The Embroiderer's Story

Spin, Span, Spun

May 29th, 2008 by Jill Hall

We get COMMENTS! WHOO! I loves comments, yes I does.

Carolyn H wrote: Jill, Plimoth is so lucky to have this offer from Carol. (I think so too!) I think you’ll be so pleased at the durability of stockings knit from combed long wool. Some years ago I knit a pair of socks for my husband. He put a hole in the heel within a few months (I had used woolen spun Cheviot wool). I subseqeuntly combed some Cotswold long wool, and he has been wearing those socks for over ten years!! This is one of the wonderful things about this blog — chances to read and learn about all aspects of textiles at Plimoth! Thank you.

Thank me? Pfffft. Thank you. I love writing about stuff I love to write about.

Margaret wrote:
In your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine how exciting and interesting this blog would be? I feel humble and proud to have worked on the jacket and toured your costume studio last August. I can hardly wait to see what you do next.

It’s good to hear from you, Margaret. You should be proud, you do lovely work. This project seems to be inspiring a lot of humility and gratitude, though; I feel that every time I get to welcome generous talented embroiderers and lace makers to work on it, and even when I just get to talk about it. And, no, I had no wild blogging dreams, only nightmares where no one came.

Carol from the UK wrote with a technical question:

“two strands S spun and double plied Z”

Is this just another way of saying 2-ply or is this a different technique? I really appreciate all the information you are sharing with us. Yes, I already know a few of the things you write about but I am learning more all the time, and I thank you for it.

This has been an incredible journey, even for those like me who can only watch from the side lines.And before I even had a chance to see this, Kat had written in with the answer:

I’m so flattered that Jill put this up! (I maybe should have warned Kat that everything gets in the blog. Inquiring minds, you know.) I love to spin and this is just such a fun thing to do.

To clarify the “two strands, S spun, and double-plied Z” directions — wool that is S spun was spun on a wheel moving in the clockwise direction (clockwise from where the spinner sits). Wool that is Z spun is spun in a counterclockwise direction. To ply, you want to go in the opposite direction from how the strands were spun. If you ply in the same direction as the spin, you will get a really hard yarn!

The direction also has to do (historically, anyway) with the type of yarn being made. S spun for woolens; Z spun for worsteds. I always think of it in terms of: Woolen — carded — S spun/Worsted — combed — Z spun. Distinguishing between carding and combing is also a tip as to the breeds of wool being spun.

It would be interesting to see if silk responds differently to S or Z spin. An archaeologist friend sent me an article where a colleague of his proved that flax naturally spins in one direction, and hemp in the other. She was able to use the cordage impressions in pottery shards to determine what the clay had been wrapped with, which absolutely blows me away!

Kat, inquiring minds will also want the citation for the article, would you send it please, when you have a chance? Thanks.

And Melanie Anne connected the dots for us:

Ah, another instance of S and Z. In embroidery, we see the S and Z as the differentiation between the Stem Stitch and the Outline Stitch. Depending on the direction you make your stitch it creates a twisted border that makes an “S” or a “Z”. I can never remember which is which, but I believe the “S”tem stitch makes the S and the Outline stitch makes the Z. In practice, most people interchange them without differentiation- but technically there is a difference. This of course, is completely different than just using a stitch to outline something… but I digress… Now that I realize that yarn also has a directional “twist”…. does silk spinning also vary with the directional S & Z?

Yes, I believe that anything you spin, whatever fiber it is, fine like silk or coarse like rope, can either have a right-leaning or left-leaning twist, usually described as S/Z, or clockwise/counterclockwise. I remember seeing an article by Deb Pulliam in Piecework? Spin-Off? one of those magazines about spinning Z and plying S for crochet; that the natural motions of the crochet stitches tended to un-spin “usual” S-spun Z-plied yarn.

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4 Responses to “Spin, Span, Spun”

  1. Carolyn H. says:

    This is all terrific information, but for the spinners who want to know about every little thing, — what is “double plied Z”? I understand the z, but what is double plied??


  2. Kat says:

    Jill, I am hunting up the article, which is here somewhere. I also sent a note to the archaeologist, since he is trained to dig things up! He may well find his copy, or the citation, before I unearth mine. (Knitting patterns … yarn skeins … looms … fleeces … it’s here someplace!)

    Carolyn, “plying” is when you take two or more yarn strands and spin them together to make a thicker strand. “Double-plied” is two separate strands together. So, you would have two individual strands (or singles) that are spun in the clockwise direction for the S-spin. Take the two and spin them together counterclockwise, and you have a yarn that is spun S, double-plied Z.

    Believe me, it took a long time to figure all this out! Somewhere I had a listing that showed all the variations on spin — things like, if you have carded wool and spin it in a Z-spin, that is semi-worsted. I’ll see if I can find this while I’m hunting up the article for Jill.

  3. coral-seas says:

    Thanks for all the additional information, everyone.

    In Japanese embroidery we start with flat silk and make our own twisted threads by hand. We ‘spin’ the silk by rolling it up the palm of one hand with the fingers of the other hand then ‘ply’ the spun threads by rolling them together up the palm of the opposite hand. Most of the time the undertwist in made on the right palm and the overtwist on the left palm.

    To make a twisted thread that will be used to stitch knots the thread the undertwist is done on the left plam and the overtwist on the right. As with the crochet thread this is so the thread will maintain it’s twist while forming the knot.


  4. Marjorie says:

    The twist of embroidery threads definitely affects stitching, too. Most commonly available cotton, rayon and silk embroidery threads are, I believe, S twist. However, Rayon threads for Brazilian embroidery are traditionally the opposite, or Z twist and they do handle differently. The first time I made my own threads in a Japenese embroidery class it was a revelation–this lightbulb went on and the whole twists things made so much more sense. I’ve used this also when making twisted cords, mostly used as edgings when finishing needlework or as drawstrings. Marjorie

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