CNCHnet . . . The Textile Arts Webzine of the Conference of Northern California Handweavers

Get Ready, Get Set, Finish

I’d like to address the word set, as in setting yarns. It’s not uncommon for that the hows and whys or setting yarn to be the most popular topic at any workshop/fiber festival.  But before we talk about the hows and whys, I’d like to actually address the term itself.  I used to use this word willy nilly and it wasn’t until a good friend of mine explained why she uses the term finish, instead of set, that I made the leap myself (after all, we all must be willing to change when something makes more sense, right?).

The trouble with set is that it implies that this last step in the yarn making process somehow makes twist that doesn’t want to stay, stay; that it sets the twist in yarn even if the twist has no other reason to be there (the other reason it would have is balance, but I bet you knew that).  And while this last step of yarn making does a lot of things when basically employed, it just doesn’t do that.  It can’t fix a yarn that is unbalanced, nor can it make twist stay in a yarn when there’s no other reason for it to stay in.  And so I’ve switched, taking the lead of my much smarter friend, to calling it finishing my yarn, unless I’m hard-setting (which I never do) or steaming.  Because that’s all it’s doing.  It’s the last, the finishing, step.

The key to making good yarn is making it good on your bobbin, fixing it while you spin it, and not relying on setting, blocking, or finishing to do it for you, because it can’t.  Well, that’s not entirely true — a hard enough block or a hot enough steam can set any twist in any yarn but there’s always a tradeoff and it’s not always (and to me, honestly almost never) worth it.

Hard blocking knitting yarn is the surest way to turn you and others off of handspun.  You’ll read in texts of years gone by about blocking yarn by washing it and hanging it to dry with a small weight, a common suggestion is a plastic hanger, attached at the bottom of the skein.  This small weight, instead of stretching the yarn or allowing the fibers to dry with the crimp elongated, would just hold those yarns with a bit of a twist in the whole skein, straighter.  That was the intention.

Unfortunately, that simple instruction and intention has gotten blown up into what can only be described as a yarn killer.  Hard blocking/tension setting involves washing a yarn and then drying it under tension, often a gallon or more of water hung from the skein, or rigged up in a reverse vice or sorts.  You can see what this would do, I’m sure. Besides give you a false balance and an untrue set,  it relieves your handspun yarn of it’s life, loft, and elasticity. Don’t subject your wonderful work to stretching, weighting, and wet tensioning. Steam setting is a different animal, and we’ll talk about it in a few paragraphs.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that nasty bit of business out of the way, let’s talk about how knitting yarns should be finished.  Just about every yarn (minus some you’ll use for collapse weave and for energized knitting) should be finished.  However, it’s not terribly important that you do it while it still carries the banner “just spun”.  No matter how long your single or plied yarn has lounged on it’s bobbin, as soon as you plunge your yarn into water, all its twist will be activated.  That means that if you’ve completed spinning and/or plying your yarn, whether you finish it with a bath now or later, doesn’t make much  difference to the yarn. Being non-sentient, it’s patient — it’ll wait until you’re ready.  Question is, how long can you wait?  I’m impatient, and always want to see what my final yarn is going to look like.

There are several ways to finish yarns — they vary depending on what kind of fiber you’re using.  For now, let’s talk about the most prevalent fiber we spinners like to feel running through our fingers — wool.  Wool yarns are typically finished in one of three ways: bathed, fulled, or steamed.

The easiest way is a warm or hot bath. Honestly, I find that almost any temperature that is not cold does the job. This basic method is wonderful for yarns that have less than 2 rotations in the skein, so a yarn that approaches balance will take to this method like gangbusters.  The method will take to the yarn as well, giving it the chance to be the softest, loftiest, most elastic yarn it can be. Toss that figure-eight tied skein right in a hot bath and let it soak for a bit.  Once it’s all wet and plump, either spin in out in a salad-type spinner or wrap it in a towel and squeeze.  If you like (like I do), give it a gentle snap by putting your hands inside the loop and, quickly and ever-so-easily,  snap the skein.  Then hang it unweighted/unstretched to dry.

This is easy, low impact, and unstressful.  It doesn’t change your yarn in any long-lasting way except to allow the fibers to bloom a bit (which can really change your knitting gauge, so it’s a good idea to do this finishing step before you swatch) and your yarn to shorten just a skeence to give it room to bloom.  You’ll end up with the best version of your yarn.

If you have a singles yarn or a yarn that didn’t hit quite as close to the balance mark as you might have wished, consider the fulling method.  First, remember we’re using wool, and none of that superwash stuff — you absolutely need those wooly scales in full-effect.  Make sure you tie that skein in lots of places.  If you do a traditional tie of just two or three figure-eights, you risk the whole thing fulling together into a mass that will make even the most stoic of spinners weep.  In fact, the more you plan on fulling, the more figure-eights you should tie.

Here are the basic elements: temperature change, agitation, soap; the more you increase any of those elements, the more extreme results you get. Moving your yarn from a hot sink to a cold sink several times should provide temperature change enough to give you just a bit of fulling. If you want more, how about a whack? Follow the guidelines of basic bathing above until you get to the gentle snap part, and instead give that sucker a real whack!  You can do this against a shower wall, a table, but to minimize water spray, I like to go outside and give it a wholloping on the side of my house.  The more you whack, the more you full your yarn.  This is straight agitation, no doubt about it.

If you want even more of a fulling effect, combine high temperatures, agitation, and soap by putting that yarn in a washing machine with detergent. Check it often and in no time at all you’ll have a fully fulled yarn.  Keep in mind that the more you full your handspun, the more you relieve it of loft, elasticity, and length.  If those are things you want the yarn to have in abundance, head back and read the previous paragraph, as fulling is not the finish you’re looking for.

The third and less common, but very effective, way of finishing yarn is to steam it.  This method works well for yarns that have more twist than you want them to have. In other words, it’s great for taming a wayward yarn. All it involves is holding your yarn under a bit of tension so that it hangs straight, and putting it in the pathway of steam, being careful not to burn yourself.  You can use a pot of boiling water, a hot teapot, or a home clothing/drapery steamer.

Hold the yarn in the steam until all the squigglying stops. That’s it. Unlike a basic finish, a steam finish (or set, and you’re about to see why this can be called a set more than the other methods) will actually change the make-up of yarn. The steaming process causes individual polypeptide chains to burst, shift against each other, find their equilibrium, and form new chains in this more stable position. This sounds great, right?

Hang on, it’s not all roses and tacos, there are some drawbacks. First, you don’t need this process if you spin your yarn with the balance you want it to have.  If you’re happy with your yarn, steaming won’t give you anything that a basic finishing bath can’t provide.  In fact, it doesn’t give you the same kind of bloom that a basic hot bath imparts.  Also, not only does it not give you great bloom, but it will most often result in a less elastic and less lofty yarn.  That’s not necessarily a by-product of the process, but more a result of why you’re steaming your yarn.

Steaming yarn, let’s be honest, is a bit of a correcting finish. As such, there’s usually some sort of stretching, elongating, or holding firm, and whenever you do that kind of blocking, the result, to varying degrees, is a loss of elasticity and loft. And while steaming is a more permanent resetting of the twist than anything else we can do in the comfort of our own homes, it may not last forever.  Here’s the deal: Your yarn’s new steam-provided balance will only stay put until the yarn is subjected to a higher temperature than the steam you used.  When and if that happens, you yarn will be re-set in whatever position it’s in when it comes into contact with that new, hotter steam.

Basically it boils down to: (1) Yes, finish your yarn. (2) No, it doesn’t matter how long you let it languish before you finish it. (3) There are several ways to finish a wool yarn.  The best for an already great yarn is a simple hot bath and unweighted hang. For a single or other unbalanced yarn, if you want it fulled, give it a good whacking — otherwise, steam it!  And think about the differences between setting and finishing, a much better spinner than me changed my mind!

Jacey Boggs is known for her book, Spin Art: Mastering the Craft of Spinning Textured Yarn (Interweave, 2011), for her entertaining and instructive DVD Sit & Spin, for her monthly workshops around the world, and for spinning textured yarns with a technical hand. She writes for Spin-Off and Entangled and is on the board of Handwoven magazine. She blogs at www.insubordiknit.com, home schools her three children, knits like a maniac, and eats way too many avocados. She is currently building a chicken palace for a dozen new chicks!

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