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An item for a cat to play with. I used the word clew from Collins and Merriam-Webster, but people don't get it.

  1. a ball of thread, yarn, or twine
  1. a ball of thread, yarn, or cord

Which word can be used? A skein? Or just a simple string?

A skein is a length of thread, especially wool or silk, wound loosely round on itself.

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    I'm not quite clear on what your question is, because a ball of yarn or thread is called..."a ball of yarn", particularly if it's for a cat to play with (example here). Are you asking if there's a specific one-word answer? Do you have a specific object you're thinking about? Are you asking if there's a word that covers "any kind of thread/string/cord wound into a shape"?
    – stangdon
    Feb 14, 2023 at 0:45
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    @Lambie ‘Yarn’ in the uncountable sense may be wool, or it might be some synthetic fiber that has similar properties to wool (usually a polyamide of some kind), or, less commonly, it might be some other fiber (I have seen people knitting with silk or cotton before, and they still refer to it as ’yarn’). Feb 14, 2023 at 13:11
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    @Lambie Is this a US/UK thing? In the US, there's no presumption that yarn = wool. Typing in "yarn" gets me top results for cotton, acrylic, etc., as well as wool and wool blends. The only people who would consider all yarn as wool are the people who also consider all shiny fabric as silk (even if it's actually polyester sateen) and they're not going to realize that they're wrong anyway. Feb 14, 2023 at 20:33
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    @Lambie I agree that "yarn" is "the stuff knitters use", but (at least the British knitters I know) would use "yarn" if they were knitting with wool, silk, synthetic, or a mixture. Saying "yarn is wool" is an over simplification which I think is unhelpful to a learner. Feb 15, 2023 at 10:42
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    @Lambie I'm a knitter as well as a crocheter and sewer. You said "yarn is generally understood to be wool". I've gone into specialty yarn stores and they have the cotton yarn and alpaca yarn and bamboo-mix yarn on the shelf under the label "yarn" right next to the wool yarn. IME knitters and other fiber-based crafters are more likely to differentiate between fiber content (wool, cotton, poly, alpaca, bamboo, ...) and form (yarn, roving, etc.). Feb 15, 2023 at 14:26

4 Answers 4

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+50

"Clew" is correct. However, it is not very common (some people consider it old-fashioned or archaic), so many people might not know it. Even if they do know it, they might confuse it with its homonym "clue".

  • You can also say "skein", although that word is used less often with spherical shapes and is also somewhat rare.

  • The word "string" describes a type of cord and not the shape it takes.

  • If you want to use a word that's widely understood, you can simply say "ball of [material]", as in your title.

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    "Clew" as "clue" can be not only a mistake or confusion but also a rare and/or archaic variant spelling of "clue", as in the several "Nick Carter's (adjectival) Clew" stories and other mystery novels/stories with "Clew" in the title, as well as many instances of "discover some/the/a clew" in the text.
    – shoover
    Feb 14, 2023 at 4:03
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    Clew and Clue are the same word. Ariadne gave Theseus a "clew" to guide him back through the laberinth. The sense transferred to "a guide or assistance to a tricky problem" and later the spelling was modernised.
    – James K
    Feb 14, 2023 at 8:36
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    The OED says that "clew" is "the regular name in Scotland and north of England", so there may be places where it's more understandable. But in American English, for example, it likely wouldn't be understood. Feb 14, 2023 at 21:20
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    This answer is incredibly misleading, and/or just "wrong". Clew is archaic, or, extremely regional/specialized.
    – Fattie
    Feb 15, 2023 at 15:30
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    @Fattie I looked in three major dictionaries (M-W, AHD, and Collins), and not one indicates that "clew" with this meaning has any restrictions on use. If you believe that it is "archaic, or, extremely regional/specialized", please cite evidence (beyond "not very common", which is already in my answer) and I'd be happy to edit my answer. Feb 15, 2023 at 23:00
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My UK cat loves playing with a ball of wool or other soft yarn.

enter image description here

In my kitchen cupboard is a ball of string. Some people use 'twine' synonymously with 'string'; others use 'twine' to be a stronger kind of string. enter image description here

A skein is not ball-shaped:

enter image description here

Most people won't know what a 'clew' is.

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    I think it’s worth noting that since knitting is now much less common than it used to be, many (especially younger) native speakers will likely not really be aware of the difference between these things either. Personally, I’ve never even heard of a ‘cake of wool/yarn/twine’, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a hank of wool before, and my only association with skeins is a vague notion that they’re sort of fluffy and loosely coiled. So I would probably have called all four woolly bundles in the last image balls of wool, and might have called the first two skeins. Feb 14, 2023 at 11:12
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    Oh, I’m not saying they’re not correct or don’t exist, just that lots of people nowadays don’t venture into craft stalls and will likely not be very aware of them. They’re words that were once as common and as much a part of everyday life as ‘saucepan’ or ‘handlebar’, but have now moved towards being technical terms, in the same way that names for many farming or riding tools have become technical terms that most people no longer know. Feb 14, 2023 at 11:38
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    @DarrelHoffman - I am used (UK) to thinking that 'yarn' is a generic term for any 'stringy' stuff used in weaving or knitting, and Collins Dictionary agrees: any fibre [fibre], as wool, silk, flax, cotton, nylon, glass, etc., spun into strands for weaving, knitting, or making thread Feb 14, 2023 at 15:30
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    I'll admit -- I haven't a clew.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 14, 2023 at 17:42
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    In the UK, a ball of soft yarn suitable for knitting would probably be called "wool" even if it was actually synthetic. This is an example of where the "normal" English of people like me and Michael, and the technical English differs. I know people who would never call an acrylic fibre "wool", and there are people who would never call writing HTML "programming" but non-specialists use language in a less precise way.
    – James K
    Feb 14, 2023 at 21:08
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It's just a ball of yarn

UK native English speaker here.

"Ball of yarn" is an everyday phrase. I've never heard anyone refer to this object as anything else.

I've also never heard of the words "clew" or "skein" before reading this question, which suggests they're either archaic, niche or particularly fancy terms that wouldn't be used in common parlance.

Not everything needs/has a single word to describe it! :)

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    the fully correct answer
    – Fattie
    Feb 15, 2023 at 15:29
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    AmE speaker here. It's exactly the same thing American English AND cats play with them.
    – Lambie
    Feb 15, 2023 at 17:38
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    Skein is pretty common in textile techniques (knitting, crochet, etc.) I guess that counts as "niche", but it's not so obscure it wasn't used metaphorically in the title of a 1985 book.
    – stangdon
    Feb 15, 2023 at 20:03
  • And by the way, it's actually dangerous as the yarn or wool can become lodged in their throats.
    – Lambie
    Feb 19, 2023 at 16:36
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In my experience (living in the United States), yarn that has been wound into a ball is just called "a ball of yarn." I don't know of any other common word or phrase for it. Likewise, string or twine that's been wound into a ball would just be called "a ball of string" or "a ball of twine."

I'm not sure exactly what the difference between yarn, string, and twine is. To me, "yarn" sounds like a soft and comfortable material suitable for knitting clothes out of—usually made out of cotton, wool, or acrylic. "String" sounds like something which wouldn't be good for making clothes out of, and which would most likely be made out of cotton. "Twine" sounds like something made out of a tougher fiber than cotton.

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    In the 1960s my father used to wear a garment called by Brits a 'string vest', which I think one could bring to mind by imagining a 'mesh wife-beater'. It wasn't made out of string such as that used for tying up parcels. He would not strip to the waist at the beach and I still remember the diamond sunburn patterns he acquired. Caution: I Googled for images of string vests; they are apparently still a thing; they seem to be esteemed by 'jock' type men; the pictures made me shudder. Feb 14, 2023 at 13:15
  • @MichaelHarvey String pants you say?
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 14, 2023 at 16:31
  • @CGCampbell - yes, they exist - call me weird, but I do not care overmuch to look at those pictures. Feb 14, 2023 at 16:48

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