What I Know About: Holding yarns together

What I Know About: Holding yarns together

There are some questions I get asked over and over, some of which I have answers for and many of which I do not. So today I’m kicking off a new occasional series called “What I Know About” in which I or someone more knowledgeable than me will respond to your most pressing inquiries. It might be a Q&A, a guest post, who knows — but I’m starting with probably the MOST frequently asked question and my own answer to it: Why are you always knitting with multiple yarns held together?

There are basically three categories of reasons:

The most common reason I personally do it is to get the yarn I want at the gauge I want. For instance, I wanted to knit a cardigan out of the gorgeous heathery black Linen Quill, but it’s light-fingering weight. I neither want to knit at that gauge or want a sweater that thin, so by holding two strands together, I got the weight/gauge I was after. There are dozens of fabulous lace- or fingering-weight yarns I’d never get to knit with if I didn’t double them up. Conversely, there are limited options available at the bulky-superbulky end of the spectrum, so holding yarns together is a great option for knitting at a bulkier gauge without being limited to the available yarns. Such as my linen Sloper in progress, because there’s no such thing as bulky linen. (Possibly with good reason, lol!)

It’s also quite common to hold yarns together in order to blend those fibers into one fabric. (The entire Shibui line is built on this concept.) For example, for my grandmother’s shawl, I held together one strand of Shibui Staccato (70% merino, 30% silk) and one Shibui Linen (100% linen), so the finished fabric is 50% linen, 35% merino, 15% silk. She lives in Texas, but I wanted the shawl to have more soft-cuddliness than 100% linen, so I blended it in this way. And again holding together two strands of fingering weight yarn created a weightier fabric than knitting with either yarn on its own. One really common trick is to hold one strand of something like cobweb-weight Silk Cloud or Kidsilk Haze together with whatever your main yarn is, to give the fabric that soft mohair halo. In addition to making the most astonishing swatch books I’ve ever laid eyes on, Shibui posts a downloadable Mix Cheat Sheet that shows what happens gauge-wise when you hold multiple strands of any one Shibui yarn or combine different ones, which is also a useful guide in general as to how yarns of differing weights might add up. You always have to swatch to know for sure, of course, but that’s a great starting point for getting a sense of gauge.

Likely the first reason I ever held yarns together was to create a marl, and it’s still one of my favorite reasons. Again, there aren’t a ton of marled yarn options in the world, but by holding two (or more) strands together, you can create any combo you want!The yarns you’re mixing may or may not be the same weight or fiber content — you could create a 50/50 marl with two stands of the same yarn in different colors, or something much more creative with varying weights and fibers, so a combination of all of the above motivations and results. And it could be a marl or an ombré or lots of other effects. One of my all-time favorite examples of creative mixes is this Chloé sweater from a few years ago. (The swatch pictured up top is mine from awhile back, playing around with different Shibui yarns — two strands of an ivory, one black with one ivory, one ivory with one grey.)

Another example from my own past that’s a combination of the above is my Bellows cardigan. That pattern is written for two strands of Shelter (i.e. bulky gauge) and could easily be knitted with a single strand of a bulky yarn instead. I knitted mine with two strands of Balance, which served a dual purpose: 1) it got me to the bulky gauge, as the original pattern did and 2) it counteracted the need to alternate skeins when working with that yarn. Because the wool and cotton fibers in Balance take the dyes differently, Balance behaves a lot like a hand-dyed yarn. When working with hand-dyed, it’s important to alternate skeins every row if you want to avoid pooling or an obvious change in the fabric at the point where you joined a new ball. By holding two strands together, you’re literally blending them, thereby canceling out those concerns.

So there are lots of reasons you might hold multiple yarns together, but at the center of it is control and creativity — allowing you to create whatever you want.

For more on some of the things you can do with yarns held together, see: The other breed of colorwork

23 thoughts on “What I Know About: Holding yarns together

  1. I’d like you to make some comments and suggestions about the best ways to manage the two yarns when knitting with two held together. It seems the two strands get all twisted if I don’t take care to arrange them/straighten them for each row. I’ve tried winding them together into a single ball before knitting, but that was a disaster because one strand seemed to grow and form a loop, not keeping pace with the other as I was knitting. Thanks, and I love the blog!! Veronica

    • I personally find it best to pull from separate balls, although I have had both good and not-so-good results winding things together and I know some people have no problem winding things together. I think it really depends on the yarn. So I just keep them separate.

      As far as the strands getting twisted, again I think that is about the yarn. There are some yarns that — when working with a single strand — really want to twist between the work and the ball. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves when I run into one, and thankfully I haven’t often. I’m not sure if it’s a case of there being too much twist in the yarn, or what causes that exactly. But yes, if you are working with a yarn that does that and try to hold two strands together, it can be a bit of a nightmare. That actually happened to me with the Linen Quill (I think it’s the only time I’ve tried to double something twisty like that) and it was very irritating, but I found the fabric to be worth it. It helps to separate the balls — like sit one on either side of you while working — and if you’re working flat, turn the work back and forth, back and forth, instead of continually flipping it in the same direction every time you turn, which will inherently add twist to the yarn.

  2. Thank you Karen!!! I just love creating my own “fabric” too!! I like to add a mohair to a silk blend or a fingerweight wool to add a little stability (lessen the “stretch out factor). Did an Einstein coat using a marled alpaca with a solid alpaca and a strand of Kidlin (one of my favorite yarns). Even with all that garter stitch the coat has maintained its structure – has a nice drape without “sloppiness”.

    I find balling the yarns together by hand, although tedious, made the knitting much more enjoyable. How do you handle the strands?

  3. I can add to the color reason – taming wildness. I bought a crazy paint alpaca years ago. It had multiple shades of green and short passages of blue, red and yellow . . . all of those shades could have come together in a beautiful Liberty floral print fabric. Then I caught on to Ravelry and looked up projects in that yarn – nothing but icky splotchy pooling not-me-ness. However, holding that colorful yarn with a strand of olivey green and a strand of medium brown, I have an almost finished Bellows in tweedy green with flecks (not pools!) of color.

    • Yes, similar to what I was saying about blending. You’ve just got me wondering if one way to deal with the overly flat color of so many yarns (I prefer more of a tweed or heather, so depth of color) might be to blend them with a hand-dyed semi-solid. I’ll have to play with that. I also really like a solid held with a marl, so there’s a lower ratio of the contrasting color, rather than half and half.

  4. My reasons for combining yarns are all of yours plus a need to use up yarns faster. I work with pulled yarns, and because I so often can’t resist buying and frogging a cheap sweater in a fabulous fiber, I have a huge stash! Combining yarns also helps insure I have enough yarn for a project. If two yarns were, say, pulled from small sweaters I can make a larger and/or more detailed one.

    • Yeah, stash-busting is a great point I forgot to mention! So much potential for playing around with variations as you drop one yarn and pick up another …

  5. This is a very timely post! I made a cardigan from a Purl Soho pattern a year ago, one of my first “real sweater” attempts. The yarn is 100% alpaca, so beautiful, and of course you know it grew and grew…now I look like Dopey! So I’m going to frog the whole thing and do it over with another thin strand of something stable. It’s a navy yarn, and I’m thinking about combining it with black.

  6. I would bet that more of my garments are stranded, than not. And you have articulated well the reasons for doing it.

    As you mentioned, the Shibui yarns are a natural for blending, and so are the Habu yarns. Habu Tsumugi, especially, is just a dream to mix with a lace weight wool or alpaca mix. The fabric is gorgeous and all-season, with no pilling whatsoever. And Tsumugi and Shibui Pebble is another favorite mix. In fact, stranding can become a bit addictive. ;-)

  7. Thank you for that post. I’ve recently knit a sweater with two yarns held together and enjoyed it a lot. It got me thinking. As a very tight knitter I am wondering if in the future instead of swatching endlessly to get gauge and sometimes ending up with the correct gauge but a fabric I don’t enjoy I might just add a strand of lace yarn which might help me and will allow me to play with and/or add color.

  8. I used to have a cheat sheet for gauge of knitting with two yarns (ie fingering with sport, two fingering…). I wonder where that is. It wasn’t totally accurate but gave a good place to start.

  9. really great summary, thank you Karen. I just made a shawl with two indie dye yarns of the same “color” held double – same yarn, but the double strand smooths out some of the color variation and made for a beautiful rich fabric. I do find tinking complicated stitches when the yarn is held double to be a bit more challenging, but it’s worth it.

  10. I love knitting with two strands. It started when I fell in love with hand dyed fingering yarns and began using them for hats. I love how two different color strands mixes up the color results. Your suggestions of different yarn types together – oh yeah! A whole new world.
    As for tangling, I try to keep the balls in two different places. I try to remember to turn my project at the end of the row the opposite way I’d normally to avoid the twist. Mostly I stop after a while and unwind the two and try to practice deep breathing… ;)

  11. I’m curious about washing. What happens when you hold two yarns that are different fibers together (e.g., staccato and linen)? Do you get uneven shrinkage? Are there ways to avoid this? It’s the main reason I’ve avoided hold two yarns together to knit.

    • I’ve never run into it (unintentionally) but it would depend entirely on the yarns — you’d just need to swatch and see! I have seen patterns — I think involving Habu paper or something unusual like that — where the differing shrinkage is a key part of the finished fabric, which has a sort of puckered look.

  12. Hi Karen. Your post is very interesting. I often mix yarns, the main reason being that I inherited a lot of thin yarn (for knitting-machine) and to use it I strongly mix it with something. Second: I like experiments. The most difficult combination I’ve knited was cotton and cashmere, different consistency, different elasticity, beautiful appearance. I would like to translate your article for my knitting friends, they do not speak English, can I do it?
    Anna from Italy

  13. Pingback: What I Know About: Dress forms (with Liesl Gibson) | Fringe Association

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