Like most spinners, you may have a collection of samples and impulse purchases that aren’t enough for a project and yet are too lovely to give up—a little bit of this lovely fiber, a little bit of that. Maybe it has expanded with samples from classes, fiber fairs, spin-ins, gifts from friends, and so on. After a while, these collections turn into a stash . . . and you may find that something must be done before the stash takes over!
What better way to renew the delight of exotic and beautiful fibers and clear out some of the accumulation than to combine two (or more) different fibers? Consider the “two-fer”—plying together two (or more) different singles to create a yarn that is more than the sum of its parts.
There are several reasons to combine singles:
Make the best use of the qualities of each fiber type.
Putting together dissimilar plies can have remarkable results: I was surprised to find that one ply of wool plus one ply of alpaca resulted in a yarn that was softer and more pleasant to handle than the same wool plied with itself and significantly less dense than the alpaca plied with itself. Similarly, a strand of silk can be used with a more fragile fiber such as angora or fine wool to provide strength and luster.
It’s no surprise that different fibers have different qualities, and there is amazing variety even within a fiber type: wool from one breed of sheep or another, mulberry or tussah silk, suri or huacaya alpaca. To decide what to pair, consider the general traits of each fiber type.
Alpaca: Suri and huacaya fleeces spin somewhat differently, but this is less significant than the general nature of alpaca. It is relatively long-fibered and easy to spin, but tends to yield a yarn that is dense and very warm, making it an excellent choice to spin fine for lace or lightweight items. It requires more twists per inch because the fibers are smooth, unlike wool. It comes in a wide range of natural colors, and it can also be dyed. Alpaca will felt enthusiastically if not treated with respect. Unlike wool, alpaca may not need washing before spinning, as it does not have lanolin.
Angora: This lovely fluff from rabbits spins into yarn that is incredibly warm because the fibers are hollow and usually dense, and typically develop a halo when fiber ends pop out of the yarn. Angora is a short fiber, very slippery, and can be difficult to spin. It comes in colors and also takes dye beautifully. It can be subject to abrasion and felting when used by itself. It’s one of the few fibers that is almost always better blended with wool to add strength and spinnability.
Mohair: White mohair fiber takes dye beautifully and is almost like silk in depth and luminosity; mohair also comes in natural colors. It is usually a longer fiber, but it is slippery and can be difficult to spin. It makes a yarn that is very strong and warm but can be dense and heavy. Mohair fibers also can have a halo effect. Baby or yearling mohair spins into a very soft yarn; adult mohair fiber can be rather coarse.
Silk: Silk begins as a single, very long, smooth fiber that is cut into spinnable lengths. Mulberry and tussah silks can be quite different depending on the preparation and other factors, such as what the silkworm had for breakfast before spinning its cocoon. Either type of silk can be found in smooth and buttery top or clumps and bumps. Mulberry is typically bright white (unless dyed, and then it glows with amazingly beautiful color); it is free of inconsistencies and has relatively long fibers. Tussah ranges in color from light honey to cinnamon brown. Fiber preparations can include bits of cocoon or tangles (noils). In general, silk is lightweight and strong. It requires a significant twist to best show its luster and to hold together in a yarn. Though it can be done, it’s hard to overtwist silk, even as a singles, because there is no crimp or elasticity to the fiber.
Wool: This fiber is highly variable in texture, length, and color, sometimes even within the same fleece. In general, wool preparations are easy to spin because the rough-textured individual fibers tend to stick together or felt if not handled with some care. Wool makes a warm yarn and can be spun thin, thick, or a combination of the two. Short wools such as Merino or Cormo tend to be soft and without luster. Longwools such as Bluefaced Leicester or Romney have a beautiful luster and can make nice yarns even though the micron count is higher.
Use as a design feature.
How often have you fallen in love with a gorgeous handpainted multicolored fiber, only to spin and ply it and end up with mushy-looking color? One solution is to spin singles of the gorgeous handpainted treasure and ply them together with singles of a complementary color in the same or a different fiber. For example, silk and mohair can be spun into very fine yarns, which are perfect for combining with a multicolored partner. Hand-dyed silk can be plied with a solid-colored wool or alpaca so that the beautiful silk shines against the less lustrous partner.
Different fiber types react differently to washing, and some—notably some wools and alpaca—will felt if treated roughly. This potential problem can be used to design plying combinations to take advantage of that difference. For example, a silk or mohair ply can provide the strength (and possibly a color accent) for a loosely spun wool or wool spun with variable texture (thick/thin). The washing process can be used to slightly full or shrink the wool, while the silk or mohair will be less affected. The same idea—differential shrinkage—can be used with knot or bouclé-type yarns.
Extend a small amount of luxury fiber to a usable quantity of yarn.
An ounce or two of this or that isn’t enough for most projects, but the ounce of exotic fiber can be combined with an ounce or two of another fiber—exotic or plebeian—to increase the resulting amount of yarn. An exotic fiber can be spun very finely and extended by the addition of a less expensive partner. A fine silk or mohair yarn or purchased silk or rayon thread can be plied with any other fiber to add strength and length. Even a small amount of fiber can be extended into an end product of a hundred yards or even more.
Hopefully you've been inspired to reach into your stash and spin singles of differing fibers. Coming up in Part 2, we'll discuss suggested fiber combinations, plus ideas for using up those small amounts of yarn in a variety of projects.
Walker, Barbara G. A Treasury of Knitting Patterns. Pittsville, Wisconsin: Schoolhouse, 1998 (reissue).
———. A Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns. Pittsville, Wisconsin: Schoolhouse, 1998 (reissue).