Plies and Whys: Singles Yarn

8 December 2021

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It took me a long time to understand and appreciate singles yarns. I had been exposed to some strong prejudices against them in my knitting and spinning communities, and had a few mishaps using them. But the more I looked at all the ways these yarns can be used, the more I grew to appreciate them for their unique character and recognize what they could bring to my textiles work.

This is the first in a three-part series exploring yarn structure and how the ways yarn is plied can affect the cloth we make with it.

What is a singles yarn?

The process of twisting loose fibres into yarn—whether by hand or in mechanized spinning mill—happens in a series of stages. First, the fibre is prepared for spinning by being washed and sometimes treated (as in the process to make a yarn machine washable, a.k.a. “superwash”). The clean fibre is then carded, a process of running them between drums covered with little teeth that separate and straighten the fibres into a loose cloud. That cloud is then pulled and straightened to become specific spinning preparations known as roving, sliver, or top. Roving is usually made up of fibres of mixed lengths that are semi-parallel in arrangement and is mostly used for spinning lofty wool yarns. In sliver, those mixed fibres have been run through a set of comb-like tines to pull all of the fibres into a fully parallel arrangement for spinning a lofty yarn with a smoother surface appearance. Top is made up of fibres that have been combed yet again to remove shorter fibres, leaving the longest fibres in a parallel arrangement that will spin into a very compact, smooth yarn.

image description: above, unspun fibre, below, a few strands of a singles yarn spun from that fibre

Prepared fibre (top) is pulled thin and twisted to make singles (bottom).

These preparations are pulled thinner and then twisted, producing a single strand of yarn. As you can see, the single twists in one direction and is filled with kinks and coils that can make it more difficult to work with. Each one of those kinks and coils will change the cloth we make with singles, too. For these reasons, single strands are then usually twisted together (i.e. plied) to make a stronger, stable yarn that can be used for any number of textile techniques.

For a lot of modern hand spinners and mills, a single is considered just a step in the process; it is an unfinished product in need of plying to balance the directional energy of the twist and to add strength to the yarn. But a single can be used as a yarn in and of itself. Historical textiles show us that some makers have been using singles for as long as humans have made cloth. To get the most from these yarns, I think we need understand them before we use them.

The most obvious characteristic of a single is that it is made up of fibres that have been twisted in only one direction. The twist in yarn is rotational energy that has been trapped in fibres, bend-ing them in the direction of that rotation. The energy wants to continue moving and is actively trying to push onward in the direction it was made. You can see this twist energy in singles yarn as it kinks and coils slightly in some places, making the yarn’s surface slightly uneven. (That twist energy is always moving and looking for a place to settle into. When we wind singles yarns into balls or cakes we give that twist a new place to settle, which can lead to the yarn de-veloping kinks that will lay oddly in our cloth. It’s a good practice to wind those balls right before you use them to avoid the twist getting too established in its new position.)
image description: a close-up of a short length of yarn, with an arrow superimposed on the image to indicate the direction of the twist in the yarn

When you look at a singles yarn, you can see the twist forcing the fibres in the direction they have been spun in.

Depending on the cloth we are making, this pushing energy encourages our stitches, or even the whole cloth, to lean, or bias, in that direction. Yarns spun with a low twist will work into a cloth with some slight bias; as the amount of twist increases, so will the degree of the bias. The tendency of singles yarn to lean in the direction of its twist can disrupt our cloth and it can range from a subtle lifting of individual stitches in knit or crochet, to a dramatic skewing of the entire piece of cloth. A lot of the singles yarns available to us in Canada are spun clockwise, or to the right, and you can see this in the direction the cloth moves.
image description: a swatch of stockinette stitch, with a noticeable right-leaning bias; an arrow is superimposed on the image to draw attention to the lean

Singles yarn knitted in stockinette stitch will make a cloth that will bias in the direction the yarn was spun.

Stabilizing the twist by compacting the fibres can make singles a lot easier to work with. Hand spinners can whack their skeins against a hard surface and slightly felt the surface of the yarn to ‘set’ the twist. Industrial yarn manufacturers will use steam and compression to achieve the same result.

Yarn content also makes a difference in the stability of the twist in singles yarn. Many wool yarns tend to bias very dramatically, though stronger, straighter wool fibres from sheep breeds like Wensleydale or Icelandic is less likely to do so. Finer wool blended with straighter, stronger fibres like silk or mohair will also make a more manageable style of single. Singles yarns from other long, straight fibres like linen tend to bias less.

image description: close up of three different groups of yarn strands; the upper ones are very kinky and coiled; the middle ones less so; the bottom ones are very smooth

How a singles yarn is finished will determine how durable the yarn will be and how cooperative it will be when we work with it. The top single is freshly spun, the middle sample is finished by steaming under tension, and the bottom sample is steamed and finished by “whacking.”

The amount of twist in any yarn determines whether or not it will bias in our cloth, but twist also lends tensile strength, elasticity, and surface durability to the yarn. Most singles yarns are spun with a low twist to minimize that bias, which means that the yarn will probably be weaker, less elastic, and prone to abrasion and pilling. This all makes singles yarn sound pretty bad, but for all their faults, singles yarns are wonderful for making unique cloth and garments. It is just a matter of knowing how to take best advantage of the yarn’s unique character.
image description: a close-up view of a swatch of garter stitch fabric; wear and pilling are evident on the surface

Singles yarns are very prone to abrasion, and their lack of elasticity can make items stretch out of shape.

The tendency of singles to bias shows up most dramatically in knitted cloth, but fortunately, there are lots of options for avoiding this. The simplest solution is to alternate knit and purl stitches in the cloth. The opposing tilt of the two stitches creates a balance in the cloth that overcomes the single direction of the yarn. We can alternate our knits and purls in garter stitch patterns (knitting every row) or in textured knit and purl patterns like seed stitch or traditional Gansey stitch patterns.

Choosing the right project is important, too. Singles are lovely for knitting items that will have little abrasion when we wear them, like shawls and cowls. While some singles yarns are labelled “sock” for their weight and diameter, those yarns are not suited for socks at all.

image description: a close-up view of a swatch of garter stitch fabric; wear and pilling are evident on the surface

Garter stitch and other patterns that alternate knit and purl stitches can keep items knitted with singles yarn from biasing and stretching.

Singles yarns work well in items knitted in the round, too. While individual stitches in garment worked in the round may lean slightly in the direction of the twist, the endless loop of the garment does not allow anywhere for the twist energy to travel outward, which reduces the bias effect. Each stitch leaning into the next creates a kind of balance within the circle, adding both stability and elasticity to the garment. For example, Icelandic Lopi yarn is a quintessential singles yarn that lends Lopapeysa, traditionally knit in the round, their iconic look and warmth.

Singles yarns are often used by weavers. A lot of modern hand weavers tend to consider them more useful as weft than warp because lot of modern industrially milled singles yarns do not have the tensile strength needed in a tensioned warp. The gentler tension and abrasion of a rigid heddle loom can make it possible to work with singles as warp, though, and traditional Navajo weaving relies on highly twisted singles as the warp yarn for rugs. The reason we can use singles with a higher twist for weavings is because the tensioned warp pulls the single straight while the grid created by the weft locks the yarn in position. Singles work best in weaving with a firm sett and beat.
image description: a close-up of a woven fabric, using singles as both warp and weft

Singles yarns nestle snugly against each other in plain weave, making a balanced cloth.

Crochet patterns tend to balance out nicely in most singles yarns, partly because crochet stitches twist the yarn slightly counterclockwise against the commonly clockwise twist of the yarn. A lot of crochet patterns rely on the same alternating directions that we see in garter stitch knitting as well, so the stitches reverse in each row, balancing any directional energy in the yarn.

The crocheted Willow Cardigan, by Stephanie Erin, uses Briggs & Little Sport singles yarn to great effect.

image description: a close up of a crochet fabric

Singles yarn works well in a lot of crochet patterns.

Of course, we can also just embrace the twist bias and make it a feature of our cloth. These samples are from a workshop with knit designer Kathryn Alexander (Ravelry link), who has combined entrelac knitting and high twist “energized singles” to create otherworldly textured garments. Weavers can use those same high-twist singles to create bumps, bubbles, and ruffles in cloth.

image description: a close up of a crochet fabric

Singles that have lots of active twist can be used for creative special effect in knitting and weaving.

Conversely, very low twist singles yarns are staples in Coast Salish knitting and Navajo weaving techniques. Some knitters may even remember “Buffalo” yarn, strands of barely twisted wool held together to make those fabulous picture sweaters in the 1960s and 70s. These yarns would seem to be prone to abrasion and barely strong enough to hold together, but the bulkiness of the yarn compensates for the loss of twist strength.
image description: a close up of a Navajo woven cloth and a hat knitted in the Salish style

 Bulky, low-twist singles yarns are used in both Coast Salish knitting and Navajo weaving to achieve dense but stable cloth.

As you can see, singles are so much more than a step in the yarn-making process. Singles are a unique style of yarn that can bring something special to your textile crafting.

All images by Michelle Boyd.

Copyright © Michelle Boyd except as indicated.

About Michelle Boyd

Michelle Boyd is a Master Spinner, weaver, and writer who lives in Olds, Alberta, located in Treaty 7 Territory, the ancestral lands of the peoples of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Michelle learned to spin in 1995 when her local yarn shop closed, and she became obsessed with the art and science of making yarn. She has taught workshops across North America and instructed for the Olds College Master Spinner Program for fifteen years. She is also a frequent contributor to both PLY Magazine and Digits & Threads and is currently completing her first book about spinning.

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