Ply Experiment

A few weeks ago, I watched Jillian Moreno’s spinning class on #Craftsy called Ply to Knit: Spin the Yarn You Really Want. If you’re not familiar with Jillian, she writes and edits KnittySpin articles as well as a weekly spinning blog post on the Knitty blog. I enjoy her writing and her spinning very much, so when Craftsy had a sale I figured I’d give the class a try.

Screenshot from Craftsy.

Screenshot from Craftsy.

I don’t intend this post to be a thorough review of the class, but I will say that I probably would have been a little disappointed if I had paid full price for it. I think Jilllian is a great teacher and I love the Craftsy platform, I just don’t think there was enough material in the class that I didn’t already know for me to feel it worth the money. I would recommend it for an absolute beginning spinner. As a very beginner, or as someone who has only spun on spindles and just started on a wheel, it is always worthwhile to watch someone else’s spinning technique. You will invariably pick up little tricks and tips you never thought of if you are primarily self-taught. If you’ve never plied singles together before, the class will likely provide lots of little lightbulb moments all at once. Since I’ve been spinning for three years now (how did that happen?!) and I’m a voracious reader of spinning-related books, blogs, boards, and magazines, not much in the class was news to me. At one point, I thought she was going to start getting into some of the more unusual ways to ply yarns (for art yarns and such), but then she stopped and implied that those topics were for another class.

Ply Experiment | Woolen Diversions

Three bobbins of Falkland wool, ready to ply.

There was, however, one excellent nugget of information that I gleaned from the class, my own personal aha! moment that inspired this post. I’ve sometimes been underwhelmed by my handspun, feeling that some skeins lacked the oomph that other lovely skeins had, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why or what was different. I plied them to the point where they seemed balanced, I did the same to one skein as I did to another, but I didn’t really pay close attention to exactly what I was doing. This class taught me that the secret to great yarn is in the plying twist.

Ply Experiment | Woolen Diversions

(L to R): Ply 1, Ply 2, and Ply 3

You see, I knew that handspun skeins lost some twist after finishing, but I didn’t really understand how much, nor did I know how to tell how much twist was enough to add in the first place. Jillian does an excellent job demonstrating how to detect the amount of plying twist you are adding, and how to get a feel for when enough is enough. So I conducted a small experiment to see what difference the amount of plying twist really made in the finished yarn. I used the same Falkland wool singles for a all three 3-ply yarn samples (spun Z twist on a 8:1 ratio whorl), and I changed the ply twist as follows for each one:

  • Ply 1: ply ratio = 8:1 (same whorl), treadles per length = 5
  • Ply 2: ply ratio = 8:1 (same whorl), treadles per length = 3-4 (roughly alternated)
  • Ply 3: ply ratio = 6:1 (larger whorl), treadles per length = 4-5 (roughly alternated)

By adjusting how many times you treadle before you allow a set length of yarn (whatever is comfortable and consistent for you) wind onto the bobbin, you are adjusting the amount of ply twist that enters the yarn. You also adjust the amount of ply twist by changing your whorl or drive ratio, which determines how much twist energy is inserted with each treadle (higher ratio/smaller whorl = more twist, while lower ratio/larger whorl = less twist). Ply 1 seemed to have way too much ply twist, while ply 2 (not pictured above) had too little with 3 treadles per length, but too much with 4. So I lowered the ratio and aimed for roughly 4 to 5 treadles per length, which resulted in the nice easy loop on plyback that looked just about right, and this amount of twist is what I used for plying the rest of my singles.

I then took a series of notes and measurements about the different yarns. I measured wraps per inch (WPI), which helps classify the thickness of the yarn, and yards per pound (YPP), which you can think of as a measure of the density (or grist) of yarn. In the photo gallery above (hover for captions or click for closeups), you’ll notice that the sample strand for Ply 3 (to the right) is much longer than for Ply 1 or Ply 2. Those samples were strands that were cut until they balanced out on a McMorran Yarn Balance (one way to measure YPP). The Ply 3 strand is longer because the scale could hold a longer length before it balanced out, meaning that yarn had a much higher YPP. (Translation: you could spin more yardage out of a pound of wool at this grist because it is a thinner, less dense yarn.) I used a chart from an old issue of Spin-Off to help determine what the knitting weight was (classifications are not very standardized at all so it differs by source) but another chart you could use is here. The stats:

  • Singles: WPI = 25, YPP = 2,350, knitting weight = laceweight to fingering
  • Ply 1: WPI = 9 -10, YPP = 525, knitting weight = aran to bulky
  • Ply 2: WPI = 10, YPP = 625, knitting weight = aran
  • Ply 3: WPI = 10 – 11, YPP = 900, knitting weight = worsted
Ply Experiment | Woolen Diversions

Swatches, pre-blocking.

While the changes in measurements were subtle for WPI, I was a little shocked at how big of a difference small tweaks in the number of treadles per length or the size of the whorl made in the YPP measurements, or the grist of the yarn. More ply twist (Ply 1) lead to a thicker, denser, chunkier yarn while less (Ply 3) resulted in a thinner, fluffier, more pliable yarn. I commenced swatching each yarn on size US 8 needles in a variety of stitches.

From a distance, the swatches don’t look all that different and their stitch gauges were practically identical, but you’ll have to trust me that they each felt different to knit. Ply 3 (which I knit first) was delightful in every way: fluffy, soft, smooth, and it produced a cohesive, fluid fabric in all stitch patterns. Ply 2 was distinctly beefier than Ply 3, it was a tad thicker and denser and it felt it, but it had a pleasant ‘toothy’ feel to it and I could see adding a little extra ply twist to purposefully make an extra spring-y yarn. Ply 1 was the least pleasant to knit with, I would have wanted to go up a needle size to relax the knitting process. If you look closely, you might notice that the extra ply twist is much more visible in the stitches of Ply 1, making the fabric as a whole look less smooth. The extra twist created great 3D relief in the seed stitch sections, but is somewhat less desirable in the stockinette and garter stitches.

Conclusion: You could certainly not pay much attention to your plying and get a fairly serviceable yarn in the end. However, I did find that checking for the right amount of ply twist (and actually counting my treadles!) produced a yarn I enjoyed knitting with the most. From a practical standpoint, plying ‘properly’ also produced a heck of a lot more yardage than I would’ve obtained from overplying my singles: 375 extra yards per pound of fiber, in fact. Finally, while the stitch gauge or swatch appearance didn’t change much when using the same size needles, the thickness of the yarn and the feel of the fabric certainly did. All in all, I will certainly be paying closer attention to my ply twist in the future and I’m excited to explore its effects further.

If you spin, how do you usually ply your yarn? Do you keep track of how much twist your adding?


5 thoughts on “Ply Experiment

  1. What a brillant post. This is just the kind of geeky detail that is close to my heart. I got the same class as a freebie and had exactly the same reaction as you. It is a great class but only if you are an absolute beginner. I have a tendency to underply and have therefore deliberately started sampling, measuring and counting. It changed my world!


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