Yarns to Love
Woolen and Worsted: What Does It Mean?
The last time we spoke, it was about sheep breeds and just what all those different fuzzy-bottomed critters had to do with your knitting. I hope you found time to explore your stash, and perhaps enhance it with yarns of different breeds.
Today’s topic is woolen and worsted drafted yarns. Drafting is the process of adding twist to fiber, and of course it has an effect on your knitting.
Yarn and fiber folks have an extensive vocabulary for many things, but we are really stuck on the word worsted. Worsted is used to describe the thickness of a yarn (worsted weight), one way fibers are aligned before becoming yarn (worsted preparation), and how twist enters fiber to become yarn (worsted drafting). Today, I’m talking about the last one.
Two Drafting Styles
Twist is the magic that makes fiber into yarn, and drafting is how the twist gets into the fiber. There are two basic ways of drafting fiber by hand or by machine: worsted draft or woolen draft.
One way is controlled; twist is brought to the fiber like a gift. No twist enters the fiber by itself. The fiber is compressed and smoothed, and air is squeezed out as the twist is applied to the fiber. That is worsted drafting. It makes yarn that is smooth and dense.
The other style invites the twist into the fiber, it lets the twist zip into the fiber with little to no control; twist is just tossed at the fiber. The twist brings air with it, and the surface isn’t controlled by smoothing as it hits the fiber. That is woolen drafting. It makes yarn that is lofty and irregular.
Think in terms of shopping at a fiber show. Miss Babs has an orderly line. Folks wait their turn to enter the booth and shop in a controlled way. That would be worsted-style shopping. Over at Into the Whirled, the people come from all directions into the booth in a hullabaloo of shopping, woolen style.
How Can You Tell Them Apart?
When you touch worsted yarn, it tends to feel heavier and very even, and it will be shiny if the fibers in the yarn are inclined that way.
Woolen yarns feel lighter, can feel textured and have a halo, and if the fibers like to be hairy or fuzzy, they will be flying their fuzzy freak flag. Woolen yarns are the ones you might find bits of hay in.
When you look at yarns, hunting for worsted vs. woolen, some are obvious from across the yarn shop.
Two Brooklyn Tweed yarns. Left: Arbor (color: Klimt). Right: Shelter (color: hayloft).
Brooklyn Tweed’s Arbor (Targhee wool, worsted spun) and Shelter (Targhee/Columbia wool, woolen spun) are perfect examples.
You can see the difference when it’s wound into a ball, and in the strand. Even taking in account the difference of color and fiber blend, they are two different yarns. Shelter is textured, and Arbor is smooth as silk.
Some yarns are not so obvious. Jill Draper’s Windham (Merino wool, worsted spun) and Empire (Rambouillet wool, woolen spun) are perfect examples of that.
Two yarns from Jill Draper Makes Stuff. In both photos, Windham (Color: cloud) is on the left, and Empire (color: clear skies) is on the right.
The difference between these two is not as clear at first glance. Looking at a strand, I can start seeing variation. The Empire (on the right) is less consistent, and looks a little puffier.
When I unplied the yarn and looked at individual strands, I could see a difference and a dead giveaway. The Windham is more uniform and sleek looking even with the inherent visual softness of the Merino fiber. The Empire is more uneven looking, a little airier as well as fuzzy. The dead giveaway of the woolen-ness of Empire is the blip of fiber sticking out. That doesn’t happen when fiber is being compressed and smoothed while it becomes a worsted drafted yarn; that happens when the twist limbos into the fiber.
Not every woolen-spun yarn has a rougher surface, and not every worsted yarn is smooth. How a yarn looks also depends on (did you read my last article?) the fiber(s) used. Some have a naturally rougher surface. An extreme example is angora or mohair. If either of these fibers is in your yarn, no matter how worsted and smooth it is spun—it will become a fuzzy yarn.
Why Does It Matter to My Knitting?
I knit swatches of all four yarns in stockinette, moss stitch, and a simple lace stitch, and took close-up comparison photos of the worsted and woolen yarns overlapping. In all the photos, the left swatch of the pair is the worsted spun yarn and the right swatch is woolen spun.
Brooklyn Tweed Swatches: Left, Arbor. Right, Shelter.
Jill Draper Makes Stuff Swatches: Left, Windham. Right, Empire.
It’s easy to see what’s going on with the yarn and knitting in the samples. Here’s what woolen and worsted mean to your knitted sweaters and accessories.
Stitch definition. I’ll jump right in with the big one. If you want knife-edge stitch definition, go for a worsted drafted yarn. You can see the stitches in the worsted swatches just show up. The Vs of stockinette are sharp, the bumps of moss are plump and clear and the holes in the lace are wide open. Woolen drafted yarn gives a texture and an overall softness and visual motion to all the stitches, something I like, but occasionally I find some small stitch repeat patterns get lost with woolen yarns. If you are unsure or curious about the outcome of a particular stitch pattern, swatch it.
Color. When dyed the same color, woolen and worsted drafted yarns won’t look the same. Color is usually lighter in a woolen drafted yarn. The squeeze of drafting a yarn worsted brings fibers closer, for greater depth of color, and the smoothness of the surface reflects light, intensifying the color and shine. In colorwork, the edge that gives a worsted yarn great stitch definition also makes colors stand apart, while woolen drafted yarns create softness and blur between colors.
Durability, warmth and weight. In side-by-side comparison of worsted and woolen yarns with the same fiber and yarn structure, the worsted yarn is more durable, less warm, and heavier than a woolen yarn. The packing-in of the fiber as worsted yarn is made allows the fibers to protect each other for longer wear and less pilling. The same process squeezes out the air making it not as warm. The compression of a worsted draft puts more individual fibers into a length of yarn, making it heavier. A woolen yarn’s loose, lofty structure traps and holds air, making it warm and light, but the air between the fibers allows them to abrade quicker.
How to choose?
This is the fun part about being a knitter who knows their yarn; it’s all up to you.
If I’m knitting a gansey to last more than a few years, and want fantastic, crisp stitch definition, I’ll choose a worsted spun yarn.
If I’m knitting a Fair Isle sweater and want it to be warm and have colors that are little blurred at the edges to blend well with each other. I’ll choose a woolen spun yarn.
Never discount the yarn lust factor with yarn. Which do you like and want to work with? Now that you know about how woolen and worsted yarns behave in knitted fabric, you’ll be able to choose the perfect pattern to complement your new yarn love.