Spinning for Socks

This post will be about spinning handspun yarn for knitting into socks. If you want the supershort bullet point version, it’s at the end of the post.

First a couple of disclaimers.

1) This is, of course, all my own opinion. It will match with some other people’s in some places and differ in others. It is neither expected nor intended to be the be-all end-all treatise on the subject. As with most things, if it works for you… it doesn’t much matter if it’s “right” or not.

2) Example socks were knitted by a very dear friend of mine who is a far faster and more skilled knitter than I. I have knit socks, these just aren’t them.

3) In case it’s not clear, these are recommendations and assume all else is equal. Fiber choice, for instance, assumes you can pick any fiber you want. It does not mean you “shouldn’t” use corriedale if that’s what you have in your stash that you love.

Ok, now, the meat and potatoes… oh wait, no first an appetizer. A side salad if you will.

Millspun Yarn

Before I talk about handspun, I need to note that millspun is not the same. I will write quite a bit here (Spoiler alert!) about how Merino is wrong for handspun socks. I’ll get more into why I believe that to be the case shortly, but for now it’s enough to say that much of that is due to my views on spinning in general.

Those who’ve followed me a little more closely will be saying, “But, Gnome! What about Phouka?” Indeed, indeed. My own sock yarn, Phouka, is a merino/nylon blend. Like I said, millspun is not handspun. I have quite a few millspun merino socks, and they’re lovely. With a soft spun single and a hosiery twist in the ply they can be springy and have a very nice stitch definition.

Phouka Socks
Cables

And I can wash and dry these without ever worrying about them at all. I love them.

I also have some millspun dorset socks. They are also fabulous. The yarn, however, is quite different. The socks are springier, but with less stitch definition. Similar to the difference between dress socks and SmartWool hiking socks.

Dorset
Dorset

Both yarns are fabulous. Both pairs of socks are fabulous. The Merino socks have less squish, so they fit in dress shoes better, and have better stitch definition for cables and the like. But I wouldn’t go hiking in them (which I have in the Dorset socks).

So yeah, that’s millspun. It’s not the same as handspun. Now, on to the meat and potatoes!

Handspun Sock Yarn

From what I’ve been able to glean, reading, talking, etc. with people around “the community” most philosophies of spinning can be grouped into one of two main categories.

Spin the yarn to the fiber – Pick your fiber so it naturally makes the yarn you want to make

Spin the fiber to the yarn – Modify your spinning to make the yarn you want out of the fiber.

There’s nothing inherently “better” about either method. There are very talented and “famous” spinners (how famous are any of us, really, in the scale of pop culture?) on both sides of this amiable venn diagram. They’re simply different ways of approaching the same problem, how do you get the yarn you want?

Myself, I am a member of the “Spin the yarn to the fiber” school of thought. [/insert tongue in cheek] Clearly, this means spinning the yarn to the fiber is the right way to do it. The One and Only Way. Clearly. Oh wait. I just said it wasn’t. Ahem. I mean… uh…

Right! So, any time you’re going to spin a particular yarn, you need to know the essential elements of the yarn you’re making.

For a sock the most important aspects are

1) Durability – You don’t want them to wear out, and your feet put a lot of wear on things.

2) Comfort – You’re going to be standing on them.

3) Memory – Spring, sproing, cushy. They need to support you, have enough spring to hug your foot, etc.

There are other features that can be important depending on your needs. We’ll get to some of those later.

Fiber Choice:

Since I said my philosophy for spinning means picking a fiber that lends itself to the yarn, I should talk about picking fiber. Feature numbers one and three in the above list are the largest reasons I lean towards the downs wools and the almost-downs wools for handspun socks.

Downs wools (dorset, tunis, cheviot, shouthdown, hampshire, etc) have a spiral crimp rather than a wavy one. This makes them look, and act, like a spring. If you squash it or stretch it, it will bounce back to its former shape. This is called “memory” and gives you that nice cushioned feel under your feet. The springy effect also makes for a bouncy fabric with a nice negative ease that hugs your foot.

Here’s where comfort and durability cross…

These downs wools aren’t as fine as merino but that actually can be a good thing. Super fine fibers tend not to be very strong. Silk is an obvious exception, however silk’s strength is almost entirely tensile. That is, you can pull hard on it and it won’t snap. But abrade it, rub it on something rough, and you’ll wear right through it. Merino can be made to be slightly more durable (like in the better millspun yarns) with things like hard plying that packs the fibers closer together.

This is where the philosophy of spinning thing comes most into play. By spinning it right (plying tightly), you can make a fine wool like merino or rambouillet or polwarth durable enough to be a sock yarn. Or, you can use a downs wool. The downs wools tend to be in the “medium” category of fineness, so they’re naturally more durable. You don’t have to spin/ply nearly as tightly to get the same durability. This means in the end, you end up with similar softness either way, but a different overall handle. Downs wools will tend to make a squishier, springier fabric.

All that said, these aren’t hard and fast rules set in stone. What it tells you about is the overall ideals for getting particular kinds of fabric. Downs wools felt poorly and are springy. The wools I mentioned before are ideal for that reason. However, other wools will work. These, for instance, are shetland.

Shetland. Handspun from a top prep. (Note, they’re fat from my calves, I put them on briefly before taking the photo)
Shetland
Shetland

Shetland felts more easily than the “true downs wools” but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re gentle with them they will only felt a little bit on the edges of the yarn. This can make for an even more durable fabric that wears really well. I have found I need to be a little more careful with them, however. They will shrink slowly even in cold/cold wash.

Spinning Method:

Again, there’s several theories here. So we’ll take them back to the points I mentioned above. The big ones here are one and two, durability and comfort, with a side of durability.

So you’ve got two(ish) spinning methods, right? Longdraw and shortdraw, worsted and woolen.

I’ve read more recommendations for worsted/shortdraw spun yarn because it makes a smooth, tight yarn which in theory could be more durable…

But I can’t say I’ve noticed a difference in durability between my worsted and woolen spun socks. The first sock yarn I spun was also my first longdraw project. And the socks are wearing fabulously. My guess would be that this is because with a springy fiber, the halo from longdraw actually helps protect the core of the yarn as long as the core is still spun tightly enough.

These are handspun longdraw (by me) from a hand drum carded prep. Romney with a little silk and mohair.

Socks

You’ll notice I said that was from a carded prep. Indeed. Like the suggestion of a worsted spin, most would suggest a true worsted spin, which means from a top prep, not a carded prep. But again, I haven’t had any problem with these. If you’re worried, I find a short draw spin even with a carded prep tends to make a fairly “worstedish” yarn.

I’ve also read a lot of recommendations for three or more ply yarn because it’s rounder and more durable (because it’s more rounded). This is also a matter of comfort, and as always, “It depends.”

These are handspun socks from two-ply yarns spun from Shetland and Black Welsh wool
Shetland/Black Welsh

They are super comfy and wonderful. Again, my guess is that the Shetland slightly felted to the nearby yarns, making the fabric smoother than it would be otherwise.

I’ve heard great things about 2×2 cable-ply yarns, though I haven’t worn socks from that myself. A spinning advantage of this ply is that you can do it with a single long single, ply back on itself then ply back on itself again. Which is convenient. I want to spin up some of this soon and I’ll report back.

Bullet Points Version:

Fiber:
First choice wools – Dorset, Cheviot, Tunis, Hampshire, Portland, Black Welsh, some blends (stage whisper: my New England Blend)
Second choice wools – Shetland, Romney, soft Jacob, Perendale, etc.
Other wools – As noted in the disclaimer, this is NOT to imply that you can’t use fibers not on this list and be happy with them. These are the common fibers I’d choose if I had access to every fiber out there.

Spinning:
Prep – Advantages to both carded and combed preps. I haven’t seen a massive advantage to either. Top may be more durable for washing.
Method – Again, no massive advantages. Short draw may be more washing durable.
Ply – In general I like three or more plies. But a two-ply can work very well, depending.

Care:
Everyone will tell you to wash handspun socks by hand. This is definitely the wisest thing. I am lazy and do not do this. My socks are pretty much either superwash or downswools. Superwash doesn’t felt (mostly) and downswools felt very poorly. I wash in a lingerie bag on cold/cold with very light detergent. It’s worked very well for me.

Fine Wools:
A final note on “Merino is r-o-n-g wrong.” I would not use merino for handspun socks. Other people would, do, and are happy with the results. And it *does* have the advantage that it comes in superwash, which little else does (BFL, and recently, Cheviot). If I was going to spin a fine wool (say you have super special snowflake feet, or that’s the fiber you have in the “right” color) then I would probably use one of the springier/coilier fine wools. Targhee or Rambouillet would probably be decent finewool choices. If you were going to use these, I would recommend a worsted (short draw) spin and a tight plying to maximize durability.

I think that’s all for now. Feel free to weigh in, ask questions, etc.

EDIT: “Chain” switched to the correct “cable” in plying section

Gratuitous Puppy: Gobo sleeping with Mokey’s dollie
Gobo

~The Gnome
Gnome

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10 Responses
  1. uberlaut says:

    …have I mentioned that I love you?

    Seriously, thanks for putting all your thoughts in one place. It’s really handy for those of us who think you’re super-awesome.

    Now I have to finish spinning up that dorset from your shop and knit some socks!

  2. JoAnnaSpring says:

    I love you also.

    I am well on my way to being a dorset convert.

  3. Ted says:

    What is “hosiery twist”?

    Thank you.

  4. WilyG says:

    Awesome.

    I’ve been doing a good bit of chain plying this year, but what do you mean by 2×2 chain plying?

  5. Todd says:

    You make me want to start spinning! (which, I have come to learn is different from twirling, which I have been known to do, and have been told that I am proficient at)

  6. Agres says:

    Fiber selection and spinning technique selection should work together to produce the correct yarn for the job. And as you point out, boot socks, sport socks, house socks and dress socks have different requirements, and as hand spinners and knitters we can make the perfect yarn and the perfect sock for the purpose.

    We can design different yarns from different fibers for different parts of the same sock. We can spin/cable-up tougher yarns for high stress points such as the heel, toe and ball of the foot. We can use softer fibers in parts of the sock that are not subject to as much stress. There is no reason why the leg body must be the same fiber or have the same yarn structure as the heel flap.

    Twist must be considered in the context of the grist. 15 tpi is not much twist for a 20,000 ypp yarn, but is a very firm twist for a 13,000 ypp yarn. If you have soft spun plies at a high ply twist, then the yarn has to be set to avoid bias. A hand spinner can do this.

    And, sorry Gnome, but for sock yarn I do like worsted spun, cabled yarns, usually 8-ply at 1,600 ypp for dress socks and 1,000 ypp for boot socks. (This is not a big deal! I can do this without spinning singles that are any thinner than what hand spinners traditionally spun for weavers.) This was a sad conclusion I came to as I re-knit the feet on some boot socks. In fact total twist in the yarn will make more difference in durability than whether it woolen or worsted. However, at the same total twist, worsted will be stronger than woolen. One reason I like cable structure is that I can put more total twist in the yarn without having a net twist that causes bias.

  7. The Gnome says:

    Why would you be sorry? Your yarn has no effect on my yarn, much less my feet! Make the yarn that you like and makes you happy. Some very well respected, knowledgeable people like polwarth for socks, which I would never use myself. Neither do I ever actually count my grist.

    Different ways of doing it. This is *my* way of doing it because people ask me. There are other ways, as I mentioned. Most people seem to, in my experience, fall more into one or the other of these two camps. I fall more on the fiber end. You appear to fall more on the spinning end with an effort to keep toward a balance of the two.

  8. Agres says:

    No, I am a “systems” guy.

    As Ed Deming told us, “You get what you measure!” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming)

    Just as chemists get better results by measuring as they go, better spinners get better results by measuring as they go. You learned to spin from a tradition of hobby spinners. They did not teach you everything that the old professional spinsters knew.

    As a professional spinner you will learn to track how much fiber you spin, and the length of your string. And that, is grist. You will track it, or you will lose money on your professional spinning! Moreover, twist is a major expense in spinning. Professionals track their major expenses. Spinners who make money from their spinning, track grist and twist. It is like an industrial chemical engineer tracking reaction yields.

    Failure to measure is the path to mediocrity. Certainly a spinner that does not measure their spinning can fantasize that they are a good or great spinner, but only by measuring objective characteristics of their yarn can they determine if they actually are a good spinner. You will know how good your hand spun woolen sock yarn is only by comparing it to worsted 2×2 and 2×3 cable yarns of the same fiber and the same grist. The truth is that anything spun from Romney/Mohair will last a very long time.

    Then, it becomes a question of the best yield for the effort? The second question: “Is my worsted technique as good as my woolen technique?”

    Only by some form of measurement can spinsters maintain some kind of consistency and repeatability. And good spinning requires consistency.

    Woolen threads take 20% more twist than worsted treads of the same grist – just to hang together. I assert, that worsted thread can be hand spun just as fast as woolen (and at only 80% of the twist). (See Amos, Chapter 7) Actually, twist insertion becomes the limiting factor in yarn production, so worsted can be spun 20% faster on yardage basis. However, you, as a spinning role mode, lead by example toward a more expensive, less durable yarn construction?

    More expensive and less durable? It that what you want? Or, is that what sells to hobby spinners? As a role model, teach them to spin better yarn. Better yarn is a function of fiber, yarn design, tools, supplies (e.g., soap, dyes, spinning oil), and execution. I do not feel that anyone of these factors dominates. Good yarn requires attention to every facet of the process. Good yarn requires a system.

    And, you need to get “can’t” out of your head. Mostly, mill spin is cheaper. However, good hand spinners can spin things that mills simply cannot spin, at any price. And, there is a whole class of yarns where the price of the mill spun is is very high. These yarns, the mills leave to the hand spinners.

    A competent hand spinner can spin sock yarns from Merino\nylon that are as good as the mill spun Merino\nylon that you sell. The hand spun yarns will not be as consistent when you run the yarns through high tech QA/QC devices, but the variations will be so small that your feet cannot detect the variations. Hand spinners simply can’t spin such yarns as fast or or cheaply as the mills. That is different from “can’t spin” these yarns.

  9. Rhynwa says:

    Goodness Agres! We just wanted to know how The Gnome spun *his* sock yarn! We were asking for his experience, not a masters class on spinning professionally.

    I like to know how others out there spin, be it The Gnome, or you or the ladies in my spinning/knitting group, because it gives me ideas and insights… but I am not a professional spinner, nor do I intend to be a professional spinner. I spin for the joy of it. And while my sock yarn may not be perfect, and definitely not measured, I have many pairs of very nice socks made from yarn that I have spun.

    I must also admit I belong to that group of people who feels that spinning is a personal thing – YOU chose the methods that work for you, from the organic “I never measure, I never sample” to the “I don’t spin without 12 samples, and I measure ever 100 feet of spun yarn”. There is NO ‘right’ way, there are only ‘many possible’ ways. While I enjoyed the insights provided by you about sock yarn spinning, I think that you over-reached yourself in suggesting that The Gnome is flat out wrong and that he is leading us all astray…

  10. I am interested in a sock spinning machine. Do you know if one is manufactured for home use? This info is very useful, and I thank you for your time in sharing this. Elaine

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