I started two projects to work on over the Thanksgiving weekend while we were with friends in Delaware; a hat for my partner Joan (my fourth attempt to knit a hat she likes...) and a cowl for myself. I would like us both to have something nice and warm to wear when we do farmers markets in December. The hat is in Targhee 2 ply and the cowl is knit with Montadale true woolen spun. For the umpteenth time, when a few rows were complete (just enough to get your fingers on), I was surprised by the flood of pleasure fondling the squishy fabric. I love woolen spun knits, they are so satisfying. I "get religion" all over again, and want to turn other people on to these yarns that might not have that siren call when you see them, but "get you" when you work with and wear them.

This is the season for woolen: warm, insulating yarns that are light in weight and cozy. But...you ask, what makes a yarn woolen? The short answer is woolen yarns are spun with fibers opened up, but going all which ways to trap air inside the yarn. They are lighter in weight, but warmer than worsted spun yarns. They tend to hold their shape, are not "hard wearing" and... they can pill... but they are great (I think the best...) for hats, blankets, sweaters, warm woolen mittens and so many other of my favorite things.  

This is the best picture I've been able to take of our most wooly yarn: Montadale woolen, taken with a phone and a magnifier (sorry for the amateur tools):

close up showing woolen spun yarn

There are a number of semi-woolen mills in the US, and we like working with many of them, but there is only one true woolen mill left, and it's in Harmony, Maine: Bartlettyarns. Their machinery is called a mule spinner and mimics what hand spinners call long draw. The machine actually drafts the fibers out several yards by pulling back on tracks in the floor (one of these parts are called mules). They spun our Montadale true woolen and created a YouTube video of it. It is a cool thing to see, especially if you've ever spun a woolen yarn yourself. 

I finished the dye hard cowl using a new Montadale woolen handpaint: box of 64. I followed the pattern (which was designed for Romney semi-worsted spun) exactly, and the tube portion is longer than the original...great for covering ears if needed, and I like it a lot. Expect to see it on me at the markets. I'm nearly finished with Joan's hat and now I want one! It's the 1898 hat (with ear flaps) and the pattern is free on Revelry and works exactly as written in the Targhee 2 ply yarn

Woolen spun (the long explanation if you're interested)
To preface...we are talking about design and structure. One of the most basic attributes of a yarn is woolen or worsted spun. It isn't just a question of being one or the other though, there is a continuum of spinning structures with true worsted on one end, true woolen on the far opposite and lots of semi-worsted and semi-woolen yarns in between. 

Four factors determine woolen vs worsted: fiber length, fiber preparation, drafting technique and when the twist enters the fibers. There are lots of variations and combinations of these four which is why there are so many "semi"s on our continuum. For right now, lets just talk about one extreme: woolen spun

Fiber length: in general, shorter fibers are best for woolen spun yarns. I'll say 5 inches and less. For sheep, this covers the vast majority in the world). Fine wools, Down type and Medium wools are great. Also, you can include fibers of various lengths in a woolen spun yarn, so if you are mixing wool from a whole flock, and their fleece is not a consistent length, no problem.

Preparation: after a fleece is sheared and washed, the next step in the yarn making process is called preparation and involves getting the fibers opened up and organized in the way you want. In woolen preparation, you want to have them organized in a jumbled sort of non-alignment. This is done by carding the fibers. Handspinners might use hand cards (which look like two dog brushes with wire teeth) taking a small handfull of wool at a time, "carding" it back and forth to open and smooth the fibers and then roll it off into little cigar shaped rolls called rolags. Now the fibers are loose, but organized in a spiral. Mills use large carding machines which look a bit like printing presses with lots of different sized rollers all covered with the same matrix of little wires that do the same thing creating nicely prepared "roving" that comes out on the other end.

Drafting: this is the first part of the actual spinning: gently pulling out the desired amount of fibers to be in the yarn (which determines its diameter). The other part of drafting is which direction, pulling forward or back and the distance between your fiber supply and where and when the twist enters the fiber (which is the point it becomes yarn). In hand spinning true woolen is called "long draw." The spinner is pulling the fiber supply back against the place where the twist grabs the fibers, usually as far as the arm can reach, or longer for great wheels.

Twist: Probably the better way to say it is you let the twist enter the fibers in the "drafting zone" capturing the crazy jumbled up fibers, trapping air inside. This is what makes the yarn light in weight, but so insulating. It's like frothing the milk for your coffee or whipping cream: greater volume, more air and lighter.

Would love any comments. Does this make sense or is the explanation wooly too?






Comments (8)

I didn’t know that there is only ONE mill that still does true Woolen! What a shame since I agree it’s really special yarn to knit with and spin. I was totally confused when I started trying to learn long draw/woolen spinning. My brain couldn’t compute the idea of moving my drafting hand backwards rather than forward, as in short forward draw. What a mess! The other trick was to learn not to smooth the air out like one does in worsted/short forward draw. And I think that makes a huge difference; the woolen spinning traps the air as it twists and then you leave it there (i.e., don’t touch/smooth it!) to stay nice and fluffy. I really had to think about keeping my hands off it and let it just wind onto the bobbin. I’m curious whether this difference exists in mill spun yarn? Other than the prep and the draw, do Mule’s vs. whatever a worsted spinner is called, have a smooth the air out vs. leave the air in function?


Thank you for such interesting information! I’m a somewhat new hand spinner and love reading about all aspects of fiber prep, dying, techniques, etc so thanks for doing this series!


Hi Sharon,
Hope the link above works…? If not, try looking at Bartlettyarns and the video called Solitude yarn.

Gretchen Frederick

What would be the title of the you tube showing the mill in Harmony?


Hi Sharon,
I haven’t ever heard of, or experienced woolen yarns slanting or biasing, at least because they are woolen spun. Usually biasing will happen with other spinning factors that affect the yarn: 1. single yarns where the twist energy in the yarn is not balanced by a second, equal twist ply. 2. There is a convention in spinning for which direction the twist goes into the yarn (or dear…which is it? Had to look it up and found this nice explanation: http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art51455.asp) Z twist in the singles and S twist in the ply. Anyway…this convention works for right handed knitters. Left handed knitters can experience some biasing because they are putting in more twist in to the yarn as they knit. 3. There is more energy (twist) put into either the singles or the ply to make it an “energized” yarn and this can create biasing or other effects in the knitting

That was a long way around, sorry. So, has this happened more than a few times with woolen spun yarns? I would guess that it would be less likely to happen because (in general, or at least in my experience) there is more relaxed twist in woolen spun yarns. Are you a very tight knitter?

Gretchen Frederick

Julia, Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and I will continue on the continuum over the next few weeks…

Gretchen Frederick

I enjoyed this post and am looking forward to more! I especially liked how you talked about what these yarn structures mean both in handspinning and mill spinning terms — I don’t always see that comparison/translation being made. I’m curious about the different intermediate structures between woolen and worsted, because that’s not something I’ve read much about (I’m not sure I even entirely grasped that it was a continuum until reading this post!).

I’m also a big fan of woolen spun yarns. I like how malleable and agreeable they feel in my hands while I’m knitting, I love the nuzzly-ness of the fabric they make, and I continue to find it magical how something so light feeling can also be so warm. I agree they don’t always look as (for want of a better term) sexy in the skein as sleek worsteds, but I have that same experience of falling in love all over again every time I get to knit with woolen spun!


Hi Gretchen,
I read your article on Woolen Spun Yarn specifically to see if my issue with some Woolen Spun yarns was discussed.
It wasn’t— so I thought I would ask here. I find that my knitting tends to “bias” or “torque” when using some woolen spun yarn. I am an English knitter holding the working yarn in the right hand. I wonder if this is just my problem or if you’ve heard of this issue with woolen spun yarns.
I enjoyed your article very much and since I’m not a spinner, paid special attention to the more technical parts of your article. Thank you.


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