Have you ever had trouble with a messy long-tail cast-on? One end seems to be getting all kinked up while the other end is separating before your very eyes! What is going on here? Well, every time we make a wrapping motion, we change our yarn. Some projects are fine, but others… well, they just seem to be so difficult! Let’s have a look under the hood to see how and why the twist direction of our yarns can make or break a project.
Alphabet Soup; or, Describing Twist Direction
Yarn made from shorter fibres (as opposed to filaments) requires twist to hold it together and give it strength. Too little twist and the fibres in the yarn slip past each other, causing the yarn to fall apart. Too much twist and the yarn is under so much stress that it snaps.
A yarn is made by twisting to the left, or to the right. Either way is perfectly valid. The way we describe these two directions is by the letters S and Z: the diagonal stroke of each letter lines up with the direction of fibres in the yarn.
Adding Twist and Taking Twist Away
When we work with yarn, many of the motions we make include an element of rotation where one end of the yarn is secure, and the other end twists. It is not just when we are knitting or crocheting with the yarn. How we take the yarn off a cone or bobbin, and how we wind it into a ball or cake, can also include an element of rotation. Each time we do that we may be adding to the amount of twist in the yarn or subtracting the amount of twist in the yarn.
The movements we make and whether they are adding or subtracting twist can be quite difficult to tell from just one repeat, but you will recognize the impact of these changes.
- If you are struggling with yarn that is splitting, or even falling apart, then you are subtracting twist from the yarn.
- If the yarn was behaving well originally, but is starting to twist back on itself, you are adding twist to the yarn.
Just how much is being added or subtracted is different from person to person, so reflecting on your own experience is important. If you are struggling regularly, I recommend trying out a few different ways to tension your yarn (around your fingers), or even switch techniques (such as English to Continental knitting) to see if they make a difference for you.
Twist Direction Table Reference
|Direction||Techniques||S-twist yarn||Z-twist yarn|
|Counter-clockwise yarn wraps around needle or hook
|Knitting: standard ‘Western’ knitting; knit stitch in ‘Combined’ knitting.
Crochet: non-standard (yarn under, x-style stitches)
Embroidery: stem stitch, bullion knots
|Adds twist||Subtracts twist|
|Clockwise yarn wraps around needle or hook
|Knitting: ‘Eastern’ knitting, purl stitch in ‘Combined’ knitting.
Crochet: standard (yarn over, v-style stitches)
Embroidery: outline stitch, bullion knots in Brazilian embroidery
|Subtracts twist||Adds twist|
But How Much Does It Matter?
Not every project we work on seems to be affected by the movements we make. Many of the different characteristics of a yarn, and its constituent fibres, play a role in how much twist it takes to change the yarn’s characteristics.
For example, a yarn spun from a fine wool with lots of crimp will take more twist to affect a change when compared to a yarn spun from a long wool with less crimp.
How much twist was already in the yarn makes a difference, too. If you start:
- a traditional crochet project with an S-twist yarn that has lots of twist in it, you may be taking away twist as you work, but because it was a high twist to begin with, small losses may not be enough to undo the twist to the point of splitting.
- the same crochet project with an S-twist yarn that is already softly spun, you are much more likely to run into troubles.
- an amigurumi crochet project, you may even want to work using non-standard stitches to produce an even tighter fabric.
If you are working a technique where you are adding a significant amount of twist in one direction, then traditionally you would choose a yarn that is twisted in the opposite direction so that it is easier to control. For example, twined knitting, which adds lots of S-twist, is traditionally worked with Z-twist yarn.
Regardless of your technique, your yarn will keep arranging itself to be in the most relaxed position it can get to. Depending on the yarn and project, you can hold the project and let the working yarn hang free (or vice versa) and the free end will rotate until back to a balanced state.
Twist Direction for Effect
The direction of twist in a yarn doesn’t affect the strength of the yarn, but it does change how the yarn reflects light. Weavers use this effect to create subtle patterns in their cloth where the structure doesn’t change, but the threads are arranged in groups of Z-twist and stripes of S-twist threads.
There is a characteristic of weaving called nesting, where the fibres within the warp and weft are in line as the yarns lie over each other. To maximise nesting, the warp and weft need to have the same twist direction and twist angle. When warp and weft have the opposing twist directions, the yarns can move more freely within the fabric. This can change how strongly structural element such as twill lines appear and can even change the handle of the fabric. Combine this with high-twist yarns for different textural patterns.
If your yarn is not a balanced yarn, it will skew in either the Z-twist direction or the S-twist direction, which creates biasing in knitting and crochet fabrics, and interesting textures in woven fabrics.
Playing with twist direction in knitting is on my bucket list. If you look closely at a knit stitch, you can see that the left leg and the right leg of the stitch look different from each other as the lines of the twist direction are in different positions around the curve of the stitch.
I wonder how much difference it would make to twisted stitch patterns and whether light reflectance or even the amount of twist would change the look and feel of the fabric.
Picking A Direction
Choosing the yarn most suitable for your project is key here, and taking into consideration which technique you use will help make your crafting experience smoother and more enjoyable. If we don’t spin our own yarns, sometimes it can be hard to find to find Z-twist yarns on the market. Armed with the knowledge of how our techniques change yarn as we work with it, we can choose to compensate for it or even amplify it for effect.
We often have a love-hate relationship with techniques which dramatically change the twist amount in our yarns. Do you have a story to tell about a project you made where the yarn twist kept changing on you? What did you do about it? I’d love to hear from you in the forums.