Twist is a fundamental ingredient in the creation of most yarns. The idea is simple: as twist is added to fibers, it begins to lock them together and prevents them from coming apart. However, every handspinner knows that there is a more complicated story that lies behind this simple fact: twist can vary in degree and direction. High twist can give us strong and durable yarn; low twist can make a soft and warm yarn. Layers of twist in singles, plies, and within the textile structure itself greatly impact the life span of a textile. The knitters who came before us knew this well. A fascinating case study in twist comes from central Sweden in the form of a mitten dropped in a churchyard long ago.
Knitting: One End or Two?
When the twined-knitting technique with its unique use of two yarn sources was used in Dalarna, it was simply called stickning (knitting). When what we call knitting today was later introduced to the area, it was called enkelstickning, one-end knitting. It was not until the one-ended, faster version took over in popularity that the names were changed: stickning for one end, tvåändsstickning for two ends. In English, it may be referred to as two-end knitting or twined knitting. The technique is called tveband in Norwegian.
A Forgotten Mitten
In 1974, a mitten was found at an archaeological excavation in the Swedish county of Dalarna. At first glance, the mitten looked knitted, but when turned inside out, it looked quite different from what we consider regular knitting today: distinctive horizontal ridges of twisted yarn covered the inside of the mitten. Analysis of the mitten revealed that it had been knitted with two separate yarns that were twisted between each stitch on the wrong side of the fabric. The yarn was spun S and plied Z.
The technique we now know as twined knitting, or tvåändsstickning in Swedish, had nearly been forgotten. When the mitten was rediscovered in Dalarna, researchers consulted elderly ladies from the area who remembered the technique.
Research into the mitten’s past has continued. Anna-Karin Jobs Arnberg, curator at the museum of Dalarna, tells me that researchers first believed the mitten was from the nineteenth century. Later, the find was dated to the 1680s by analyzing soil layers. This updated timeframe makes the mitten one of the earliest findings of the twining technique and of knitting in general in Sweden. In 2017, the mitten was analyzed again, this time with the carbon-14 dating method, and produced an even earlier date. It turned out that the mitten had been knitted between the mid-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Twined knitting has a rich history in this area of Sweden and also on the other side of the border in Norway, where it was used for sturdy work mittens with the twined ridges on the outer sides of the mittens. Patterns, styles, and techniques varied between the villages in the county of Dalarna and, as with other crafting techniques, these hallmarks made it possible to determine the geographical origin of many twined-knitted objects.
Styles varied for men’s and women’s everyday and church-day textiles. Even marital status impacted the specifics of style. Socks, gloves, mitts, and wristlets were common in addition to sleeves sewn onto woven wool jackets for both male and female wearers. The most common fiber used for twined knitting appears to have been wool, often blended with winter rabbit’s fur for whiteness and warmth, but cotton and flax yarns were also used.
A twined-knitted fabric is strong and sturdy, firm but not bulky. The combination of the smooth vertical stitches on the right side and the twined and horizontal texture of the wrong side makes a structure that withstands the elements. The fact that the working yarn changes every other stitch also makes a twined-knitted garment more durable. Add fulling as a finishing treatment, common for twined-knitted items, and it is easy to understand why these garments last a lifetime.
A twined-knitted fabric has very little elasticity and behaves more like a woven fabric than a knitted one. The needle sizes for twined knitting are typically smaller than you might expect for use with the same yarn weight with other knitting techniques. I’m fascinated that I can knit a garment with such fine needles that results in such a strong and durable fabric.
The history of twined knitting indicates that women spun and created twined-knitted garments to provide for their families. In the literature about the history of twined knitting, I see a few pictures and images of women walking and knitting, as is common for other historical Scandinavian knitting traditions. In my research, I found nothing about the spinning process or technique, either written or depicted. I asked Anna-Karin Jobs Arnberg about this, and she told me that there has been no analysis of the wool, preparation, or spinning technique in the twined-knitted items in their collections; all we know is the twist direction at this point.
Spinning for Twined Knitting
Without analysis of the finds, we can only speculate as to the fiber content, wool preparation, and drafting technique. Since the yarn untwists a bit in the knitting process, it needs some long and strong fibers for durability. A yarn for twined knitting needs to be both warm and strong but can have different fiber content and construction depending on the use of the garment.
A good choice of fiber for a sturdy fabric is one that contains a soft undercoat and a strong outercoat, either from a breed that has both qualities in its fleece or by combining different characteristics from two breeds. For hardworking mittens, a yarn with longer, stronger fibers may be suitable, while fancy gloves may benefit from a finer fiber. Combed wool will add to the strength and give beautiful stitch definition, especially for patterns with decorative crook stitches. Stronger ply twist will also highlight the texture of crook stitches.
Short-staple fibers are not impossible to use for a twined knitting yarn, but I don’t recommend fibers shorter than two inches. My first Z-plied yarn for twined knitting was spun at the beginning of my spinning journey with short fibers and low twist. The yarn broke several times during the knitting process due to untwisting, but since I felted the mittens, they are still doing their job. The cobwebbed thumbs have been mended with love and handspun yarn.
S- vs Z-Ply for Twined Knitting
Why was the yarn for twined knitting spun S and plied Z? To find an answer to this, I spun both Z-plied and S-plied yarns, then created twined-knitted swatches of both. The first thing I noticed was that the knitting process was a lot more relaxed when I knitted with the Z-plied yarn. Since the two yarns are constantly twisted in one direction during knitting, the yarns will both overtwist and untwist. The untwisting occurs in my hand, closest to my work, and the overtwisting happens closer to the ball. After working for a while, I need to allow the yarns to get balanced again.
However, when knitting with the S-plied yarn, I need to allow the yarn to balance a lot sooner. The overtwisting occurs closer to the work, and the yarn gets very kinked up in my hand. After a short while, I can’t get my finger between the yarns to pick up one strand for the next stitch.
When I feel the structure of the swatches, the Z-plied swatch is smoother and the S-plied has more bulk. On the right side of the swatch, the S-plied stitches are a bit tilted so that the left half of the stitch is higher than the right half, creating surface texture.
On the wrong side, I can feel the individual ridges of twisted stitches for the S-plied yarn, while the wrong side of the Z-plied swatch feels smoother and I only feel the horizontal direction of the ridges.
Should You Ply S or Z?
Many spinners are nervous about twist and a bit intimidated when it comes to plying. A perennial question among spinners is, “How much twist?” But which direction is best for plying? It typically depends on what you plan to make.
- Commercial yarns for knitting are usually spun clockwise (Z) and plied counterclockwise (S). For most people, this will create a knitted fabric that is balanced, at least if the knitting is done from right to left. How you hold your yarn can also impact whether S- or Z-plied yarns are the best fit for you. (To learn more, see Resources.)
- Flax is usually S-spun because the fibers are slightly twisted counterclockwise in their natural state. In the same way, hemp will benefit from Z-spinning because its natural twist direction is clockwise.
- Nålbinding is best done with a Z-plied yarn for a right-handed person. If S-plied, it will easily untwist and result in a weaker fabric or break altogether.
- Embroidery yarn can be either Z- or S-plied, depending on the kind of stitches you wish to make.
- Weavers can create drape and pattern simply by using yarns with different twist directions.
A New Direction
A physiotherapist once told me that we have about twice as many muscles for pulling things toward us than for pushing away. This is an evolutionary development, since it has been more beneficial for us to grab things than to let them go. With more muscles involved in a motion, there are more muscles to share the strain of that motion.
If I spin on a supported spindle, it will be easier on my hands if I spin Z with my right hand pulling the spindle, or spin S with my left hand pulling the spindle. If I learn to spin with both of my hands, I will be able to spin (and ply) both Z and S, pulling the spindle for more force and less strain. A bonus is that I will also learn how to handle the fiber with both hands.
Spinning singles S instead of Z on a spinning wheel is not as dramatic a change compared to spindle spinning. When I first started spinning for twined knitting, spinning S singles felt awkward, but my hands were quickly attuned to the new direction and let the fiber lead the way.
A Handspinner’s Freedom
The very first yarn I created was spun S and plied Z. I wanted to spin a yarn for twined knitting. Little did I know that I would need lots of practice (and meterage) to spin a yarn that would be usable in a garment. I have spun many kilometers of yarn since then and learned a thing or two along the way. Spinning for twined knitting every now and then allows me to remember that we handspinners have the tools and freedom to spin any yarn we like just by altering the twist.
- Dandanell, Birgitta, Ull Danielsson, and Kerstin Ankert (eds). Tvåändsstickat. Värnamo: Dalarnas Museum, 2013.
- Farwell-Clay, Julia. “Spinning in the Best Direction for the Way You Knit.” Spin Off, Winter 2013, 30–32.
- Fröier, Kåre, and Henryk Zienkiewicz. Linboken: Hemodling och Hemberedning. Borås: LTs förlag, 1979.
- Gustafsson, Kerstin, and Alan Waller. Ull: Hemligheter, möjligheter, färdigheter. Helsingborg: LTs förlag, 1987.
- Hock, Charles W. “Microscopic Structure of Flax and Related Bast Fibers.” Journal of Research of the National Bureau of Standards, 29 (1942), 41–50.
- Westman, Berit. Tvåändsstickning: Grunderna. [Insjön]: Sätergläntan, Hemslöjdens gård, 2004.
Josefin Waltin started spinning in 2011. She is a spinning teacher and offers workshops both online and offline. Josefin publishes instructional and documentary-style videos, and she manages a spinning blog from her home in Sweden at www.waltin.se/josefinwaltinspinner.