Thursday, November 14, 2013

SPINNING BASICS: What Yarn Actually Is

I used to blog all the time, and then I got caught up in a forum for knitters, crocheters, etc. called Knitting Paradise. There was a lot of interest in spinning, and I agreed to do a series of posts for them. The posts were in the Main section of the forum, which is reserved for knitting and crochet because there really wasn't a place for them. Since then, there is a new section for Other Crafts, and I'm trying to get them moved there. In the meantime, and going forward, I'd like all the articles collected in one place, so I'm duplicating them here. Look for more in the future.

Every once in a while, there's a topic on here about spinning, and they always get a lot of attention and rack up a lot of pages of comments. On the latest one, we wanted to start a new section for spinning, but Admin said it would have to be a user administered section, and as such, it would invisible to the user unless you signed up for it.

So, we decided to just start posting things with the word "Spinning" at the beginning of the post to make things clearer, and make posts more visible.

So, this is the first one I'm putting up under that agreement. I'm planning to put up some posts that are just basic info about spinning, and a good place to start for those who know nothing about spinning, and I'm starting them with "SPINNING BASICS" so they'll be easier to find.

The first thing I want to say is a disclaimer. Up until about 10 or 12 years ago, almost all yarn was something you could spin (the notable exception was chenille). Around that time, mills started finding ways of making novelty yarns like fun fur and other kinds of yarn with constructions that are bizarre. 

They are excepted from this discussion. Here, I'm discussing the vast majority of commercial yarns and yarns that you can hand spin.

Now that that's out of the way, here we go.

If you take a bunch of loose fibers and grab them at both ends, providing you're not grabbing both ends of the same fibers, you'll find they pull apart easily. The first thing you have to do is find a way of making these fibers longer and making them stay together if you want to make yarn.

If you twist the fibers together tightly enough, the twist makes them compact themselves together into a narrower group. Tightening that up make it harder for the fibers to slip in opposite directions, so adding fiber, little by little in an even stream, and twisting together tightly enough will make a continuous strand that, for all practical purposes, will not pull apart, and you've created the most basic yarn of all: a singles yarn.

This is good, but the twist in the yarn creates a problem. It wants to untwist. At this point, it's what spinners call a "lively yarn." They also call it an unbalanced yarn. It not only tries to untwist, it wants to twist back on itself, kink, and generally fight with you. You can weave with it, but if you try to knit with it, the fabric will bias, and if you, for instance, knit a scarf in stripes, the stripes will be diagonal. You can diminish this quality with blocking (called setting the twist), but it tends to still be there to some extent no matter how hard you try to get rid of it.

If you're spinning yarn and let go of the end, as much of the yarn as isn't fastened down will immediately untwist itself and become fluff again. You have to keep it restrained to keep it from falling apart.

There's another problem, too. A singles yarn is stronger than loose fibers, but it's still not as strong as it could be.

The way to deal with this is plying. If you take two or more singles yarn and twist them together in the opposite direction from the direction they were spun in, you can increase the strength of the yarn tremendously. If you do it properly, and produce a balanced yarn, you can also completely eliminate the tendency of the singles to want to untwist.

If a yarn is unbalanced, for instance, if it has a lot of spinning twist and not much plying twist, or hasn't got much spinning twist and a lot of plying twist, it will act, to some degree, like a singles, and will try to untwist, kink and fight back.

Sometimes, a spinner may do this for a reason, to create a special effect, but usually, it's considered a defect.

What you usually want to create is a balanced yarn, which is one that will lay still and not try to fight back. Sometimes it's hard to tell if you've created a balanced yarn. If you spin something over time, the twist may (to some degree) set itself on the bobbin or spindle. Then, when you ply it, you may be tempted to underply it. The true test of a yarn and it's balance is to wash the finished yarn and let it dry. Then, you'll immediately see if it's balanced. It's a little late then, although it can still be fixed. It's just extra work.

The way to tell for sure if it's balanced is to look at it carefully, and you may need magnification for this. If you're buying magnification, I recommend a linen tester.

To judge how well the yarn is balanced, look at the plied yarn carefully. You'll see the singles twisting around each other, but if you look really carefully, you'll see the individual fibers in the singles. If the yarn is balanced, these fibers will look like they're running parallel with the direction of the yarn. If the singles had a chance to set either on the spindle or bobbin, the yarn may still act lively, but if the individual fibers are straight, when the yarn is washed, you'll see all that liveliness go away.

This is a test that you can apply to commercial yarn, too. Every once in a while, you may notice that you knit something in stockinette, and if you look at the Vs on the right side, you'll see that instead of the nice V you expect, you're getting something that has one leg of the V almost vertical, and the other at a stronger angle than it should. This is because the yarn isn't balanced, and it can change the look of stockinette and fancy stitches, and if it's severe enough, it can make your knitting bias. In other words, if you knit what should be a rectangle, you may actually get a diamond shape. This is the fault of the yarn, not the knitter!

Next time, I'll cover twist direction.


  1. wby is this type covered in yellow? its really hard on the eyes, i couldnt stand to read it

  2. I have no idea, Shadow. It wasn't that way when I published it. I don't know what happened to it and how to fix it, but I will figure it out and make the yellow go away.

    Thanks for calling this to my attention.