Ply: verb, to twist together; adverb, descriptive of the number of strands twisted together.
Spinning is the process of twisting together fibers to make them stronger than they would be alone. It also has the useful property of separating a group of fibers out so that one can work with less than the entire mass of them. But when the initial spinning is done, one is left with something that can easily untwist, returning to a matted and unworkable state. Now, some people like the single-ply yarn, and use it very happily. But other people like double-, triple-, or multi-ply yarn instead (pun intended). And to achieve this, one must do more than just the spinning itself. One must ply the yarn, which uses up at least twice the amount of yarn, but yields a yarn that is unlike to pull itself apart, and is much stronger.
Perhaps the easiest way to ply is to take both ends of the single-ply yarn, put them together, and let the twist of the yarn twine them together all the way back to the middle. Using a drop-spindle or spinning wheel can help make this much easier, but the important bit to remember for all plying is that the yarn wants to ply GOING IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION OF THE ORIGINAL SPINNING. So, if the spinning happened clockwise, the plying needs to happen counter-clockwise. If you forget, your yarn will untwist and leave you with a tangled mess. Please, learn from my mistakes. Ply in the opposite direction from the spinning.
Putting the ends together is a relatively simply way to ply, but one must be able to reach both ends of the yarn. Sometimes this isn’t possible for a variety of reasons. If you’ve just spun several hundred yards of single-ply onto one bobbin, it’s frustrating have to rewind the entire thing to reach the other end. However, there are other methods of plying. If one has two (or more) bobbins of the same material and roughly equal length, one can take the outside end from each bobbin and and ply those together — remembering to ply in the opposite direction from the original spinning. This is much more convenient if there are several bobbins available because the yarn can be drawn off the bobbins as needed and does not need to be rewound.
This method of plying also lends itself well to making triple-ply yarn, or with as many plies as one wants or has available. Embroidery floss, for instance, is usually six-ply. There are a few considerations, however. If the single-ply yarn is all the same color, the plied yarn will be uniform in color as well. If the single-plies are off different colors, or if the colors change, that will affect the end result. There’s a nice example at the top of the page over here.
Some people like the effect of the variations. But some people really like the original variations present in the single-ply, and really don’t want the results mixed. All the methods described thus far involve putting a single-ply next to a completely different single-ply, and mixing the colors along the way. But there is another way.
Called Navajo plying or chain plying, this method results in a triple-ply yarn that maintains its color changes throughout the yarn, although significantly shortened. Similar in pattern to single-chain crochet, it involves making loops that twist back on themselves to ply yarn with yarn of the same color. It needs only one end of one bobbin and in this is much easier than the other methods. Roving can come with lovely color changes, and it would be a shame sometimes to disrupt those shifts in color. I bought this roving pre-dyed, and really liked shading.
Chain-plying can be tricky to get right at first, and I had to have it explained to me more than once, so we’ll see how my explanation goes. Since Himself is driving us back from dinner with my parents and I’m typing in the dark and on the road, this might be interesting. Hurray for spellcheck and editing later! To start with, I got some yarn I hated out of the basement back tub and tried chain-plying that first so I wouldn’t cry if I did it wrong. Then I tried the chain-ply on some of my single-ply that I liked, but that wasn’t something I was in love with. Only then did I dare try the truly wonderful skein of single-ply that I spun from the roving above.
So, to chain-ply. I’ve only even done this with a spinning wheel, so this description may be totally unusable for drop spindles and by hand. Make a slip knot at the beginning of the single-ply. Pull the knot loosely closed, but make the loop perhaps five inches long. Unlike with crochet, don’t ever shorten the loop. Attach the end of the yarn past the slip knot to the spinning wheel’s leader yarn. Start the plying with the spinning wheel going in the opposite direction of the original spinning. Yes, that’s the third time I’ve mentioned the direction of plying versus that of spinning, but I’ve ruined several ends of single ply by forgetting it! Hold the loop in one hand and reach through with the other to pull through a new loop. Try to make the new one about inches long, too. Drop the old loop to spin up on its own and don’t try to pull it closed, and pass the new loop to the other hand. The old loop should stay open as it gets plied into the yarn. Reach through the new loop and pull that through the second loop, then drop the second loop, and pass the third loop to the other hand. Sadly, I didn’t managed to get a good photo of this one, but, no surprise, the Yarn Harlot did, the first and second photo down over here.
Just keep doing this as long as you can keep it up, or until the single-ply has all been converted. I did an entire bobbin in one evening. HOWEVER, as chain-plying puts far more tension on the single-ply yarn than do the other methods, I discovered that much of my single-ply wasn’t twisted enough, and it would break as I was trying to ply it. I could feed the ends all back in, but it was frustrating. After the tenth time this happened, I ditched what I had already plied. It wasn’t very pretty anyway. I took the remaining single-ply and ran through the entire bobbin with the spinning wheel again, and all I did was add twist. Ran it through in the same direction for the second time, winding it onto the bobbin as slowly as possible, but running the wheel really fast, to add lots of twist. Chain-plying worked much better after that.
Here’s what things looked like as I spun up the roving into single-ply. Watch how the color changes as I went along, and all from the same pre-dyed roving!
Having turned all bright blue, it starts to head back toward dark blue and then purple!
As I said, I didn’t get any good photos of the plying process, so here’s the yarn still on the bobbin, but chain-plied.
And on the swift, getting ready to be soaked in warm water and then hung out to dry and set the twist.
And skeined for storage.
It hasn’t been knit up yet, because what will I do with such pretty and labor-intensive yarn, and my first skein of chain-plying? I can’t bear to think of frogging it which will abuse the yarn. There’s not tons of it, which is why I was thinking of a skinny scarf to highlight the color change. Bah. Ideas welcome. What do I do with it?