Texture and Ply
Now we’re moving into what I consider the really, really, incredibly fun part of knitting– texture! Smooth to nubbly to furry to round, I love yarns for their texture. And obviously, yarns with a different texture will make a different final product.
Texture can come from the number of plies (individual strands of spun roving, called singles) in a yarn.
- Unspun roving of unknown provenance
- Single ply yarn: Malabrigo worsted
- Two-ply yarn: Handspun BFL
- Three-ply yarn: Handspun and navajo-plied from the blue edition of the roving of unknown provenance, sport-weight
- More-ply yarn: Sandnes Garn Peer Gynt, sport-weight 100% wool
- Yarn with lots and lots and lots of plies: Jaeger Extra Fine Merino DK, sport-weight 100% merino
Generally speaking, the more plies a yarn has and the more tightly the yarn is plied, the more stitch definition you’ll have in the final swatch, which means texture work and cables will show up wonderfully (see yarns #4 and 6). On the other hand, yarns with fewer plies and which are more loosely plied give a more rustic look and blend together for a soft, cozy effect (see yarns #2 and 3, and roving #1). A lot of fair isle, particularly of the Alice Starmore style, uses yarns with looser and fewer plies and a distinct halo so that the different colors of yarn blend together, creating a painted or watercolor effect.
This is that single-ply Malabrigo merino. It’s fuzzy, and you can see how even the garter ridges are blended into one another instead of standing out sharply. In addition, single-ply yarns tend to be unbalanced- they still contain twist. An unbalanced yarn creates stitches that slant slightly. In the zoom-in section, I’ve outlined the shape of a stitch and you can see that instead of the typical knitting stitch “V,” the stitches are shaped a little like a lopsided check mark, with one column of vertical legs and another of slanted legs. Really unbalanced yarn will even create a biased fabric, where the swatch leans in one direction or another. Malabrigo doesn’t bias because Malabrigo is made by some amazing magical formula. Any yarn can be unbalanced, even if it has multiple plies, but typically plied yarns are more balanced than unplied.
On the extreme other end of the plying spectrum is the Jaeger Extra Fine Merino DK, which has six plies, each of which is itself two-ply, for a total of 12 plies! It’s evenly spun up, and looks almost round, with none of the gaps that you see in the two-ply yarn. This yarn is well-balanced– you can see how the stitches form the characteristic V’s. The garter ridges are also very sharp and well-defined, so this yarn would be great for texture due to its roundness and smoothness– it has no halo to speak of.
Compare again to this swatch of my second batch of handspun, the BFL.
This yarn is a two-ply, and it’s very hairy (my fault!). You can see the balance of the stitches as they form proper V’s, but the garter ridges show that most texture wouldn’t be apparent because of the fuzzy halo and loose hairs floating around. This yarn is at the extreme end of the fuzzy hairy “natural look” yarns. If I used this yarn in fair isle work with another, equally fuzzy yarn, I’d get a very subtle, blended effect.
General Plying Facts
A factor to think about with texture and ply is the extent to which yarns “bloom” when washed. Sometimes, a yarn that looks very smooth in the ball will become softer and fuzzier in the wash, losing some stitch definition. The only way to know is to swatch, or see a swatch knit by somebody else and washed (most LYSs are good for that), or to look up reviews of the yarn in places like WiseNeedle or Knitter’s Review.
Typically, yarns with more plies and yarns that are plied more firmly are more durable than other yarns. Plying traps the fibers within the yarn, so the yarn is less likely to pill, shed or wear thin. However, tightly plied yarns tend to be less soft than other yarns.
The longer the fibers in a yarn are (acrylic yarns tend to have the longest fibers, followed by wool, followed by cotton, though this varies), the more likely it will pill unless spun tightly. Pills are just individual fibers within the yarn that have been caught on something or pulled up gradually over time by friction, but which haven’t been pulled all the way out of the yarn (when a fiber pulls all the way out, the yarn is shedding). The extra “pulled out” fiber gathers in a little ball on the surface of the fabric, and is called a “pill.”
Texture can also come from the way a yarn is plied (coiled yarn, for example, or boucle), or from objects plied into the yarn or sewn, stitched or otherwise attached to the yarn.
- Muensch Sir Galli, 100% tweedy silk, multiple plies, Aran-weight
- GGH Safari, dk-weight, linen wrapped over a nylon core
- Random handspun 2-ply thick-and-thin yarn, Bulky-weight.
- Artyarns Meringue, 80% silk 20% nylon boucle fingering weight
- A feather yarn of some kind, made of nylon
- Another novelty yarn from Target
- A furry novelty yarn
I apologize for the lack of documentation with the novelty yarns, but they tend to sort of… accrue. Without labels.
This is the Muensch Sir Galli from above, dyed with Jacquard Acid Dyes. The tweedy texture results from bits of a different fiber, or lumps in the same fiber, being spun into the yarn without carding to smooth them out and blend them in. This comes out in little bumps all over the surface. Fine knit and purl texture would probably be lost, or at least heavily obscured, by the texture of the yarn, but since the 100% silk has no halo, lace patterns like this one show up great. (Picture is a close-up of the Hemlock Ring Blanket.)
GGH Safari, the linen-over-a-nylon-core yarn. It’s described as a “single ply,” but it’s not really plied at all, just wrapped. Here it’s worked on large needles in a sort of lacy rib stitch. Because the linen yarn has no bloom at all and is very tightly wrapped, the end result looks less like fabric and more like cord knotted together into patterns. Any sort of texture would show up very clearly and geometrically.
Attempts to Generalize about Textured or Novelty Yarns
Even with these examples, it’s hard to make generalizations about novelty yarns. They run the gamut from Artfibers’ subtle boucle to the feathery and bits-and-pieces yarns at the right. Even though novelty yarns are designed to provide most of the interest in the final product (leaving the knitter with nothing to do but work stockinette forever), swatching is still worthwhile because some effects show up better on the purl side, some on the knit side, and some in garter stitch.
Thin-and-thin yarns should probably also be swatched. It can be difficult to strike the right balance in choosing a needle size so that your final fabric accentuates the thick-and-thin nature of the yarn without having awkward stiff spots where the yarn was too thick, or strange bald spots where the yarn was too thin.
And of course, all textured yarns can be held together with non-textured yarns to create more subtle effects.