Yarn fibers are spun together to make yarn. There are some very odd exceptions, but mostly, yarn is made from fiber. It doesn’t matter what the fiber is, it has to be spun to make yarn. Before I get to talking about ply, let’s talk about yarn fibers.
There are two categories of fibers:
- animal fiber (alpaca, cashmere, llama, yak, bison, angora, mohair, dog, etc.),
- hemp, and
- Manufactured (there are others, this is generally what we see in yarn)
- nylon (polyamide),
- rayon (bamboo, milk, soy, viscose, modal, lyocell, cellulose/wood, etc.),
- elastomeric (stretch)
Manufactured fibers begin as filaments, but can be cut into staple lengths. Manufactured fibers have different chemical make ups, and are designed to have physical properties similar to those we experience in natural fibers.
There are pure fibers and blended fibers:
- Pure fibers are 100% single fiber.
- Blended fibers are more than one fiber that combine to equal 100%.
Let’s us 100% wool just as an example for finding information.
100% wool is different from 100% Merino wool, or Rambouillet, or Cormo, or Shetland, or any of the wools that have a name or a place of origin. If it is 100% wool, it may be a blend of different types of wool, which aren’t specified. Usually there will be a price differential which will tip you off; the 100% wool isn’t “worse” wool, it just isn’t always from a single breed. If your wool says Superwash wool, it has been chemically or physically processed. This is where you, as a consumer and user, must decide what you value. Different types of wool have different properties to the fibers, which may make them more or less appealing for your purposes.
What can you learn from that skein of 100% wool yarn in your hand? Think of approaching it as you might a wine.
When you taste wine there are three steps:
A visual inspection of your glass and the bottle allow you to ascertain the color, the varietal of grapes, percentage of alcohol, and place of origin. As you smell you may get scents that tell you what to expect, and are usually expressed in terms that identify potential flavor agents: fruit, berry, oak-y, smooth, young, earthy. When you taste it, those terms are magnified and also used to explain the taste. You might also comment that the wine needs to “open” or is ready to drink.
With yarn we have steps too:
If you are looking at a new-to-you yarn, your first step after identifying it as a yarn you are interested in is to pick it up to look at the yarn itself and probably read the label. The label may say 100% wool, 100% Merino, etc. the yarn weight, the physical weight, and the yardage. It may say something about the plies. The label may tell you where it was made, or where the yarn company is located. You have likely already been enticed by color. As you hold the yarn, you will fondle the yarn itself in an attempt to know what the yarn fibers and yarn is like and whether it will meet your needs. If there is a swatch or a project in the yarn you can use visual and hand as a means of seeing what the final product may look like for you. You will relate that yarn to other yarns you have used to bring it into focus for you.
A yarn that is 100% of a single fiber will have properties related to that fiber. Wool fiber isn’t like cotton, and cotton isn’t like silk. Each type of yarn fibers has its own advantages or disadvantages, depending on your usage and needs. We have become pretty familiar with different types of wool in recent years, but there are also differences within each of the other yarn fibers, natural and manufactured. There is breed or variety (or brand), then there are the ways they are treated as fibers before becoming yarn fibers. That’s another post.