Monday, April 21, 2014

More Twist

Twist is what holds wool fiber together as yarn.   Within limits, more twist results in a more durable yarn.

Consider 10-ply Aran weight. (10 plies of 5,600 ypp singles)  Each single requires 9 tpi plus the 9 tpi to ply them together means the final yarn @ ~500 ypp requires 99 tpi to produce.  It is a remarkably elastic and durable yarn.  Just the thing to knit up for warm sweater to protect a loved one as he sets off to fish the wild and cold north Atlantic.  And, in a world where hand spinners are spinning boat loads of of 10s for weavers, a couple of pounds of 10- ply for a knitter is easy to obtain.  (I do not care what history says, I know what works. Women have always found ways to keep their loved ones warm.)

Gansey yarn is 5-plies of  5,600 ypp singles and requires ~ 54 tpi in total to produce. It is not as warm as 10-ply Aran, but then it is only half the weight of wool.  Again, by modern standards, 5-ply is a remarkably elastic and durable yarn. It is also warm, but I today I am saying that fabrics knit from yarns with more plies are more elastic.   And, in a world where hand spinners are spinning boat loads of of  10s for weavers, a couple of pounds of  5- ply for a knitter was easy to obtain.   It was known as wasset

Yes, fabric elasticity varies with knitting gauge and other things, but all else equal, fabrics knit from wool yarns with more plies are much more elastic.  And, a yarn with more plies or strands will be more durable than a yarn of the same grist with fewer plies or strands.  If I was going off to sea, I would rather have a sweater knit from real 10-ply made up from loom waste than a sweater knit from same grist yarn plied  up from 2 continuous plies.  The 10-ply would be warmer, and despite the plies not being continuous, the loom waste would be much more durable. Fabric knit for high elasticity will be knit more loosely knit than fabric knit for maximum warmth.   Sometimes we have enough wool and can afford the weight so that we can trade weight of wool for comfort.  Not all of us are subject to the strict weight limits of  a top man working in a tall ship where we need the most warmth for the least weight.

Aran weight made up from 5-plies of  2,900 ypp singles requires about 36 tpi to produce, and is a nice looking yarn that knits up into Aran stitch patterns better than any modern mill spun Aran ( e.g., 2 or 3-ply), but is not quite as durable as 10-ply Aran or even 5-ply gansey yarn.  On the other hand it is only a third the work of  10-ply Aran and 2/3 the work of  5-ply gansey yarn.  On the other hand, it is almost 4 times as much work to spin  as 2-ply Aran.  That IS why we see 2 and 3-ply Aran yarns.  2-ply and 3-ply Aran yarns are less work to produce, and thereby much, much cheaper.

The cheaper yarns are not nearly as durable as the higher-ply product.  Are you putting enough effort into your knitting that you want the object to endure? Or are you just knitting for kids that will out-grow the objects?  Or, are you just knitting objects that you intend to discard after this years fashion season?  What are  your goals for your objects?

The astute reader has guessed that the real  point of this post is sock yarn.  Sock yarn  is the modern hand spun yarn that still requires real durability. I have been re-reading Nancy Bush on Vintage Socks and confess myself disappointed. (I also had the original Weldon's open.)  The yarns and needles she suggests result in a sock that, for me, is too thick for business/ dress shoes, and too thin for boots.  I would be reduced to wearing those socks with my water sandals.  I suppose that people that wear such socks have a class of sport shoes that need socks of such weight.  I would like to point out that no where in the book is there a picture of such socks actually being worn. And, there is no discussion as to which heels and toes are comfortable under different conditions.  I have a wide foot, and I like to walk.  Thus, I need a  Kitchener stitch at the toe.  That is not discussed what so ever.  The idea of knitting a sock that is not functional is foreign to me.  I have no problem with making purely decorative items, but if I am going to knit a decorative item, it will be a shawl  or table cloth, and not socks that are pretty, but not comfortable.  If I am going to go to the bother of knitting a sock, it will be functional.  It will be as functional as I can make it.

 Traditional hosiery singles were worsted spun at 17 tpi - e.g., 40s or 22,400 ypp.  Modern sock yarn run 1,400 ypp, so that would be ~ 15 or 16-ply -- a yarn that requires a total of almost than 290 twists per inch to produce.  All of a sudden, the 10-ply Aran does not seem so twist/labor intensive.  However, traditionally hose were knit finer on needles sized between 1.0 and 1.55 mm.  On such fine needles a sock yarn of 6 hosiery plies works just fine and requires only about 120 twists per inch in total. And, 6 hosiery plies has a grist of just over 3,000 ypp and when knit on traditional needles produces a sock that will fit in my town shoes. And,  it wears like iron.  It works for folks like me that like to walk.  And, it is elastic.  It is so elastic that the vintage patterns when knit from fine 6-ply yarns even work for folks like me with wide feet.  It turns out that the Kitchener stitch is a crutch for cheap mill spun yarns with few plies.  If you like knitting with the thicker yarn, you can make 12-ply.  That is the glory of hand spinning.  However, if you have only knit with the modern yarns sold as sock yarns, this is outside of your range of experience.

The Vintage Patterns do work with the traditional hosiery yarns knit on fine needles, but the products are much less functional when knit with modern commercial sock yarns on larger needles as discussed by Bush.

Which bring us to the question of nylon and super wash.  I think that many fine plies improves wool's durability enough that the addition of nylon makes much less difference. However, I like medium wools such as Sufolk for socks.These are more durability that say Merino.   If I was making cheap sock yarn, I would add nylon because it is cheaper than wool and it would allow me to put less twist in the yarn for the same durability.  I make a similar argument for superwash technologies  --  worsted spun yarns, with fine plies, tolerate washing very well.  Super wash allows yarns with less twist or more woolen character to tolerate washing.  Drying is another matter. If you are going to  dry your woolies in the dryer, you NEED super wash technology.  However, fine spun worsted dries very well on a room temperature drying rack.

You are not going to get high twist, fine spun yarns from your local knitting yarn shop. Such yarns are expensive, and capital for inventory is limited. Dye is cheap, so you can have cheap yarns in any color. Twist is expensive, so you are not going to find many high twist yarns.  And not many modern knitters have the skills and tools to work with fine yarns so there is less demand for fine worsted yarns.  All in all, these days, there are not many of these yarns around.  If you want fine yarns, you are going to have to either make them or have them spun to order.  To experiment with these kinds of yarn try plying weaving warp yarns together. (e.g., cable 2 strands of 5,600 ypp warp to make a 4-strand 2,800 ypp yarn.)  This is less work than hand spinning hosiery singles.  This can give you a taste of the possible, but not the full effect. Plied rather than cabled yarn will give a smoother sock fabric. 6-ply  hosiery yarn is unlike anything you are likely to see in a modern commercial setting. It is fine lace weight, only stronger and smoother.  Sock fabric knit from 6-ply  hosiery yarn spun from long wool is smooth, silken to the touch, and durable.  (And, in black or navy blue, these yarns suck the light out of a room better and faster than Peruvian Darkness Powder.)

In that days when hand spinners were spinning boat loads of fine singles for weavers, fine knitting yarns were easy to come by. When I was spinning a lot of 10s, 10-ply Aran and 5-ply were easy to prepare.  As I spin more 40s for the shirting project, traditional  hosiery yarns are easy to prepare.

Competent hand spinners enable competent knitters.

(I find that I like to knit fine hosiery yarns using a leather knitting pouch rather than a knitting sheath.  And, for hosiery I like very flexible stainless steel needles, rather than my stiffer spring steel needles.  The 14" needles are easily available in sizes of 1.125 mm and larger.)

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