Monday, March 21, 2011

More Plies

How many plies does it take to make a good knitting yarn?
More! Modern knitters have forgotten that more plies are warmer and more durable. If you are going to put that much labor into something, make it good! I came to spinning, because I wanted better yarn.

Modern mill spun is prepared for knitters that knit in accordance with Yarn Craft guidelines ( ). Such knitting is loose. There are gaps between every each stitch and the next. No matter how warm the yarns, heat is going to escape between the strands of yarn, so there is no reason to make the yarns warm.   In other words, if you are going to knit loosely, then there is very little warmth advantage from putting in the effort to spin all those plies. And, spinning more plies is does cost more. Knitters have price-points and the yarn industry is very competitive, so the mills cut cost by designing yarns with as few plies as possible. The existing, competitive, yarns then become the standard for most knitters . 

However, I want better yarns.  In the yarn life-cycle of sheep to to sock,  while finer plies do take extra spinning time, it is not a lot considering overall effort.

How fine a ply? I aim for about about 1/3 of the spin count. For example, Cotswold has a spin count of 30+ hanks per pound, so I aim for 10 hanks per pound (5,600 ypp) for my singles. (Five such plies gives you to 5-ply gansey yarn @ 1,000 ypp.) Jacob has a spin count of 48++, so I aim to spin my Jacob singles at 16 hanks per pound/ 9,000 ypp.

Ok, the 2 ply takes 6 hours to spin and the 5 ply at the same overall grist takes 16 hours to spin. However, whether I knit with 2-ply or 5-ply of the same grist, a pair of socks takes 20 hours to knit. The 5-ply lasts much longer. So by investing an extra 10 hours spinning (or about 25% of total yarn preparation time), I can save myself several days of spinning and knitting replacement socks. This goes double for an elaborate fisherman’s knit-frock. This becomes an overwhelming factor for fine lady's gloves with fancy patterns that might require a hundred hours to knit.

I assert that 9,000 ypp singles are good for weaving garment weight fabrics. Thus, for the last thousand years, spinners have been spinning linen, silk, worsted, and woolen singles at grists near 9,000 ypp for the use of weavers. Some of these singles would have been diverted, and plied up into knitting yarns, well because, knitting yarns with fine plies really are warmer and more durable.  It makes a nice  knitting yarn.  In the context of traditional spinning, 9,000 ypp just is not a big deal.

The other day, I ran across an old pattern for Shetland Shawls. There was a center panel of tightly knit fabric (Shetland 2-ply lace weight (22 wpi) knit on UK #16 needles) that was actually much warmer than any of the fabrics produced from the patterns in Knitting Ganseys with Beth Brown-Reinsel.  I find it funny that the old lace shawls were warmer than the modern fisherman’s sweaters.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A gansey by any other name

I have been going through old sources on knitting, looking at what they made, what the material was, and what they called it. The results have been eye opening.

I started with Weldon's Practical Knitter, The Delineator, and the resources of the Rutt library ( ).  This does not go back as far as I would like as some of the resources in Rutt are more recent than the dates on the homepage suggest.

The first thing I noticed was how many things were knitted from wool.  Convention is to assume that undergarments named in old inventories and wills were woven linen. This may have been the general rule, but Weldon in particular makes it clear that "gents drawers",  gent's and lady's under vests, knickerbockers, gent's, lady's & children's vests, baby's dresses, Spencers, chest protector, lady's under sleeves, girl's and lady's petticoats, lady's under bodice, lady's leggings (for riding), and various chemises were all knit from wool on occasion. While these sources are 19th century, it would seem that that they reflect older traditions.  

Then, I looked at what various garments are called. Fishermen's sweaters knit of wool are called: Jersey Jacket, Sailor Jersey, short-waisted jacket, Guernsey frock, fisherman's Jersey, Boating Jersey, Boating Sweater, and warm undervest.  Again, I expect  that these reflect older naming traditions, and when we see these any of terms in older wills and inventories, we can not be sure that they do not refer to a knit fisherman's garment -- a gansey if you will.

I found it most interesting that the term "gansey" for a fisherman's sweater came into circulation in Great Britain about the time the old Guernsey knitting technique called gansey died out.  And, of course, modern books on ganseys and gansey knitting do not instruct on  the old Guernsey knitting technique.  This is a bit sad.

Other things that I have been reading, and which are available as free digital  editions include:

Old-time tools and toys of needlework

 By Gertrude Whiting

The rural life of England

 By William Howit