Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Back to the basics of plying

Soft and lofty woolen spun yarns present their own difficulties for plying, but the nature of the yarn hides the art of the plying.  If you want to show off your skill at plying, spin worsted.  Sure 4-ply woolen yarn takes skill, but 4-ply worsted  takes more skill.

If you want to know how good someone is at plying, look at one of their yarns plied up from fine, high twist singles.  In particular, 5-ply gansey yarn is a structure that is hard to get uniform, and the worsted singles make any and all faults in the plying clearly visible.  Because of its more stable structure, I feel that 7-ply is easier to ply into a uniform and consistent structure than 5-ply.

Making 5-ply gansey yarn is a evolution that every aspiring spinner should perform.  It is a good place to master Alden Amos's 4 principles of plying. (Tension, Distance, Re-wound bobbins, Constant Motion) With simpler yarns, one can get way with violating one or more of those principles.  However, a kilo of 5-ply will turn the Principles into habits, and thereby improve all of your yarns.  The lesson is worth the price of the fiber.  Sure it is a week of spinning, but we like to spin, right?

A kilo of 5-ply will also force you to acquire the tools (bobbins, lazy Kate, yarn guides or tension box)  for better plying.  These will stand you in good stead, when you want to make very high quality 2-ply woolen spun.

A kilo of 5-ply is enough for you to start thinking about blocking singles prior to plying. (If you go into one of mills producing high-end luxury yarns, you will note that they block the singles prior to plying.)  Alden talks about plying in Chapter 11.  In Chapter 10, he talks about ways to make yarn better.   I think one of the few glosses in the book is that on page 263,  he should have points 5 & 6 about washing and blocking the yarn.

Sometimes the extra effort to wash and block the singles will save a great deal of  time. I use spinning oil, so washing the single after it is spun means that I can store that yarn, and am no longer under pressure to use that yarn.  Thus, washing yarn immediately after spinning reduces my stress levels. Over all, it saves me time because the spinning oil lets me spin much faster. It produces a better yarn because the spinning oil lets me spin more uniform yarn.  Some singles are just much easier to ply after they have been blocked. One example is fine hosiery singles ( 23,000 ypp, 17 tpi).  And, yarns plied up from those singles will be much better when you do take the time to wash and block the singles.

This post was prompted when a spinner on Ravelry, who has never made any gansey yarn, tried to tell me that it is not important to rewind bobbins prior to plying.  It is this group that makes fun of me because I am only a beginner, but I have the "one right way to spin". They have this up-side-down.  I believe in different yarns for different purposes.  I believe in different tools and techniques for different yarns.   And, I believe that any set of  tools and techniques that has been invented, can be improved.  I always look for Better, Faster, Cheaper!  There is no one right way to spin!  Today's best way to spin is not good enough for tomorrow.  When I see a better way to spin, I adopt it. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013


With all due respect to core spun yarns, plying is critical to the appearance, strength, warmth, and durability of yarn.  Why then, in modern spinning culture is plying considered a second rate procedure?  Spinners that have many beautiful, expensive spindles, use toilet paper rolls as storage/plying bobbins and a shoe box with knitting needles as a lazy Kate.

Sorry, but singles do not feed smoothly and evenly off of  a toilet paper roll on a knitting needle stuck through a shoe box. The result is less even plying.  A smooth, even flow of each single is required for good plying.  This is not a noticeable issue working with a few skeins of low twist woolen singles for 2-ply worsted weight yarns or even 4-ply DK yarns.  However, if one is making fine sock yarns or warp for a large weaving project it quickly becomes an issue.

Alden Amos is craftsman that knows how to ply, and is honest enough to tell his students and readers the truth.  Alden's Four Great Principles of Plying work.  However, Alden does not want to scare spinners off by telling them that they need a lot of expensive tools for plying.  That is my job.  (On the other hand, he has never been bashful about selling a lot of expensive tools for plying.)

Good plying tools are as essential as good spinning tools.  Instead of buying that third spinning wheel, use the money to get yourself some really good plying tools.  Get or make a good lazy Kate, with bobbins that fit, so that they turn smoothly.  (Along the way, you are likely to discover that you need a good bobbin winder.)

If you are working with fine or high twist singles, then they are much better behaved if they are blocked before plying.  Blocking singles prior to plying can result in much less over all effort, and much better yarns. With high energy singles, Alden's principle of rewound bobbins is an understatement.

Blocking can be accomplished by running the single through a steamer under tension.  Such a device can be made from a "T" of  PVC pipe attached to an inexpensive clothes steamer.  Less energetic singles can simply be wound onto reels, then washed and dried on the reel or the "Shaker Rocket Ship". This will take the combing/spinning oil out of the yarn and allow extended storage.  Here are some currently in use at the Tulip Patch:
The pointy thing, holds reels for winding off.

After washing and drying, singles can be wound into skeins for storage or put on plying bobbins.  I have also started using pirns as cores for winding cones.  More docile singles can simply be wound into center pull cakes for storage.

Now, comes the point of this post. Very fine singles are still a challenge to ply, particularly if you are doing 6 or 10  or more plies.  When working with large numbers of fine plies, consistent and uniform tension can be achieved with a tension box of the type used by weavers for warping sectional beams.  
I  use one made by AVl.  The one above by Leclerc is simpler.  For a spinner to buy, there is some sticker shock, but they are easy to make, once you have the idea - dowels between 2 reeds or raddles.

I have mine about 6' from the spinning orifice, and use DRS controlled twist insertion.  I allow twist to occur  as the singles exit the tension box. The result is fast uniform plying even when working with fine, high energy singles.