Sue Blacker on Woollen vs. Worsted mill spinning
After the lovely posts we’ve just had on hand-combing and hand-carding wool fibres in preparation for spinning, we thought it would be interesting to get an industrial perspective on the differences between worsted vs. woollen spun yarns. Here to talk us through some of the differences, nuances and complexities of these different approaches is Sue Blacker of Blacker Yarns and The Natural Fibre Company, who has joined us this evening for a special Q&A on some of the differences. Except where stated, all content and photos © Sue Blacker and used here with kind permission
WOVEMBER: You mentioned earlier this year that you would like to talk this WOVEMBER about worsted vs. woollen spun yarns; I wondered if you could start by explaining the difference between the two?
Woollen spun yarns
Sue: Woollen spun yarns are carded to separate the fibres into a web, or a roving/rolag for hand spinners. So the fibres are spread out evenly in order to make a yarn of even thickness along its length, but they remain scattered in all directions in the yarn. This means that the yarn is:
- Light and full of air
- Fluffy or even hairy
- Able to insulate well in use and making a light and thick fabric when knitted or blankets, scarves, shawls and tweed when woven and for carpets
- Breakable by hand, so only good for a weft if used in weaving unless specifically made for weaving with added twist
- Likely to have a few remaining seeds or pieces of vegetation that did not fall out in processing
- Made of the whole fleece, including coarser and finer fibres and hairs (kemp and modulated fibre and guard hairs)
Worsted spun yarns
Worsted spun yarns are part carded (scribbled) before coiling into a can and then passing through gills (called pin drafting in the US), which align the fibres, and combs, which remove short hairs, coarse hairs and vegetable matter. The result is tops, which are then re-gilled, auto-levelled and split for worsted spinning. This means that the yarn is:
- Denser and heavier than woollen spun yarns, with little air, so will make a more drapey fabric
- Smooth and soft-feeling, even if made with quite coarse fibre, as the most coarse will have been removed
- Strong and able to be used as a warp in weaving without additional twist, used in suiting and finer fabrics and/or hard-wearing fabrics
- Less economic to make as more fibre is removed in processing
- Refined and luxurious
- At risk of pilling or shedding if made with short or smooth fibres, which are held in better in a woollen spun yarn
Semi-worsted spun yarns are gilled and worsted spun, but not combed, so the wool is more completely in the character of the fleece but the yarn is smoother and stronger than if woollen spun. It is also possible to woollen spin combed fibre, which makes nice soft (but bulkier) yarns. These are refinements we play with for NFC customers to improve yield and handle, depending on the fleece type.
So worsted spinning will make people think the yarn is softer and will produce a finer yarn, but you have two possible downsides: the yield from greasy fleece is much less and there is a greater risk of pilling from any remaining short fibres or shedding from smooth fibres. A woollen spun yarn will generally pill and shed much less, even with a high proportion of short fibre.
WOVEMBER: You work with an enormous range of different sheep breeds and other fibre animals at Blacker Yarns and the Natural Fibre Company. I wondered if in that time you have developed ideas about which sheep breeds are best suited to which spinning processes? (Or is it the case that both types of spinning bring out different qualities in wool, and so the worsted vs. woollen decision is done on a yarn-by-yarn basis, rather than a breed-by-breed basis?)
Sue: Yes – we have spun around 50 breeds, before counting the cross-bred versions! However, the majority of what we do in British/minority breeds is Shetland, Jacob, Hebridean, Manx, Gotland, Blue-faced Leicester, Wensleydale, Black Welsh Mountain and other Welsh breeds, Cotswold, Dorset, Portland, Southdown, Zwartbles… We are seeing more Polwarth and a little Merino creeping in. Of course we also spin mohair and alpaca and blend them with wool.
Short fibre cannot easily or economically be worsted spun – on average a staple length of around 4”/10cm is needed, while woollen spun yarns can be made with fibres averaging 2”/5cm or even shorter if making a thick yarn. So sheep with short fleeces, like Southdown, are less good for worsted spun yarns. Generally coarse fibre will benefit from worsted spinning as it will feel smoother than if woollen spun and lustre fibres will have more sheen if worsted spun, thus will dye to a more brilliant tone as well. A woollen spun yarn will have a greater halo, while some worsted spun lustre yarns can look a bit hairy, though they will feel soft, which is why we like the woollen spun combed Cotswold and woollen spun Wensleydale options.
I personally do not think Shetland benefits much from worsted spinning, as the best fibres are soft and light and bulky, but Jacob improves noticeably with worsted spinning. It is interesting that woollen spun Jacob using the whole fleece will produce a grey-brown shade, while worsted spinning brings a browner grey result due to the differing arrangement of fibre reflecting the light differently.
I would not worsted spin North Ronaldsay as the removal of the coarser fibres also removes the character and anyway the softer fibres give a generally soft result.
Blue-faced Leicester is interesting: I like both the woollen and worsted spun versions, though the worsted spun is obviously softer. But I have tried some worsted spun BFL which is like knitting with cooked spaghetti and I personally like a yarn with a bit of character and presence for knitting, and for wearing. But people are spoiled by the softness of Merino and worsted spinning, which is a shame as it’s really much more interesting to make yarn choices on other grounds than only the softness.
It is traditional to worsted spin the lustre fibres such as Cotswold and Wensleydale and the resulting yarns are nice and soft and strong, but the fibre makes for a very lean yarn and if the wool is combed but then woollen spun you get the benefit of both the softer result from combing and the bulk from woollen spinning. Gotland will tend to shed a bit if worsted spun, like alpaca, although the resultant yarn is gorgeously soft, so it is one which would work best combed and then woollen spun to improve the range of fineness in the batch.
WOVEMBER: Could you give us an example of where changing the method of spinning from worsted to woollen or vice versa has completely transformed what you could do with a particular type of fleece?
Sue: Jacob is a nice traditional wool for woollen spinning but is really lovely worsted spun. Interestingly, our Falkland Blacker Swan merino is gorgeous worsted spun (as planned!) but our woollen spun Chunky is really nice too.
Due to our equipment, we cannot make every thickness of yarn in both woollen and worsted spun, and so all our lace-weight yarns are worsted spun, and I know that the St Kilda Boreray/Soay/Shetland blend is getting rave reviews, and is certainly a very different yarn to the pure Boreray woollen spun aran.
WOVEMBER: In your role as a pattern designer, have you also discovered that worsted vs. woollen spun yarns behave very differently when knitted?
This is a really interesting question. A worsted yarn is denser and heavier so will suit better for making garments or textiles with drape and sheen, whatever breed is used, while some shorter wools are unsuitable for worsted. Woollen spun yarns do gradually gently felt in use, and so will make a lighter denser fabric over time with wear and washing, while worsted spun yarns will obviously also felt a bit but tend to get leaner and thinner with wear.
Another consideration in knitting can be stitch definition: you need a worsted spun to get higher stitch definition in softer wools, but a woollen spun in Cotswold or Galway or Manx will still have good stitch definition. But worsted spun yarns are also more dense and less elastic than woollen spun yarns. Thus worsted is not only more expensive and less high yield from the original wool, but also does not go as far when knitted. This is both in terms of absolute length of a ball of yarn weighing 50g (this will be shorter if worsted spun, so the US approach to yardage is potentially preferable), but also in terms of gauge/tension. I would therefore always advise getting extra yarn if using worsted spun yarn unless the pattern is written for worsted spun. It’s also the case that knitter gauge/tension will vary when using yarns doubled, and again it’s always worth getting a bit extra for patterns using doubled yarn.
So, when making a really large garment like our double DK hoodie or the double DK Jacob jacket in my book, Pure Wool, these would be really heavy to wear if made in worsted spun yarn, as well as being very expensive in yarn. But when making a luxurious evening scarf, or lace or a waterfall jacket, then worsted is by far my preference.
If you are keen on the environmental implications of yarn making, this pushes the balance towards woollen spun yarns!
We have just launched a Sasha Kagan design for a Chanel inspired jacket, which uses 4-ply yarn in moss stitch to subtly merge varied coloured stripes. Sasha’s original design was made in a woollen spun yarn, but I really wanted a couple of variations in Blacker Swan to get a wider range of colour options and styles – it’s also a small crusade of mine to try and persuade people to choose a colour they like rather than only the one in which the original pattern was photographed!
However, the pattern repeat of 124 rows is around 34.4cm (13.8 inches) long in worsted spun yarn, but up to 7cm (2.5 inches) longer at 41.3cm (16.5 inches) in woollen spun yarn. This is not a great problem for this pattern, as the tension change is in length, while the width is the same. However, for the next design I am working on at present, where the effect is even greater due to being in broken rib, there is a difference in both width and length in the tension… This means that adapting sizes for different yarns when the pattern design is fitted will be more complicated!
Today, the vast majority of knitting yarns on the market are made as worsted spun (and don’t get me started on superwash!), and this is not usually included in the description given on the yarn product information. At Blacker Yarns, we say if it is worsted spun, so everything else is woollen spun – but writing this has inspired me to make this a more visible piece of information on our website. Therefore adapting patterns from worsted to woollen is likely to make the garment larger with the same number of stitches and rows, and almost certainly longer, while adapting in the opposite direction will most likely make the garment smaller and shorter.
WOVEMBER: Could you tell us about a worsted spun yarn in the Blacker Yarns range which you are particularly pleased with?
Sue: The yarns I like best at present are our Blacker Swan range and our two St Kilda and BFL laceweights, but I also very much like our Jacob.
Blacker Swan is a collaboration with Andrez and Alison Short at Swan Inlet Farm on the Falkland Islands, and we developed the yarn over a two year period, starting with a trial bale. I have to say we originally intended a worsted spun as we wanted a really luxurious yarn from the top quality 20 micron fleeces. We also worked on developing a range of patterns and the colours are all related to Falkland Islands flowers and landscape.
St Kilda is very special and we just had to do it because Jane Cooper inspired us by picking out coarse hairs by hand from the original batch – which of course our machines can do more quickly – but I think the blend with Soay and Shetland has also helped to make it quite special. This was partly because of the very small amount of wool available but also has made a yarn we really love.
BFL is good because it has some weight and bulk as well as the softness, which is down to the twist and the skill of our guys in the mill; Jacob is just a really nice yarn in the worsted version, still retaining the character but considerable softer than the woollen spun version.
WOVEMBER: Could you tell us about a woollen spun yarn in the Blacker Yarns range which you are particularly pleased with?
Sue: Originally most of our Blacker British breed yarns were woollen spun and we focused on worsted for the lustre fibres, which is the traditional approach. Now we are using worsted, combing and semi worsted more frequently to get good effects.
Of our woollen spun yarns, I am particularly fond of the Wensleydale and Cotswold, which have a proportion of the long fibres chopped while making the yarn, which also helps to soften them and which are a departure from the more normal worsted spun versions.
But I really love the pure Castlemilk Moorit, which we have only been able to make as a single breed yarn since we found a source of high quality and slightly longer fleeces. The result is not exactly soft but has the plushy weight and handle of old velvet – wonderful!
And I don’t think much could be done to improve on a good woollen spun Shetland yarn, made with selected fleeces.
At the other end of the scale, I also have a soft spot for our Devon and Cornwall Longwool blend twine and string – this is a great, strong, woollen spun, hard-wearing product. We have to chop the wool, can only use lambs and have to blend with less lustrous downland or other wool to make it hold in the carding machine but it’s a great result and we had to do quite a bit of development to make it work, and help support this particular rare breed, which does not rejoice in soft fine fleeces!
Fleece selection, sorting and grading are key to obtaining the best results, though, whichever route you take as the act of twisting fibres will make them harder, so all we do in manufacturing yarns makes the original fibre less soft; therefore, starting with the best fleeces will enable us to make the best we can in the yarns.
WOVEMBER: There must always be an endless list of potential yarns in your mind when thinking about what you could produce at Blacker; I wondered if you could share with WOVEMBER readers a potential yarn which you have been thinking about producing recently, why you are excited about it, and whether it will be worsted or woollen spun?
Sue: We have actually been cutting back a bit as the range was getting vast! Also, for instance, I don’t think a really good Shetland makes an ideal aran-weight yarn, while Galway and our Hebridean/Manx blend are great for this. So there’s another aspect apart from the choice of spinning, which is what weight of yarn is appropriate for which fibre… But at present:
- Worsted spun yarns produce a bi-product, the noils which are combed out of the fleeces. We are planning on some softly tweeded woollen spun yarns, using pale noils with dark fleece and vice versa to make some attractive yarns, reducing waste.
- We have also be playing with differential twisting and spinning effects to create more strongly heathered worsted spun yarns.
- We have a new woollen spun English merino yarn which has all the lovely soapy texture of merino, but also high welfare, good environmental credentials and I am rather pleased with (it’s a very limited edition though).
- We are also looking at combed woollen spun Gotland in a new range of dyed shades…
…You are right that the list is endless!
THANK YOU! X
And thank you to Sue for providing WOVEMBER with this fascinating insight into the differences in worsted and woollen mill-spun yarns!