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A little bit about plying, part 1

I’m starting a whole series on plying now, by popular demand, and because it’s a skillset and a set of thought processes that is often overlooked when we talk about spinning. Plying is a big subject and not one that can be boiled down into a handful of simple rules, alas. To begin with, Jen commented and asked:

Your fiber is SO nice to work with! I just finished my second sock batt this weekend and plied it (tried to anyway). I’ve not been spinning very long and I don’t feel like I ply correctly. Previously my yarns have been light and lofty, I made an attempt to put more twist in my ply this weekend to get more of a ’sock’ yarn and think I might have gotten carried away with the twist. Can you offer some advice? How do we know how much twist to put in? Could you maybe do a walk through on how to get a nice ply?

Well, I guess the first thing I’d say (other than thank you, Jen!) is to not assume you’ve put in more plying twist than you want. To illustrate this point, I took pictures during the finishing stages of my most recent yarn, and pictures of some other recent yarn that just so happen to illustrate this point nicely. I’ll start with the latter:

Would you believe these are the same singles from the same material? Really! The difference in grist is completely because of plying. Here’s another view of different bits of the yarn:

Now, for my preferences, the pink yarn is a little underplied, and just barely at the point of having enough plying twist in it. It’s sort of hat or sweater yarn, puffy and loose with a lot of loft to it. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I prefer a more firmly plied yarn — I like the fabric I get better, it wears better, and to be honest, I just like it better. The purply-blue yarn, on the other hand… I like that one.

So let’s talk a minute about what’s the same and different about these 2 skeins of yarn. Both were spun from test batches of Falkland top which I’d dyed with low water immersion, rinsed aggressively, and air dried. Both were spun on the same wheel, with the same drafting methods, ratios, settings, everything the same. Both skeins weigh 70 grams exactly, or about 2.5 ounces. The multicoloured pinks and orange one (colourway Dawn) is 254 yards long; the deep purply blue one (violet from here on out, not a named colourway) is 261 yards long.


…this one comes out to 11 wraps per inch, and…

…this one comes out to 16.

Now, to be fair, there is a very slight difference in the grist of the singles, as evidenced by example 1, Dawn, being 254 yards long and example 2, Violet, being 261 yards long. So if we were to say that I had 508 yards of Dawn singles and 522 yards of Violet singles, the difference in yards yielded was about 2.7%, and pretty much unmeasurable in the singles if I’d measured them for grist before plying by using the wraps per inch method. These were also not terribly high twist singles; I’d call ’em moderate/medium twist. But if you look at the plied yarn, and figure there’s a 2.7% difference in grist over the length of the singles spun, compared to a 5 wpi difference in the plied yarn… if we use Dawn as our baseline, the addition of plying twist gave us 45% more wraps per inch with Violet. To think about it another way, if we were to say that Violet has a diameter of 1/16 of an inch ( .0625) and Dawn has a diameter of 1/11 of an inch (.09), less plying twist in Dawn gave us a yarn that is 33% thicker than Violet.

So, what factors other than twist are in play here, and how does the amount of plying twist affect the finished yarn?

Well, the first consideration is the fiber: Falkland top, commercially prepped, a medium wool with a fair amount of crimp to it. As it happens, I knew going into this exercise that this particular fiber has a huge amount of POOF to it. Moreso than many fibers, this one will, when washed, puff up quite a bit if given half a chance. In a moderate-twist singles, or a plied yarn with less plying twist, it’s got the chance to do that. In a high-twist singles or a tightly plied yarn, it’s not going to have the chance to poof so much, because the twist will trap the crimp and poof tendencies it imparts.

If we did the same exercise with different fiber (and I’ll see if I can’t come up with a good example soon) we’d see different results. But in general, the balance between crimp and twist in wools is a huge part — perhaps the biggest part — in what a skilled spinner can manipulate to make yarn behave different ways. To an extent, being able to take advantage of this when you do your fiber selection for a given project just depends on knowing the fibers and how they act, and that’ll mostly take experience to develop.

For more reading about crimp, twist, and their interactions, check out Mabel Ross and Peter Teal. Instead of going into lots more detail here, I’ll just move on to say that the functional difference between Dawn and Violet, other than their finished wpi, is that Dawn is puffy and lofty, while Violet is smoother and uses the same forces Dawn used to puff itself up, to be springy yarn with bounce and elasticity. Violet has no choice but to stay denser, but the crimp in the fiber acts against that density to be a stretchier yarn. If you put your hands inside the loop of Dawn’s skein and pull apart till it’s stretched taut, you won’t have a lot of travel; if you do the same with Violet, you’ll have more. When Dawn stretches out, it’s going to thin down a bit. When Violet stretches, it’ll stay similar in thickness. Dawn has more fiber ends and surfaces not held in place by twist in the ply; Violet’s individual fibers are held more closely in check and won’t be able to rub against each other quite so much.

Neither of these characteristics is inherently better than the other, but they are suited for different purposes. Violet’s density, elasticity, and tougher wear resistance make it a good choice for socks, mittens, or garments for people who are rough on their clothes (like 9-year-old kids). Dawn will be easier to felt or full, and there’s more air moving through it — in some respects, depending on how things are worked up of course, Dawn will insulate better and be warmer. It would make a great hat for those reasons, or a snuggly warm sweater.

Many millspun sock yarns make themselves springy by manipulating these considerations. Take a crimpy wool low-twist singles, and ply it really tight: you’re going to get bouncy yarn. Millspuns use this in other ways too: take a crimpy wool moderate-twist singles, and ply it loosely, and you’ll get a more drapy yarn that can do things like block out huge in knitted lace, or one that blooms and puffs up to be thicker in grist without containing more fiber. But even though millspun commercial yarns can of course play with these qualities, the mill will never have the range of options or control that you do as a handspinner. What if, for example, you were to change the amount of plying twist throughout the yarn, in orderly sequences? You would have a finished yarn that would behave differently, and work up differently, within the same object — you could make one single yarn that puffs up in places in a hat, and hunkers down being elasticky in others.

Of course, there are limitations and things to consider. For instance, even though your plying twist can make a huge difference in what the finished yarn is like, you shouldn’t rely on only that, as some of the millspun yarns actually do! While the plying twist will trap many fiber ends and keep them from moving, you still need to have a fair amount of twist in your singles to be counterbalanced by the plying twist, or else you’re going to see premature wear. This is part of what the premise of the “balanced yarn” looks to address — you want the plying twist to have a clear relationship with the spinning twist in order to achieve a stable yarn. You’ll generally also need to have both of those amounts of twists give at least a passing nod to the fiber’s properties, such as crimp, staple length, and so on.

However, I’m heretical in some respects about the whole “balanced yarn” premise. Just picture me as a pirate captain in a Hollywood movie waving my hand and saying, “…Guidelines, really.” The doctrine of the balanced yarn states that you always want to have your yarn end up so that the fibers in it are back in their natural, relaxed state and so you put in only the amount of plying twist that takes the spinning twist back to that condition. However, there exist numerous examples of yarn, and entire yarn traditions, which diverge from this doctrine, and all the references to it in so many words that I’m familiar with are from the 20th century onwards.

Here’s a merino sock yarn of moderate-to-high twist in both spin and ply (because merino is a fiber prone to pilling, more twist reduces that likelihood). Though the spinning twist is moderate to high by US/European standards, the plying twist is outright high. If let to sit untended, this 2-yard skein of yarn shrinks in length immediately, from being about a yard long to being about 2 feet, 7 inches long. Pick it up and stretch it, and it goes back to being about a yard long… relax your hands and it snaps back to the shorter length. It’s springy. It has bounce. But it also has sufficient twist to keep the singles together under wear, and that combination of things makes it a good yarn for socks, from a fiber that feels nice but doesn’t tend to wear incredibly well if spun to “balanced yarn” specifications.

“But what about what everyone says about balanced yarns being essential to prevent bias in knitting?” you may be thinking. To that I say, swatch it. Seriously — swatch it. Much of that, too, depends on the state the yarn is in when you work with it, and how you knit. You would have to be really, really far out on a limb to see bias from most plied yarns, in my experience. If not-balanced plying truly caused the kind of bias it’s purported to in knitting, then you’d be seeing it in a large number of the presently-popular high-end millspun sock yarns! You’d be seeing it in some of the most popular lace knitting yarns out there, which feature less plying twist than spinning twist. And technically it is there in those examples — but the effect is insufficient to cause the disastrous skew it’s purported to cause, in my experience. Call it the yarn world’s Coriolis Effect myth (that’s the one about water swirling down the drain differently depending on which side of the Equator you’re on). The effect exists — but isn’t as powerful as the mythos suggests, and other factors have a huge impact. And worst case, if we’re talking about sock yarn here, what would you rather have: socks that bag and fall down, or socks with a smidgen of skew that goes away when you put them on and they stay where they go, and hold up to real world wearing?

Outside the scope of modern-day first world knitting, too, there are all sorts of uses — even within the US and European-derived textile traditions — for yarns which don’t conform to the balanced yarn premise. These are uses with long histories, habits, practicalities, and rationales — and they’re worth exploring for any handspinner who wants to really gain the kind of control that allows you to produce exactly the right yarn for a given job.

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.

But it might feature this yarn…

…if the sun comes out and makes for good pictures, if it dries fully while I’m at the dentist, and if the pictures of black yarn come out decently enough. At least one of these plying articles is going to require a marled example to show how things look, and the next one may be it.

18 thoughts on “A little bit about plying, part 1

  1. Thank you, thank you for that great info!!

  2. Are those threads singles or have you plied them? That is THIN!

    I have a question. I would think that putting more twist in the ply, like with Violet, would cause the yardage to be less than a yarn with less plied twist, like Dawn. Yet, Violet has more yardage. I would have expected the opposite to be true. What am I missing?

  3. Haha! Elizabeth, first: the views of the yarn in hand and drying are plied; the partially-done bobbin shot is the singles.

    Second, I attribute the yardage difference to the 2.7% difference in grist overall, with a possible difference in weight in the range of about a gram; I weighed these skeins finished after air drying fully, on a scale that measures in 2 gram increments… because that scale was in the kitchen right by where I took pictures of the yarn on the deck (which is off the kitchen) whereas my 1-gram scale was upstairs. So, one could be just over 69 grams and one just under 71 grams.

    To really do that test right and using the good scientific method my grandfather the nuclear physicist would have insisted upon, I’d need to measure the pre-plying singles as well, for grist and yardage, and then plied. However, as evidenced by my unwillingness to carry my skeins upstairs for weighing, I do have at least one lazy bone in my body!

  4. Thank you. As a novice spinner (and even that might be overstating it), I am in awe. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of your studio!

  5. Thank you so much for all of that great info.

    I have a quandary related to plying that perhaps you could address in this series…

    I’ve now been plying on two different wheels and it *seems* as though some of the ply twist is lost as the yarn is fed onto the bobbin. A friend of mine has found the same thing on one of those wheels as well, but hasn’t noticed it on any of her other three wheels. It doesn’t seems as though the wheels should remove plying twist when the yarn is fed onto the bobbin. Any ides of the cause? Is this highly unusual, or somewhat common? If you would like more details or even photos drop me an e-mail.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise! It is fascinating to see these concepts “in action.” May I asked how you learned to spin (and ply!)?

  7. back to the dentist again?! so sorry, hope it was just a simple followup and cleaning.
    and thank you for the lesson. while you are doing the plying lesson – could you throw some instructions in for us hand spindlers. I’ve got one centerwound ball of a single and have been working (very slowly) on a second spindlefull with which to ply it to. Frankly, as a newbie spinner, I’m very hesitant to muck up, or render into a hopeless tangle, a fair amount of nice tweedy grey yarn.

  8. Thanks for all this information. Because of comments you’ve previously made, I’ve been working on putting in more plying twist, especially with my sock yarn. I’ve been happy with the results so far, and it’s great to learn more.

  9. Fantastic. I love that you explain things in your own voice, because the explanations are always something completely new and natural to me, despite what I “already know” about the topic. This “voice” of yours is basically an indication of how intrinsic and second-nature the craft is to you. It’s like you’re explaining something about YOURSELF here.

  10. Wonderful and informative read, thanks. I look forward to the next entry. The black yarn shown at the end, what was the fiber used? Unbelievably thin!!! Really beautiful.

  11. Abby, I think you are right, the black yarn really isn’t showing what’s going on at the fiber level.

    As for the the yarn losing its twist, its actually re-distributing the the twist. The same thing will happen when the skein is washed.

  12. Wow, that’s really useful information, and stuff I’ve been puzzling over for a while. Thanks so much for spelling it all out in this level of detail.

  13. Thanks Abby. I too am fairly new to spinning and have had trouble with plying. All of that information makes sense! Thanks for taking the time to write about plying so we can all benefit.

  14. Wow . . . the black yarn is amazing! how do you keep it from breaking as you spin? I have a tendency to spin fine, and sometimes the fiber get a bit too thinned out and it breaks just at the thinnest spot, and I have to hunt around for the strand on the bobbin.

  15. What I’ve found with plying is that the twist sets while the singles is sitting around waiting to be plyed–so if you let a loop hang and it seems to be balanced, it’s not. It’s going to be underplyed. While I certainly haven’t been spinning as long as you have, Abby, I’ve been spinning long enough, and have read enough and experimented enough to realize that I have to add a lot more plying twist than I used to when I started spinning. I now do one (or more) of three things.
    1. The plan ahead method of determining the amount of plying twist I’ll need, which is to take a couple of feet of freshly spun singles and let it ply back and save it for when I get to plying the finished singles. (I’m not that organized)
    2. I take about 2 feet of my singles just before I ply it, double it and wet it with hot water and a bit of soap, then squeeze out all the water and let it twist. You’ll be amazed at how much more twist is released by this. OR, I just look at the fibers in my plyed yarn and make sure they’re roughly parallel. I generally err on the side of more rather than less twist.

    Hope this helps some of you beginners. There are some very good articles on plying, mostly by Rita Buchannan in older issues of Spin-Off magazine.

  16. Thanks very much for the info on plying, it is very useful, and Im enjoying every word, I can’t wait for the rest of the series.

  17. Hi Everyone,
    I just began spinning on a wheel (previously I was a “spindle-only” type) and have a question about plying on a wheel: should I wash my singles and get all of the kink out of them before plying, or do I just go ahead and ply them straight off the bobbins?
    Thank you,

  18. I am fairly new at spinning. I spin thin and pretty even. I don’t like the lack of definition in my designs I knit due to the small variance in the yarn. Is that lack of definition just because it is handspun and thus a bit irregular, or is it just that homespun can’t be that defined. I love lace knitting but making every hole exactly the same size seems never to happen. What am I doing wrong.

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