Spinzilla Series: Calculating Fibre Quantities for Spinning

Combination drafted Polwarth+Silk (Deep Cove and Willow) sample skein

Combination drafted Polwarth+Silk (Deep Cove and Willow) sample skein

This is one of my big questions when I first started spinning. How much fibre do I need in order to spin enough yardage to knit a scarf/shawl/sweater/socks/etc? Estimating how much handspun yarn you need for a project can be tricky. For knitting patterns, yardage requirements are usually indicated in the pattern and you can consult Ann Budd’s Knitter’s Handy Guide To Yarn Requirements for generic projects but sometimes there are seemingly small variables that make a big difference in the quantity. What are some of these variables?

Yarn Density

First off, if say, you are trying to substitute your handspun for a pattern that specifies Cascade 220, how closely will you try to replicate that yarn? Cascade 220 is a super-popular workhorse worsted-weight knitting yarn in 100% merino wool. It’s also made up of 4 plies. If I do a rough calculation based on the generic amount of yardage required to knit a sweater (1,000 yards of worsted weight yarn), you would need to spin upwards of 4,000 yards spread over 16 bobbins in order to make enough 4-ply worsted weight yarn to mimic Cascade 220. What if you opt to make a 2-ply worsted-weight yarn to substitute in a knitting pattern. The result of this is that the handspun yarn with fewer plies might be less compacted and less dense than the Cascade 220, which usually means that less fibre is packed into the yarn… which means you get more yardage from the same weight of fibre. So 220 yards of Cascade 220 might be 100g, but you might be able to get 240 or 250 yards out of 100g of spinning fibre. OR, perhaps you naturally spin a very compact and dense worsted single which means that you might only get 190 or 200 yards out of 100g of spinning fibre. Actually, there a common trait that beginning spinners produce denser yarn than commercial equivalents. I can’t calculate for you what this difference might be… because ultimately it depends on the characteristics of your handspun vs the characteristics of the yarn you are trying to substitute. Ultimately, the best solution is sampling and swatching.

Consistency

Let’s say, you don’t want to bother with a gazillion bobbins, so you decide to substitute Cascade 220 for your own Navajo-plied yarn. Great! Navajo-plied yarn is 3-ply as opposed to 4-ply, but it’s closer to 4-ply than 2-ply… so perhaps by using this “rounder” yarn your finished knitted garment will be closer to what the knitwear designer had intended. Awesome. But keep in mind that Navajo-plying tends to magnify the differences in the thickness of your singles. Have a few yards where you spun your singles a little thicker? When Navajo-plied, those spots will become significantly thicker in the 3-ply yarn than other thinner spots of your yarn. This will affect the overall look of your garment (might look more lumpy bumpy) and it can affect your final yardage, with the thicker spots using up more fibre but contributing less yardage.

Fibre Content

One important thing to also consider is the type of fibre you are using. Different sheep breeds have fibre of different fineness and weight, and so the same weight of fibre spun at the same specifications will produce different yardages. This is the basis of the “Bradford Count”, an old system of calculating the fineness of a fibre. In this measurement system, you describe the fineness of wool by the number of 560-yard skeins of singles could be spun from a pound of combed top. The finer the diameter of the wool fibre, the more skeins could be spun. That’s where you get the names “Merino 80s” vs “Merino 64s” for the spinning fibre that you might buy… “Merino 80s” would theoretically be able to produce 80 skeins of 560-yards each vs “Merino 64s” which would only be able to produce 64 skeins. The important thing here? If you’re trying to substitute say a fine Merino wool yarn by using a coarser sheep wool like Romney, you’ll likely need more fibre to produce the same yardage. Check out this chart to see the relative differences between different sheep breeds »

Solution: Sampling and Swatching

I know it sounds like a pain to sample and swatch… it sounds like this dreaded obstacle between you and the exquisite expanse of relaxing spinning before you. But sampling will really help you determine if your handspun will be exactly what you want it to be in the end. Here’s the steps I consider:

  • Decide what kind of yarn you need to make: worsted vs woolen
  • Decide on a drafting method for spinning that yarn (stick with it!)
  • Decide how you will ply your yarns: 2-ply, 3-ply, traditional, or navajo
  • Figure out how many wraps per inch your singles need to be in order to produce the plied yarn you are aiming for
  • Spin a sample of your fibre at your specifications. Spin a freshly plied yarn to attach to your wheel or notebook as a target.
  • Wash your sample yarn and measure the wraps per inch.
  • Knit your sample yarn and determine the best gauge. Wash your knitted swatch.
  • Decide if you want to make changes to your yarn.
  • “Rinse and repeat” as needed to get the yarn you like.
  • Once you find the yarn you like, weigh your skein with a scale and then measure your yardage with a yardage counter or niddy noddy.
  • Calculate your handspun “yards per pound” and use this number to determine how much fibre you need to start with in order to end up with the required yardage. Add a bit more fibre, for safety’s sake.

Once you have your handspun’s “yard per pound” number, then you can reference your pattern or a generic yardage requirement chart to calculate how much fibre you need. For example, if your handspun is 900 yards per pound and you want to knit a sweater that takes 1,200 yards, you’ll need approximately 1.33 lbs of fibre. I’d add 15 to 20% just in case so you’re looking at about 1.6 lbs of fibre or 26 ounces.

Yarn Weight yards per pound wraps per inch sts per inch
Cobweb > 6000 > 40
Lace Weight 3000 – 6000 36 – 40
Baby 2400 – 3000 30 – 36
Fingering 1800 – 2400 24 – 30 6.75 – 8
Sport 1300 – 1800 18 – 24 5.75 – 6.5
DK 1000 – 1400 12 – 18 5.25 – 6
Worsted 900 – 1100 10 – 12 4.5 – 5
Aran 700 – 1000 6 – 10 4 – 4.5
Bulky 400 – 700 < 8 3 – 3.75
Chunky < 400 1.5 – 2.75

* Rough guidelines only. The above numbers are compiled from a number of sources, including Spin-Off Magazine, Craft Yarn Council and from experience. I know it seems like a lot of extra work to sample, swatch and figure out how much fibre you need… but it saves you from the opposite issue of running out of fibre and then having to go out and order more fibre (sometimes impossible, if you are using indie hand-dyed fibre), or having to truncate or otherwise alter your knitting project. Or you can do what I tend to do… over-estimate on the extreme side and end up with tons of extra fibre which will need to be sorted, stored and organized!

Off-topic Spinzilla Update

Spinzilla just started last night for #teamsweetgeorgia at 9 pm PST and I took my first hour spinning a tiny 10 g sample skein to see if I would be happy with the yarn (before diving in and attempting to spin 2 lbs of fibre). I managed to spin about 48 yards of singles from 10 g of Organic Polwarth + Silk dyed in Deep Cove and Willow. I broke of chunks and held both colours together while I spun from the fold. It took about 20 minutes, so I guess my spinning rate is MUCH slower than those competitors in the SOAR event. It’s looking like about 144 yards of singles per hour if I spin with this long-draw method. That is, about 3 1/3 hrs to spin 4 oz. I can’t imagine how slow I would be if I switched back to my short forward draw. In any case, the yarn sample I made measured 1089 yards per pound and 10 wpi, fitting beautifully in the “worsted” weight category. I’ll knit a little swatch and see what I think too. But right now, I feel like the two colours mixed together look a bit like swamp water, so I’ve switched to spinning some BFL+Silk in Berry Tart for a future weaving project. Can I just say that I woke up at 6 am this morning from being distressed about what fibres to spin this week?