Week 4: Yarn Structure- A Twisted Tale

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Thanks for returning to our blog series on Mastering Yarn. Last week we began exploring the topic of fiber content. I hope that you’ll all continue to experiment in your own knitting adventures, because there’s so much left to learn about fiber but it’s time to move on to our next topic: Yarn Structure- A Twisted Tale!


What is Yarn Structure?

Yarn structure is the way a fiber has been shaped to form a yarn. Spinners have had thousands of years to develop the art of turning fiber into yarn, and today there are innumerable different structures to choose from. But most of them still start with twist.

When fiber is processed, it’s first carded and/or combed to align all the fibers and smooth them out to a certain degree. Then the bundles of straightened fiber (called roving) are pulled and twisted to form sturdy strands of yarn. The spinner may add more or less twist depending on the desired qualities of the finished yarn- because twist has a huge impact on the hand, drape, elasticity, and other qualities of a yarn! More twist creates a stronger, smoother, more elastic yarn, while less twist creates a softer, fuzzier, more drapey yarn.


Once the roving has been twisted, it becomes a ply- a single strand of yarn that has been twisted in one direction. If the spinning process ends here, the resulting yarn is a single ply yarn (also called a “single” or “roving style yarn”). Because they have been twisted only once, single ply yarns tend to be softer, fuzzier, and more flexible. They drape well and give a wonderful hand. However, because they can easily relax or loose some of their twist, they may lack stitch definition and elasticity.


From left to right: fingering, worsted, and super bulky weight single ply yarns.


A spinner may also join multiple single plies of yarn by twisting them together in the opposite direction. In this case the result is a plied yarn. The spinner can “ply” (join by twisting) any number of “plies” (single strands), as you can see below. The result is generally a smoother, stronger yarn with more elasticity and better stitch definition. However, the added twist can lessen the natural softness and drape of the fiber. The more plies a yarn contains, the more pronounced are these differences.


From left to right: a 2-ply, 4-ply, and 12-ply yarn, twisted and untwisted to show the plies.

You may remember that during Week 2: Yarn Weight- It’s Not Just a Number!, we established that plies do not necessarily indicate a yarn’s weight. Before we had the variety of yarn structures that we enjoy today, a yarn’s weight was often measured by counting its plies. However, as spinners and mills developed different ways to spin and ply yarns, they moved away from this standard. You can see an example of this below.


Both of these yarns are worsted weight, but the yarn on the left contains more plies than the yarn on the right.


Thanks to modern spinning processes, the possibilities are endless! There is a staggering number of special structures available to knitter and crocheters today. Here are a few of the most popular.


Bouclé yarns are instantly recognizable by their wavy, crimped texture. This effect is achieved by plying a thicker yarn with a thinner one, which is held at the angle during spinning so that it twists around the thicker yarn and creates the wavy shape. If you look closely in the picture on the left, you can see these how these two strands make up a bouclé yarn. On the right are some examples.

Thick & Thin

A thick & thin yarn is exactly what is sounds like- a yarn that changes in diameter throughout the skein. This may be done by deliberately increasing and decreasing the amount of roving being fed into the yarn (in the case of the yarn on the left below), or it may be the more subtle result of the varying tension in a single-ply yarn (in the case of the yarn on the right below).


Sometimes plies are joined by means other than twisting. An excellent example of this is a chainette yarn, which consists of multiple plies joined by interlocking loops- literally “chaining” the yarn in the way knitters and crocheteres often do. This structure gives chainettes yarns wonderful elasticity and lightness, and has the added benefit of being split-free!

Novelty Yarns

The most wild and exciting textures belong to novelty yarns (on the left below). Many novelty yarns begin with synthetic fibers formulated for a special purpose, and are produced using all kinds of processes that may or may not include actual spinning. Each novelty yarn is unique in its structure and qualities, but they always yield incredible results- just look at the novlety yarns knitted into the shawls pictured at right below!


If you’d like to learn more about yarn structure, the best way is to play! Go to your stash and dissect a few yarns. How many different structures can you identify? How do they feel different as you swatch with them? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Come back next week for our discussion of Color. Until then, happy knitting!


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Pamela Shoemaker
    Sep 14, 2016 @ 13:50:13

    This is my favorite part of the series on yarn differences. I am curious to know if a chain yarn has to be made by a special machine after it has been spun. Also, do the different plies add to the cost?

    Liked by 1 person


    • yarnpatch
      Sep 15, 2016 @ 09:46:29

      Good question, Pam! The answer is yes, manufacturers use specialized machines for every step of the process and that’s particularly key to producing yarns with an unusual structure like chainette. As for the cost, the structure doesn’t necessarily mean the yarn will be more expensive. There are so many other factors- the cost of the raw materials (i.e. the fiber), the materials and techniques used for dyeing, etc. It would be hard to pin down exactly how much the spinning process contributes to the final cost of the yarn.



  2. Gail
    Sep 14, 2016 @ 16:04:17

    Great blog again. Makes me want to dig out my spinning wheel and practice spinning again. I loved the feeling of the roving in my fingers and my wheel making the twist. Spinning was actually very relaxing. On so many fiber related things to do and never enough time.
    Excellent question about the chain yarn by Pamela in the previous comment. I am curious about the answer to her question.

    Liked by 1 person


  3. Kathy
    Sep 15, 2016 @ 07:58:08

    Wow Emily that was a great blog. You really did your homework. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person


  4. Christine Reese
    Sep 15, 2016 @ 13:31:23

    This was a really good one, they are all very interesting and lots to learn. Thank you.



  5. Trackback: Check Out Chainette! | The Yarn Patch

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: