The Spectrum of Worsted and Woolen

The terms woolen and worsted can get confusing even for experienced fiber artists.  Caryn Vainio, an accomplished fiber artist, alpaca farmer, and a fellow live streamer shared her time with us to discuss the intricacies of woolen and worsted yarns.  

Q: Can you explain what we mean when we say “worsted” and “woolen?”

First, I should say that even though I’ve been spinning awhile, I don’t consider myself an expert on the topic of woolen and worsted properties — but I do find them really interesting, so I’m always trying to learn more about the terms and how they came to be in the world of spinning.

The terms “woolen” and “worsted” can refer to either a type of yarn or a type of preparation of fiber for yarn. Used in a general sense, though, a woolen yarn is a yarn whose fibers, in the spinning preparation, were disorganized and kind of jumbled, which usually leads to an airy, light, and air-pocket-filled yarn. A worsted yarn is generally the opposite of that: its fiber was prepared so that the fibers were aligned and spun so that the resulting yarn is smooth, denser, and strong.  

Q:  Worsted and woolen seem like very binary positions.  What does this mean for most fiber artists?

When I first heard these terms as a newer spinner I thought they were binary — either a yarn was woolen or it was worsted. But as I learned more about the terms, I realized that they were two points on a spectrum, allowing a yarn to be semi-woolen or semi-worsted. And as I continued to learn more, I became aware of them more as a two-dimensional matrix — in fact, an article in a recent edition of Spin-Off Magazine has a great treatment of this. Because there are so many factors that go into making a yarn, from the preparation of the fleece to the spinning itself to the finishing, you can select any one of those factors in the woolen/worsted 2D matrix and use them to make exactly the kind of yarn you need. Once I learned this, I felt like a world had opened up that I’d never explored before.

Q: How does “worsted” yarn from the store differ from “worsted” in handspun?

That’s a great question! And it’s one that I’m still learning about. In a chat with spinner and author Abby Franquemont about this very subject, she mentioned to me that the techniques to produce a specific kind of yarn that we would call “worsted” may have originated in the textile mills of a town called Worstead in England. What those techniques are, I don’t know, but I’m anxious to learn more just to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. Today, though, we tend to call a handspun yarn “worsted” if the preparation involved combing the fibers instead of carding them, and if the yarn is spun with a worsted type of draw — i.e., a draw that is relatively short and compresses the air out of the fiber.

Q: What is the difference between woolen/worsted preparation and woolen/worsted draw?

A woolen preparation is one in which the fibers are carded — that means that the fleece is placed onto brush-like “cards” or, in the case of a carding machine, a drum with carding cloth that has short, well-clustered teeth. The fiber is brushed back and forth until it more or less forms a flat layer that can be peeled off the cards or carding cloth. The fibers in this preparation can be any length and aren’t sorted.

A worsted preparation uses combs. Fleece is placed onto the combs and transferred back and forth, aligning the fibers. The difference here between that and carding fiber is that the fiber is pulled off of the combs in a way that pulls the longest and strongest fibers first, leaving the short fibers behind. This gives you a preparation that already starts with long, strong fibers amenable to making a strong, resilient yarn.

As for draws, a woolen draw, like a long draw, allows the fibers to jumble together as you spin and form a kind of vortex that traps air. This is what leads to a light, airy, warm yarn. A worsted draw is shorter, and the spinner will usually compress the fiber between their fingers as they spin it, leading to a denser yarn that will have a different drape and warmth.

Q: How does draw and preparation work together?

This is the fun part! Mixing and matching these properties across the preparation and spinning matrix is a lot of fun to try out. For instance, you may want to try a worsted preparation in order to start with long, strong fibers that will hopefully resist pilling more and be more resilient against abrasion, but you may choose to spin it with a woolen draw — say, from the fold — in order to introduce a bit of air and lightness into it for warmth and fluff. Or you might start with a carded preparation, say, from your drum carder because that’s the equipment you have access to, and you might choose to introduce more resilience, drape, and strength by spinning it with a short worsted draw to approach a more worsted yarn. The possibilities are varied and interesting.

Q: When does woolen or worsted matter?  To what degree?

That’s a great question, because as I’ve been learning more about these terms, and learning about spinning around the world in general, I’m learning that these terms are pretty Western- and European-centric. There are spinners in many parts of the world that don’t use these terms or think about what they represent at all — for instance, the spinners that simply open up fresh fleece, fluff the locks or pull them apart, and start spinning. There’s no notion of “worsted” or “woolen” there at all and they’re spinning exactly the yarn they need and want. It matters insofar that they may be useful starting points for spinners that have the equipment to produce the kinds of preparations that fall into these categories, since the preparation of a fiber will be a big part of the resulting characteristic of the fiber, in my experience.

Q: As a fiber artist, how does the spectrum of woolen and worsted impact your own work?

As I mentioned before, I used to think of them as fixed points that I had to design a yarn around. Then I learned to be more flexible. Nowadays, I use them as a useful bucket of characteristics to begin designing a yarn from. Do I want to make a yarn for a sweater that will get a lot of wear, have a good amount of drape, but not necessarily be too warm? Then I’m looking for a yarn that has a set of qualities most closely aligned with the concept of a worsted yarn.

These days, though, I’m deliberately trying to expand out from these terms and lose them a bit as anchors I tend to start from all the time. I want to broaden my spinning knowledge out from Western- and European-centric spinning, so I’m occasionally trying to unmoor my yarn design from the concepts of woolen and worsted altogether and just see where that takes me.

Q: What advice can you offer new spinners about woolen and worsted yarns?

My piece of advice would be to think of them as a way to group a bunch of characteristics you might be looking for in a yarn project, but don’t be too rigid about it. Use them as a guide if it’s suitable for you. It’s a matrix, so play around with the possibilities.

 


If you love alpaca fiber, check out Caryn’s shop https://www.gloriousgrazers.com/ for some of the most beautiful hand-hackled blends you’ll find.  You can also find her on Twitch and Twitter.

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