The Crochet Twist

Many times I have been asked to name my favorite yarns.  My answer, after considerable waffling, is always “well, it depends”. Do you mean what are the yarns I most enjoy using or which ones do I love for my own personal crochet? There is a difference.

Yarn is not only my passion, the stuff of dreams and stash, but as a professional crochet designer yarn to me is also the single most critical aspect of my work, an aspect over which I have zero control. You may not know that the yarns and shades used in the designs you see in crochet magazines and books are not necessarily chosen by the designers. For reasons not always apparent or transparent, yarn choices are made by or at least subject to the approval of the magazine or book editors, take it or leave it, like it or not.

That makes perfect sense to me.  Over the years I have learned to be flexible about materials for design and that has served me well.  Not only has it created for me a nice little  niche in the crochet publishing pantheon, but it has also given me the opportunity to handle yarns I might never have experienced. It is my job to make any yarn my employers throw at me look good in crochet. I have created hundreds of garments and accessories with everything from indifferent craft acrylic to luxury cashmere, in every weight from lace to super bulky.  I maintain that every yarn deserves good design. Even if it takes extraordinary effort, long nights of yarn whispering, cajoling and tussling, eventually every yarn must speak to me.

I know this sounds like a cop-out, but honestly, I have enjoyed almost every yarn I have been paid to use.  Well, there was that time with some horrible bulky acrylic rug yarn. No joke,  I was sent stuff with the words “rug and craft yarn” on the label, which would have been perfect for… well, for a rug.  But not so wonderful for a garment. Oh, and I can never forget that nasty metallic chainette that I had to finish with drops of fray-check to keep the ends from madly un-chaining. I coulda done without those two jobs.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes the yarns that were the biggest pain in the butt to crochet turned into the most agreeable fabric, with all the qualities you could want, supple hand, wonderful drape, great stitch definition. So you have to ask yourself, is it worth enduring torture to arrive at something pleasing? Well, it depends, doesn’t it?

So you will not hear me dissing any yarns, at least not by name. But let me get back to the question. Given that I can get my hands on practically any yarn, you might think that my personal choices would be high-end or at least esoteric. Not.

I have allergies and so does Cookie, the fat white Chihuahua who runs this household. We fear rabbit (angora) most of all. Next most disliked is mohair. We can’t wear wool. We barely tolerate alpaca and cashmere. That pretty much rules out over half of the field, including many of the yarns that are the current darlings of knitters. By default I gravitate toward plant fibers, plant derived fibers and man-made-chemistry-set fibers.

But just because a yarn is made from cotton, silk, linen, hemp or rayon from bamboo, soy or whatever does not make it completely happy. It has taken me years of messing with hundreds of yarns to finally understand why I keep coming back to certain ones. It’s all to do with twist.  My boss, Vashti Braha and I toyed with the concept of yarn twist, but she’s the one who wrote about it a couple of years ago. (Share her experience crocheting tall stitches on her blog, DesigningVashti.)

Most crocheters aren’t aware of how twist affects the crochet. All fiber (except, like, un-spun roving) has to be spun in some way to make it become a long continuous thing that then becomes yarn.  Some yarns are then constructed without any more twist, such as tubular, woven or ribbon type yarns.  For most conventional constructions, there is additional twisting together of plies, which can be done in two directions, clockwise and counter-clockwise. I hope I have this right, but the former gives you an S-twist, the latter a Z-twist. How can you tell? Simple. Look at a strand of yarn. See how the ply or plies all lean in one direction, either like the center stroke of an S or a Z.

This yarn is S-twisted.

This yarn is Z-twisted.

I am sure there is a reason that mills use one or the other.  Someday I will stop being such a slug and do the research and find out. In another life.

For now, all I can say is that the staggering bulk of what is produced has an S-twist.  Most yarns are produced with knitting in mind.  I never understood why certain of those yarns are awesome in knitting but look crappy in crochet. Perhaps not in a scientific way, but intuitively I now know that knitting tends to reinforce S-twist and crochet tends to rebel against it.

I suspect the reason is that the knitting yarn over is in the opposite direction of the crochet yarn over. I both knit and crochet and never think about this because I naturally do the right thing with whichever tools are in my hands. The process of crocheting makes a Z-twist. Each time you yarn over and draw a loop through you are giving the yarn a little counter-clockwise nudge. When you crochet with S-twist yarn, you are un-twisting as you go. If you crochet, un-crochet, crochet, un-crochet (as routinely happens in design) then a low-energy, loosely S-twisted yarn could lose all integrity before long. At the very least, the plies become separated and the yarn will be really splitty.

When I began examining yarns for their twisted ways, I thought to analyze my favorite yarns. Z-twist is almost always used with wool roving or singles like this:

Cotton is routinely Z-twisted, notably for sewing thread and crochet thread. And, as I discovered, the yarns I kept returning to time and again are not simply non-animal fibers, but they are also Z-twisted. Spa (see Cari Clement’s blog post for about Doin’ the Z-Twist)

And the Tahki Cotton Classic family:

Twist (more accurately, the lack of twist) is partly the reason I’m drawn to tubular yarn, like South West Trading Company Oasis:

and ribbon yarn, like Tess Designer Yarns Microfiber Ribbon. With these constructions, you control the twist as you go.

Don’t tell my employers, but  I automatically wince when a design yarn arrives that has multiple plies that are loosely S-twisted because I know that project will be splitty crochet hell. And I grin from ear to ear when the yarn has the crochet happy twist.