Spinning a Balanced Yarn: Marker or Milestone?

handspun yarn demonstrating the difference between balanced yarn and optimal yarn

We talk about balance in our lives or balanced yarn in our spinning, as if it’s the ultimate destination. There is a special allure in the word “balanced,” as if attaining this stasis is somehow an accomplishment.

But what if we considered twist balance in handspinning as more of a moving target than an end point, much in the way we think about the woollen and worsted continuum? In so doing, we can learn to manipulate twist amounts to our best advantage.

Neither Good Nor Bad

A balanced yarn is one where the twist amounts in the yarn’s opposing plies are the same, cancelling each other out in the plying. This results in a hank that hangs straight, without twisting in either direction. That means the twist energy you apply to your singles always serves as the baseline for your balanced end-plied yarn. A low-twist singles will, by definition, make for a low-energy 2-plied yarn when spun to balance, just as a higher-twist singles would be balanced out by an equally higher-twist energy in plying. The same could, therefore, be said about every stop in-between.

Any baseline twist amount can yield a balanced yarn … which is not necessarily the same as an optimal yarn.

A yarn can be perfectly balanced while appearing lifeless and limp, lacking in any kind of bounce, no matter the wool’s characteristics. This could be just the yarn you’re looking for if a lace shawl is on your horizon. Conversely, were you to knit up a pair of socks with this handspun, you’d likely wear a hole in them after just a few wearings.

So, while it’s true that spinning to balance is a good baseline marker, we shouldn’t mistake this as “right” or better than yarns that lack balance—especially those with extra twist energy. Yarns with extra energy can be used to create intentional results in weaving, for instance, while the back-and-forth mechanics of crocheting negates a certain amount of extra energy, as does knitting in garter (and certain other) energy-cancelling stitches. That’s why you hear the much-loved rallying cry, “That’ll block right out!” amongst knitters.

The Plyback Control Sample

If it’s balance you seek, a great way to judge a yarn’s potential is to create a plyback sample, which is simply a length of freshly spun singles that you allow to bounce back on itself. This is the yarn’s natural, even-twist ply and a good baseline for judging how your end yarn will behave.

Your plyback sample is meant not only to help you stay consistent in your spinning; it also aids in determining whether you’re spinning an appropriate amount of twist energy into your singles in the first place.

For best results, use brand-spanking new, freshly spun singles, as twist begins to set and get “stale” almost as soon as your singles are wound onto the bobbin. Also, be sure to use a length that’s long enough to account for any possible inconsistencies in your spinning, since more twist will gather in thinner spots than in thicker areas. I like to pull a length of fresh singles about two feet long, which I’ll let spring back on itself.

Shown here is the length of Debbie’s plyback sample for balanced yarn, which helps accommodate any inconsistencies in the singles themselves. Debbie starts with roughly two feet of freshly spun singles and lets the yarn bounce back onto itself naturally.
Shown here is the length of Debbie’s plyback sample, which helps accommodate any inconsistencies in the singles themselves. Debbie starts with roughly two feet of freshly spun singles and lets the yarn bounce back onto itself naturally.

If I like what I see, I’ll snap off the sample to add to my control card (which I keep on or near my wheel), to use as my control guide as I spin.

Examples of potential control cards
Examples of potential control cards

Don’t Judge a Balanced Yarn Before its Time

If you’ve ever done a happy dance after pulling what appears to be a “perfectly balanced” hank of yarn fresh off your niddy noddy, you are not alone—though you may be premature in your celebrating.

Yarn and the energy within it need to be set, or finished. Whether the skein hangs “just right” or coils up like a spring, it needs a thorough soak in warm water and gentle soap to:

  • a) reawaken the yarn’s latent twist energy and
  • b) relax the spun fibres back into place as the hank dries, unweighted

Only then can you truly assess the results. You may be surprised by what you see.

Your yarn is guaranteed to lose some of its contained energy during the twist-setting process. How much depends on a myriad of factors including whether it was woollen or worsted spun, its ply structure (the more plies in the yarn, the less twist it takes to balance out the singles’ energy), and, of course, the traits of the fibre itself.

Sample hanks shown before and after finishing
Sample hanks shown before and after finishing

I’ll admit to being the spinner who once celebrated her yarns based solely on the concept of balance over usability. It’s not that I don’t love a nice balanced skein, because I do. But today I understand that good yarns are not always perfectly balanced, and I more pride in understanding the basics of yarn behavior over perceived perfection.

I’d urge any spinner to take a fresh look at a balanced yarn as one stop along the way to more intentional spinning. And hey, if all else fails? A little dancing never hurt anyone.

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