If you're newer to weaving, you may not realize that not all yarns are made equal. In fact, there is so much variety in yarns it is rather hard to qualify what are the best combination of characteristics. And it can be even harder to purchase yarn that has those characteristics. Throw in the need for a large color choice for tapestry weaving, and the options do narrow somewhat.
I live in the USA, so I mostly talk about yarns that are easily available here with one favorite exception from the UK.
I wrote a blog post on this subject in 2013 and you can see it HERE. My thoughts have changed a little since then, but the yarns I talk about there are still solid choices.
So what does make a good tapestry yarn?
- A firm yarn that is not lofty. Lofty yarns pack in too much which means you have to weave many more picks to fill in your forms. They have a lot of air in them which makes them lovely for knitted garments but terrible for weft-faced weaving.
- A yarn that doesn't have a whole lot of end-to-end stretch in it. When a yarn wants to bounce back on itself (as a nice knitting wool will do), it will want to do that in your weaving which causes problems with weft tension and makes your edges draw in.
- Color choice. If you're not a dyer, color choice is going to be very important to you. Many commercially dyed yarns don't come in that many colors. If you are weaving something for which you want 5 reds in gradation, most commercial yarn sources are not going to provide that (with the notable exceptions of Weaver's Bazaar, Australian Tapestry Workshop Yarn, and Paternayan).
- Thin yarns you can use multiples of in a weft bundle versus a thick yarn you'd only use one strand of. Using a yarn that is very thin that you can bundle in the weaving gives you more color options. You can bundle singles (yarn that is not plied or consists of only one twisted piece of fiber) or plied yarns (yarns that have two or more bits of fiber twisted together in a consistent way) if they are thin enough to use more than one together. If you are new to tapestry and want to use just one strand of yarn at a time, you're going to have to look for a fatter yarn that matches the warp sett you want to use. Lamb's Pride Worsted is a fat single (it is not plied) that works woven at 8 epi by itself. It is too fat to use two strands at that sett. Harrisville Highland is an example of a 2-ply yarn that works with one strand at 8 or 10 epi. With some plied yarns like Harrisville Highland and Weaving Southwest 2-ply, you can take the plies apart and put two different colors together like THIS.
What do I use?
Harrisville Koehler Singles
My large-format tapestries are all woven with Harrisville Design's Koehler singles. I dye the colors myself with Sabraset acid wool dyes from Prochemical and Dye. I use three strands of this yarn at 10 epi and three or four strands at 8 epi. It dyes beautifully and I like the way the yarn acts in the weaving.
This is a singles yarn which means it is not plied. So when I combine those strands, it creates a bundle that doesn't have a lot of extra texture in it. If you like texture, you can bundle a plied yarn of course! I also do a lot of plying on my spinning wheel. This is not necessary! Just because I do it does not mean that you should. Most tapestry weavers do not ply their singles--they just lay them in in bundles. I do gradual color gradations and like the blending effect I get with plying the yarns.
These are newly available to the public in an undyed form HERE.
This is a yarn made in the UK. The company is run by two tapestry weavers who are producing yarns specifically for tapestry weaving. I use their 18/2 and 9.5/2 yarns mostly in my little looms projects, but they would also be marvelous choices for large format work. They also make a thicker yarn. These yarns are great for bundling at whatever sett you'd like. They come in a wide variety of colors including gradations. And shipping from the UK to the USA is not as much as you think it is. Their website is HERE.
For teaching, I use these yarns the most:
Harrisville Highland and Harrisville Shetland
I especially like to buy their undyed versions and dye them myself. They dye very well and this option makes a nice, even yarn. But they do sell these yarns in 64 colors.
Harrisville yarns don't come in a wide range of colors, so look carefully at the pallette if you're not a dyer. They dye this yarn in the fleece which means that they get huge bales of dyed fleece and then mix that fleece when the yarn is made. This means that much of the yarn has a very heathered appearance. You can see the different specks of colors in it. This can be a gorgeous option for tapestry weaving. You will not get clear, pure colors from this company though.
Highland is twice the size of Shetland. I use one strand of Highland at 8 or 10 epi. These are great setts for a beginning tapestry weaver, so this yarn is a good introductory yarn. The Shetland is much thinner and I use one strand of it at 12 epi or doubled at 8 epi. The colors for both yarns are the same, so the only advantage of using Shetland would be if you want to use two strands together to mix colors. This doesn't work as well as it does with the singles yarn because Shetland is plied already and the singles aren't. I often will use the Highland instead and take the plies apart to mix two colors.
Other excellent tapestry yarns
This yarn is sold in the USA by Norsk Fjord Fibers. It is a beautiful yarn that has some spelsau in it (sheep breed) that makes it very shiny. It is not at all soft. It is made in Norway and is a 2-ply yarn which is slightly thicker than the Harrisville Shetland. You can use a couple strands together at 8 epi (I've heard of people using as many as 4 together at this sett depending on your warp and your tolerance for lice). This yarn dyes very nicely, comes in 108 colors, and comes from Hiilesvåg Ullvarefabrikk, a spinnery on the west coast of Norway.
A yarn from the same spinnery in Norway, Hiilesvåg Ullvarefabrikk, this is a much thinner yarn with a softer hand. It is sold by Kathe Todd-Hooker at Between & Etc. Kathe says she uses 4 strands at 10 epi. I have woven a little with this yarn and love the feel of it. Kathe sells this yarn by the ounce, so if you want to buy some small amounts to play with, that is an option.
This yarn is made in Sweden by Bockens and Borgs. It is a singles yarn that is pretty much identical in size to the Harrisville Koehler singles. It has a little more shine than the Harrisville due to the kind of fleece used. This yarn works well with 3-4 strands at 8 epi. It is a singles yarn. It dyes beautifully and comes in 74 colors. You can find it through many dealers in the USA.
I am just going to admit that this isn't my favorite tapestry yarn, but it is loved by many tapestry weavers, so if you're interested, try it yourself. It's chief advantage is that it comes in more than 400 colors including many gradations. It is an embroidery yarn, and as such, is a little fluffier than I'd like for tapestry weaving. But it was used by the Scheuer Tapestry Studio in New York in the 80s and if it is good enough for them, it is probably good enough for the rest of us. It is made in the USA by Saco River Dyehouse in Maine. It can be purchased in embroidery hank sizes if you want small amounts or in larger put-ups if you can use a lot. Google for sources.
This is another thin yarn that I like a lot. Don't be fooled into ordering the Appleton tapestry yarn though. Both yarns are made for embroidery, but the crewel yarn is much thinner and firmer. The tapestry yarn ("tapestry" is often used in Europe to refer to embroidery) is fluffy and rather like a thicker version of Paternayan. The crewel yarn can be bundled for a very nice woven tapestry surface with color variations. This yarn comes in a lot of colors, so that is an advantage and I have seen it in shops in the USA.
Australian Tapestry Workshop yarn
I have not used this yarn much at all. It isn't easy to get in the USA since the only North American dealer went out of business. It is one of the gold-standard tapestry yarns on the planet though and if you live in Australia, I would look into it if I were you! It is a 2-ply thin yarn which is bundled for color variation. You can see a whole lot of amazing photos on their website HERE. This is the yarn they use in their monumental tapestries.
This yarn is made by Brown Sheep Company, a marvelous small mill in western Nebraska. It is a fat single and it has mohair in it. This means that it is rather shiny and a fun thing to try for tapestry weaving. One strand of the worsted weight works well at 8 epi. Because it is a fat single (it isn't plied), it creates a strong diagonal effect when woven in weft-faced tapestry. This yarn is available in many places and might be the easiest yarn to lay your hands on in your LYS.
Weaving Southwest in Arroyo Seco, NM is the only place I know where you can buy hand-dyed yarns in gradation. Their 2-ply tapestry wool weaves well with one strand at 8 epi. They dye this yarn in the way that it has been dyed since Rachel Brown herself did it: in tubs over wood fires. It is a stiff yarn, but if you want a hand-dyed look to your yarn and you don't want to dye yourself, this yarn may be right for you. Their website is HERE. If you're interested in weaving rugs, they also sell a singles churro yarn in a rug weight.
Do you have other things you look for in a tapestry yarn? Have you used any of these yarns? Let us know in the comments!
Read the comments below for some more ideas about tapestry yarns. Here are a few I'll list for consideration.
EPiC: This is a very thin yarn that I dropped from my list because I had so much trouble getting it. People seem to think it is back in production. See their website HERE. This company has been bought by new people and I have not tried the new yarn as I was unable to get any for a couple years. Use at your own discretion! At this time I'm not recommending it, just saying it might be a possibility as it has been in the past.
Churro: Weaving Southwest also sells a churro yarn which is a fat single. If you like graphic designs at about 8 epi, this might be for you. Shepherd's Lamb also carries a lovely churro single.