What Is Acrylic Yarn?

Definitions and Uses for Synthetic Yarn in Crochet

Colorful Balls of Yarn
Jakab Imr?n? / EyeEm, Getty Images

There are many different yarn types, more than you can possibly imagine. You can crochet with more than one dozen animal fibers, approximately as many plant fibers and dozens of alternative materials from wire to plastic. When you go to the yarn store or look at information for crochet patterns, what you will often find is a type of yarn called "acrylic". What exactly is this material and why do we use it so often in crochet?

Acrylic Yarn Definition

Acrylic is a synthetic material with a wide range of possible end uses. Acrylic can be made into yarn or fabric as well as many other types of products. In his book Textiles: Fiber to Fabric, author Dr. Bernard P. Corbman, explains that "basically, acrylic is a type of plastic."

The Federal Trade Commission has a slightly more complex definition, saying that acrylic is:

"A manufactured fiber in which the fiber-forming substance is any long chain synthetic polymer composed of at least 85 percent by weight of acrylonitrile units."

Let's break that down into plain, understandable English:

  • A "manufactured fiber" is one that is not found naturally, but rather is man-made. In contrast, wool or cotton would be examples of natural fibers; an acrylic yarn does not fall into that category, but rather is categorized with the synthetic yarns.
  • The "fiber-forming substance" simply means the stuff the fiber is made out of.
  • A "long-chain synthetic polymer" is a chemical term. If you don't care to get too much into the details of the science behind it and you can accept a less-scientific definition, what you will discover ultimately is that a long-chain synthetic polymer is, more or less, plastic.
  • "Acrylonitrile units" refer to a clear, toxic, water-soluble liquid chemical substance. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, acrylonitrile is probably carcinogenic, meaning that it probably causes cancer. This does not mean, of course, that all acrylic yarn will cause cancer, but it is one argument that may be used by people who prefer to crochet with natural fibers rather than synthetic yarns.

    So with all of this in mind let's recap. Acrylic is, by definition, a man-made, synthetic fiber which is comprised of at least 85% acrylonitrile, a substance that some people - but definitely not all people - say could be carcinogenic.

    Benefits of Acrylic Yarn

    With so many different types of yarn, should you be using acrylic or something else? Well, there are pros and cons to all yarn types.

    Some of the benefits of acrylic yarn include:

    • Widely available. You can purchase acrylic yarn at most yarn stores, particularly big box stores. It is also widely available online. Due to the vast production of these yarns, they also often offer a diverse array of colors, which is important to many crocheters.
    • Affordable. Although acrylic yarn prices can vary greatly depending on many factors, as a general rule they are more affordable than wool, cotton and other basic fibers for crochet.
    • Durable. This manmade fiber tends to last longer than a lot of other materials, so if you want to make durable items, then this could be a good choice. Note that this also varies from yarn to yarn.
    • Washable. You will have to read your yarn label to find out for sure if your acrylic can be washed and dried in machines but often this is indeed the case. This is great for people who want easy-care items.
    • Stitch definition. Some acrylic yarn has really great stitch definition. That means that it is easy to figure out where your stitches should go, making it a good beginner crocheter's yarn choice. This is particularly true of light-colored acrylic yarn. Of course, it may not be true of certain novelty yarns.
    • Non-allergenic. Many people believe that they are allergic to wool and other animal fibers (although this may not turn out to be true!). If that's the case, manmade materials like acrylic can be a good non-allergenic choice.

    Disadvantages of Acrylic Yarn

    Some of the negatives of acrylic yarn include:

    • Rough texture. This isn't always true, but it used to be the case that acrylic fibers weren't as soft as natural fibers. New technologies have changed this to an extent, but if you really love luscious, soft fibers, then you may want to compare acrylic yarn with natural yarn to see if you have a preference.
    • Unsafe for certain projects. For example, acrylic yarn is considered flammable, so it can't be used to crochet potholders and other items for use in the kitchen.
    • Manmade. People who want to live an eco-friendly life, shopping locally from small indie farmers where they know the practices of their yarn-making are not going to find acrylic to be suitable for their lifestyle choices. People who are concerned about chemicals in their products, potential carcinogens and toxins, and the use of non-renewable materials including petroleum will likely not want to use acrylic yarn.

    Remember that all of these factors can vary greatly from yarn to yarn so read your yarn labels and product reviews to see if they apply to the yarn you are considering purchasing.

    Should I use acrylic yarn?

    Over time, most people who crochet find that they prefer one fiber over another but will also use different fibers depending on the items that they are creating. Acrylic yarn certainly has its place in crochet, and for some people, it's the only choice. It's something each designer and maker decides for him or herself!