Lisa’s List: 15 Things You Should Really Know about Yarn
Behind every good knitter, there’s a spinner.
Or, in my case, there’s a spinner in the next office who good-naturedly humors my frequent barging-in and shouting things like “tell me everything you know about microns!” or “can you make yarn from any kind of camel??” or “does yarn really untwist if you work from a center-pull ball?” and most recently “Is this stock photo a Shetland sheep? Look at its face. Look at it, Anne.”
I present to you Anne Merrow, editor of Spin Off magazine, the fiber guru behind my knitting throne. Or, next to my office chair. She’s cool.
So when I wanted to know everything there was to know about microns, Anne filled my hands with spinning books and magazines and showed me that, oh nooo, it’s not just about microns. There is so much more to fiber than its girth.
So this week’s list, my friends, is the result of a curious knitter reading a bunch of spinning stuff. I went into the barn for you. And here you have:
15 Things You Should Know about Yarn but Might Not Already
I got this information from a few sources:
• Deb Robson’s seminal tome The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook
• Anne Merrow’s brain
You should pick up a spinning book or magazine; I think you’ll find the stories, the animal info, and the yarn info fascinating and relevant to your knitting pursuits.
IT STARTS WITH RAW FIBER.
1. FIBER CONTENT
This one’s pretty obvious, and most knitters know what their yarn IS, thanks to the magic of labels and yarn company marketing. To dig a little deeper here, fibers come in three main categories: protein, cellulose, and man-made. Protein comes from animals; cellulose from plants; and man-made is usually extruded (like acrylic).
2. BRADFORD COUNT
The higher the number, the thinner the fiber. This is a measurement of the diameter of fibers (not finished yarn). How many yards of yarn could you, theoretically, spin from one fleece? If it’s fine fiber, you can make more yards from it, so it gets a higher Bradford count. As a knitter, you won’t likely ever know the Bradford count of the fiber in your store-bought yarn. But fineness of fibers does correlate to some potential properties in finished yarn—we’ll get to that after #2.
3. MICRON COUNT
The lower the number, the finer the fiber. You’ve heard this word thrown around: microns. “Softer than cashmere, with a micron count of 13.5!” The word micron is super-handy for pushy yarn salesmen who want to hoodwink you with SCIENCE, but what does it mean?
A micron is one-millionth of a meter. This is a tiny measurement, developed by the USDA, that is used by the wool and fiber industry to measure diameter. Really precise and technical equipment is used to measure the micron count of fiber samples; it’s not something a spinner can measure out in the field while she’s petting a lamb.
Merino has one of the lowest micron counts when it comes to wool. Cashmere has a low micron count. Low micron count, or fineness, does often correlate with softness, but it’s not the only determinant when it comes to softness. All micron count definitively tells you is how fine or not fine a fiber is.
So let’s talk about fineness. Fineness is valued because the finer the fiber, the finer the yarn can be spun, the finer the fabric that can be woven or knitted. Fine fibers CAN lead to fine fabrics. Fine fabrics require craftsmanship and a lot of material to create. Think about 200-thread count sheets versus 800-count. The 800-count is more expensive and far more luxurious!
So yes, fineness can contribute to softness and warmth, but other factors are important for those qualities (see prickle and fiber length further down in the list). But fineness definitely correlates with SUMPTUOUSNESS. Drape. Luxury. Monetary value. Anne says, “The king gets the fine stuff, the peasant gets the coarse.” So it’s not that Merino wool is BETTER AT BEING WOOL than Lincoln wool; it’s just that fine Merino can make some really fine fabrics, and we put value in that fineness.
4. BLOOD COUNT
The higher the number (closer to 1), the finer the fiber. This is a method of measuring wool fineness that is not commonly used, but it’s interesting! It originally referred to the amount of Merino in the specimen’s genetics, but now is used more generically to measure fineness in domesticated and improved sheep breeds. To quote Amy Tyler: “Fine is the finest grade, followed by ½ Blood, which originally meant that the sheep was half Merino and the next step down in fineness. After Fine and ½ Blood follow 3/8 Blood, ¼ Blood, Low ¼ Blood, Common, and Braid.” Basically, if a spinner calls you a Braid, she thinks you’re rather coarse.
These spinners and their talk of kings and Commons and theoretical yardage…and here’s another quirky thing they measure. A denier is a measurement based on the weight of a Roman coin, and it’s the standard unit for grading silk and extruded fibers. The smaller the number, the finer the fiber/filament.
6. FIBER LENGTH
There isn’t a standard scale for grading fiber length, but it’s important. British long wools are a group of sheep breeds with long fibers. Silk is a long fiber. Bison and cotton? Shorties. Fiber length affects a few things: how the yarn can be spun; what it will blend well with; and its likeliness to pill or shed in finished fabrics. And warmth factor! Shorter fibers can be warmer (crimpy and short and hollow make a particularly warm combo).
Short fibers aren’t guaranteed to pill; the composition and spin affect that as well as fiber length. But if you mix short and long fibers in the same yarn, you will probably get some pilling. Angora-cotton is an example—the angora is long, the cotton is short. It makes a lovely yarn in the hand, but the short fibers have trouble keeping up with the long ones in the spinning process and in the final structure. So the shorties might slough off, creating fluffy, linty balls.
7. PRICKLE FACTOR
Prickle is that sensation you get when you touch wool and you feel pokies. It is prickle that is largely responsible for people saying that wool itches. It’s not that there are stabby fibers in the mix; it’s that the fibers aren’t consistent in fineness within a batch. And your skin feels those coarser ones as little pokes! Here’s an interesting journal article on the phenomenon.
Since the comfort of wool is important to textile manufacturers, a company developed the Wool Comfort Meter, which basically measures prickle factor. So the prickle factor is a measureable characteristic of wool! But all you really need is your own skin. Put a skein to your neck and decide for yourself—too prickly? Again, like with coarseness, prickly wool isn’t bad wool. It just might be better suited to a rug than a scarf.
Another key component to the “itchy” factor is the microscopic scale on individual wool fibers. Wool has scales (as does human hair). Larger scales, though miscroscopic, can be felt and can contribute to prickle factor. Scale size and jaggedness is affected by breed, as well as animal age, health, and genetics. Learn all about wool at the microscopic level in “The Itch Factor” by Kathy Augustine in Spin Off Summer 2015.
And, now, we move into characteristics of finished yarns, rather than fundamental fiber properties.
In both handspinning and commercial spinning, there are two styles of yarn-making that compose a continuum, with their ideals at either end and hybrids in the middle. These are worsted- and woolen-spun. At its most worsted, a worsted yarn is: combed so the fibers are aligned and straight; spun with no twist between the front and back hands, smoothing out the yarn and sliding the twist back in. This makes a sleek, dense strand. Long fibers lend themselves to worsted spinning. At its most woolen, woolen-spun is: Jumbled and airy, with deliberate “interruption” while spinning—you let in twist and then pull away from the forming yarn. Woolen-spun yarns are light and don’t have a lot of body; they often have a matte finish. Check out the handy infographic on woolen and worsted from The Intentional Spinner below.
Most commercial yarn is worsted-spun. However, Harrisville and some Brooklyn Tweed and Imperial yarns are woolen in style; Bartlett’s and Beaverslide both use spinning mules, an old-fashioned piece of equipment that spins woolen. In handspinning, short fibers like to be spun woolen—so cotton, bison, cashmere, qiviut, etc, are usually spun woolen when done by hand.
Spinning is the act of adding twist to fiber. You can twist the fiber clockwise or counterclockwise; the term for the former is Z twist, and the latter, S twist. Most yarn, handmade and machine-made alike, is spun Z twist and then plied S twist.
What are the benefits of twist? Twist captures the fibers and secures them, preventing shedding or pilling. So you twist the single strand, then twist multiple strands together in plying. And you ply in the opposite direction from the original twist, so you have these plies hugging each other and creating balance. All that twist works to capture the fibers and keep them secured. And the balancing of the opposing twist gives you even fabric when you knit. An unbalanced yarn will give you skewed fabric. Singles yarns pill more because they don’t have this double-twisting, and singles fabric skews because it hasn’t been plied, so it lacks that balance.
Is the yarn plied? How many plies does it have? How was the yarn plied—cabled or conventionally? Here’s an article about that. Maybe it’s a machine-made chainette, a woven tape yarn, or it’s corespun art yarn, or strips of T-shirts, or… Composition has a big impact on what you can do with a yarn and how the fabric will behave.
11. YARDS PER POUND
You use a McMorran balance to measure yards per pound in a yarn, which is a handy measurement for substituting yarns. Now it might not be that helpful if you’re substituting cotton for wool, for instance, because those fibers are inherently different in weight. Different fibers have a different “yarn count,” which is a standard number for YPP and important when comparing yarns and determining weaving count (see #15). The more yards per pound in a yarn, the finer it is (and/or lighter). If you can match the YPP between one yarn and another, then you’re on the path to successful substitution.
This is sort of yards per pound again. Some folks use grist interchangeably with “weight,” whereby they’re referring to the thickness of a yarn, but grist is technically the yards per pound, or meters per kilogram. You can measure it with a McMorran balance, or by dividing the full length in yards of a yarn by its full weight. Now that would require knowing exactly how long your yarn is, and if it’s an unlabeled skein from the bottom of the stash, you might want to move on to WPI and forget this whole thing.
13. WRAPS PER INCH (WPI)
This is how many times you can wrap yarn around an object within one inch, with the yarn closely wrapped but not overlapping itself. The more wraps per inch, the finer the yarn. You can wrap your yarn around a ruler, a pencil, or one of these handy WPI tools, which comes with a card that tells you what WEIGHT your measured yarn is. And once you know the weight, you knitters know what needle size to use and if a yarn will work for your chosen pattern. WPI is not a very precise measurement, as each person might wrap their yarn slightly differently, but it gets you in the ballpark of knowing how thick your yarn is. If you have unlabeled stash yarn or pick up some glorious handspun at a fiber fest, measure the WPI and you’ll have an idea of the weight. Then go home and swatch!
The measurement that knitters and crocheters rely upon! The Craft Yarn Council has standardized 8 yarn weights, from lace to jumbo, and these classifications are helpful for understanding yarns, patterns, and substitution. The standard weights are numbered 0 to 7; the lower the number, the finer the yarn. Many yarn manufacturers adhere to the standards and classify their yarns as certain weights; you’re probably familiar with the phrase “#4 Medium,” for instance. Yarn weight is a continuum, and the content and structure of a yarn affect its gauge and ideal needle size a lot. Swatching is always key to matching a yarn to a pattern, but knowing the weight will get you closer to a good fit.
15. WEAVING COUNT
Weaving yarns (usually come on cones) are labeled with a number that looks like this: 8/2, 20/2, 6/3. The smaller number refers to the number of plies; the higher number refers to the fineness of the single strand within the yarn. If the higher number is the bottom number, we’re talking about wool. If the higher number is on top, cotton. This goes back to the yarn count and YPP, which are tied to specific fiber content. The content of the yarn affects the numbers, but generally, the higher the high number, the finer the yarn. There is no solid conversion for knitting weight here, as the numbers can vary quite a bit based on content and plies. If you want to knit with a weaving yarn, know this: it’s probably a fingering weight or lighter, so we’re talking small needles. Measure the WPI to get in the ballpark.
Whew, that was a lot of info. Isn’t it fascinating? I was talking over this list with my dear mother, who took up spinning after 50 years of knitting. She said, “Spinning is the best thing I ever did for my knitting.” Why? Because understanding all these yarn concepts gave her much more control and insight when it came to using yarns in projects.
Are you intrigued by spinning? Would you like to take all these concepts and apply them to making your own awesome yarn? Check out some of our beginner resources below, and if you’re in the vicinity next week, come to Yarn Fest and take one of our Beginning Spinning classes. You can shop the market for yarn, fiber, and gear, learn to spin, and meet me and Anne in person. Make a day for yarn!
Coarse and proud of it,
Love yarn? Make your own!