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The Life of Yarn

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

Most people only know yarn when they select it at the store and then bring it home and either need to wind a hank or search for the center pull of a cake or skein. Sometimes winding or finding the center pull is easy peasy, but sometimes we have to hunt for the center skein and end up with "yarn barf" or we find that a hank is a bit twisted or crisscrossed as we try to wind it. While this can be frustrating, let's look at the life of a skein of yarn to better understand the string in front of us. The life of a wool-based yarn, of course, starts while it's on the sheep before the sheep has been sheared. Most mills and yarn distributors make sure that the fleece they obtain comes from healthy sheep, so it has the plushy, sometimes glossy/sometimes matte sheen with a nice degree of elasticity. Spinners, though, know that they need to be careful about where they secure their fleece or roving because fleece and roving (cleaned, carded fleece that's ready for spinning) from unhealthy sheep won't spin so nicely and definitely won't work as well when used for various fiber projects. But, let's focus more on commercially distributed yarns rather than the ones that we might spin for ourselves. Once a fleece is sent to a mill where it is cleaned, carded, and spun into yarn and then often plied, it's time to make a hank or skein. For these purposes, mills use tools known as knitty noddies. A knitty noddy looks like a capital I, but the top and bottom crossbars are at right angles from one another. To make a hank, a person needs to wrap the length of yarn around the four corners of the knitty noddy in such a way that they aren't crossing the strands. If you've ever used a knitty noddy, this is not as easy as it sounds because it's very easy for strands of yarn to slip under one another, to accidentally twist. And, at most mills, this isn't a process done by hand; they use skeining machines, which means that crossing can (and does) happen. You can check out how knitty noddies work here: Additionally, most dyers will purchase these skeined hanks that they then open up (without cutting the ties), place in dye baths, take through the dyeing process, and then lay flat to dry before twisting back into the hanks we see at the yarn store. This opening and retwisting can, sometimes also cause a little bit of stickiness between strands, which can make winding a less than smooth process. This isn't the fault of the mill or the dyer; it's just the nature of hanks, and while it can be frustrating when the strands are crisscrossed or tangled, this is part of the deal when working with hanks. In the case of center pull cakes and skeins, while some smaller companies will cake yarn by hand, larger companies will cake and skein center pull yarn by machine. This means that there's no way to guarantee that the center end thread is poking out of the skein, so you'll have to search for it. That is, there is NO MAGIC SOLUTION for a center pull skein or cake. You really do just need to stick your fingers in the middle and hope you can feel the true center so that you don't get a lot of yarn barf. The bottom line is that there's no quick solution or magic touch when crisscrossing happens or searching for a center pull. For winding hanks, it's best to use a swift, but when in doubt, someone willing to hold the hank taut between their hands or wrapping the hank around the back of a chair will help, as will some patience. Start by twisting the hank on the swift when it gets stuck. If you roll the yarn so that you are turning the entire hank at the point of the spoke of the swift so that the bottom of the pile is on the top slowly WITHOUT REMOVING IT from the swift, you'll most likely be able to find a way around the criss cross or the sticking. If not, you may need to remove the shaft of the winder and hand wind the yarn--while it is on the swift--as though you are using a nostepinne so that you can take the ball under crisscrossed strands. Either way, these are not unique problems, and while they can be time consuming, a little patience and the reminder that you are working with string and what's happening is part of the nature of string will help.

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