Plying and Finishing – An Overview
This post is gonna be long and rather
boring technical. It will, however, have lots of pictures. It describes the steps involved in plying and finishing handspun yarn. Read it, you might learn something.
- This post is not meant as a highly technical ‘how-to’ on plying. It is, as the title says, ‘an overview’. It is intended to provide new spinners with some concise guidelines for what to do when they have a few bobbins full of singles and to give my non-fibery FaceBook friends some idea of what the hell I’m talking about in my status updates.
- I spin on a wheel, so that’s what I’m talking about. The general principles are the same for wheel and spindle spinning, but the equipment differences result in some technical differences in the process.
- I am not a professional, or even a particularly experienced, spinner. I am, however, a decent procedure writer. What you see here are my process and my opinions. These have been gleaned from books, the internet (including YouTube), other more experienced spinners, and quite a bit of trial and error. If you have highly technical questions, are having a specific problem, or disagree with anything you read here, I encourage you to take a class, consult a professional spinner, or both. In other words, my word on this subject is not intended as gospel.
Alrighty then. If you read the penultimate post, you know I had several bobbins’ worth of spun fiber. These are ’singles’. To make yarn stronger you ply one or more singles together.*
Weight vs. Ply
If you’re a more casual knitter or crocheter you have probably seen the terms ‘4-ply’ and ‘worsted weight’ on skeins of acrylic yarn in craft or hobby stores. Even if your intent is to remain a casual knitter or crocheter it is important to understand that 4-ply and worsted weight are not interchangeable terms. ‘Ply’ refers to how many singles are twisted together in the finished yarn. ‘Yarn Weight’ refers to the thickness of the finished yarn and is used to determine the recommended needle size and a ballpark gauge (how many stitches per inch you can expect for the recommended needle size). My handspun is usually 2-ply; the yarn weight varies from batch to batch. My early efforts were bulky or chunky weight. Now my finished yarn is usually somewhere between worsted and DK (double-knit). Some folks spin worsted-weight singles; some spin lace-weight singles. 3-ply yarn made from lace-weight singles is probably fingering weight. 3-ply yarn made from worsted-weight singles is uber-chunky. 3-ply sock yarn (fingering weight) is nowhere near as thick as 4-ply worsted weight even if there is only one ply difference.
Doin’ the Twist
As a rule you spin in one direction and ply in the opposite direction. All spinning, pretty much all fiber manipulation, affects the amount of twist in the finished yarn. Spinning and plying can add or remove twist from the yarn. Plying singles together in the opposite direction removes some of the twist in the singles and helps to create a balanced (not too tightly spun or plied) yarn. Generally, singles are spun clockwise (Z-twist) and plied counterclockwise (S-twist).
I’m currently working on an ‘art’ yarn (of blended silk) that will feature two (green) singles spun clockwise, plied counterclockwise. I’m going to then ply these two in the clockwise direction with another clockwise spun, but much finer, (pink) single. The intended result is a balanced 2-ply wrapped by a fine single that ‘beads’ the final 3-ply yarn (makes it kind of bumpy). I’ll let you know how that works out—could be a disaster in the making (oh well, disasters usually make for entertaining blog posts).
In any case, plied yarn is not finished yarn.
Resting & Winding
Dagmar the Enabler says that it is important to take a yard or so of your plied yarn off the bobbin immediately and check it for balance. To check for balance, hold the one end of the yarn in each hand with your hands wide apart. Gradually move your hands together. As the yarn droops into a ‘U’ shape it should not twist in on itself; it should just hang there in a ‘U’. Twisting indicates an unbalanced yarn.
Balanced or not, you can either let the plied yarn continue to rest on the bobbin (where it will relax a little, which may help with balance issues) or immediately wind it onto a niddy noddy. Rested or not, the next step is the niddy noddy, which is how you make a ’skein’ and which is a necessary step in determining just how much yarn you have in that skein. I find it best when winding to have the bobbin on the wheel and under a little bit of tension (or you can use a tensioned lazy kate if you have one). The tension helps keep the bobbin from spinning too quickly and gives you more control as you wind. As you wind the yarn from the bobbin to the niddy noddy, count your wraps (this will be important later when you’re trying to figure out if you have enough yarn to make a scarf).
Before you remove the yarn from the niddy noddy, tie the wraps together. Some people have this fancy way of using one long strand of the finished yarn to make ties in three or four places along the skein. I hate this method, not because I don’t know how to do it, but because I have found that it causes difficulties when the skein is placed on an umbrella swift and untied for winding into a center-pull ball. I have yet to find a skein of yarn that has been tied this way that does not overlap and tangle and cause the swift to quit spinning when the ball is being wound. I usually use separate pieces of scrap yarn in a contrasting color and tie the skein in four places (easy to tie, easy to see, easy to cut off). If you decide to use scrap yarn, be sure it is colorfast because the next step is washing. You don’t want color from your yarn ties ‘bleeding’ onto your beautiful new handspun.
Washing & Rinsing
The next step is to wash the plied yarn to set the twist. Remove the yarn from the niddy noddy and gently immerse it in lukewarm water and a small amount of mild soap. I use Woolite. It is not particularly environmentally friendly, but it is effective (I haven’t wrecked a batch yet) and inexpensive. More expensive, more eco-friendly, and (arguably) more effective wool washes can be found online and at local yarn stores (but not usually at the big craft stores). Use them according to your own preference: use what you like, use what works, and use what is within your budget.
Remember, gently immerse the yarn in the soapy water. Push it down to get it to absorb some water but do not agitate it in any way. Fibers have a coating of overlapping scales. Water, especially warm water, causes these scales to lift. Agitation will cause them to overlap and interlock with scales on the other fibers—really, really tightly. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why wool shrinks. Note that the process is called ’shrinking’ if you do it accidentally. If you’re doing it on purpose and in a reasonably controlled manner it is called ‘felting’. Felted fabrics are lovely and are a great way to make use of recycled or radically imperfect yarn, but you don’t usually want to felt your pretty new handspun…at least not until you’ve knit it first.
Let your yarn soak for 15 to 30 minutes then drain the soapy water. Gently press the yarn against the sides of the sink or wash basin and drain off any excess water. Move the yarn to the side (or lift it out carefully) and fill the sink with cool water (don’t let the water beat down on your yarn) and some white vinegar to set the color. How much white vinegar? A quarter cup per gallon of water is a general rule. My process is rather less exact. Let the yarn sit in the rinse water for 15 to 20 minutes. If your yarn ‘gives’ a lot of dye during the first rinse, rinse it with vinegar one more time. If you really hate the vinegar smell (it doesn’t bother me), rinse it one more time with plain water.
Thwaping & Drying
After the final rinse, drain the water from your wash basin and again gently press the yarn against the bottom or side of the basin to remove the water. Remove the yarn from the sink and extend it into a long strand. Roll the strand ’jelly-roll’ style in a towel to remove even more water.
Now it’s decision time. To thwap or not to thwap. ‘Thwapping’ is the process of beating the crap out of your finished yarn to 1) remove yet more water and 2) better align the fibers. Those who do it swear by the improvements it makes in their finished yarn. Those who don’t do it don’t understand how abusing wet yarn can possibly result in a better final product. I’ve tried it both ways. The thwapping made a visible difference in the end product. I was explaining this process to my friend, Fiber-free Donna. She’s fiber free, but she’s another Textile Goddess and she told me that many commercial fabrics are also ‘thwapped’ to align the fibers. Hey, if professionals are doing it, it must make sense on some level.
So, if you decide to thwap, you can use one or both of the following methods (I use both). In the first method, you drape the damp skein over both arms loosely and then quickly bring your arms apart to ’snap’ the skein tight. Repeat several times. You will get wet. Really wet. In the second method you hold onto one end of the skein and smack it over a chair or against a wall or table repeatedly. You will get wet, but less wet than in the first method. If you choose this method be sure that the surface against which you are smacking the yarn is smooth, otherwise your yarn will snag which defeats the purpose of aligning the fibers to smooth the yarn. I use method one first and then proceed to method two (using a towel-draped patio chair). During method two I hold the skein in different places and do two or three thwaps for each of three or four hand positions.
Once you’re done thwapping (or right after you’ve removed the yarn from the towel if you have decided not to thwap) hang the skein to dry. At this point a balanced yarn will hang straight (in a perfect oval). You will not have to weight it or otherwise manipulate it to keep it from twisting. Be sure to hang the drying yarn on a smooth (so it doesn’t snag), clean (so it doesn’t get dirty), non-metal (so it doesn’t get rusty) hanger, doorknob, pole, or line. I usually just hang mine over the ‘neck’ of a plastic clothes hanger which I then hang in the closet, on a shower rod, or on a doorknob.
Dried yarn is not finished yarn.
The Final Countdown
Remember when you counted your wraps? I hope you wrote down the number. You’re going to use this number to determine how many yards or meters of yarn you have. Measure once around your niddy noddy with a tape measure. Lay your dried yarn on a table and carefully measure the circumference (the distance around the oval). I usually get two different numbers. The distance around the niddy noddy is a constant 62 inches; the distance around the yarn oval depends on the yarn. The lesson? Measure the yarn, not the niddy noddy. To determine your yardage, multiply the number of inches by the number of wraps and divide by 36 (36 inches per yard). If you’re using the metric system, replacing inches with centimeters and dividing by 100 (100 centimeters per meter) will yield length in meters. I usually do the measuring in inches/yards and use an online unit converter to calculate the metric equivalents.
Weigh your finished skein. If you don’t already have one of these–
get one ($24 on amazon.com, but also available at places like Bed, Bath, & Beyond).** Use your unit converter or reweigh if you want to include both ounces and grams on your label.
One more measurement–the yarn weight. Not the weight of the skein, but how ‘heavy’ the yarn itself is (as differentiated from ‘ply’, above). You can use a wraps-per-inch (wpi) tool to do this if you want to. I have one, it’s a pain in the potato. You can also use a ruler or a pencil and a ruler; also pains in the potato. I prefer to calculate the approximate wpi/yarn weight using a superamazingthankyousomuchforpostingit tool I found at girlfromauntie.com.*** This tool will calculate the wpi/yarn weight based on the weight of your skein and its yardage. The wpi/yarn weight tells you (or a potential buyer/knitter) how many stitches per inch this yarn will yield for the recommended needle size. In general thinner yarn takes smaller needles, thicker yarn takes larger ones. Using needles other than the recommended size produces a denser or airier fabric depending on whether you use smaller-than-recommended or larger-than-recommended needles, respectively. Record the approximate wpi and weight (e.g., lace, fingering, DK, worsted).
Make your label. You are making a label because even if you have no intention of selling this yarn, you want to know what it is before you put it in your stash. No, you won’t remember.
If you’re not going to re-sell the yarn and the original fiber included a band/label, you can simply record the information on the back of that label. If you are going to re-sell the yarn, write (or use your computer to print) the label information on the back of a business card or make a custom band or label on your printer. The label should include length in yards/meters, fiber content, skein weight in ounces/grams, and an approximate wpi and the equivalent yarn weight (fingering, worsted, etc.). You may want to include the original name (or number) of the colorway and the original source and price of the fiber (for your records only, don’t include this information on a retail label).
If you’re going to sell the yarn I recommend giving the finished yarn an interesting name. Why? Because many impulse buyers make purchases (and pick racehorses) based on color and name. I might not buy ‘purple’ or ‘lilac’ yarn but I might buy the exact same yarn if it was called “Grandma’s Garden Violets” or “Granny’s Hand Lotion” or some such. Even if you’re not going to sell the yarn, you might want to give it a name just for fun (you know, in case you ever knit it and blog the project).
That’s it. To twist the yarn oval into one of those pretty skeins you see in the pictures, hold both ends and twist. Let the yarn twist in on itself and tuck the ends in. Put it in a plastic zipper bag for protection and put it in the stash (or wherever you hold your inventory). Don’t forget to attach the label or put it in the bag with the skein.
Sell, gift, or use as you wish! Happy spinning.
* ‘Navajo’ or ‘chain’ plying is how to ply yarn from a single, single.
** It will come in handy when you need to figure out if you have enough yarn left for that second sock. Hint: If the first sock weighs more than the remaining un-knit sock yarn you have a problem. Trust me.
*** The Girl from Auntie is currently having some serious technical difficulties. Her site is pretty much down as of this writing. Please send good mojo.