I took a workshop this weekend, spinning for socks from Judith MacKenzie McCuin, and as usual Judith is a blast to hang out with for a fiber geek. She has an interest in traditional textiles and primitive sheep, two things I’m rather fond of. But she also knows industrial textiles and judges competitions, two things I am still trying to figure out. In class we talked a lot about what makes a good sock yarn. I’d like to do more socks, and I might yet get around to that, but mostly I wanted to take this class to learn more about yarn structure. Most of what I knit is with sock-like yarns.

I always come away with something to think about, and some of it seems to have little to do with the topic under discussion. Because I’m mostly self-taught, I don’t know that I’m not supposed to see the gaps between the so-called conventional wisdom and my own experience. Sometimes they are quite wide chasms and I’m baffled as to why. For as much as everybody likes my knitting, my range is rather limited. I know the basics of textile history concerning knitting but it’s more recent than my primary areas of study. So I don’t really understand why knitting yarns are the way they are. I had my suspicions on this point but after conversations with Judith apparently neither do all that many other people. Including nearly all yarn manufacturers. She says that the things we find in the stores are really yarns designed for weaving. I’m not entirely clear on why, exactly, but I’ll work on that.

We threw away some much-trumpeted beliefs about sock yarns, the major one for me is that fine wool does indeed make great sock yarn and you don’t have to blend it with nylon. My own commercial Merino blend socks end up with huge patches of nylon as the wool wears away. I’ve heard that so many times that it makes me wonder if it’s been pushed by the nylon manufacturers. (Things like this have happened, in textiles and elsewhere. DuPont didn’t have much interest in encouraging natural fibers just like General Motors didn’t have anything good to say about urban rail transit.) You can blend all you like, and nylon is a rational choice for blending with short wools, but it’s not by any means required. The important point is that longer fibers make better sock yarn and to get smooth and even yarn it should be spun worsted. Lumps and bumps have their interesting uses, but you don’t want them on the bottom of your feet.

Wool has many useful properties that make it a good option. Wool for socks should have a lot of crimp, to make elastic yarn. Elastic yarn makes elastic fabric. Elastic fabric doesn’t sag or wrinkle. If it isn’t moving around inside your boot, it isn’t causing blisters on your feet. As one who wears boots a lot, this is a big deal.

Another important feature about sock yarns, and also knitting yarns in general, is that they be three-ply or more. This makes a round yarn and produces a smoother knit fabric, something I already knew. But I wanted to know about twist. There is this huge fuss about balanced plied yarns but all over the place there is traditional knitting that has never heard of the balanced yarn. Balanced yarn is very pretty, but it leaves the individual fibers more prone to snagging and wear. It’s entirely possible to make successful socks with less than three plies. But you have to think carefully about the construction. We passed around some socks from various countries and they were quite different from the modern American idea of what a sock should look like. Some were very stiff, from strongly twisted yarns knit very firmly. They would most compare to slippers rather than something that goes inside one’s tennis shoe. One was knit of singles from a horrid scratchy goat fiber that seems like it would be impossibly uncomfortable. But it fit so closely and so well that it is very wearable, something Judith didn’t discover until some time later. If they don’t move around, they don’t scratch.

The reason I make knitting yarns with a firm twist in the single and 3-ply is to get a finished product that is dense and hard-wearing. More twist in the single means a more tightly twisted plied yarn, so the fiber is held in place more securely. Better still is to add a little more twist in the plying, so there is not the chance of loose fibers hanging about, they are all held in place with twist. But that violates the fundamental tenet of the balanced yarn. I’ve never really understood that, so I asked. After all, in a previous workshop Judith talked about how woolen yarns are best with a low twist in the single and more twist in the plying (and nearly useless as singles alone.) Those pretty balanced yarns look great hanging up for display at wool shows, but she has her doubts about their practical applications.

So there it is, I’m not crazy. This has been bugging me for years, with all the books, teachers and yarn judges that go on about balanced yarns. I was very careful about what I said about plying as to not be immediately branded apostate. I spent hours finishing plied yarns wet with a spindle for the COE because I knew that was the first thing a judge was going to look at. And the one yarn that wasn’t, intentionally and for a specific purpose, was marked off for exactly that. I understand the mechanics and I entirely don’t get why it is such a big deal. Slightly unbalanced yarns work fine in normal modern knitting and highly twisted yarns make fabrics that wear forever. So if unbalanced plied yarn is indeed heresy, at least I know I will have good company in Spinner Hell.

There are many other things from this weekend, ideas to contemplate and techniques to practice. I think I may now finally really understand the difference between short forward draft and short backward draft and why it matters. I’ll write more on these things as I work through what I learned and discover how to apply it to my own spinning.

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