This is the wool version of one my most popular posts about the different types of cotton yarns available to weavers and how to select the right yarn for your project. It isn’t as straightforward a telling as it was with cotton and I’m warning you right now it is a long one. Cotton is a more uniform product with only a few varieties and it is typically prepared and spun in one way, whereas wool comes from a wide variety of sources and it can be prepared and spun in so many ways.
When I talk about “wool”, I’m using the dictionary definition that includes “the soft, wavy, or curly, usually thick, undercoat of various hairy mammals and especially the sheep.” This information can be applied to a wide variety of protein fibers including angora, mohair, alpaca, yak, cashmere, etc.
Many other brilliantly talented folks have written on this subject. Most notably, Clara Parkes and Deborah Robson. This is my take on what weavers need to know about wool yarn. Keep in mind that most of the yarn rules you may hear regarding looms apply to looms with shafts. These rules may not apply to the rigid heddle weaver since this loom doesn’t put as many demands on the yarn.
In general, using the simple pinch and pull test will allow you to determine if your yarn is strong enough for warp. Virtually any yarn can be used for weft, however, you still may want to consider how well it will wear over time and under the rigors of its intended use.
Weaving vs. Knitting Yarns: Is there a difference?
From a manufacturer’s standpoint, yarns made for weavers are different from those made for knitters. Historically, weaving yarns were often, but not always, made from longer, sleek, strong fibers, prepared and spun worsted (see woolen vs. worsted below), and had a firm ply twist.
Some manufacturers would leave a bit of the spinning oil in the yarn that was used to protect the fibers during processing. This extra oil would also protect the yarn from the rigors of the loom. When the finished fabric is wet finished, the oil is washed away, allowing the yarn to bloom and soften. So while you may feel a coned wool yarn as rough, once it is washed and the oil is removed, it may feel entirely different.
As knitting became more popular and consumer demand changed, many manufacturers that catered to the makers market changed their formulas, softening the yarn by decreasing the oil left in the yarns, lessening the singles and ply twist, and using more and more superfine wools. So the distinction between knitting and weaving yarns for the handcraft market has all but disappeared.
Woolen vs. Worsted
Oh, no, not this again. But yes, this again.
Worsted means something very different to a yarn manufacturer or hand spinner than it does to the typical yarn buyer. To a yarn buyer, it describes the size of the yarn. To a spinner, it refers to both a yarn style and a spinning technique.
Worsted techniques don’t allow the twist to enter the yarn until it has been fully attenuated. The resulting yarn is smooth, dense, long wearing, and creates good stitch/pattern definition. Worsted yarns are traditionally spun from worsted preparations, where the fibers are aligned and of uniform length. Worsted yarns are stronger and wear longer than woolen yarns and have less of a tendency to pill. They have traditionally been thought of as good weaving yarns.
Woolen spinning techniques, allow the twist to enter the drafting zone—the area of the fiber that is being drawn out. They are traditionally made from carded fiber that is of varying lengths and jumbled together. This gives the yarn a fuzzy appearance. Woolen yarns have more loft and space between the fibers than worsted yarns. This space between the fibers gives them better insulating qualities, which makes them popular for sweater knitters.
These preparations and spinning techniques can be mixed and matched to create an infinitely variable number of yarn styles. You aren’t likely to see this information on the yarn ball, so you have to learn to look for clues. More on that in a bit.
Twist is the glue that holds fibers together. Yarns are spun with varying degrees of twist to get different results. The length of the fiber determines how much twist the fiber needs to to have the integrity to stay put during use. Short fibers, such as cashmere, need a more twist than long fibers, such as mohair.
An individual strand of fiber twisted together is called a single. These singles can be used on their own or plied with other singles with varying degrees of twist for a variety of reasons—to impart strength, to make a thicker yarn, or to balance the yarn. Different fibers call for different treatments. (For advise on weaving with commercial singles, check out my Knitty column from Deep Fall 2016.)
Yarns that are tightly plied and smooth are traditionally thought of as good weaving yarns. Tender, loosely plied, or softly spun yarns are often shunned. There is a trade-off between these two extremes. You want yarn that will be strong, but you may also want it to be pliable. Your choice depends on your end use.
The type of fiber and what animal it comes from lends a lot of character to the final product. For the fascinating topic of breed-specific wools, check out Deborah Robson’s free Craftsy class Know Your Wool. I had the supreme pleasure of acting as her producer for this class.
So what does this have to do with the yarn I buy at a yarn shop?
Weavers who buy wool yarn need to be able to determine two things—will the wool hold up and will it work for my project.
The pinch and pull test mentioned earlier will tell you if it will hold up, but it tells you nothing about the character of the yarn.
Let’s take a close look at two poppular wool yarns, Brooklyn Tweed’s Arbor (left) and Cascade’s Ecological Wool (right). Arbor is a breed-specific (Targee), worsted spun yarn with a decent amount of ply twist. Cascade Eco is a pooled wool comprised of many breeds and crosses that share the same characteristics, and spun woolen with a low ply twist. The difference is clear. One is sleek, smooth, and visually has good definition. The other is fuzzy and less defined. This is the type of character the yarn will impart to your project.
You don’t have to be a yarn expert to see the difference, and once you know what to look for, you can pick up any wool or wool blend and tell if it has the characteristics you are looking for. Have a project with a lot of patterning in it, you probably want a yarn that has more definition (worsted). Making a cozy throw, woolen yarns will give you more insulating qualities and give you a softer look.
Here is another example of my handspun, homegrown cashmere. Pretty easy to tell from a distance which skein is woolen (left) and which one is worsted (right).
The Sticky Wicket
Worsted vs. woolen has another implication for weavers—stickiness. You can sett a worsted yarn closer than you can woolen. For instance, if you are weaving on a dense warp, say something along the lines of a warp faced weave, where you have more warp ends than weft picks, woolen yarns have a tendency to stick keeping you from getting a clean shed. On the other hand, you can space woolen yarns out further apart and still have a fabric that holds together well because the yarns are fuzzy and reach across the isle to shake hands with their neighbors.
Pilling and Prickle
Pilling is caused when individual fibers work their way loose from the yarn. It can also be caused by incorrect shearing and spinning, but we shall hope that anyone who makes commercial yarn is skilled enough to pick good fleece and spin it right.
For our purposes, the take away is that you don’t want to use a superfine ultra fine merino yarn for a pillow that will get a lot of wear in a way the yarn wasn’t intended. One way to test this is to take a length of yarn and rub it back and forth on the edge of a table. Take a look and see if the yarn begins to pill. This will give you an idea of how it will hold up.
The prickle factor is caused when the long, relatively large fibers work their way free of the yarn and give you a little poke. The coarser the fiber, the stronger the poke. Weavers are a bit more tolerant of the strong wools deemed as scratchy, because they do well in interiors, particularly rugs.
I can’t leave this subject without talking about superwash wool. This treatment can create a harder-wearing yarn from softer wools. Superwash is really popular among dyers because it takes dye so well. Sock yarn makers often blend superwash with a bit of nylon to add even more toughness.
From previous writings, it may seem like I don’t like superwash. This isn’t the case, it just breaks a lot of the rules and acts differently from other wools in the final fabric. Part of this is due to the superwash treatment itself, and part of it is due to the fact that certain types of yarn construction lend themselves to superwash treatment.
Superwash is treated so that the individual barbs in the wool fibers are smoothed leaving the fiber profile sleek, and keeping them from tangling with one another. This is what causes wool to felt. The superwash treatment makes the wool easier to wash, and it also keeps the yarn from expanding or blooming as much as it would in its natural state when wet finished.
Because superwash is popular for socks and other knitting yarns designed for baby items, they are often constructed to have a lot of elasticity. When under the tension of the loom this can cause the yarn size to be distorted or stretch to appear much finer than it is when it is not under tension.
If you don’t leave room for the yarn to rebound after it has been taken off the tension from the loom, the resulting fabric may be stiff. This is true to some extent for all yarns, but particularly for highly elastic yarns. See this post on Placing Your Weft for more info and photos of superwash on the loom and off.
When it comes to wool, for the most part, what you see is what you get. The trick is you just have to train yourself to see. If the yarn looks smooth and has a lot of bounce, those are the qualities will be imparted to your project—if and this is a big if—you sett it right.
Phew, that is a lot of information to take in. Have questions? Feel free to post a comment and we’ll chat.