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!
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”.
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?
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?
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.