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About Yarns.

One of the questions I regularly get is about yarns – specifically about the use of plied yarns. As in “Did they really use single yarns in the Middle Ages for weaving?”

This is a fascinating question, because it shows how strongly we are influenced in our perception and our thinking by what we are used to. Most of the yarns that we can find in shops for crafting are plied, at least two-ply (that is twisted together from two single yarns, for those of you not familiar with that stuff), more often with more plies than that. Typical knitting yarns have four or even six singles plied together – so plied yarn is what we are most familiar with.

If we venture into weaving, most modern machine-spun yarns are rather soft, and not very strong. Consequently, modern hand-weavers use plied yarns for their weaving, at least for the warp. Many machine-woven fabrics do still use singles, but this is not obvious unless you look very closely at the weave, so it is outside our normal perception.

All this, taken together, leads to many people assuming that plied yarns were used for everything hand-made, like they generally are today. This, however, is not the case at all, and the “why” becomes clear once we think about the processes involved.

After preparation of the fibre – by washing and combing or, later in the Middle Ages, carding, the spinning process begins. This is a time-consuming thing, and there is a limit to how fast you can spin. (Yes, even if you learned how to spin when you were very young – just like there’s a limit to how fast a given person can run. Or knit. Or cut up carrots. This will be different from person to person, depending on their talent, their practice, their current form, and how focused they are, but at one stage, everyone reaches their personal speed limit, and that’s it.) Personally, I get to about 60 m per hour with a drop-spindle and distaff spinning short suspended, and I do consider that a decent speed yet still sustainable for a longer period of work.

A fabric of about 10 threads per cm in both warp and weft would be considered a middling-quality fabric in most archaeological textile terms. For an equally middling-quality garment, I would calculate roughly 3 m in length at 1 m in width, enough for a tunic for a full-grown man or a floor-length dress for a smaller woman. (These are all rough estimates here, and numbers have been chosen to make for slightly easier maths. Because. You know. Maths.)

To weave this amount of fabric, we would need a warp that is a bit longer than 3 m, as ther will be some loss at the top and bottom, plus there’s always some shrinkage at the end. So let’s settle for 3.5 m length when we warp for our fabric; that means 3.5 m times 100 cm warp width times 10 warp threads per centimetre… makes 3500 m of warp yarn. Three and a half kilometres. With my spinning speed, that would be close to 60 hours pure spinning time. (Realistically, you would add to this the time needed to skein the yarns, and also to dress the distaff whenever the fibre has been used up, so we’d be higher than that – but for our simple example, we’ll leave it at this.)

Now we have the warp. The weft will use almost the same amount of yarn, as we have 100 cm fabric width times 300 cm fabric length plus say 20 cm to account for shrinkage times 10 threads per cm of length – so we’ll be at about 3200 m yarn for the weft. Again, that’s close to 55 hours of work.

We’re now at a spinning time count of roughly 115 hours. For weaving with singles. Imagine you’d want to weave with two-ply yarn now… this means you would have to spin twice as thin (which will definitely not be faster, rather it will be slower, due to a number of reasons), and twice the amount. And then, in the final step, you will have to ply the yarn. Let’s just assume that everything is done at about the same speed, for ease of calculation – now we have not 115 hours of work, but 345 hours. Or, if we break it over into a modern 35 hour week, that would be 9 weeks and 6 days instead of 3 weeks and 2 days. Both, by the way, only if you actually spend every single second of every day’s work hours at your task (and we all know that this is possible, right? Happens all the time everywhere, I’m sure…).

So obviously, plying was not something done all the time, as it would have eaten up all the time. Whenever it was not really necessary, it was not done, and it’s not really necessary for weaving fabrics, which would have been the bulk of textile production. There are techniques where you do need to ply for things to work properly – sewing, nalbinding, knitting, tablet weaving, some forms of braiding – but for normal weaving, saving the time and effort would have been a no-brainer in most cases.

Let me get back to the question that started all this. What is really intriguing about this question is how much our modern experience colours our perception of what is normal, and how things are generally done. With the yarn question, it becomes pretty obvious that this is the case, as things are very clear here. There are other topics, other areas, though, where it is by far not as conspicuous. For instance, industrialisation and mass production has also formed our expectations about how things look or should look – which is, often, “totally identical”. If you have mass production not by machines, but with a human element in them, there will be differences between the individual items, and that is something we are not used to as much anymore.

An even more tricky aspect of this? We are very much used to most of our daily life things being mass-produced. They are affordable, or cheap, in most cases. Things not mass-produced, but made by hand, can be more expensive, though they are not necessarily that much pricier. Our perception that they will cost more, however, can keep us from even inquiring after a craftsperson about how much a custom-made item would cost. It also narrows our own imagination on what is possible to make. I remember a blacksmith friend telling me about customers coming into their shop to order a fence, asking for a catalogue with the patterns available – and they were astonished, and a felt a little swamped, when they were told that there is no necessity to keep to the samples shown, they could also make up their own pattern ideas.

Things like this, living in the back of our minds, reinforced by our daily life objects, are harder to trace than where the plied-yarns-are-the-only-thing thing comes from. They are, however, just as likely to skew our picture of things, and our perception, which can be rather harmful when trying to reconstruct past industries or societies. Once more, watching one’s own brain think and asking some questions about where a concept comes from is definitely a good thing!

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6 Responses to About Yarns.

  1. Harma says:

    Nalbinding can be done with single yarns without any problems, as long as the twist is in the same direction as one makes the loops (mostly Z), so it doesn’t fall apart.
    I once did a workshop with one person working left-handed. We worked with the same singles yarn, but hers fell apart, ours gained twist.

    • Katrin says:

      It can be done, yes – but the original items that I know off the top of my head all use plied yarns. Tablet weaving can also be done with singles (I have a band to prove it), but in both cases, using plied yarns makes sure the end product will be stable and good quality without adding one extra layer of attention to the process…

  2. Excellent post!

    I have been thinking the same things about why medieval fabric is made of singles for quite a while. Nice to see someone else thinking along the same lines. ^_^

  3. Anna Lindemark says:

    Awesome to see another person’s number crunching! Much appreciated!!

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