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Pink Needles
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Schacht Spindle Company
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techniques

Worsted Yarns + Worsted Spinning

Spinners who began their fiber journey as knitters sometimes find the term worsted confusing. For knitters, worsted generally refers to a medium-weight yarn that measures approximately 11-13 wraps per inch and yields a gauge somewhere between 4 and 5 stitches per inch. For spinners, worsted refers to a yarn spun from parallel fibers that have been combed (not carded) to remove shorter bits and spun with a short draw to keep the fibers in their parallel alignment.

Thus, a worsted-weight knitting yarn may, or may not be, worsted spun, and a worsted-spun yarn can be lace weight or chunky. The term worsted is also used by spinners to describe the technique for creating this type of yarn. (The short draw itself is sometimes called a worsted draw.) True worsted yarn must be spun from combed top (for Abby Franquemont’s detailed definitions of top, roving, sliver, rolags, and more, look here).

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Most discussions of worsted spinning focus on the fiber preparation, since combing is essential. Wool combs are more exotic than the hand- and drumcarders that most spinners end up owning, and their use is a bit more difficult (and dangerous) to master, given their relative rarity.

English-style combs generally have between two and six rows of long, sharp metal tines, and the number of rows is referred to as the pitch. Two-pitch combs will work well for longer, coarser fibers such as Romney. To create a top from finer fibers such as Cormo or Merino, you might want four- or five-pitch combs. Modern combs come in a pair with one comb ready to be mounted in a stationary position on a work table, and the other comb free to work through the fibers. Anyone who wants to explore worsted spinning in depth should find a copy of Peter Teal’s Hand Wool Combing and Spinning: A Guide to Worsteds from the Spinning Wheel. He covers absolutely every detail of traditional, European-style worsted spinning, including instructions for making your own English-style wool combs.

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Some alternatives to buying English-style combs are using one- or two-row minicombs [Louet minicombs shown at right], which you may have seen at fiber festivals, or using a flick carder. These tools enable you to create a more parallel fiber prep without a lot of fuss or expense. Purists may argue that these yarns won’t be worsted, but they will have many of the desirable characteristics of worsted-spun yarns. Spinners often combine different fiber preparations and spinning styles to create hybrid yarns that are great for knitting.

Why would anyone want to experiment with worsted spinning? Worsted-spun yarns tend to be dense, compact, and give good stitch definition.  Fabrics from worsted-spun yarns are known for their durability, sheen, and drape, and tend to pill a bit less than those from woolen-spun yarns (although this last quality depends on a whole variety of factors, including the fibers used). Worsted-spun yarn may be just the ticket for the heirloom cabled sweater you’ve been planning, and it is ideal for long-wearing handspun socks. Slippery non-wool fibers such as silk, bamboo, and flax are also usually spun worsted style to maximize the natural qualities of strength, shine, and drape inherent in these fibers.

Because hand-combing your own wool top requires specialized equipment, most of us end up experimenting with worsted spinning techniques on machine-prepared top. Combed top is widely available commercially, and chances are, if you’ve been buying fiber at festivals, you probably have some in your stash. And top doesn’t have to be just wool—it can include blends of any fiber, plant or animal.

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Grab a handful, sit down at your wheel, and you can sample worsted spinning. Gently tear the top into spinnable lengths that are almost the diameter of the yarn you’re aiming for—this will make drafting much easier.
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The idea is to keep your hands relatively close together, using the hand closer to the orifice to control the twist. It’s pretty much the same kind of “inchworm” drafting that many of us learn as beginning spinners; it is also referred to as a short forward draw.

I’ll call the hand closer to the orifice the front hand; the hand holding the fiber supply, the back hand. Your front hand pulls the fiber forward while the back hand controls the size of the drafting triangle (and the amount of fiber drafted). The twist should not be allowed to enter the drafting zone; the front hand should slowly move toward your body, allowing the twist to follow it back, smoothing the fibers as it goes. You want to keep your front and back hands close together during the drafting process (about an inch and a half, or half the staple length) and let the twist enter the fiber so that the alignment stays as parallel as possible. The yarn that heads into the orifice will be smooth and dense. Of course, different spinning mentors explain the motions with some variation. It’s always a wise idea to read what a number of authors say and then find your own style by practicing and experimenting.

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The web has some super resources for spinners interested in worsted-style yarns. Carol Huebscher Rhoades has several informative articles online about worsted spinning and fiber prep: “Drafting for Worsted and Woolen Style Yarns on a Spindle”; “The Short Draw”; “Flick Carding”; and “Minicombs.” All are available for free on Interweave’s Spin-off site. The same page offers Rudy Amann’s tips for creating and identifying your hybrid yarns (“Worsted, Woolen, or Semi-something”).

Understanding the concept of worsted spinning gives you another tool in your spinner’s box of tricks—ready for you to adapt as you wish.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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After many discouraging experiments with homemade spindles (potatoes and knitting needles!), Lee Juvan learned to spin on a walking wheel when she was twelve in a summer workshop at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She bought her own wheel in 1990, and she’s been at it since then. Lee is the designer of several patterns published in Knitty, including Brighton and Emma’s Unmentionables. You can see more of her work on Ravelry, where she is "workwoman".
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