Mankind has been weaving natural fibers into yarn for thousands of years. Remnants of wool yarn were found in Switzerland that were estimated to be 7,000 years old, and there is evidence that Egyptians may have been cultivating cotton for yarn since 12,000 B.C. The primary function of yarn is, of course, to make clothing. Somewhere along the way, however, people noticed that yarn could be as beautiful as it was practical, and began creating yarn art. Different types of yarn art include weaving, painting, knitting and crocheting, and knotting.
The oldest type of yarn art is weaving. Yarn of many different gauges and weights were woven to make everything from clothing to blankets and rugs, some of which included beautiful patterns. The colors used, as well as the intricacy of the pattern, represented wealth and status, and skilled weavers were renown and highly valued. In ancient Greece, it was considered heretical to weave a flawless piece, and weavers would intentionally introduce a small flaw in their art to avoid offending the goddess Athena.
The Huichol Indians of the Sierra Madre range are known for their intricate yarn painting. A wooden board is coated with wax, and brightly-colored yarn is pressed into the wax to create a mandala-like circular design. The patterns were usually symbolic in nature, with deep spiritual meaning to the tribe, and contained many representations of natural elements that were a part of their daily lives. Although original examples are rare and generally confined to museums and private collections, modern reproductions are still available.
Knitting and crocheting are probably the most common form of yarn art today. The two processes are quite different, but they both involve pulling loops of yarn through other loops in a specific manner to create a stitch pattern. Originally used to fashion clothing, modern knitting and crocheting has developed into a sort of underground movement with a rabid fan base. Modern knitters and crocheters not only make high-fashion clothing, but also an offbeat variety of stuffed animals, pillows, toys, and dolls.
Many knitters take their craft a step further and learn the art of felting. To make a felted piece, the piece is knitted as usual, except it is scaled up about 30% to allow for shrinkage. Wool yarns produce the best results. Once the piece is finished and all ends are secured, it is washed in hot water and agitated for an extended period of time. The combination of the heat and the friction causes the piece to shrink and the individual fibers to lock together and tighten, resulting in a thick, woolen fabric.
Although weaving is the traditional method of rug making, in the mid-1800s, women began using scraps of old clothing and blankets to make knotted rugs using a latch hook. As the craft gained popularity, yarn came to replace the old rags, and is still mostly a yarn art today. The technique produces a plush, open-weave rug, with individual strands of yarn knotted onto a net background. Most modern craft stores sell latch hook kits complete with a pre-patterned background, a hook, and pre-cut yarn in the necessary colors.