Monday, April 28, 2014

Ply Twist

To make a long story short, the old Fisherman's Wool was rather tightly spun singles of fine wool, rather loosely plied. When knit, the plies in the yarn would spread out to form a web.  This facilitated knitting weather proof fabrics.  A sweater that I knit from old LB FW remains the warmest sweater that I own.   In contrast, the British Breeds and Frangipani yarns had much more ply twist so that they tend to leave holes in the fabric between the yarns,  making it more difficult to knit weather proof fabrics. Thus 7 years ago,  there were at least two different styles of 5-ply yarn that produced two very different kinds of fabric. The LB FW of today is a third style of yarn that produces another, different style of fabric.

I had to think about it for a year, but it was the difference in ply twist between the old LB FW and the  British Breeds / Frangipani yarns that convinced me that I needed to learn to spin.  And today, 7 years later, when I sit down to plan a yarn, the first thing that I think about is the how much ply twist does this object want?  Am I looking for stitch definition or a dense fabric?  This is intrinsic to the nature of the object.

We can see from the two LB FWs and the traditional British 5-ply yarn that there is a good deal of variability in what mills think is a good gansey yarn. This goes back to my concept of purpose.   A yarn is not exceptional until its purpose has been defined. The old LB FW, the British yarns, and the new LB FW are three classes of  5-ply yarn with different purposes.

Today there are more sources of yarn for gansey (Guernseys, Jerseys, and Aran) sweaters. There is Frangipani, Blacker Yarns, Iriss of Penzance, Upton, Sunday, Artyarn, and a few others including a bunch of acrylic blends. Of these, I have to salute Blacker Yarns for their use of long wool.  Still, when I think of an object, I cannot be certain that I can find the right yarn for that object from a commercial source.

A competent hand spinner can replicate any of these commercial 5-ply gansy yarns with ease.   The are all based on 5,600 ypp worsted plies, e.g., 10s. 10s are easy to spin. You can spin them in long wool or fine wool.  You can spin them tight, and ply them firm, to produce a very thin, dense, smooth yarn with very crisp stitch definition.  Or you can spin them loose and ply them tight to produce a big round yarn that make the stitches really "pop".   All of a sudden the commercial offerings of gansey yarns seem rather meager.

The exceptional knitter that can also spin is not limited to what some mill thinks gansey yarn should look like.  Fine wool and long wool is always available. Dyes are always available.  The exceptional knitter that can spin, can always spin the right gansey yarn needed for an object -- when it is needed.  If you are a competent spinner, you can spin the 5-ply needed for a gansey in 30 or 40 hours.  Since it takes between 100 and 200 hours to knit an elaborate gansey, the spinning costs between 30 and 20 percent of  the project time.  That is not cost effective for a professional, but for a recreational knitter that enjoys the process, it is reasonable.

I also am willing to put a few more hours into a gansey because I know that a little more effort will let it last much longer, or because I know that the yarn I spin will be warmer - thus I can get by with a ridiculously small bag when I go sailing. For me that extra 30 hours is cost effective because my sweaters last longer, so I spend less time knitting.  In the same way, better yarn was cost effective for knitters knitting for their loved sailors 300 years ago.  Unlike, Lion Brand or British Breeds, I use long wool because it is much more durable, and I spin it tight so that it wears like iron, then I ply it loosely (looser than BB) so that after knitting it forms a dense, weatherproof fabric. Over all, the extra effort to spin my own yarn saves me time and money.

Having the correct yarn makes exceptional knitting much easier. Back in the days when I knit with British mill spun 5-ply yarns, I used very pointy needles.  Experience with swaving, and  now that many of my 5-ply yarns have less ply twist means that today, I tend to use blunter needles that I  pop into the stitches - like swaving pricks.  (Does not work for Eastern Cross Stitch.)  The process is fast and produces a very tight, uniform fabric.  Today, I would say that one can knit fast with either pointy needles or with blunt needles depending on the yarn being used and the stitch being produced.  They are two different techniques, each with their own virtues for different kinds of yarns to produce different kinds of objects.  To say that one needs pointy needles to knit fast is not the whole story.

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