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Ply Types and Knit Stitches

Next time you visit a yarn shop, take a good look at the wool yarns. Besides color and weight, you'll notice another big difference among them -- the way the yarns are plied, the way the individual plies of wool are twisted around each other to make the final yarn. There are four main ways of plying that are done nowadays -- conventional, single, cabled and multi-strand - and these can cause some noticeable differences in the way that stockinette stitch will appear in your knitting.

When you use these four kinds of yarns, you likely don't think about their construction in such detail. Isn't all that matters that your knitting looks fine and you've gotten the correct gauge?

Maybe not. The way a yarn is plied can cause it to lie differently after it's knit into a fabric. This especially shows up in stockinette stitches, where you see the two halves of the V that form each stitch on the right side of the piece.

Have a look at the following photos to see what's going on. (Note -- the photos are been enlarged to show more detail).

Conventionally Plied yarns

These are the workhorses of wool yarns, and have been spun for decades. Most often you'll see four plies of yarn twisted around each other, like in the Debbie Bliss Merino Aran shown at left.

Each ply is called a 'single' because it can't be broken down into more strands; if you try pulling one of the singles apart, you get loose fiber. You can also find yarns of only two or three plies spun like this.

The final yarn is twisted in the 'S' direction. What this means is if you overlay the letter 'S' over the yarn strand, you can see that the middle bar of the letter mimics the direction of the final twist. This direction is also pointed out by the arrow.

Stockinette stitch with 4-ply yarn

The two halves of each knit stitch are slanted at nearly the same angle, and each side of the stitch is almost the same width.

Singles Yarns  
Sometimes a yarn consists of one big single. A good example is Brown Sheep's Lamb's Pride Worsted, in which many fibers are twisted around each other to make one big ply. Untwist the yarn and it's easy to see all the loose fibers. The only twist in the yarn is in the 'Z' direction.

When knitted up, it looks as if the left side of each stitch is twice as wide as the right side and tilted at a different angle. The right-side stitches appear to be forming one continuous vertical column.

There's nothing happening wrong with the knitting; this is simply how the yarn wants to lie, so there will be no stress or bias in the fabric.

Cabled yarns  

You can take conventionally S-plied yarns, and make a thicker yarn out of them by doing a one more twisting in the Z direction. This is how a cabled yarn is made; the final yarn has the look of a cabled cord. All this twisting results in a firmly spun yarn. Adrianne Vittadini's 'Trina' is an example of this.

The final yarn, which has its twist in the Z direction, consists of 4 strands. Each strand is made from 2 singles twisted around each other. In the photo, the third strand has been untwisted, to show the loose fibers from the two singles.

In the final yarn, you can see some of the little twists from each of the four strands, which gives this yarn its distinctive 'cabled' look. And with a cabled yarn, stockinette stitch looks rather distinctive too. Both halves of each knit stitch are equal in width, and tilted to the same degree.

However, you can make out the little twistings within each of the four strands, which gives the fabric a slightly textured look.

Multi-strand Yarns  

In the past 10 years or so, these yarns have become more and more available. They are called a number of different names -- multi-strand, multiple stranded, multi-ply, many-plied, Merino S twisted, and S-on-S multi-strand. Occasionally they are called 'cabled' yarns, but that's confusing with the real cabled yarns shown above. Plus, these multi-strand yarns are made in a completely different way.

Aurora 8 yarn from Karabella is a multi-strand yarn. The final yarn is made from 8 thin 2-ply strands; hence the number '8' in the name. The 8 strands are twisted around each other again in the S direction.

It may appear that the final yarn is tightly twisted, but it's not. It's just the way the eight thin strands want to lie next to each other. If you untwist the yarn, you can see that it's not overspun. In fact, the yarn feels quite soft and flexible, and has good elasticity.

When knitted up, these yarns have their own unique look. The right side of each stitch is nearly twice as wide as the left side, and tilted at a different angle. It almost looks like the left sides of the stitches are forming one continuous vertical column.

Why would a mill go to the trouble of spinning thin little 2-ply strands, if they are just going to twist a bunch of them together to make a thicker hand knitting yarn? At first glance, it seems like a lot of effort to go through.

Most of these yarns are spun in Italy, and that's the big reason why this multi-strand business is done. A spinning mill can make the thin 2-ply yarns for commercial knitwear. The spinning mill can also make hand knitting products by simply twisting several of these 2-ply yarns around each other, then skeining off these thicker yarns into 50- or 100-gram balls.

A spinning mill covers a lot of bases by doing things this way. First, the mill spins and dyes the thin 2-ply yarns for commercial knitwear. Then the mill can take four, six, eight or ten of the thin 2-ply yarns, and twist them together to make, respectively, fingering weight, DK weight, heavy worsted and bulky weight yarns.

Not a bad way to keep commercial and hand knitting customers happy and well fed.

The bottom line in all this is that there's nothing wrong with your knitting, and nothing wrong with the yarns. They aren't poorly made, over-twisted or under-twisted as people sometimes think. And you don't need to wrap your yarn differently to try and get rid of the slants in the stitches.

So the next time you go to your LYS, take a good look at the wool yarns. Appreciate the differences and knit away, now that you know the appearance of your knitting is exactly what it should be.



Michele Lock loves to feel yarn. She collects yarn skeins the way other people collect stamps. A chemist by training, she often wonders why one yarn feels/looks/knits differently than another.