Working with Handdyed Fibers Part 6: Chain plying

Posted in handspun, knitting, made with handspun by tchemgrrl on September 12, 2013

A number of common questions from both new and experienced spinners involves the use of those pretty, colorful braids of fiber that indie dyers sell. What do we do with them? How do we prevent them from turning to mud? How can I make it look the way it looks in my head?

Over the next few weeks I’m going to work on answering some of those questions. Taken together, they should add up to a handy little workshop on working with a particular fiber.

Previous posts:

Part 1: Deciding on some fiber
Part 2: Color
Part 3: Splitting and Breaking
Part 4: Lazy Rolags
Part 5: Fractals
So this is kind of a funny way to define color-management; this is the sort of thing that someone would normally put with plying techniques. But it’s still super relevant. Chain plying.

Chain plying seems to be the source of much Rav Group angst. It’s weak! It’s strong! I hate it! It’s the only thing I ever do to my yarn! It is technically true that it’s not a “true” plied yarn. This technique involves taking one length of a singles yarn and creating large loops, similar to a crochet chain, and then adding twist. (Note: Chain plying is also called Navajo plying, as it was inspired by a technique that Navajo weavers use in making a corded edging on their weavings.) Youtube video with a wheel spinner, Youtube video with a spindle spinner for examples on how actually to do it.

From a color management perspective, the fact that the whole yarn is made from a singles being slowly looped back on itself makes for some pretty seductive options. It allows the spinner to maintain a particular colorway without spinning three plies and hoping that each will line up as he or she wishes. This is particularly nice with fiber preps with irregular splotches of color which do not lend themselves easily to color matching by splitting the fiber. For example, check out this batt:


It’s lovely, but it would be difficult to get the colors to line up without doing more organization than I was interested in doing.


I spun up all the singles in one continuous go, and then chain plied the singles.


I’ve just shocked myself because I don’t have a picture of the final yarn here (I ALWAYS document! That yarn as been in my stash for AGES!) but I do have a picture of this little swatch, which shows two things. 1: The colors are lining up with each other, because each segment of chain-plied yarn is composed of singles made of the same bit of fiber. 2: Chain plied yarn doesn’t actually explode on contact with knitting or anything.

Here’s another example. I’ll be talking yet more about fiber splitting later and bring this sweater up again, but for now, suffice it to say that my goal was to spin a yarn where the stripes on the sleeves were about the width of the stripes on the body. I wasn’t quite ready to go whole-hog of splitting each smaller piece into equal pieces and getting them to ply together correctly (if memory serves, I started this project while at a fiber festival and wanted to just spin, without a ton of access to scales and laying things out into little baggies and such.) I split the sleeve fiber into narrower pieces because the knitting itself was narrower, I needed less yardage per stripe. And then I just spun and chain plied so that I didn’t need to concern myself with getting a bunch of singles to come out perfectly.

clematis closeup

If you look closely you can see a few of the little lumps formed by chain plying.


But look, the yarn didn’t explode! And the stripes came out kind of equal!

Okay, so there are some downsides for chain-plied yarn. The workflow is totally different than making a more traditional plied yarn, and personally I find it a pain in the tuchus and avoid it unless I have a particular effect I like. But some people hate more traditional plying and love chain plying. So play with it a bit before you decide.

The transitions between stripes in a chain-plied yarn are somewhat harsher than they would otherwise be, lacking the soft in-between section that occurs when the colors in a normally-plied yarn do not line up perfectly. I usually LIKE that softness–if I want hard stripes I’ll just use multiple yarns–but you may have a colorway that looks ugly when barberpoled.

The jury is out as to whether chain-plied yarns wear as well as their more traditionally-plied counterparts–the spot where the chains intersect does appear to be a weak point on the yarn itself, but no one agrees on how much effect this has on a knitted fabric. The fact that the argument exists leads me to suspect that the differences in wear are negligible in practice compared to the effects of fiber, singles twist, and plying twist.

It is true, though, that variations in thickness are not masked as well as they are in a traditional plied yarn, and this may affect your wear, if your spinning is not very consistent. This is more noticeable if you’re someone who tends to drift in thickness from session to session *raises hand*, less so if your inconsistencies are on the foot-or-less scale.

I also think this is a good way of keeping like colors together if keeping track of fibers and weights and stuff is irritating to you. Which is why a lot of people use this technique, I think. But I wanted to use the baby sweater above to point out that just because you’re chain plying doesn’t need to mean that you turn your brain off completely. You can still do interesting things with splitting the fiber.

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