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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All images by Michelle Boyd.