Knitty: little purls of wisdom

Twist & Knit

For years I've heard that the direction of twist and the way you knit affect each other. In the Winter 2013 issue of Spin Off, Julia Farwell-Clay wrote an article about twist direction and her method of combination knitting. It's been on my list to experiment with since then.

I have knit two ways in my knitting life, throwing and picking. I am mostly a picker now. I can knit faster that way, but I am comfortable-ish knitting either way.

When I say picking, I mean continental or German-style knitting with my yarn in my left hand. When I say throwing, I mean English-style knitting with yarn in my right hand. So many names for the same thing!

When I talk about twist, Z is right or clockwise twist and S is left or counter-clockwise twist. The twist affected by knitting style is the last twist put into yarn, the ply twist.

Enough explaining! Here's what I did in my experiments.

I pulled out my workhorse BFL top in oatmeal color and spun two skeins of yarn. One skein had the single spun Z and plied S -- this is the way I usually spin. The second yarn I spun opposite with single spun S and plied Z.

To say it was interesting to spin a yarn in the opposite direction is an understatement, but more on that later.

I focused on what happens to twist in my regular (spun Z, plied S) yarn. I knit with my opposite yarn as more of a double check. I knit six swatches from the regular skein of yarn: stockinette, cable, and lace --all swatches knit picking and throwing.

Knitting my old way, throwing, was interesting. I remembered instantly why I switched to picking -- much faster for me. As I knit throwing, my body went back to my 'add speed to throwing-type knitting', bracing one of the needles against my body. It's funny how our hands and bodies remember things from long ago.

I knit much tighter when I throw. I really should have gone up a needle size or for throwing. So all of my swatches knit thrown are tighter and physically smaller, but I can still see differences based on knitting style.

Here's what happened with my knitting. The two different ways of knitting didn't exactly do the opposite, but they look and act differently from each other. With a yarn that was spun Z with an S ply, picking slightly tightens my stitches and throwing slightly loosens them.

In stockinette, I can see the stitch outlines and the whole swatch looks crisper. In the thrown swatch, the stitches look flattened to me and the whole swatch looks softer, even though I knit tighter when I throw. There are times I would want that softer look in my knitting.

In a cable, the picked swatch again looks crisper. The cable stands up more (even in a 2-ply). I can see that I knit tighter when I throw (the swatch is smaller on the same needles), but the cable is much less defined. This leads me to think that knitting tighter with a yarn that gets slightly untwisted in knitting helps, but doesn't make up for the slight untwisting completely. The edge I like in my cable knitting isn't there.

I can really see the difference in my lace swatches. The thrown swatch makes the lace pattern look blurry and flat. I used the same yarn, same needles for both. These are the swatches where I can really see that the plies look tighter in the picked swatch than in the thrown swatch.

For fun and experimenting, I spun an opposite yarn S, plied Z. Spinning singles S is harder for me than spinning singles Z. I thought it would make zero difference but it made quite a bit. I realized how much I fiddle with my yarn as I'm drafting and spinning. I'm one of those spinners that occasionally untwists the twist as I'm spinning right at the tip of the drafting triangle and I just couldn't make that work spinning singles S, so my regular rhythm was thrown off.

Look at how uneven my opposite (S/Z) yarn is...and it's over plied. But I went ahead and knit the same samples as the other yarn.

Other than my gauge being wildly different, I can see towards the tops that the thrown swatch ply is almost horizontal in spots indicating that it's picking up more twist. The picked swatch looks looser in twist, the opposite of the swatches knit from Z/S yarn.

In cable knit, the thrown swatch looks like a normal cable. The picked swatch looks hilarious to me. I can see the plies where the cables cross are vertical and in some places not plied at all, just standing next to each other. And the cable it self looks like it's fighting the right twist, not behaving like a cable at all.

With lace, boy is my throwing gauge tight! Taking that into account I can still see that the twist in the plies is tighter on the thrown swatch than the picked swatch.

Even with my tensioning issues while throwing, what I've always read about twist and knitting is true. Picking adds an amount of twist and throwing removes some twist in spun Z-plied S yarns, and the opposite in spun S-plied Z yarns.

What does this mean for the future of my spinning and knitting? First I need to practice my spun S-plied Z yarn! In reality, I may not reverse my spinning to make stitches look one way or another, but I will take the amount of ply twist I put in into account. There will be times I intentionally ply less for a softer stockinette, tighter for a stand up cable and keep my usual ply for lace.

One experiment is done and I'm already thinking about what twist and knitting does for more than 2 plies and colorwork. Stay tuned!


Jillian Moreno is the editor of Knittyspin. She's on the Editorial Advisory board for PLY Magazine. She lives in a house packed with fiber and books.

Be warned, she's a morning person and is disgustingly chipper before 9 am.