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Apr 03
Chain plied close-up

Chain Plying

From our Spring Quarantine Spin Along 2020. You can read her first post here.

It goes by several names: chain plying, Navajo plying, and all the variant spellings of “Navajo.” It offers several advantages to spinners: making a 3-ply yarn with only 2 bobbins (1 to hold the spun singles and 1 to receive the plied yarn); using up every inch of singles without any leftovers; adding some textural interest, thanks to the loop between each chain section. However, most of us know it best for its color management: when you want to keep colors pure, chain plying offers more control than any other plying technique. For my second braid of Colorful Colorado Spring, I wanted to make a 3-ply sportweight yarn, with long runs of more-or-less distinct colors—that is, minimal barberpoling. I used the merino/silk/bamboo fiber, which has a beautiful luster and more muted colors than the BFL braid. Chain plying produced exactly the effect I wanted.

This yarn design required minimal prep for making singles (unlike combination spinning!). I set up my Matchless with the larger groove of the fast whorl, using Scotch tension with minimal take-up, because the silk and bamboo would require plenty of twist and chain plying would require even more. Then I unbraided the fiber and started spinning. To get the longest color runs possible, I didn’t split the braid at all. Instead, I spun across the tips for the width of the braid, using a short forward draft. When slubs of silk appeared in the fiber, I pulled them out to keep the yarn as smooth and consistent as possible. The singles came out to about 20 wpi, and the plyback sample was about 12 wpi, so I was right on target.

A brief digression: Plyback sampling for 3-ply yarns

When I first started spinning, I rarely plied because I was too eager to knit up the finished yarn. It wasn’t laziness; it was a considered decision (I told myself). Once I mastered finer spinning, I made lots of 2-ply yarn that ended up around DK or worsted weight, my favorite weight for knitting.

A 3-ply seemed beyond my reach, however. Wouldn’t it be 3 times as big as my singles yarn? Of course not, since a 2-ply yarn isn’t twice as big as the singles. But unless I spent more time producing really fine singles, I’d end up with a yarn bigger than I wanted. It turns out, I was worrying over nothing—ply twist compresses the singles. A 3-ply and 2-ply made from singles of the same size will produce yarns of nearly the same size. I’m planning some wpi experiments to test this theory.

What does this mean for plyback sampling? Spinners can guesstimate the size of a finished 3-ply yarn from the 2-ply sample. However, I’m not sure a plyback sample will help determine how much ply twist to use for a balanced 3-ply. More experiments are waiting for me.

Chain Plying the MSB

If you haven’t tried chain plying, it can look daunting. So many strands of yarn! So many finger motions! How can you keep track of that loop? Try these tips:

  1. Leave plenty of space between the orifice and your hands. The longer this space, the more you can manipulate the yarn—it’s even okay to move your chair back from the wheel! Keep your hands near your lap, where it’s easier to see what you’re doing.
  2. Slow everything down. Reduce the wheel’s take-up, take time to make the loop and chain it up, then let the ply twist build up before winding onto the bobbin.
  3. Don’t panic. If you drop the loop, or it winds onto the bobbin, find it again. Stop your wheel and unwind yarn if needed. Use your orifice hook or a pin to separate the plied yarn, grabbing the strand that formed the loop. Now enlarge that loop and resume plying.

Once you become comfortable with chain plying, its movements become rhythmic and relaxing, like any other spinning technique.

When I plied the MSB singles, I tried to begin and end each color change at a “link” in the chain. Since the singles had long color runs, this was easy: as I neared the end of each color, I made smaller or larger loops to end up where I wanted.

The finished yarn made me intensely happy. It’s drapey, with a bouncy but not stretchy quality thanks to the fiber content. It was hard to let Carrie have the skein for photography and for her project. I can’t wait to see what she makes from it!