Crochet and Yarn: Seriously Twisted

I just freaked myself out, seriously.  My entire crochet life I assumed, and was assured by the writings of others, that it makes no difference whether you begin working with a skein, ball or cake of yarn by pulling from the outside or by pulling from the center (see here). HOKEY SMOKES!  As a result of some geeky experiments I did this morning while snow bound at home, I now know that there is a difference. Yes, I should get a life.  But if you’d like to know what I discovered, then read on.

Let me take a step back and talk about yarn twist for a moment.  I’ve been examining and writing about yarn twist for years (see here) and hope you’re all caught up, but I will summarize.  Except for ribbon, tape and tubular constructions (and perhaps roving, but I never work with unspun roving so I can’t say for sure) where the finished yarn is a wider or flatter product and the spinning, plying or twisting of the yarn fibers is not evident and not an issue, every yarn has a finished twist.  Yarn is either S-Twist or Z-Twist.  That particular twist is always the same no matter how you are viewing the strand, no matter which end is up or down.  How can you tell which twist?  Look at a single strand of yarn; if the fibers or plies make a slant this way \, like the center stroke of an S, then it is S-Twist.  If it slants this way /, like the center stroke of a Z, then it is Z-Twist.  Below, Z-Twist on left, S-Twist on right. That’s all pretty straightforward… so far.

twist

Z-Twist yarn on left; S-Twist yarn on right.

The huge majority of commercial yarn is finished with S-Twist, no matter how the individual fibers, strand and plies are spun.  No idea why.  Maybe it’s a manufacturing thing.  I suspect that it is an end-user thing.  Most hand-crafting yarn is designed to be used for knitting, by right-handed knitters.  S-Twist favors the knitting process; knitting reinforces S-Twist and keeps the plies coherent and the strand stable.  The opposite happens in crochet by right-handed crocheters.  Because the yarn is wrapped around the crochet hook (yarn over) in the opposite direction of the knit yarn over, and because crochet stitches have height and may contain multiple yarn overs each time, crochet tends to un-twist the S-Twist.  Eventually, if this continues throughout the length of a skein (exacerbated by the act of fixing mistakes, frogging and re-crocheting) then that S-Twist yarn will become seriously untwisted, splitty, lose coherence and begin to fall apart.  When the yarn is a loosely S-Twist product to begin with, crocheting it can result in disaster.

Manufacturers create the final put-up (ball, skein or cone) without additional twist.  They do this by rotating the spindle that holds the skein, so the yarn is wound straight onto the core, not twisted around the core.  You do this as well when you wind a hank onto a ball-winder.  From the perspective of the yarn itself, you are not putting any additional twist into the strand.  However, from the perspective of the user, there is more twist happening.  Why?  When you go to use the skein, you either pick up and begin with the end on the outside of the skein, or you dig inside the skein for the center pull, right?  The skein stays put, the yarn winds around the skein as it comes off.  You are adding twist.

If you consider the orientation of the skein each time you draw some yarn from it, you can choose for this user twist to be S or Z.  If you’re looking at the skein from one end, and if you continue to wind the skein it would be in a clockwise direction, then pulling the feed directly from the outside from this end will add S-Twist.  If you pull from that center end, you will add Z-Twist.

clockwise end

If you’re looking at the other end of the skein, and the yarn is winding around in a counter-clockwise direction, then pulling directly from that outside end will add Z-Twist.  If you dug around and drew the center of the skein through this same end, and you pulled from the center, then you would add S-Twist.

counter end

For most yarn users, this matters not, really.  The amount of twist may be negligible in the overall picture, and you may never have a problem. But if you have noticed your yarn feed getting ratty and loose, if the splitting gets worse and worse as you go, if you tend to crochet and un-crochet the same sections over and over, if you like to work loose gauges and tall stitches, if your finished fabric looks crappy and worn before you’ve even worn it, then you may have an issue with twist.

There is a way to eliminate user twist, and that is to rotate the skein as you use it, pulled from the outside.  Know how it is when your yarn ball flips and jumps around while you pull from it?  That’s your feed coming off the ball without twist.  I have a tool, a contraption, that holds skeins, balls and cones, lets them spin freely and allows you to pull yarn in the manner it was put on.

YP-2013A-W

It’s called the Yarn Pet, designed and crafted by my friends at Nancy’s KnitKnacks, and adapts (a tiny tool and some assembly required) to all sorts of yarn packaging.  The commercial Yarn Pet is what we use at DesigningVashti when winding Lotus into cakes from the manufacturer cones.

Not everyone needs to get so geeky about twist, but if you are experiencing twist issues, at least now you know it’s not your fault!  Just saying….

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Can I Crochet With This Yarn?

Well, darlin’, even though the label clearly states “hand knitting yarn”, the short and sweet but hardly perfect answer is, yes, you can crochet with anything that you can wrap around your hook.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The designer question I would ask is, “Will this yarn be happy in crochet?”, and the answer to that is complicated.  Every yarn has to be treated as an individual and respected for its own qualities.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with dozens and dozens of ‘em, from high-end luxury yarns to craft store bargain ones, silk purse and sow’s ear, the good, the bad and the totally indifferent.  I’ve enjoyed most of them, not-so-much enjoyed a few, and outright refused to work ever again with only one, maybe two. Maybe three. Back in 2010 I wrote a blog post that was going in a different direction from this one, but what I barfed up concerning my relationship with design yarn bears reprinting:

“Doris designs begin with yarn, always yarn.  I can propose, or an editor can suggest/demand, what sort of garment is needed for such and such an issue of a magazine, and we can reach agreement on an overall silhouette or impression, (for instance a fall/winter cardigan with 3/4 sleeves and collar), but that is an intellectual exercise, a step in a particular direction.  A wish.  For it is the yarn that tells me what it wants to be.  Happiness is when the editorial vision matches the desires of the yarn sent.  Agony is when the yarn refuses to cooperate and become the design it’s earmarked to be.

How does yarn speak?  How do you know when the design is right?  It’s like how you are sure you like dark better than milk chocolate.  How you feel better wearing blue and not rust.  How to tell if you are in love.  You just know.

Listen for the voice.  I pull an end from every skein and roll it between my fingers to assess the properties of thickness, density, roundness, twist and texture.  Do not rely solely on the hook/gauge suggestions or weight/yardage and fiber listings on the yarn label, or the wpi (wraps per inch) info to tell the whole story.  Your experienced fingers can gather more information about that yarn than anything you could read. This is the beginning of hearing the  yarn speak.

Each yarn has one optimum gauge for my purposes of top-down seamless lace garment construction.  A bit of tinkering and experimentation (some call this swatching, but what I develop is not your usual swatch) will soon tease out of the yarn what this gauge should be. The choice of yarn therefore is of such incredible overriding importance because the yarn totally dictates the gauge, that gauge helps determine which stitch pattern to use, that stitch pattern creates the fabric, that fabric is what makes the garment work.

I am not insisting that there is only one gauge and one way to use a particular yarn.  All I am saying is, for my very particular method of design and for each specific project, a yarn will tell me where it is happiest.  Once the piece is finished, blocked and put on the body, if you’ve been listening all along, that yarn will show you its greatness, how it behaves, moves, breathes, drapes and yes… you will hear that yarn sing.”

What was left unsaid in 2010, and what I chose not to mention at the time, is that my organic design process really chewed up certain yarns because there’s a lot of *crochet, uncrochet, recrochet, uncrochet some more*; repeat from * to * until you’re ready to scream.  Hokey Smokes, some samples were starting to look crappy before they were half-way done.  If only I had more of the technical designer in me, the type who engineers major chunks of the project first, then plugs in whatever yarn… and then can actually bundle the whole thing off to a contract crocheter who essentially tests the pattern while making the crocheted sample. Never gonna happen.  I worried about the many yarns that did not stand up well to my style of organic designing; three years ago I thought the fault was mine.

Since then I’ve come to realize that for relaxed (exploded) gauge lace crochet garments, Z-twist products are ultimately happier than S-twist ones.  As demonstrated with the mystery swatch in that previous post:S Twist DK yarn

some S-twist yarns become terribly untwisted with crocheting. This shows up as slackness in the exposed tops of stitches and the in the hanging chain spaces of my favorite lace stitch patterns, as an uneven gauge through the length of a skein of yarn, as a tendency of the yarn to grow increasingly splitty, as the appearance of sloppiness instead of the desired effect of drapey looseness. By the time I got to ordering yarns for my latest book, Convertible Crochet, it was early 2011 and I knew what I had to do.

Of the 19 yarns I cast, seven of them are Z-twisted.  That is a staggeringly huge percent compared to the ratio of Z to S yarns in the general population. In order of appearance, the Z-twist yarns are: Berroco Weekend, DMC-Cebelia Crochet Cotton, Blue Sky Alpacas Skinny Dyed Organic Cotton, Tahki Cotton Classic Lite, Prism Yarns Windward Layers, Louisa Harding Mulberry silk, and NaturallyCaron.com Spa.  I thoroughly enjoyed them all. Some of these yarns were chosen because they were destined to become skirts, in which cases a firm Z-twist contributes to long wear and stability in fabrics on which you will be sitting. I did offer two butt-covering pieces in an S-twist yarn, Elsebeth Lavold Hempathy, which worked so incredibly well as a bottom weight because of the sturdy fiber blend of hemp, cotton and modal (a type of rayon) and resulted in such beautiful drape that I put up with the untwisties.

What about the other yarns featured in the book?  How did they get happy?  Well, one of them, Southwest Trading Company Oasis, is a tubular or tape yarn, where twist is not an issue. The others, although S-twist, were perfectly fine in their roles, chosen for other properties such as luscious softness (NaturallyCaron.com Joy! and Filatura di Crosa Superior), wooly goodness (Manos del Uruguay Rittenhouse Merino, O-Wool Balance), stunning color (Misti Alpaca Tonos Pima Silk), easy care (Kraemer Tatamy), spot-on gauge (Spud & Chloe Fine and Filatura di Crosa Zara), or simply because they told me they would be fine. With a bit of TLC and judicious blocking, every piece turned out splendidly.

This begs the real question, and the point of today’s exercise: why aren’t there more Z-twist yarns on the market?  Darned if I know. :-)