want to use multiple strands of yarn for a denser finish.
By following these guidelines and doing some experimentation with different yarns, you can create beautiful and unique tufted pieces that will be treasured for years to come.