Should You Spin Worsted Or Woolen?

Worsted or woolen? These two terms are thrown about everywhere in handspinning! How do you know when you should spin worsted or spin woolen?

Spin worsted for a well defined, strong yarn that will highlight your stitches, spin woolen for a softer yarn that will be lighter, have more poof and be more insulating.

Let me start off with a clarification: you can spin whichever way you want!

But…(there’s always a but, isn’t there!) you may not get the results you want from your yarn or your final project unless you match your spinning with your end results!

Getting what you want out of your spinning is really what worsted vs woolen is all about. We’ll go over what’s what, then go into your options.

Characteristics Of An Easy To Spin Wool gives you a list of things to look for to make sure that the wool you buy will work well for you and your project!

mohair and wool blend spun from the fold and spun worsted
This is a mohair and wool blend that I put together then spun two different ways. The top is spun from the fold, which is more of a woolen style, the bottom is spun worsted. While I’m certainly not a perfect spinner, you can see that the top yarn has more poof and the bottom yarn has more definition.

Spin worsted for a well defined yarn

Spin with a worsted style if you are hoping to make a yarn that is more compact, has crisp edges and will highlight the stitches of your pattern.

For instance, using a worsted spun yarn to make a cabled pattern would clearly show the stitch definition and visually give you most pop for your work.

Worsted spun yarns are also stronger, since there are more fibers running through the yarn for the same length of yarn, when compared to a woolen spun yarn.

The worsted spun yarns having more fiber in them per foot also makes them heavier and of course makes a worsted spun yarn require more fiber to make than a woolen spun yarn of the same length.

How To Blend Mohair gives you some ideas on how to incorporate mohair into your worsted yarns. Mohair is about 50% of the fiber in the grey yarn above.

Spin woolen for fluffed yarn

Woolen spun yarns have a fluffed look that is ideal for times when you are wanting soft and warm more than stitch definition.

Woolen spun yarns are lighter for the same gauge, when compared to worsted spun yarns, meaning if you pinch a woolen spun yarn it will squish down a lot.

That makes you wonder, what’s in the yarn if it’s not wool?

The other stuff in the yarn is air! Woolen spun yarn traps air inside the yarn, which is what keeps you warm when you wear a hat or mittens made from woolen spun yarn.

graphic showing fiber alignment in worsted vs woolen spun yarns
Here is a simplified look at worsted and woolen fiber alignment in your yarn. You can see the worsted spun has more fibers in the yarn and a more compact arrangement of those fibers. The woolen has a variety of fiber alignments and is a bit less contained!

Difference between woolen and worsted

The main differences between woolen and worsted spinning are the direction that the fibers are running in the yarn and the compactness of the resulting yarn.

Woolen yarns have variable fiber arrangement

In woolen spun yarns the fibers are running in multiple directions, like a cloud.

The individual wool fibers are swirling about in the roving, so they will also be end up in various alignments throughout the yarn. This is what makes the fluff.

Worsted yarns have a parallel fiber arrangement

The fibers in a worsted spun yarn run the length of the yarn, making the fibers run more like a river.

This fiber alignment gives a worsted yarn a crisp edge and strength.

Think about it this way, if you crinkle up all the pages of a newspaper, that will make a good size pile, even if it is a small paper. This is what woolen yarn is, a bigger yarn that is taking up a lot of space but also has a lot of air.

If you took that same newspaper and laid it out flat, it would take up way less space, scads less space! This is what worsted spun yarn does, it neatly and compactly arranges the wool fibers in the yarn so they take up minimal space.

variety of yarn balls, different colors and wools used
I tend to spin worsted, that’s the method used for these balls of yarn.

Wools used can be same

Interestingly enough, the wools used for either woolen or worsted can be the same!

Not all wools, but the more versatile ones can be prepared and spun with either style.

What do I mean by “more versatile” wools? To be workable with both woolen and worsted style spinning, a wool must have some length to it and a bit of grip.

Length is needed for the preparation part, specifically combing, and grip is really crimp, so anything with a decent amount of crimp will have the grip part covered.

Short stapled wools are going to be tough to comb, maybe impossible, depending upon your combs. The Down breeds are classic examples of short wooled sheep.

The really long stapled wools have the opposite challenge, they are not great for carding. The long wool breeds are in this group.

A wool that is in the middle ground, lengthwise, can be prepared with either method. This means the longer end of the fine wools and the shorter end of the medium-long wools.

A familiar example of a versatile wool that can be used with either woolen or worsted spinning is Merino.

As long as the fibers are decently long, so none of the really short fleeces, Merino can be spun either way.

There are other wools that make the versatile list, of course, Merino is just the most recognizable.

Two nests of combed top that I made for spinning worsted. One is a gradient and the other (right) is a blend. This combed top can be used to make a true worsted yarn if it is spun with a worsted technique.

True woolen or worsted is very specific

To somewhat add to the confusion, the woolen or worsted that most folks are talking about is a modified version of each, not the true yarn of either one!

True woolen is spun in the woolen style, think long draw spinning, with a carded wool, such as a rolag.

If you don’t have both the woolen style spinning and the woolen style wool preparation, you are really making a semi woolen.

The same idea holds for a true worsted yarn, which needs both a worsted wool preparation, which is combing, and a worsted style spinning technique.

Worsted or woolen depends on project

Whether you spin woolen or worsted depends upon what you want your final yarn to do in your project.

Do you want maximum drape or strength to the yarn? Go with worsted.

Do you want the most fluff and softness to the yarn? Go with woolen.

Mix spinning style and fiber prep

When you start to mix and match the fiber preparation with the spinning style you get into the world of semi, semi woolen or semi worsted.

What’s wrong with semi? Nothing at all! Actually the world of in between is where the magic happens for a handspinner!

When you spin a yarn and it’s just okay, you can change your spinning or fiber preparation and change your results!

If you want a more crisply defined stitch, go with combed top for your fiber, rather than roving.

Or better yet, comb your own wool and, of course, use the worsted spinning style.

If you want a loftier yarn, consider spinning with a roving rather than a top or take the top and spin it from the fold.

This will get you more loft, but not as much as carding then spinning woolen.

You can endlessly mix and match fiber, fiber preparation and spinning to play around and get what you are looking for.

Handspinning is a combination of art and science, some things like setting the twist are straight forward, set the twist or the yarn will not hold together.

Other things like fiber preparation, which wool to use for what project and how to spin that wool, as examples, are all more on the art side, you can play around and see what you get!

Really, the determiner of if you should…? or is this the right way to….? are all a matter of opinion, so if you are happy with the yarn you get and how it functions, it’s great!

If you are not happy with the yarn or it’s functionality for your specific project, change something until you are.

For a great, yet simple graphic showing the fiber arrangement in woolen versus worsted yarn, read Woolen vs Worsted by Hilltop Cloud.

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