Studying the spinning of sock yarns, and studying spinning colours, are both pretty enormous worlds. Some people will focus more on one area than another in this study, because we are all at different places in our learnings.
I am an analytical person. I like to break things down, figure out all the possibilities. Also, I’m a little addicted to planning. It’s so much more fun than doing the dishes, which is what I should really be doing right now.
Socks: Spinning for Durability
Perhaps the biggest issue with spinning sock yarn is spinning for durability. We go to all the trouble of spinning and knitting fine yarns for socks, then we put them in the hardest-wearing part of our bodies. Let me say first, I highly recommend the Ply Magazine Winter 2018 issue, which focused on sock yarns. It contains the results of many experiments that experienced spinners performed on socks! Here are some of the areas spinners have explored in trying to make the most durable sock yarns.
Most of us start with a simple 3-ply, whether traditional or chain-plied. Additionally, in the Spring 2017 issue of Ply Magazine, Rachel published an experiment she performed with two-ply sock yarns. She concluded that 2-ply is a viable possibility for durable sock yarn. If you match the grist and twist angle with a good 3-ply sock yarn, it can wear just as well.
In her book How I Spin: A Sock Study, Rachel explores some of the more unusual constructions of sock yarn. So, this is my list of the possible constructions of sock yarn:
- 3-ply (traditional)
- Chain ply
- Opposing 3-ply
- Crepe yarn
- 4-ply (traditional)
- Cable ply
- Hauser yarn
Am I missing any big ones?
Personally I’m going to start with the first four, then move on to the more adventurous structures as I get more comfortable.
Beyond what you are spinning are the nitty-gritty details of how you spin them.
Grist and twist angle are huge. In her experiments with 2-ply sock yarns, Rachel said that both of her most durable sock yarns (2- and 3-ply): “felt ropey and dense, lacked drape, and felt unpleasant to knit but were incredibly comfortable to wear” (Ply Magazine Spring 2017, p. 78). They also both had a low grist – they were dense.
Related to grist is how you spin. Short forward or continuous backward? Long draw? Smoothing or not? Worsted methods that make lower grist yarns make more durable yarns for socks. Additionally, how do you ply? A high ply twist angle seems important. If there’s a time to lean in the direction of making rope, socks is that time!
The issue of fiber is massive. What type of wool? Is it hand-processed or commercial? What blending additions make it stronger: nylon, mohair, silk…? Since we are looking at the Unbraided book as well, pretty much all of my selections are commercially processed combed tops, but you may choose to break out of that mold.
From my reading in Ply Magazine Winter 2018, almost any wool can work, with the exception of fine, short-stapled fibers like Merino. Those were definitely not recommended (p. 16). Down- and down-like breeds, “medium” wools like Corriedale, and long wool were all experimented with successfully. Nylon and Mohair were the most successful add-ins, silk not so much. Rachel has said many times that superwash fibers need extra twist to be successful, because the superwash process strips the wool fibers of their scales.
For me, it would be easy to be overwhelmed, but the fibers I have access to are making the choices for me.
Last but not least: how do you knit up the fabric? I have heard over the years, and my experience knitting and wearing 50+ pairs of socks confirms, is that density is key.
I don’t really like knitting so tightly that my hands hurt, but I’m also experimenting with adding slip stitching, with short rows, to the areas of highest wear on the ball of my foot and under my heel. I could write a pattern, if anyone is interested, but I’ve only done it on one pair so far, so I can’t say for sure whether it’s effective.
After years of knitting top-down, I’m jamming on toe-up socks finally. It’s hard to resist when working with handspun. What patterns do you like?
Colour: Exploring the Possiblities
Some will choose just to focus on the sock spinning portion of the study, and more power to you! For me, I find colour very, very motivating. So let me move on to looking at Rachel and Katrina’s grand colour experiment, Unbraided.
For each type of colour they examined (analogous, complementary, and space-dyed), Rachel and Katrina spun several colourways six ways each: 2 ply traditional, 2-ply center-pull, 2-ply fractal; 3 ply traditional, 3-ply fractal, and chain ply. (I got the opportunity to see the samples in person. That was pretty much the coolest.) These six options do a great job of sampling what a colorway does in various conditions, from keeping colors together to mixing them up.
But there are other variables to consider. What about fiber stripping – if you strip it down lots, a little, or not at all? When you split colors up for a traditional 2-/3-/4-ply, are you keeping the color order the same, or mixing them up? What about breaking up a braid into its component colors and rearranging them? What about gradients? What about 4-ply yarns?
What follows is a list of all the possible color handling constructions I could think of, listed from most-mixed-up to least-mixed-up.
- Separate braid into component colors; spin each color to a different ply (2-/3-/4-ply)
- Center-pull ball: stripped as much as possible (2-ply only)
- Center-pull ball: stripped 3-6x (2-ply only)
- Center-pull ball: spun across the top (2-ply only)
- Traditional 2-/3-/4-ply: Stripped as much as possible and randomly mixed
- Traditional 2-/3-/4-ply: stripped 2-4x and mixed (so colors not in the same order)
- Traditional 2-/3-/4-ply: split width-wise into 2-4 pieces and spun across the top
- Fractal (2-/3-/4-ply)
- Gradient Fractal: 1 ply has colors separated into a gradient, the others are longer repeats than a typical fractal (2-/3-/4-ply)
- Chain ply: stripped as much as possible (3-ply only)
- Chain ply: stripped 2-4x (3-ply only)
- Chain ply: spun across the top
- Traditional 2-/3-/4-ply with colors lined up in plying: stripped 6-8x
- Traditional 2-/3-/4-ply with colors lined up in plying: stripped 2-4x
- Traditional 2-/3-/4-ply with colors lined up in plying: colors separated into a gradient
- Chain ply: colors separated into a gradient
I felt compelled to make this list, because I am a complete nerd, and I had to analyze the heck out of it. Overthinking is my happy place. Then, when I had made the list, I was completely overwhelmed by it. But it’s not that complicated. Some techniques will mix the colors more, other less. Some will make more or less stripes. You don’t have to experiment with each one to know that. There’s definitely a point of decreasing returns once you get to 4-plies, because the dots of color are so small. The question is more, what techniques do I find attractive? What techniques will bring out what I want in each braid? Where do I want to PLAY?
That’s why, for each pair of socks, I’m going to choose two of the above techniques, one for each sock. Fraternal socks make me so happy, and I find I learn the most from comparing two techniques. But I will only choose one structure for each pair. I will also probably do a lot of fractals. I like fractals. And I like to play!
Where to Start
Where are you going to start? What are your goals? What are your limits? There’s no reason to plan it all out with an experiment like this, just to decide which step you want to take next. I hope this breakdown of some variables has been helpful to you in thinking about what you’d like to try.
Here’s where I’m going to start for this first third of the study (focusing on analogous colourways):
- Structure: 2- and 3-plies, mostly traditional, but with some chain-plying, maybe getting into opposing 3-ply.
- Spinning techniques: I am jamming on short-continuous-backwards right now, but I know that tends to make higher-grist yarns, which do not wear well. So I’m going to stick with that, but make sure I’m smoothing my singles as I go, add plenty of twist, and lots of ply twist, to get that grist down.
- Fiber: The braids I will have for this portion are superwash BFL and Radnor (a down-esque breed). I may play around with this mystery wool I inherited, and maaaaybe with some Merino… nothing like making really sure you agree with a counterindication!
- Knitting: My favorite sock pattern at the moment is “Elizabeth Carter” by Kate Davies, a plain vanilla toe-up sock, with my own slip-stitch modifications on the bottom of the foot. I’ll knit them down as densely as I can stand without making my hands hate me. ALSO: I have lots of other knitting obligations at present, so knitting the actual socks up is not an immediate priority for me. But it won’t be much of a study if I can’t test how the yarns are wearing, so it’s not totally on the back burner.
- Color: Two experiments per pair. Here is my tentative plan, which I fully plan to change as I go along. And I’m not going to do all of them (the Merino and mystery wool might get axed, but I might just do one of them in Feb while I wait for other fiber to arrive):
- Phoenix Rising Superwash BFL (trad 3-ply): 3-ply fractal, Traditional 3-ply: stripped 3x and mixed
- Woolgatherings 15.5 Micron Merino (trad 3-ply): Separated barber pole; gradient fractal
- Mystery wool (2-ply): 2-ply fractal; CPB stripped 3-6x.
- Blue Radnor (2-ply): Center-pull ball, stripped as much as possible; CPB spun across top
- Red Radnor (2-ply): 2-ply fractal, Traditional 2-ply, stripped lots and lined up
- Purple Geode (Opposing 3-ply): Stripped as much as possible and mixed; split width-wise and mixed
- Green Geode (3-ply): Separated into colors and chain plied; stripped and mixed up and chain plied
- I hope to end this section of the study with a couple of combo spins.
Not everyone likes to plan as much as I do. It might stress you out just to read this. If so, sorry…. This is me! But as we say in AA, take what you like and leave the rest. I can’t wait to hear what you try. Post here, or in the WnS Slack channel, or in the Ravelry thread. I’m almost done my first skeins, which I’ll post about at the beginning of February. Tally-ho!