Does the ball winder add twist to my yarn?

By Amelia
To start the experiment

I had always assumed that twist was added, or taken away (depending on the input yarn) when you wound a ball on the ball winder. So, when another raveler asked me about that, I almost flippantly replied "yes". But then I thought, I ought to see which direction the twist is in.

And the best way to "see" twist is to use a flat ribbon -- Patsy Zawistoski uses this to graphically demonstrate why you roll the yarn onto the wraps-per-inch tool rather than winding it around it, in her video Spinning Wool: Basics and Beyond.

So, I hooked up a roll of ribbon to my ballwinder, and ...
There's no twist in those wraps! The ribbon is twisted through half a revolution from the bobbin it is on to where it reaches the ball winder, but there, there's no twist put in. You could have knocked me over with a feather!

Okay, so let's think about this. Why do so many teachers say the ball winder will affect the twist? Because it can. And no, I'm not contradicting myself.

Notice how I have the spool of ribbon on my Lazy Kate? I'm feeding the ribbon off the side of the spool, "side feed". This is crucial -- side feed ensures the ribbon comes off the spool without adding twist. Ditto our spinning wheel bobbins -- if you pull the yarn off the side, letting the bobbin rotate freely, you pull it off without adding twist.

But looks what happens when I pull the center of the ball of ribbon straight up:

There it is -- TWIST! It was as if a lightbulb was turned on -- I knew this -- the end-feed effect (is that what it's always called? I've no idea, I do this by the seat of my pants) -- when you pull the yarn up off the end, rather than from the side, you add twist -- one complete twist for each round of yarn you pull off (so it varies as the diameter of the ball changes, in terms of twist per length...).

What does this mean? If you wind a center-pull ball to ply from, consider that when you ply from it, if you ply from an end (or both ends -- we all do it, come on, admit it... ok, I do it, even if you don't!) you're adding twist to the yarn. Which direction? In my case, I wound the ball clockwise, and the strand is getting S twist (counterclockwise) as I pull it up from the center of the ball.

That means, if I'm plying from two center-pull balls, I'm taking twist out of my singles before I ply them (oops...) ... so if I am matching up to a sample from my singles, my yarn is going to end up slightly overplied. Honestly, the amount of twist removed isn't much -- but it's going to decrease over the length of the single, as the diameter of the core of the ball increases, so my wanna-be-perfect yarn is going to be that much less than perfectly consistent.

If I wind a skein into a center-pull ball and then re-wind it to loosen the ball, feeding from the center of the first ball, I'm changing the amount of twist in the yarn. Oops.

So if you wind into a center-pull ball, what can you do to avoid this extra twist? Push the ball from the ballwinder onto a sturdy core -- a TP tube, a paper towel core, or even some lengths of PVC pipe. Nancy's Knit Knacks sells a really tough cardboard core made for this, which has the benefit of fitting to the top of the Royal ball winder (like mine) and letting you slide the ball right onto it. Once you have it mounted, put that on your lazy kate and feed off the side, letting the ball rotate freely, so twist isn't put into the yarn as it's pulled from the ball.

There you go. Now, we both know :-)

posted 31 March 2009 at


Emma M. said...

But, I'm a knitter, and . . . I can't stick a lazy kate in my purse! (Although, now that I've said so, I'm sure somebody will comment about somebody on Etsy who sells a purse-sized lazy kate.)

. . . so, this would mean that we're ALSO changing the twist of any commercial yarns we use too, right? So, maybe that twist change is just kind of . . . part of the knitting process? Especially since knitting itself changes the twist . . .

GAH. When did this hobby get so complicated?

Sarah said...

How very, very interesting!

Peg in South Carolina said...

Wow! Fortunately, both my cone winder and my ball winder have guides that force the yarn to enter from the side........

Holly said...

Just to note, if you ply from both ends of a center-pull ball, one end will add twist while the other subtracts, since each end is effectively wrapped in a different direction.

The rate won't be the same, since the outside portion will unwind at a slower rate relative to the inside.

Joanne said...

Thanks for the facts. Is there a bigger picture that I am missing? I have not really noticed a negative effect or impact from yarn wound on a ball winder in either my homespun or commercial yarn. What would one look for if there is?

Anonymous said...

I love your scientific explorations of fiber craft. Great post!


Amelia of Ask The Bellwether said...

Thanks all for your feedback ... JoAnne really hit the nail on the head, I'd say to her, Emma, and everyone else: Does this really matter? Only for those who deal in absolutes and absolute perfection. You won't notice it in 'everyday' spinning or knitting, the effect is too small. But it is there -- so if you are spinning or knitting something to last generations, it may be something to consider. I'm lucky -- most of my handspun, handknit items are for my children, which means the hat or mittens will be lost before it is outgrown or worn out (grin).

For Holly -- what I see when plying from a center pull ball, is the outer strand wrapping around the inner one, so I stick the ball on my thumb and use my fingers like a "yarn bra" to control that outer strand's flow. You're right, the amount of twist going in each end as it pulls off, differs.

For Peg -- yep, mine too; but consider this -- boat shuttles are side-feed delivery of yarn, while pirns are end-feed delivery of yarn. Yep, you're putting twist into the yarn when you use an end-feed shuttle. But this ties back to Joanne's comment: we've been weaving this way for centuries, so does it really make a difference? Apparently, not. Weave on!

Anonymous said...

Whoa, what a helpful post! I've also wondered about the end-feed shuttles, althogh I don't have any idea how it affects the final weaving.

Christy said...

OMG! I never realized!
Thank you so much for this info!

Tallguy said...

The question asked was "Does it make a difference?"
As someone said, plying from both ends of a ball DOES make a difference, and it shows to the skilled spinner. They are judged accordingly at spinning competitions.
If you were to take yarn off the ball in one direction and then the next ball in the other direction, that slight difference in twist may be enough in some yarns to show in your finished knitting. We all know what happens to our knitting when there is too much twist in the yarn. And if there is not enough twist, it will "split".
Does it matter which way you take the yarn off a ball? Most times, maybe not. But when you are having problems with a yarn, when the knitting doesn't look quite right, consider that it may be because of YOU and not how it was manufactured!