Plying, with video!

I’ve promised we’d be back to more plying talk shortly, and promised a video. There’s more to talk about with respect to plying than fits into one 10-minute video on youtube, so today’s video is the first installment, and covers only plying with a wheel using a lazy kate. Part 2 will cover common plying problems, and part 3 will cover drop spindle plying and plying on the go. Then eventually, sometime further down the road, there’ll be a part 4, which will cover chain plying, 3-ply, and cabled yarns.

The video’s at the end; if you’re super antsy, you can go right there — but you’ll get more out of it, I think, if you check out the photos and article in between.

So, where did we leave off last time we were talking about plying? Ah yes:

So, how do you ply and control how much plying twist is getting in there? What are some mechanical considerations, how can you tell if you’re getting it right, and what are some common plying questions and answers? Well, that’s my teaser for Part 2 of the plying series, and you’ll have to tune back in for that.

I spun an example yarn for this one, that would feature some marling (aka barberpole) so it’s a little easier to see the plying effects. I started out with a seconds (not quite perfect) superwash merino/tencel I had dyed in “Lemon Spice.”

Here are a couple of shots of the single under tension, in a part where colours are changing so it’s a little bit easier to see the twist; I also stepped up the contrast a bit.

another view…

Now, to check how much twist you have in your yarn and how it’ll look in a 2-ply — or at least an approximation of that, not factoring in any finishing such as washing — let your single kink up on itself as you’re spinning. This is a great way to determine whether or not you’re getting the twist you want into a single. But there are a couple of things to bear in mind. The first is that you do need active twist (twist that hasn’t settled, or been set by washing and/or blocking), so it’s an on-the-fly method.

The second thing is how twist operates. See how that narrows down at the very end there, on the lower right? Well, this is because twist will always pile up in your thinner spots, so when you ease up the tension on a spot containing even slight unevenness, what’s going to kink up is the thin spots, and you’ll get different-looking yarn if you aren’t paying attention to that.

Third, and closely related, in order to get this check done accurately, you need to pull yarn off the bobbin — past the orifice and flyer hooks. Twist redistributes itself a little every time it passes those spots where it’s in contact with something, with the net effect being that yarn on the bobbin will commonly seem to have less twist in it than what you’re looking at freshly drafted and before winding on. This is true to an extent too with spindles and driven spindles (like charkhas or great wheels). In that case, it’s wise to pull some off your spindle to do this check.

That’s all we’re going to say about the singles right now, other than “Here they are on a lazy kate!”

And now, here they are on the lazy kate with no tension on them. These singles were spun less than 24 hours ago, so they’re pretty fresh.

Here they are, under mild tension, side by side, next to the leader for the bobbin onto which I plan to ply.

The next thing I’m going to do is take the leader in my hand, already threaded through the orifice and whatnot, and get it going — in the opposite direction from the direction used when I spun the singles — and pile up some twist in the leader. I like to use just twist to hold the yarn onto the leader, whether it’s singles or yarn being plied; this way it comes off neatly when I skein it, and it takes me less time than if I had to fiddle with knots or loops.

Here’s how it looks when I use that twist to make the yarn to be plied stick to the leader:

With that done, move ahead and get to plying — twisting the spun singles together in the opposite direction from that in which they were spun in the first place. That’ll look something like this:

Now, because this is sock yarn, so I want it to wear like crazy, and because the fibers took rather a bit of twist, I’m putting a lot of plying twist in here.

You can see the plied yarn kinking up on itself! Wow! I’ll take a moment to digress by saying “And this is what you’d get with a cabled yarn!” but mostly, what I want to point out is that when you’re plying, you don’t want to see the yarn just hang slack and look, at this stage in the game, like you want the yarn to look when you go to work with it. If you shoot for that, you’ll end up with an underplied yarn — even if you are working with fresher singles.

When I ply from bobbins, I tend to use a lazy kate. Specifically, my Will Taylor tensioned lazy kate (that’s the one in the photos above). Sometimes I use the brake band to tension the bobbins, and sometimes I just take advantage of the central stalk on the lazy kate which lets me tension the yarn by feeding it through there as I desire. Because of this and my rather anal-retentive tendency to want my bobbins wound neatly when I spin, my singles tend to feed off very smoothly and evenly and without any kinks… so… I can treat the singles being plied together, which arrive at my hand perfectly tensioned in a uniform way, like they’re just one strand of yarn that simply needs twist put into it.

Working with a doubled strand is also the real Andean method of plying, and I was often put to work plying as a child since my spinning wasn’t really up to production grade as compared to some of my peers. Er, make that most of my peers. In any event, I’ve plied quite a bit of double-stranded yarn, so it comes very, very easily to me at this point. With a wheel and a decent lazy kate, plying is a one-handed and totally mindless activity where the limiting factor is the speed of the twist insertion device.

In the photo just above, you can see that on the lazy kate side — the right — the yarn is coming in, doubled, not plied. My hand is keeping the twist out of it, and the yarn is basically just feeding through there, being taken up by the flyer wheel’s tensioning mechanism.

The seeming aeons of waiting for something to happen while this goes on, I find, are an excellent time to drink more coffee, have a beer, or — as was the case when I took these photos — operate my camera with the other hand.

There are lots and lots of ways to tension this incoming doubled strand.

Now, if you don’t have a good lazy kate, your bobbins aren’t wound neatly (causing uneven wind off) or you’re using a plying twist management technique that involves erratic unwinding on the bobbins, or if you’ve got singles that aren’t playing nice with how they feed into your hand for any reason at all, you may want to keep your plies separated until the moment of truth.

In general, I find myself slowed down or mildly annoyed by most techniques that depend on keeping the plies separate until they are actually having their plying twist inserted. This is, I’m sure, because of my childhood spent plying in the Andean manner, and because in general, assuming you can keep things smooth and evenly tensioned, there’s no need to keep the yarn separate and efforts to do that can either require equipment or fiddling with yarn trying to twist up on itself upstream of your hand (as in where it’s feeding from its source). If you’ve ever plied from a center-pull ball you know what I mean — you’ll get the plies twisting around each other on the ball side as well as the wheel side, and then you have to manage that somehow as well.

When I’m plying from a center-pull ball (and didn’t, for some reason, just wind a 2-stranded ball) I actually hold the ball itself, and pull back on that, and tension the yarn while it’s being twisted… but that’s for another episode.

Still, there are times and places where you do want to be able to tension your yarn as individual strands. These include if you have more plies (4 or more for me, generally), different fibers, singles with different amounts of twist, or you’re doing a novelty plying technique, or you’ve got the yarn to be plied feeding at different rates for any reason (say, one’s in a ball, one is on a spindle, and one is on a bobbin). Most commonly, you might want to do this if working from a lazy kate that isn’t tensioned, bobbins that aren’t evenly and smoothly wound, or multiple balls of yarn.

Keeping the plies separate allows you to most closely watch how the twist is going in. While you are getting a feel for plying, you may well find this preferable.

Let’s stop a second and look at our yarn. If you’re vigilant and attentive, you can tell from this photo that at every place where it touches something and bends and goes around a corner or what have you — the orifice, the flyer cup hook, the sliding hook on the flyer arm — a little twist seems to be lost. Remember this when you’re plying; what you’re looking at in your hand isn’t the same as what’s on the bobbin, which in turn is not the same as what you’l have when all is said and done and the yarn is plied, washed, dried, and then finally, worked up into its finished object. With practice, you can spin, ply, and finish your yarn with the finished object in mind, and achieve results you simply can’t get from a millspun yarn. But you have to bear in mind that the yarn won’t look like your finished object at varying stages en route there.

So even this finished bobbin of yarn is not exactly what you’ll have when all is said and done. But just for good measure, let’s see it with the contrast upped a little bit so you can look at the angle of plying twist, which is pretty extreme in this yarn.

If you look closely, you can also see there are some parts that are twistier and some parts that are not so twisty. This is not a disaster; this is something finishing takes care of.

That’s another “What my cabled yarn might look like” shot of the yarn kinking up as I go to skein it from the bobbin. Yeah, it’s fresh; I finished plying it about 3 minutes prior. Here’s how it looks on Mr. Skeiny:

one more time for good measure…

…and here’s how it looks pulled off Mr. Skeiny!


We can’t even get it to twist up neatly, it’s so kinky.

And so, to paraphrase the song, we take it to the sink, drop it in the water, and wash it down…

This is HOT HOT HOT water, mind you. The hottest I can get out of my tap, which as it happens is about 50C/150F. Ow. Don’t stick your hands right in there, or if you do, not for long and not if you are a wimp.

I also throw in some soap at this stage, often Eucalan, but it doesn’t matter. And sometimes at this stage, I agitate the yarn in one way or another, to cause it to full (as you can read about in the Summer 2007 Spin-Off article by Judith McKenzie-McCuin, regarding wet finishing!). Basically, this is when I want to abuse the yarn and cause it to show me where its weaknesses are. I don’t want to be finding out about those later, after I’ve made something that took lots of time. I want to know now.

I also want the yarn to be prepared to withstand whatever washing treatment I’m liable to give the finished object. In the case of the socks I might someday actually make from this yarn, odds are they’ll be in regular laundry rotation. If this yarn can’t stand up to a beating in a sink of hot water and gentle detergent, then it can’t stand up to the laundry.

I didn’t really rough this one up too much, though. I just let it sit in the hot hot hot water until I was willing to stick my hands in there, and that’s how it looked after sitting for maybe half an hour. Not so kinky, you will note.

I hauled it out, wrung it out, thwacked it, swished it around in the water again, wrung it vigorously a few more times, then took it outside on the deck and twirled it around to spin water out of it. Here it is in sodden form…

Here it is after drying unweighted:

I’m not entirely pleased; slightly more twist in the ply than I really wanted. I blame it on this being the second superwash merino/tencel I’ve spun. On the other hand, though, there’s a bit of elasticity to it from the extreme twist.

And the yarn has a nice sheen to it and actually would make terrific socks.

Well, now that everyone’s got the pre-requisite reading done, we can move on to the video, which shows some of the techniques used in plying this yarn. Okay, not that yarn. This yarn:

…which shows the need for finishing by turning into this:

Yep, this is the yarn being plied in the video…

Oh right, the video. Here it is.

22 thoughts on “Plying, with video!

  1. Abby, once again excellent instructions both written and video. It is really helping me as I progress in my spinning adventures.

  2. I am loving thes tutorials. I haven’t really studied the art of spinning, I just spin to what feels right for what I have in mind, so your series is very helpful to me. 🙂

  3. Thwacking is my favorite part but now I’ll have to try twirling. Thank you for putting all the text and pictures up too – my office has blocked youtube and our home computer’s too ancient to access it!

  4. your plying is beautiful to watch, even the way you switch between hand positions is seamlessly graceful. thanks for the video.

    i was wondering if you use similar amounts of tension for the different plying positions, especially between the moving-forward/backward-to-feed vs. tension-fed types.

  5. Thank you for addressing the loss of twist. Since most wheels cause the yarn to make the same number of turns in its path to the bobbin, why would one wheel cause a greater loss in twist than another? The method of delivering the yarn to the bobbin?

  6. I spent about, oh 4 minutes reading this. But your pictures and word taught me more than hours of plying badly. Thanks for sharing your skills.

  7. Thank you for reinforcing the idea of losing plying twist as the yarn pushes over the edges of the orifice and flyer hooks. I felt like such a Cassandra when I talked about losing plying twist between what was in my hand (before going through the orifice) and what was wrapped around the bobbin. *Nobody* believed me. I gave up discussing it and just tell people that I overply a little, no one asks why.

  8. Thank you Abby. Perfect timing. I spun singles out of some falkland wool I bought from you last night, now I know how to ply it. I don’t have a tensioned lazy kate, but I am getting one! thanks for taking the time so the rest of us can benefit.

  9. Hi Abby,

    I sent a comment early but it didn’t take. So again I need to tell you that your videos are great!!! I love watching them. I do have a question. I tried plying my over spun singles with my schacht tensioned lazy kate using my Roberta spinner. Similar to your technique several weeks ago. It looked good going on the bobbin but when I took it off it was awful. It has a very loose ply and is very curly. What did I do wrong?

    This happened twice once when I spun my merino and then when I spun up my silk. I replyed the silk and it came out okay, but not great. I have not touched the merino yet.

    Thank you

  10. Wow – thanks for that Abby! I’ve always felt my plying was my biggest weakness in my repertoire… A big part of that was simply because I was really afraid of overplying, and would look at what was going on with the yarn going upstream… I was always slightly mystified as to why it looked so good going up, and then wasn’t plied enough on the bobbin.

    I also developed the method of washing in hot hot water (I will swish it around in the wash water to full it and floof it slightly) – abusing, thwacking and swinging the yarn around. I’d much rather abuse the yarn in yarn stage as opposed to nasty surprises at laundry time.

    Anyway – thanks for the wonderful video! As someone else said, your hands are so graceful when switching around the different positions.


  11. This is really useful – I find there’s always lots of ‘learn to spin’ videos around, but not so much dedicated to plying. I’ve always felt I was just winging it and probably do it ‘wrong’, but it was good to see that I’m not!

  12. This is so helpful, it really is. I’d noticed that if the 2-ply didn’t twist back on itself I thought the finished yarn was too loose, but other sources said a balanced yarn should have little/no twist. I am really looking forward to your lessons on plying from spindles and chaining, as I really messed up trying to combine those two last week. Some bits of the end result are good, but the skein as a whole is a lesson learned instead of useable yarn.

  13. Will you be including Navajo plying? That’s one form that has me flummoxed because Ii can’t work it out in my head as to how to do it and I’ve never seen anyone in person doing this.

  14. SO much really great information in this post . . . and I haven’t even watched the video yet. Excellent, and thank you!

  15. so detailed, clear, and informative! thank you so much for these tutorials. you truly are a treasure to the spinning community.

  16. Your blog is amazing! That you SO much for making your experience available to those of us that can learn from it. I taught myself to knit from books, but I haven’t found a book that has helped much with spinning. Your blog and now videos has been the best reference I’ve found.

    I don’t have anything to ply right, but I’m more eager to try plying than I’ve ever been. The lesson for me was seeing you let the wheel practically pull from the lazy kate. I tried this a little last time I plied, but I was getting a lot of twist and was afraid it was too much – and now from reading and watching your video I think I was probably ok.

    Is there a ratio that you typically ply at? I’m assuming it will depend on the yarn a bit.

    I was not taught yarn finishing (I did take a one day spinning class about a year ago) and so I’m intrigued by what you described. My last batch is still on the kniddy knoddy, cause I just really wasn’t sure what to do with it.

    You mentioned a couple of times fresh and, I think, settled singles. Is there an advantage to letting singles settle or to using them fresh?

    Thank you again for the amazing blog!!

  17. Thanks for the informative series and the video. As many others have mentioned before me, I have been mystified as to why my “balanced” yarn looks so crappy. You’ve done a great service for this newbie in explaining the business of plying and overplying, and how settled twist affects the process. I rarely ply anything that hasn’t been sitting on a bobbin for at least a week, so this has been a big help. We won’t go into the maximum length of time singles might spend on a bobbin in my house:-)

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

  18. i am SO bookmarking this! and, apparently, i seem to be doing it right, except for the boilingly hot water. i just finished up some sockweight superwash that kinked like crazy (not quite as badly as yours, lol) and i think i’ll be soaking it in hot water again tomorrow. thanks!

  19. Thanks for the video. Now I know I haven’t been doing it all wrong (even though that’s what I’ve been told by the “more experienced”)!

    You truly are the spinning bandit.

    I particularly like what you’ve been saying lately about “underspinning, overplying and then setting the twist aggresively”. Another manipulation I hadn’t thought of. (Yeah, I know, it won’t wear well, but it sure looks pretty. All pearly and bumply.)

    A. Tripod sure can hold that camera steady. I don’t think I saw it move or shake once. Sure is hard to find good help these days.

    Can’t wait for the sequel.


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