Monday, 12 September 2016

What Did She Say? A Skein?

Top view of wool skeins in a round wooden bowl on a filet crochet doily. The skeins are off-white, beige, cream, orange, plum and dark brown.
Panda Machinewash 8 ply
wool crepe

She was talking about a skein of yarn but my ears were shocked to attention by a strange sound in her speech.

The word was not strange, but the pronunciation was.

Like the song, "You say 'to-may-toe', I say 'to-mah-toe'" (Let's Call the Whole Thing Off!), I heard a very common word in yarn circles being pronounced in two different ways.  The word is:


Like fingernails down a blackboard, it made me shudder and cringe to hear someone say a "skeen of yarn" pronouncing it like been. It felt uncomfortably wrong because all my life I had only ever heard it and known it as a "skayne" with an ay as in a 'bale of hay'.  

I immediately needed to get to the bottom of this.  Are there two variants in common, acceptable usage or is one of them wrong?  Have I been pronouncing it wrongly my entire life? That would make me cringe all over again in embarrassment!  That won't do! I must know! So, off I went to do some research.

Five skeins of coloured acrylic yarn in a rectangular black wire basket. Colours are lilac, orange, red, light blue and golden yellow.
Kmart Homemaker 8 ply acrylic

You may find this interesting. You may even be able to help by letting me know how this word is pronounced in your district.

I have heard it pronounced both ways from either side of the Atlantic. Perhaps it is a variant of accent or dialect. For your information:

The correct Australian pronunciation of skein
is skayne and not skeen.

In Middle English, it was spelled skayne and it derives from the Old French word escaigne which leads me to believe that the Australian way, skayne, is the correct and proper way to say it.

Ten skeins of 4 ply cotton yarn. The yarn is white with blue flecks.
Bella Baby Evelyn 4 ply cotton
This pronunciation can also be heard on the Oxford Dictionaries web site in British English and the Merrian-Webster American English Dictionary web site.

Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers alternative spellings, skean or skeane, which could explain the mispronunciation of the word as skeen (looks like bean), even though this dictionary's pronunciation guide states skayne ('skān).

The Online Etymology Dictionary offers the following information about the origins of the word skein:
fixed quantity of yarn doubled over and over and knotted, mid-15c., from Middle French escaigne "a hank of yarn" (Old French escagne, mid-14c., Modern French écagne), of uncertain origin. Compare Medieval Latin scagna "a skein," Irish sgainne "a skein, clue."

Just for fun, here are some definitions of the word skein:

Seven skeins of acrylic yarn in light grey (2 skeins), flesh (1), black (2) and white(2).
Moda Vera Marvel
8 ply acrylic
1. A length of thread or yarn wound in a coil.
2. Anything resembling this, as coil of hair or the like.
3. A flock of geese or similar birds in flight formation.
[Macquarie, Australian]

1. A length of thread or yarn, loosely coiled and knotted.
1.1. A tangled or complicated arrangement, state, or situation: 'the skeins of her long hair', (figurative) 'a skein of lies'
1.2. A flock of wild geese or swans in flight, typically in a V-shaped formation. 
[Oxford, English]

Eight mini skeins in different colours laid out in two rows: dark blue, light blue, pale pink, lilac, light green, apricot, yellow and white.
Lion Brand Bonbons
mini skeins of 8 ply acrylic
1. A loosely coiled length of yarn or thread wound on a reel
2. Something suggesting the twists or coils of a skein :  tangle
3. A flock of wildfowl (as geese or ducks) in flight
[Merriam-Webster, American]

1. A quantity of yarn, thread, or the like, put up together, after it is taken from the reel, - usually tied in a sort of knot.
2. (Wagon Making) A metallic strengthening band or thimble on the wooden arm of an axle.
3. (Zoology) A flight of wild fowl (wild geese or the like).
[Webster's 1913 Dictionary, American]

There you go! That's my lesson for today.
No more excuses.
No more skein-dal scandal about skeins!

A small sample skein of 100% cormo wool.
Tonofwool cormo wool sample skein.


The Macquarie Dictionary Third Edition, The Macquarie Library Pty Ltd, Macquarie University, NSW, Australia 1999.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: 

Online Etymology Dictionary:

Oxford Dictionaries: 

Webster's 1913 Dictionary: 

Updated 26 July 2017:

Shroyer, Lisa, "Lisa’s List: 12 Yarn Ball Types and How to Knit with Them", online article, Interweave, 23 February 2017:
Eleven light blue skeins of Sirdar 'Mignon' - 10 skeins in a packet with 1 on top.
Sirdar Mignon
59% acrylic, 12.5% nylon, 17.5% mohair, 11% wool


  1. Not that is useful info and glad to say we're doing the right way in South Africa :-D

    1. Well done, Stel! :-)

      What other names do you have either in English or Afrikaans for a skein of yarn?

      In Australia, the yarn pictured in this post would be described as being in 'skeins' or 'balls' (but never 'hanks'). The longer twisted versions that usually need to be wound into a ball before use are described as 'hanks' although according to the dictionary definitions, they could also be called 'skeins'.

      Since we have three different words and three different ways of winding yarn, I like to use a different word for each type of presentation. One thing I didn't consider is the modern term 'yarn cake' for those flattened dough-nut shaped balls.

      Language fascinates me but now I'm plainly overthinking!

      Have a fun day knowing that there is agreement in the southern hemisphere. ;-)


    2. "Yarn language" i actually still developing...we call it ball. Any version of wound up yarn is a ball. And the horror - any version of yarn is...wool. So we're working on improving the terminology!And in Afrikaans we now have "jaarn" pronounced more or less the same as yarn, and fffrafels..which are those fff-ing ends to works away ;-) (Rafels, in Afrikaans).

    3. That's so interesting Stel. You are teaching me new words and I love it. The nearest word to 'rafels' in my Dutch dictionary is 'rafelen' which is a verb meaning 'to unravel' so I suppose the literal English translation of your Afrikaans 'rafels' (or fff-rafels (!) haha) would be 'unravelings'.

      I'm like you - can't stand it when people refer to any type of yarn that comes in a skein as 'wool' when it is not specifically wool. That is a phenomenon in Australia too. For people like us who use all sorts of yarn, the fibre type makes a big difference so why not call it what it is! The no. 1 annoyance on that list is referring to a ball of acrylic yarn as 'a ball of wool' because the fibres couldn't be more different. You are right. It is a horrific practice. Maybe we can use our blogs and social media to educate.

      When you say 'we' (are working on improving terminology), is that your crochet group? What other issues have you faced in relation to crochet and yarn language?

      All very fascinating!:-)

  2. Here in Texas it's "skayne" with an ay as in a 'bale of hay'. Yay!

  3. You make me laugh! I think I have been saying it the proper way all along, whew!

    1. Of course, Meredith! What a relief, heh? Glad you got a laugh. That makes me happy. :-)

  4. Well that certainly made me smile and brightened my day. Nice to know I am saying it correctly.

    1. That's good, Lorraine! Spread the word! ;-)
      Have fun and keep smiling. :-)

  5. Ohhh I am learning here! Love those pretty colours ♥

    1. Glad to be of service, Summer! ;-)
      I love how we all can learn from each other in the blogosphere.
      Which are your favourite colours? I find the Bonbons pretty together; the bright, bold colours in the wire basket always excite me when I am feeling energetic but the earthy colours in the wooden bowl are calming and comforting when it is time to slow down.
      Have a colourful day! :-)

  6. I pronounce it like you too. Whew! I didn't want to jeopardize our friendship!

    1. Haha! Your sense of humour tickles me. It would take more than pronunciation (or spelling) of a word to jeopardise our friendship.

      It is only natural that you pronounce 'skein' correctly - as a teacher and writer, you would know these important things so I am not surprised.

      Cheers! :-)

  7. Today I came across a lovely article on a related topic by Interweave's Lisa Shroyer "Lisa’s List: 12 Yarn Ball Types and How to Knit with Them" published online on 23 February 2017:

    Lisa has added a cute and funny illustration of "12 Names for Your (yarn) Balls" which acknowledges hanks, folded and twisted; skeins, pull skeins and bullet skeins*; balls, cakes, donut balls and hard core balls; plus cones and the hilarious "Hankenskein" - you know, that yarn monster that suddenly appears in the craft basket if you neglect your stash for too long!

    Lisa describes the reasons for the different styles of packaging yarns - why one style is better than another for a particular yarn. Lisa has also linked to videos to show you how to handle all these different formats.

    A very useful article. Thank you to Kathryn Vercillo of Crochet Concupiscence for sharing the link and bringing it to my attention.

    *bullet skeins are what I have always known 'skeins' to be. In Australia the terms 'ball' and 'skein' are used interchangeably to describe this yarn presentation.

  8. I ran across your post while trying to figure out why podcasters are pronouncing this word incorrectly. I can only assume that they are copying each other. I have been knitting for 30+ years, have lived all over the US, and have traveled outside the country. I never heard skein pronounced "skeen" before the Yarngasm podcast. I have no idea where she got that from, but I have been thinking of asking her.

    1. Hi Meriwether! I'm glad we found each other. Thank you for your contribution to the conversation about this pronunciation issue. It's so interesting to get an idea of where or why these things are happening.

      I have never listened to the Yarngasm podcast (that I remember) even though it has been running for so many years. You would think that I would have come across it before now, wouldn't you? Thank you for bringing it to my attention although there aren't enough hours to listen to the burgeoning number of podcasts out there. If you ever do ask Kristin about 'skeen', I'd love to know the answer.

      Have you found any other articles online about the pronunciation of 'skein' that could be shared here? I'm glad to be of help and hope to see you again. Do you have a blog or podcast of your own?

      Thanks again for taking the time to let me know how you found Lupey Loops and for joining in the conversation. Have a great day!

    2. Further to our discussion about pronunciations, I visited the Yarngasm podcast today and on the current episode (#240), there are at least 3 comments correcting the host's pronunciation of Daphne du Maurier. Her response was "you know how I love to butcher a good last name!" Perhaps it is the same guesswork that went into 'skein'. At least she has a sense of humour and can take criticism gracefully. :-) As long as we all know what we are talking about, I suppose!