Ask Jacey: Yarn Competition

Jean wants to beat her best friend in the game of yarn
Jacey, my best fiber friend makes yarn that’s so much nicer than my yarn. We can use the same fiber, the same colorway, and each spin it into a worsted 2-ply yarn. Her yarn turns out soft and amazing and mine is hard, scratchy, and not amazing. Any idea what I’m doing wrong?! Jean
Let me tell you a story that happened to me not that many years ago (12 years exactly, in fact). I dyed 8 oz of commercially processed organic Merino combed top and spun it with a worsted, short-forward draft. The resulting yarn was worsted in both style and weight and also, I thought, the most beautiful in the world. This was before PLY, by the way. To my immense joy, it was spot-on balanced. I mean, it hung in the quintessential loop with not even the slightest inclination of turning left or right. I loved it. Even now, when I look at the pictures, my breath catches a bit in my throat. Yarn does that to us, right?
Then I knit it up. I knit it into my knitting hero Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Baby Surprise Sweater. You’ve made at least one, right? If not, stop reading this for a couple hours and whip one out – you won’t be sorry. Actually, finish reading this first as it might save your sweater. The few hours I spent knitting it were joyous (except for a little nagging thought, but we spinners/knitters are sometimes good at ignoring those nagging little thought, aren’t we?). A smart and slightly mysterious pattern coupled with the most gorgeous yarn in existence – how could it not be euphoric? Well, good thing I enjoyed those few hours because once the sweater was done, my bliss faded to confusion and eventually woe.
The sweater was attractive enough but, truth be told, a more fitting name would be the Baby Surprise Suit of Armor. It was thick, it was hard, and it was stiff: words suited for so many things in this world besides knitting, to be sure. It was even a bit crunchy. When I went back to feel the original fiber, I was even more confused – the combed Merino top was about the softest fiber I’d ever felt and perfect for a small, picky kid. Next, I moved onto the yarn. That’s when I let the nagging thought take root and took a more honest look at this gorgeous yarn. I realized that while it was aesthetically pleasing – perhaps a 9 or a 10 – when it came to tactile appeal, it plummeted to a 3 or a 4. (I reserve 1s and 2s for yarns that might actually puncture or cut you.)
You might initially be attracted to this yarn, but once you spent a little time handling it, you’d have to have a couple of glasses of wine before you’d take it home with you.

Of course, my kiddo was thrilled with their sweater in theory, but when it came time to pick something out to wear, their tiny pudgy hand never reached for it. In the picture, you can see the stiffness and the lack of drape; what you can’t see is the scratchiness and the crunchiness. It’s quite unpleasant. In fact, I had to help them lower their arms for the shot; otherwise, the yarn caused them to stick straight out to the side like a tiny cheerleader.

So what did I do wrong? How did I take soft, scrunchable fiber and turn it into the equivalent of a Baby Surprise Hairshirt? It’s probably the same thing you’re doing – spinning the heck out of it.

That’s it! Too much twist. Too much twist in the singles, to be precise. All yarns spun from the same fiber using the same technique are not created equal, my spinning friend. I don’t care if your yarn turns out perfectly even, smooth, and balanced – it can still feel like it fell out of the scratchy tree and hit every crunchy branch on the way down.

Here’s the truth dropping: The feel and hand of your plied yarn lies mostly with the twist in your singles. Too much singles twist can make it absolute cord. Rope, even. Follow me for a second because this is the crux of the matter. If you spin a single with a low to moderate amount of twist, your yarn has a better chance of ending up soft no matter how much ply twist you subject it to. If you spin a yarn with scads and scads of singles twist, no matter how little or how much ply twist you add, that yarn will be hard, crunchy, and stiff. It’s true. Look at these yarns:

Both are Merino wool spun worsted and plied to balance. The only difference is the yarn on the right has less singles (and it follows, it’s true, less ply) twist, and the one on the left has lots more. Even without touching them, you can see the difference, right?

As always, though, I recommend you don’t take my word for it – try it out. Take an hour and spin a few samples. Spinning samples and experimenting expands our knowledge of the craft. Try the following:

  1. Spin 2 singles with low to medium twist.
  2. Ply half of each together until they reach balance or just barely beyond. Remove your yarn and mark it “low single, balanced.”
  3. Ply the other halves of the low-twist singles together employing the “treadle like the wind” technique. It will take them way past balance, but we’re experimenting, so just go with it. Mark it “low single, high ply.” 

You’ll find that these 2 yarns with their low-twist singles will be fairly soft and pliable, like your fiber. Now try the following:

  1. Spin another 2 singles, but this time, give them heaps of singles twist.
  2. Ply half of each together until they reach balance or just barely beyond. Wind this plied yarn off and mark it “high single, balanced.”
  3. For the other halves of the singles, ply lightly, with just a bit of ply twist. This yarn won’t be balanced, but that’s okay. Wind it off and mark it “high single, low ply.”

Both of these yarns, with their high-twist singles, will be harder and scratchier than your fiber, regardless of the amount of ply twist present.

See!? The feel and drape of your plied yarn is highly reliant on the twist amount in your singles. No matter the ply twist, lower singles twist will result in a yarn that is softer than high singles twist.

So, Jean, that’s it. If you want your yarn to be more like your pal’s, try putting less singles twist in it (and for balance, less ply twist as well). To get less twist, set your wheel on a bigger pulley, move your hands faster, or treadle your feet slower.

Also, subscribe to PLY, it’s pretty good.


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Maximizing Yardage for Spinning Cotton

Susan Hector visits the blog today with an explanation of how she maximizes her yardage when spinning cotton on spinning tools that don’t have a lot of storage capacity for singles. Thanks so much for being here, Susan!

I spin a lot of cotton.  Living in sunny and warm San Diego, it makes sense.  I spin Sea Island cotton, Arizona short and long staple cotton, and naturally colored cotton from California and South America.  I even grow my own cotton and spin it – I have over a dozen Acala cotton bushes in the back yard, watered with washing machine rinse water and fertilized with our compost. I dye cotton that is white and brown into the most astonishing range of indigo shades.  I generally weave with the cotton I spin and dye, although I have done some knitted lace collars and scarves.

Singles on a driven spindle wheel. A paper straw quill was used on the spindle to hold the spun singles yarn.

Singles on a driven spindle wheel. A paper straw quill was used on the spindle to hold the spun singles yarn.

I spin the cotton on a variety of tools: charkhas/driven spindle wheels, Akha spindles, feather weight top whorl spindles, a tahkli and other supported spindles – and also on fast flyer wheels.  With the variety of tools I use to spin cotton, I needed to come up with a way to organize and maximize the plying process.  My observation has been that when using a handspindle or driven-spindle wheel the amount of cotton you can get from one “spindle-full” is rather small.  I was constantly emptying the spindle and had to manipulate relatively short lengths to store and ply.  I had lots of quills and bobbins hanging around with resulting small skeins that were difficult to knit or weave with.  Tangles and poor singles quality were also common when trying to ply from quills or spindles.  I found a better way to do it.

Preparing the Singles

Removing the singles from the quill onto a ball. I use an old knitting needle to hold the quill.

Removing the singles from the quill onto a ball. I use an old knitting needle to hold the quill.

First, I have to prepare the singles that I spin for the plying process. I (almost) always wind off from the spinning tool onto a bobbin or other holder before plying cotton to maintain tension, distribute the twist, and find weak spots.  That’s easy enough from a handspindle.  But when using a driven spindle wheel, such as a charkha, it is not practical to wind off a spindle directly when it is full of cotton yarn.  Although some charkhas do allow the spinner to use interchangeable spindles, trying to ply directly from these has resulted in a nightmare of tangles and lost twist.  If I am using a spindle wheel that does not have an interchangeable spindle system (such as a Great Wheel), I use a traditional method of putting a wrapper onto the spindle, and spinning onto that wrapper.  The wrapper can be a piece of corn husk, sturdy drinking straw (with the base cut and slit to fit your spindle width as needed), or a firm twist of paper.  Then, when ready to remove the singles, you just carefully pull off the wrapper.  You have effectively created a quill full of singles yarn that you can wind off from without fear of tangling.  I put mine on a knitting needle to wind off from the side of the quill.

For more detail on how to unwind cotton yarn from various sources, including a handspindle, refer to Stephenie Gaustad’s book, The Practical Spinner’s Guide to Cotton, Flax, Hemp (Interweave Press 2014).  Ms. Gaustad included handspindles, charkas, and bobbins in her thorough and reasoned discussion.

Making a Plying Ball

OK, we have managed our singles so on to the plying.  Whether it’s a driven-spindle wheel, a flyer wheel, or handspindles I usually have two or more spinning tools going at the same time and multiple projects underway.  So I create a plying ball composed of singles from the various tools and projects to get the most yardage in my skeins (within reason, of course; you don’t want a huge skein with fine yarns).  Then I ply from the ball, either on a larger handspindle or on a wheel.  Thus I can combine several or many small batches from one or more spinning sources into a nice length skein which I can use for weaving or knitting.

Hector 3-

Singles successfully removed and wound onto a ball – this was one quill’s worth of singles.

Abby Franquemont discussed the use and value of plying from a multiple stranded plying ball in her book, Respect the Spindle (Interweave Press 2009).  While not referring directly to cotton, she noted that this plying method, used by Andean spinners, reduces tangles, manages the yarn, and allows the spinner to carry the plying ball anywhere to use.

The methods described below keep the yarn safe, sound, and under tension until it is plied.  If you try to ply directly from two spindles or quills you will have a nightmare of pigtails, kinks, and tangles – and breaks.  Been there, done that.  I tried two-end plying from a ball winder but I have found that this method does not keep the yarn under sufficient tension to retain the integrity of the yarn twist.  I might use that method, which is somewhat like the Andean plying bracelet, for the small amount of yarn left at the very end of the spinning project.


Plying from 2 or more handspindles

A. Keeping the singles on the spindles.
Spin one spindle-full of cotton yarn.  Set aside.  Spin a second spindle full on another spindle.  With one end from each, create a plying ball.  One will run out first.  Keeping the one that did not run out still attached to the plying ball, start again on another spindle.  When it is full, join to the end still attached and ply.  The original one will run out, and can be started over again.  This can go on forever but don’t make your plying ball too large.  Remember to overlap the singles while winding onto the ball and join firmly and securely when plying.  You will need to make sure this join is secure by twisting the two ends together.

B.  Wind off from 2 or more handspindles onto 2 separate balls.
Keep overlapping and joining the singles until you have a couple of ounces on each ball.  Then, with a third ball and the two singles balls in bowls, wind a plying ball being careful to join the ends as you encounter them; give them a twist and a good overlap.  Rewinding from the spindles first, before creating the plying ball, helps to distribute the twist and find any weak spots that are under twisted.

Plying from a driven-spindle wheel/charkha

Partially full ball (left) and full ball of singles; I would add at least two more spindle’s worth of singles onto the partial ball before I create a plying ball.

Partially full ball (left) and full ball of singles; I would add at least two more spindle’s worth of singles onto the partial ball before I create a plying ball.

If the wheel does not have interchangeable spindles, put a quill on the spindle (see above). Spin one quill full.  Wind this off onto a tennis ball or some other source under tension.  Spin another spindle, making sure that there is a little more on the second spindle than the first.  Using the yarn on the ball and the yarn still on the spindle, create a plying ball.  There should be some left on the spindle to join and begin again.  You can also use Method 1 with a driven-spindle wheel; just keep adding to the ball as the spindles fill up, making sure to create a good join.


Using a flyer wheel

In this case, I can put a lot more singles yarn on the wheel bobbin. I fill up one bobbin, then wind it off onto a ball or a spare bobbin.  Setting that aside, I fill up another bobbin at least as full as the first one.  I can then create a plying ball using the first bobbin and the second one still on the wheel or wound off as well.  As with Method 2, there should be some left on the wheel’s second bobbin to start up another batch.


Plying balls of various cotton yarns ready to ply. Notice double strands on the balls. It is critical to wind the singles together onto the balls with even tension, removing any pigtails or tangles as you wind. Uneven tension between the two singles will result in poor plied yarn.

Plying balls of various cotton yarns ready to ply. Notice double strands on the balls. It is critical to wind the singles together onto the balls with even tension, removing any pigtails or tangles as you wind. Uneven tension between the two singles will result in poor plied yarn.

I put the balls in a bowl when I am winding or plying.  My son made several shallow heavy ceramic bowls that are perfect for this purpose.  I use tennis balls for winding off and plying but you could use felt balls.  I recommend that the ball have a fuzzy surface to hold the layers of cotton yarn in place.  When you are making the balls, either from singles or with two singles held together for plying, make sure you keep even tension and open up any pigtails or tangles.  Hide these from your cat, by the way!







SusanHectorSusan Hector is an anthropology professor at a local community college, and a consulting archaeologist for an environmental studies company.  She and her husband spin in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park in period attire, as part of the park’s Fiber Arts Guild, which is a living history program.  She has been spinning and weaving for over 30 years and can be found at