Twist model

You know when a baby thought is born. It grows and starts making itself heard, like an itch. Suddenly the itch is so vivid that you can’t ignore it anymore. You have to make something of it. This happened to me recently, and now the thought is ready to face the world. I call my thought the twist model. It is sort of a theory about twist and what happens between the unspun and spun parts of the yarn.

The basics

We know that it takes twist – enough twist – to make yarn out of fiber. To be able to spin we need to add twist to the fiber. The fiber is just individual pieces of fiber that are arranged around and beside each other. We add twist and draw to transform the fiber into yarn, that is, we spin. In the beginning of the spinning, we can still draft the fiber, but after a certain amount of twist, we can’t draft anymore. The yarn is fixed, or stable. This can be illustrated with a simple equation:

Fiber + twist = yarn
If we add twist to fiber we get yarn.

We can also reverse the equation – if there isn’t enough twist in the yarn it will pull apart. We have gone back to fiber again:

Yarn - twist = fiber
If we untwist yarn, we get fiber.

This is what happens when the spun yarn untwists itself and pulls apart. It has happened to all of us. One example is when we spin on a suspended (drop) spindle and we don’t pay enough attention. The spindle stops and turns in the other direction and – voilá – fiber re-happens. The yarn is untwisted, the fibers fall apart and the spindle drops to the ground.

A continuum

Even if this looks sensible, yarn and fiber aren’t on or off features. Rather, they are the opposite ends of a continuum. With added twist, we can go from unspun fiber to yarn. The continuum is governed by the amount of twist we add to the fiber, from no twist at all at the fiber end to enough twist to fix the yarn at the yarn end.

On a continuum from no twist to yarn, added twist will sooner or later fix the fibers.
When there is enough twist to fix the fibers, we get yarn.

The fiber at the left end of the continuum is unstable in that that the individual fibers can move in relation to each other. Thus, the yarn at the other end of the continuum is stable. The fibers are fixed in the twist and we can’t draft anymore.

The fiber to the left is unstable and the yarn to the right is stable.
The fiber is unstable and the yarn is stable.

We can still add more twist to the right of the rightmost part of the continuum to get the twist angle we want, but that is not the focus of the model.

Somewhere between the unstable and stable ends the yarn is semi-stable. There is some twist, enough for the yarn not to fall apart instantly but not enough to make the yarn stable. The fibers can still slide past each other.

A semi-stable middle between unstable (left) and stable (right)
Between unstable and stable the yarn is semi-stable.


If you look at a drafting triangle, the base of the triangle is at the fiber end with the legs pointing towards the yarn end of the graph. The area where the triangle meets the yarn is where the yarn is semi-stable.

Twist model
A drafting triangle with the fiber end to the left and the yarn end to there right.

The point of twist engagement

In the semi-stable part of the yarn there is a point where you can still draft but the fiber won’t pull apart. The fibers are still mobile but not free to fall apart. How wide that part of the spectrum is depends on the length of the fibers and the amount of twist in the semi-stable part. Let’s call this the point of twist engagement.

A description of the point of twist engagement
The point of twist engagement in the semi-stable part of the continuum

At the point of twist engagement I have the opportunity to steer my work towards more twist or less, depending on what I want to achieve. When I spin, I use this point all the time.

Opening up the twist: Theory

The most interesting part of the twist model is the fact that it is reversible. When the twist has come too close to the fiber the drafting triangle gets smaller. That also means that the semi-stable part gets shorter and perhaps so short that I can’t draft anymore. Too much of the staple length is engaged in the twist. The point of twist engagement is not available to me. If I don’t watch out at this point, twist can enter the fiber supply. A common solution to too much twist in the semi-stable part can be to force the twist out of the yarn by pulling. This may more often than not result in an uneven or, at worst, broken yarn.

However, there is a way to prevent twist from coming too close to the drafting triangle without pulling. In the beginning of this post I wrote that the twist model can be reversed. If I remove twist from the yarn I will get fiber. So if I remove enough twist to open up the semi-stable part I will get access to the point of twist engagement again. This way I can draft smoothly and without pulling.

Opening up the twist: Practice

I think most of you do open up the twist, but perhaps you haven’t thought about what it is that you are actually doing, let alone talked about it. The graphics above are a help to understand the twist model on a theoretical level. Let’s look at it in practice too.

The twist model
The twist model in practice.

The fiber to the left in the picture is unstable – the fibers have complete mobility. The yarn to the right is stable – the fibers can not move. Between unstable and stable is a semi-stable part. The fibers have the ability to move past each other without pulling apart. This is the point of twist engagement.

But, how do I remove twist, in practice? One way of removing twist is to add length to the yarn. If I draft out more fiber, the existing twist will spread over the length of yarn and we get a lower twist. This works perfectly fine, but is seldom my first choice.

Instead I turn the yarn in my spinning hand/front hand against the spinning direction. When I do this, the semi-stable part gets longer and I get access to the point of twist engagement again.

Example 1: Supported spindle, long fibers, short draw

In this video (at 1:15) I spin with a long fiber and my hands are far apart. The drafting triangle is also long. With the thumb and index finger of my spinning hand (right in this case) I turn the yarn against the spinning direction to give more mobility to the fibers. This opens up the twist and allows the fibers to rearrange themselves. It makes the drafting easier on my hands and I end up with a more even yarn. The motion is very subtle, but it gives the fibers enough mobility for a smooth draft. I need to listen to the wool to understand how much I need to open up and how wide apart my hands need to be.

Example 2: Spinning wheel, short fibers, longdraw

Here is another example (at 1:25). In this video I spin English longdraw on a spinning wheel. When spinning English longdraw I use a double draft that is more commonly found in spindle spinning: I build up twist, make the draw and add twist. I use both hands to open up the twist: With my front/spinning hand I turn the yarn against the spinning direction, just as I did in the previous example. With my fiber/back hand I turn my hand against the spinning direction. My hands work together to give the fibers enough mobility in the semi-stable part of the yarn. When I am satisfied, I allow the twist to re-enter to stabilize the yarn.

Example 3: Tahkli spindle, short fibers, longdraw

In this third example (at 1:30) I spin very short fibers (cotton). I use a double drafting method, which means that I already have twist in the fiber when I go back to do the second part of the double drafting. That means that it will take more effort to untwist the yarn. Therefore, I use both my hands to turn the yarn against the spinning direction. I use the thumb and index finger of my spinning hand, just as in the first and second examples. To even out the bumps between my hands I also pinch the yarn with my fiber hand. In this, my hands come closer together to target the bump I want to even out. I can also walk both my hands closer together to do this.

Example 4: Navajo spindle, short fibers, long draw

In the last example (at 2:34) I spin cotton on a Navajo spindle. When I see a bump in the second half of the double draft I pinch the yarn with both my hands and turn them against the spinning direction. Look at 2:34 and also at 4:09. Cotton is a difficult fiber to spin, but it is an excellent exercise to learn to listen to the fiber. Your hands will feel the exact moment when and which fibers are in the point of twist engagement.

In this example and the previous one I also add length to the part I’m spinning to open up the twist. This is done in the first half of the double draft.

Cooperation

No matter what fiber or tool I use, I listen to the wool to learn how it behaves. The fiber I work with at the moment tugs a bit. I have had it for around a year and the lanolin feels more waxy than oily. I need to pay close attention to the drafting to avoid thin spots, pigtails and potential yarn breakage. The problem with unintentional thick and thin spots can happen with commercially combed top as well – the fibers are dense and sometimes clumped. Instead of tugging to separate the fibers I open up the twist and work with the yarn in the twist.

I learn how to cooperate with the wool to get a smoother spin and a more even yarn. How long are the fibers? How does the crimp work in the draft? How well do the fibers catch on to one another? All these aspects are keys to how I work with opening up the twist. When I spin I trust my hands to really listen and adapt their motions to the characteristics of the fiber.

I give the fiber the space it needs to, in return, give me a semi-stable portion where the fibers are mobile. This tiny little stretch of fiber between my hands and what I do with it can be a key to a smoother and more even yarn.


I hope the twist model can help you understand what happens – and what can happen – in the continuum between spun and unspun.

Do you open up the twist when you spin? How do you do it? If you don’t open up the fiber or if you haven’t thought about it, try it now! Grab a spinning tool and some fiber and find that point of twist engagement. Let me know what you think.

Happy spinning!


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5 Replies to “Twist model”

  1. hello from the US!
    I learned to ‘open the twist’ when drafting wool, about 20 years ago as a beginning wheel spinner. It was taught to me in a workshop by a well-known American spinner.
    I’ve never heard anyone else mention opening the twist as they spin – until now as you have. I believe this technique improves the quality of my yarn…and it makes the spinning even more pleasurable!
    Thank you for your informative and thoughtful Blog. I enjoy reading it very much! I am teaching myself to spin on a supported spindle and have learned from watching you spin on your videos.
    Best wishes and happy spinning to you!!
    Janeen

    1. Hi Janeen,
      and thank you for your kind words. I think many spinners open up the twist, but perhaps without reflecting over why.

      I’m glad you find my videos helpful! If you get stuck, I have an online course about supported spindle spinning. 🙂

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