What Does “Worsted” Mean?

There are some words in the fiber universe which can cause confusion between people from different geographical locations, different age groups, and practitioners of different fiber crafts. So, in order to aid your ability to properly communicate about yarn, let’s begin!

What Does “Worsted” Mean?

Most knitters today use the term “worsted” to refer to a medium-weight yarn with a gauge of 16-20 stitches per 4 inches, usually knit on size US 7-9 needles. But, guess what? It’s more complicated than that!

Image from Britain Express

The term worsted originates from “Worstead”, the name of a village in Norfolk, England where woven textiles were crafted from the 1200s through the 1800s. The woven cloth produced in Worstead was known as worsted.

In the spinning world, worsted yarn is that which is smoothly spun from combed fiber. The fibers interlock in tight, parallel formation. Only long fibers are used, which typically come from breeds of sheep with longer fur. In contrast, woolen yarn is spun more loosely from carded fiber. Short fibers are retained. Woolen yarn could be described as more lofty, fluffy or “hairy”.

Image from the Dreamstress

In the weaving world, worsted cloth is woven from worsted yarns, like the traditional worsted cloth from Worstead. It is smoother, tighter, and less warm but better for blocking the wind. Woolen cloth is thicker and warmer since the air trapped within the lofty strands acts as insulation. (Of course alternately, woolen cloth might just refer to any cloth made of wool). For example: sharkskin and serge are types of worsted cloth; tweed and boucle are types of woolen cloth.

In the knitting world, worsted is a yarn weight category like sport and chunky. Unfortunately, there aren’t worldwide standards for yarn weight categories. If you’re from England, you may be more likely to categorize yarn as DK weight (equivalent to light worsted) or Aran weight (equivalent to heavy worsted). And if you learned to knit in the olden days (not actually that long ago), you may be more likely to categorize yarn as 2-ply, 4-ply or 6-ply. These days, the number of plies in a strand of yarn has no relation to its weight.

Speaking of plies…

What Does “Ply” Mean?

Essentially, a ply is a strand of yarn which is created by spinning. One ply is called a single, or a single-ply yarn.

But, ply is also a verb which refers to the process of combining multiple plies into a single strand of yarn. Plies are combined to produce a yarn which is stronger, more durable, more consistent in width, and more balanced in twist. A ply has a natural tendency to curl up in a particular direction because it is produced by twisting fibers together all in the same direction. By plying two strands (plies) together, one can introduce twist in the opposite direction to produce a balanced yarn which does not curl up on itself. An infinite number of plies can be combined into a single strand. So, a 2-ply yarn is composed of two plies; a 4-ply yarn is composed of four plies; etc.

Once upon a time, commercial yarn manufacturers could only spin plies of one consistent width, so that adding more plies would increase the thickness of the yarn in a consistent, linear manner. 2-ply yarn was a very fine yarn suitable for lace; 4-ply was a fine yarn suitable for socks; and 8-ply was a thicker yarn suitable for sweaters.

Now that yarn manufacturers can produce plies in an infinite variety of sizes, the number of plies has no bearing on the thickness of the yarn, and the terms “lace weight”, “sport weight” and “worsted weight” are generally more useful for communicating about yarn weight.

Note: Many people still refer to finer yarn as 4-ply and thicker yarn as 8-ply even though the yarn they are referring to may not actually have that number of plies.

Speaking of weight…

What Does “Weight” Mean?

Image from My Creative Card

Weight can be a confusing term as well! Most knitters use the word “weight” to refer to the thickness of a strand of yarn. Like I mentioned above, there are different systems for categorizing yarn weights depending on where you’re from and when you learned.

It is important to note, though, that weight also refers to the put-up of a skein of yarn. A skein commonly contains 50 grams or 100 grams of fiber, but may contain any arbitrary amount. The weight of the yarn in grams is usually noted on the label, and the cost is generally based on the number of grams of fiber (not the number of yards). Some patterns also refer to the grams of fiber required rather than the number of yards or meters.

That’s all, folks. Maybe next time I’ll tell you about the meaning of skein and gauge.

So, you may have a worsted weight yarn which weighs 50 grams, which is plied from 4 plies of worsted spun wool. And now you know exactly what that means.

English versus Continental Knitting

So, what’s the deal with English versus Continental knitting? It’s all to do with which hand you hold the working yarn in – left or right. There are infinite personal flavors of knitting style, but these are the two categories. One or the other knitting style tends to be predominant based on your geographical location. Most of us living in the United States are English-style knitters. Supposedly, (disclaimer: I learned this on the internet) Continental knitting fell out of favor in the United States during World War II due to its association with Germany.

English knitting is most common in North America and Western Europe. English knitters are often called “throwers” because they hold the working yarn in their right hand and “throw” it around the right needle in order to make a new stitch. Throwing requires a whole-hand movement, and typically involves letting go of the right needle for a brief second in order to throw the yarn.

These terms all mean the same thing:

  • English Knitting
  • American Knitting
  • Throwing

Left: Kim knitting English-style at Maine’s Fastest Knitter Race. Right: Andi knitting Continental-style at Maine’s Fastest Knitter Race.

Continental knitting is most common in Eastern Europe, Northern Europe and South America. Continental knitters are often called “pickers” because they hold the working yarn in their left hand, and “pick” it with their right needle in order to make a new stitch. It requires more finger motion and less hand motion. Among masters of this technique, Continental knitting is often considered faster than English knitting because it requires smaller, more efficient hand movements. (It makes a certain logical sense, but the video below begs to differ.) Continental knitting also may be easier to learn for new knitters with crocheting experience because the motion is more similar to crochet. 

These terms all mean the same thing:

  • Continental Knitting
  • German Knitting
  • Picking

Knowing both styles can be beneficial for several reasons:

  • If you ever suffer from hand and wrist fatigue, switching back and forth periodically will relieve the stress caused by the alternate technique.
  • If you’re doing stranded color work, you can use both techniques at one time by holding one color in each hand.
  • The two techniques will usually result in different levels of tension. You can use this to your advantage if you’re trying to achieve a specific stitch gauge!
  • Personal enlightenment – the more things you know, the better, right?

Now, let me clear up a few misconceptions about English and Continental knitting.

First, neither style is particularly better for left-handed knitters. Nor is there any reason for lefties to favor knitting backwards, as in moving stitches from the right needle to the left as they’re worked. If you like to knit that way, then I salute you – expect confusion over pattern comprehension and inter-knitter communication, but never feel constrained! Both English and Continental knitting styles and the usual left-to-right direction work just as well for people of either dominant hand persuasion. I promise. I’m a lefty and I’ve met and taught a lot of fellow lefties.

Second, some people believe that English or Continental knitting is the best way, the correct way, the fastest way, or otherwise objectively better than the other way, but of course there’s no wrong way when all paths lead to knitting satisfaction!

Third, whether you choose English or Continental style has no impact on the actual structure of the knitted fabric. You can not tell which technique was used by looking at the work. However, there is a whole other blog post that Mim already wrote about stitch mount and yarn wrap direction, which do impact the structure of the fabric! If you’ve ever heard of “Eastern Knitting”, that refers to a knitted fabric in which all of the stitches are twisted.

I’m sure you will enjoy this video – in 2008 Hazel Tindall, an English-style knitter, was declared the world’s fastest knitter by the Guinness Book of World Records!

If you want to learn whichever technique you don’t know yet, we’ve got a class coming up this Sunday! Mim is planning on teaching the English knitters how to knit Continental and the Continental knitters how to knit English. Just like when you were a brand new knitter, trying out the other method may feel completely awkward at first. Having a teacher to show you exactly what to do with your hands will probably help!


What’s Lauren Up To?

Today, I’m going to share my latest projects with you! You know me, whipping out hats, making stuff up and playing around with yarn in literally every second of my spare time. If you want to know what kind of exciting life I lead, here’s my usual schedule: wake up, grab coffee, go to work and think about knitting all day while selling yarn, go home and knit until I collapse while binge watching TV shows on Netflix. Sometimes I actually get home at 6pm and knit non-stop until 2am.

You might notice that cleaning the house and making dinner aren’t involved in my daily routine. You might also notice that I watch an extraordinary amount of television. Binge watching TV shows and knitting all day every day means I walk around seeing characters from shows and half-formed knitwear designs swirling around in my head together most of the time. I feel like I’m knitting my latest TV show obsession into whatever I’m working on. I can pick up my hand-knits and remember what I was watching while knitting them. In case you’re curious, I’ve been on a vampire TV show kick lately. The admittedly silly, sappy drama of The Vampire Diaries and True Blood have been speaking to me and permeating my knitting projects in ways that defy explanation. I also tore through Westworld the other day. I suspect that most knitters watch a lot of TV or listen to a lot of podcasts (like Jennifer).

Without further adieu, here’s my latest stuff hot off the needles. Thanks to Catherine for the quick photo shoot.

The red hat: I knit this hat with some yarn I picked up at the Thompson Community Center’s first-Saturday-of-the-month flea market ages ago. I think it’s an alpaca blend, but I’ll never know for sure at this point. I realized that I’d never knit a bright red accessory before, and there’s something appealing about a bright red accessory. When you want a punch of color, red makes a statement that’s bold but also classic. Last week at Stitch ‘n’ Spin, I’d just begun knitting the band around the brim of this hat. I was met with a bunch of skeptical looks when I pulled a weird little scrap of fabric with some pleats and a knot out of my knitting bag. I tried to describe my intention to turn it into a band that would wrap around my head, then pick up stitches along one edge and knit a hat shape from there, but sometimes words fail me and it’s an awful lot easier to show than it is to tell.

The Ginkgo sweater: This sweater is one-of-a-kind, but it was inspired by one of our newest store samples in Galway Worsted. I liked the neckline in particular. The sample sweater wasn’t quite delicate enough for my taste though, and it had way too many seams. So I went shopping for myself and picked out Berroco Ginkgo, a soft and lovely blend of wool and silk. Then I pored over my modest collection of stitch dictionaries for the perfect lace edging. I cast on enough stitches for a cardigan, all the way around (so no seams would be required), beginning with the edging I’d picked out. I sort of made it up from there – I’d like to say it went perfectly smoothly, but actually I initially knit it with arm holes that drooped down past my waist because I didn’t anticipate how much it would stretch when I blocked it, so I had to unknit some parts. In my laziness, I discovered that one need not use stitch holders or scrap yarn when dividing the front and back sections of a sweater. I just left the stitches hanging out right where they were on my circular needle while I knit back and forth across the other stitches. I experimented with picking up stitches around the sleeve hole and knitting a sleeve cap with short rows. I think there’s room for improvement in my technique, but this sweater proved to be a good learning experience for me. Also it’s pretty adorable, if I don’t say so myself.

The embroidered pair: Oh, Malabrigo Worsted… every time I use this gorgeous yarn I feel like it’s the only yarn I’ll ever need in my life. It has this buttery soft quality. It feels amazing to the touch. And it’s a feast for the eyes too – even the solid colors are actually rich, rich tonal colors. I was in between projects, so I grabbed a skein of Malabrigo Worsted from my stash and knit a simple pair of mitts. I had a lot left over, so I started knitting a matching hat. Mid-way through, I realized I’d be just short on yarn to finish the hat, so I improvised. I had a little leftover Malabrigo Worsted in a different green, and I started incorporating it into the hat slowly by stranding it – three stitches of the old yarn, then one stitch of the new yarn. Can you tell that it’s made in two different colors? But I can’t just make a simple hat. A simple hat must be embellished! Have you ever embroidered on your knitting? It isn’t hard at all! I recommend it highly! I also recommend big, furry pompoms.