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Introduction to Plying Techniques

  • 11 min read
A 2 ply handspun yarn. Photographer: A R | Source: Unsplash
A 2 ply handspun yarn. Photographer: A R

What is Plying?

In the art of hand spinning, plying refers to the process of merging multiple strands of yarn. When spinning yarn, a single strand is typically called a single or a single ply. Plying involves twisting two or more strands together to enhance the yarn's strength, durability, and thickness. There are several plying techniques that serve not only to strengthen the yarn but also to even out any irregularities or inconsistencies from the spinning process.

Unlike in commercially produced yarns, the number of strands used in plying matches the number of plies in the naming of the yarn. For instance, a two-ply yarn is created by twisting two strands of singles, while a three-ply yarn involves combining three strands. The plies are twisted opposite to the original spin to achieve balance and stability in the yarn. By merging multiple strands, any variations in thickness or tension can be spread throughout the plied yarn, resulting in a more uniform and consistent end product.

History of Plying

The history of plying goes back thousands of years to ancient times when people realized that using just one strand of yarn wasn't always strong enough for weaving or knitting. So, they started twisting together multiple strands to make the yarn stronger. This technique made the yarn more durable and valuable for different crafts.

One ancient plying technique is the Andean plying, which comes from South America. It involves making a loop with the yarn which is held on the wrist like a bracelet and then twisting and plying it back onto itself, similar to plying from a centre pull ball. Another method is chain plying, where a single strand of yarn is looped and twisted in a chain-like fashion, similar to a crochet chain, to make a 3 ply yarn.

Over time, plying techniques have improved, like the invention of spinning wheels in the 13th century, which made plying much faster and easier. Nowadays, spinners often use a lazy kate to hold multiple yarn bobbins while they ply them onto a spinning wheel's bobbin.

What is the Purpose of Plying in the Spinning Process?

The purpose of plying in the spinning process is to make the yarn stronger and more balanced. Plying happens when you twist together two or more strands of spun yarn in the opposite direction of their original spin. This helps to correct any twisting or unevenness in the individual strands, boosting the yarn's strength, durability, and overall stability. Plied yarn is smoother and more consistent, which is great for knitting, crocheting, and weaving because it enhances stitch definition.

Moreover, plying allows you to mix different colours or textures, creating unique and visually interesting yarns that can add depth to your finished projects. By improving yarn quality and versatility, plying plays a crucial role in ensuring the production of high-quality textiles.

A Brief Overview of Commonly Encountered Ply Structures

Multi-ply yarns (Photographer: Mel Poole | Source: Unsplash)
Multi-ply yarns Photographer: Mel Poole

Singles or Single-Ply

In hand spinning, a singles yarn refers to a type of yarn spun from a single strand of fibre, unlike a plied yarn, which is made by twisting together two or more singles yarns. Single-ply yarn is created through spinning, where fibres are drawn out and twisted together to form a continuous strand.

There are several reasons why a spinner might opt to keep their yarn as a single ply:

  1. Desired Texture or Appearance: Single-ply yarn typically has a unique texture and appearance compared to plied yarn. It can have a more rustic or organic look, with variations in thickness and texture that add character to the finished product. Some spinners prefer this aesthetic for specific projects, such as handwoven textiles or artisanal garments.
  2. Efficiency and Simplicity: Plying yarn requires additional steps and equipment, including a spinning wheel or spindle and the time to ply the strands together. Leaving the yarn as a single ply can be more efficient, especially for beginners or when working with limited time or resources.
  3. Softness and Drape: Single-ply yarn often has a softer and more fluid drape than plied yarn. This can be desirable for projects where drape and softness are important factors, such as lightweight scarves, shawls, or delicate garments.
  4. Yarn Stability and Structure: While plied yarns are generally more stable and less prone to pilling or breaking, single-ply yarn can offer certain structural benefits in specific contexts. For example, single-ply yarn can be effectively used in weaving projects where a slightly irregular texture adds interest and depth to the fabric.
  5. Artistic Expression: Hand spinning is as much an art form as it is a craft, and many spinners enjoy experimenting with different techniques and materials to create unique yarns. Keeping yarn as a single ply allows for greater artistic freedom and exploration, enabling spinners to showcase the natural beauty of the fibres they work with.

Ultimately, the decision to keep yarn as a single ply is personal, influenced by factors such as the intended use of the yarn, the spinner's skill level and preferences, and the desired aesthetic or functional qualities of the finished product.

2-Ply, 3-Ply, 4-Ply, and Beyond

Handspun 3 ply yarn used to knit a textured sweater. Image Credit: Samantha Gehrmann
Handspun 3 ply yarn used to knit a textured sweater. Image Credit: Samantha Gehrmann

When selecting yarn for knitting or crocheting projects, the ply count plays a crucial role. The number of plies in a yarn impacts its strength, durability, and stitch definition. Two-ply and three-ply yarns are commonly used, each offering distinct characteristics. However, crafters may also opt to create four-ply or even six-ply yarns if desired. Regardless of the ply count, the process remains the same.

To create a traditional multi-ply yarn from singles using a lazy kate in hand spinning, follow these steps:

  1. Prepare the single-ply yarn: Spin your desired number of single-ply yarns using a spinning wheel or spindle. Be sure to spin all singles in the same direction. Each single-ply yarn will become one ply in the final multi-ply yarn. If you're not spinning directly onto multiple bobbins wind the singles onto separate bobbins, ensuring they are evenly wound and free from tangles or knots. You will need as many bobbins as the ply you wish to create plus one extra to ply onto, e.g. for a 3 ply yarn, you will need singles split across 3 bobbins plus 1 extra to ply onto.
  2. Set up the lazy kate: Place the lazy kate on a stable surface, such as the floor, a table or a countertop, within easy reach of your spinning wheel or spindle.
  3. Load the bobbins onto the lazy kate: Insert each bobbin containing a single-ply yarn onto the spindles or rods of the lazy kate, securing them in place and spacing them evenly to prevent tangling.
  4. Thread the single-ply yarn through the spinning wheel or spindle: If using a spinning wheel, thread the leader yarn through the orifice and attach all single-ply yarns to this leader yarn either with a simple knot or by introducing a little twist. For a spindle, attach the end of each single-ply yarn to the spindle shaft or hook.
  5. Join the single-ply yarns: Overlap and gently twist the ends of the single-ply yarns to join them securely, ensuring a continuous and strong connection for the plied yarn.
  6. Begin plying: Spin the singles yarns together in the opposite direction from their initial spin, achieved by turning the spinning wheel or spindle in the opposite direction of the singles twist. The singles will naturally want to twist together to form a multi-ply yarn.
  7. Control the tension: Maintain even tension on the single-ply yarns during plying to ensure consistency in thickness and texture. Adjust tension by controlling the spinning wheel or spindle speed and guiding the yarns with your fingers.
  8. Wind the multi-ply yarn: Wind the newly created multi-ply yarn onto a niddy-noddy to form a skein. Tie figure 8s loosely in multiple spots with cotton thread to keep yarn organised before removing it from the niddy noddy.
  9. Finish the yarn: To set the twist of a wool yarn, soak the yarn in warm water for approximately 30 minutes with gentle wool wash, gently squeeze out the excess water and hang it to dry. This step can help relax and more evenly distribute twist which enhances the yarn's softness and balance.

By following these steps and using a lazy kate, you can efficiently ply multiple single-ply yarns to create a multi-ply yarn suitable for various textile projects. If you have only one bobbin, alternative methods for plying yarn will be discussed in the following section.

The Different Plying Techniques

Lazy Kate Super Jumbo by Ashford (Image credit: Ashford)
Lazy Kate Super Jumbo by Ashford (Image credit: Ashford)

Plying techniques are fundamental to the art of hand spinning, allowing spinners to create strong, versatile yarns for various textile projects. Among the various plying techniques, and as briefly mentioned in the history of plying, Andean Plying, Chain Plying, and Cabled Plying stand out as popular methods with unique characteristics and benefits.

Andean Plying

Andean plying is a technique that originated in the Andean regions of South America and is still widely used by hand spinners today. This method is particularly useful when working with a single spindle or bobbin and helps prevent tangling while creating a balanced, plied yarn.

  • Setup: To start Andean plying, make a slip knot near the end of your singles yarn. Loop the yarn around your hand in a figure-eight pattern, creating a length of yarn to ply with.
  • Plying: After winding the yarn around your hand, carefully slide it off while keeping the loops intact. Thread the loose end through the slip knot to create a loop with both ends accessible for plying. Secure the loop around your wrist or a stable object and start plying the yarn, ensuring smooth tension and even twisting.
  • Benefits: Andean plying is convenient for plying single-ply yarn without multiple bobbins or spindles. It maintains yarn organization, reduces tangling, and produces a balanced plied yarn suitable for a range of projects.

Chain Plying

Chain plying creates a three-ply yarn from a single strand of single-ply yarn. This technique is favoured by spinners for its ability to preserve colour consistency in variegated yarns and create unique self-striping effects.

  • Setup: Begin chain plying with your single-ply yarn on a spindle or bobbin. Instead of using additional singles or a lazy kate, create loops in the yarn itself as you spin.
  • Plying: Hold the loop in one hand and allow the yarn to twist around itself, forming a looped chain. As you feed more yarn into the chain loop, it creates a plied yarn with multiple strands.
  • Benefits: Chain plying is ideal for maintaining colour transitions and creating captivating colour patterns in the yarn. It's versatile and allows spinners to experiment with colour combinations and textures.

Cabled Plying

Cabled plying, also known as cable twist plying, involves twisting multiple plied yarns together to create a thicker, more robust yarn. This technique is commonly used in knitting and crocheting projects that require durable, textured yarns.

  • Setup: Prepare 2 or more multi-plied yarns you want to twist together to create a cabled ply yarn. Most commonly, these are 2 x 2 ply yarns, but you may wish to use more plies or yarns. These yarns should be overplied either by running back through your wheel a second time or by doubling the amount of twist in the ply you’d normally add.
  • Plying: Twist the plied yarns together in the opposite direction from which they were initially plied. This creates a strong, tightly twisted yarn with a distinctive cable-like appearance.
  • Benefits: Cable ply yarns are known for their strength, resilience, and unique texture. They are suitable for creating cozy garments, blankets, and accessories that require added durability.

Mastering different plying techniques, such as Andean Plying, Chain Plying, and Cabled Plying, opens up a world of possibilities for hand spinners. These techniques not only enhance yarn strength and durability but also allow for creative exploration in colour, texture, and design in textile arts. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced spinner, incorporating these plying methods into your spinning repertoire can elevate your craft and inspire innovative projects.

Can I Create Novelty Yarns through Plying?

Textured yarns produced by varying the singles thicknesses and angle of ply. Image credit: Samantha Gehrmann
Textured yarns produced by varying the singles thicknesses and angle of ply. Image credit: Samantha Gehrmann

Plying techniques offer a creative avenue for spinners to produce novelty yarns with unique textures and appearances. By manipulating factors such as tension, ply angle, and yarn thickness, spinners can achieve various effects that add depth and visual interest to their yarns. Here are some key techniques for creating novelty yarns through plying:

  • Coils: One method involves plying a soft, thick strand against a tightly twisted thin strand. This juxtaposition creates spirals within the yarn, giving it a dynamic and visually captivating look. This type of novelty yarn is ideal for adding an intriguing twist to knitting or crochet projects. Set a firm uptake on your spinning wheel and tie a thin, strong single or a strand of strong commercial core yarn to your leader yarn and ply your single ply at a 90-degree angle while maintaining tension on your "core" to create beautiful coils.
  • Boucle Yarn: Boucle yarn is another example of a novelty yarn created through plying. This technique starts by forming loose loops around a core yarn, which can vary in size from small circles to large curls. These loops are then secured in place by a binder thread. The resulting yarn has a bumpy texture, adding depth and dimension to the finished product. Boucle yarn is often used to create textured fabrics, and its unique appearance can be accentuated by using larger needles or hooks in knitting or crochet.
  • Barber Pole Yarn: Simply ply 2 singles of different colours together to enjoy this simple but standout yarn.
  • Other techniques include beehives, granny stacks, inserting locks or embellishments and the list goes on! Perhaps you may even dream up a new technique.

By experimenting with plying techniques and adjusting variables such as yarn thickness and ply tension, spinners can craft novelty yarns that stand out with their distinctive textures and visual appeal. Whether used in scarves, sweaters, or other projects, these one-of-a-kind yarns can elevate the overall look and feel of handmade creations, making them truly special and unique.

Which Ply Structure Should I Use?

When it comes to selecting the right ply structure for your yarn, it all boils down to personal preference and the specific project you have in mind. It's important to note that the ply structure of yarn can significantly impact stitch definition in both knitting and crochet, as well as the finish of woven fabrics.

Here's a straightforward breakdown (and a quick recap of what we discussed earlier) of how ply structure influences stitch definition:

  1. Single-Ply Yarn: Made from a single strand of spun fibres without any twisting with other strands. It typically has a soft and lofty feel but may not offer as crisp a stitch definition as plied yarns. It can create a halo effect, where fibres slightly fuzz out, blurring stitch definition.
  2. Plied Yarns: Made by twisting multiple strands of yarn together, such as 2-ply, 3-ply, or more. These generally provide better stitch definition compared to single-ply yarns because the individual strands support each other, making stitches more distinct. The twisted structure helps stitches stand out and maintain their shape, resulting in crisper and more defined fabric.
  3. Cabled Yarns: Constructed by twisting plied yarns together, creating a highly stable and structured yarn. These typically offer excellent stitch definition due to their tightly twisted structure. Cabled yarns are ideal for intricate stitch patterns and textured designs where stitch clarity is crucial.
  4. Novelty Yarns: These vary in construction, appearance, and texture, so sampling is essential. They can be used independently to create artistic sweaters, accessories, and home decor or combined with traditional yarns for added stability or accent.

In both knitting and crochet, stitch definition plays a vital role in showcasing intricate patterns, textures, and designs. Here's how the choice of yarn ply structure can enhance or diminish stitch definition based on the desired effect:

  • For projects with intricate stitch patterns or cables, using a plied or cabled yarn can help the stitches stand out and maintain clarity.
  • Single-ply yarns are often preferred for projects where a softer, more subdued look is desired, such as shawls, scarves, and garments with a halo effect.

Ultimately, the selection of yarn ply structure depends on the intended design aesthetic and the level of stitch definition required for the project. Experimenting with different ply structures and plying techniques can lead to discovering the perfect match for your creative vision.

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