The Realities of Spinning Yarn

When you’re in the business of fiber processing, there are four realities of spinning yarn that directly impact your bottom line. They will have influence over your workshop every day. These realities have a direct connection to the amount of production and therefore profit that you’re company will be able to realize. And most importantly, when they are ignored they can have devastating effects on your business’s long term health.

There are about as many opinions on the topic of how yarns are spun as there are mills. Since the dawn of the “mini-mill” spinning equipment, over 140 mills have gotten into this business. But if you were to ask ten different mills what standards of measurement they base their spinning off of and you’re going to find a wide variety of answers. There are a few terms that will come into play and all of them relate to each other in various ways: WPI, TPI, and YPP.

[The term “grist” fits in there somewhere, but more on that in a later post.]

realities of spinning yarn
This lopi style yarn was spun at Morning Star Fiber. It is 90% merino 64s and 10% tussah silk

Terms Used in Spinning Yarns

WPI stands for wraps per inch. It is the current standard way to measure the diameter of a yarn. But even in this measurement, it can be skewed depending on how tightly you hold the yarn when you’re wrapping it around a ruler or up against a handy yarn gauge. And this tool really isn’t very handy for the mill spinning a single and hoping to determine what its diameter will be when it is three plied, skeined, fulled, and finally relaxed.

Next up is the TPI, or twist per inch. If you want to talk about the REAL variable in various mills spinning this is really where to look. How much twist does a single need? Will just enough twist to hold it together work? Sure. Can it be twisted twice as much? You bet! And obviously it could be anything in between. But what happens to a single when it continues to be twisted? It inevitably gets shorter and denser. As you can imagine that would certainly change its WPI. But it also changes this last acronym we mentioned earlier.

YPP stands for yards per pound. In general, the lower the number of YPP the thicker in diameter the yarn will be. But depending on the TPI placed into the single and also into the plying of various numbers of strands that diameter will vary – sometimes significantly!

Each of these measurements has a dynamic and inter-related impact on the construction of the yarn. While spinning yarn can be a profitable free-spirited art and is growing in popularity, spinning traditional yarns as your business typically has to be an objectively measured science. But regardless, both of these disciplines will face the same four realities in the marketplace.

These Realities in the Marketplace

Here’s where it really gets a little tricky. In the marketplace, your typical artisan/crafter is going to be more concerned with design, diameter, and then density. Your business needs clarity in each of these areas when it comes to constructing your yarns. While it’s easy to understand the concern for design and diameter, density is important to them as well. No one wants to knit or crochet a 15-pound sweater for their loved one’s Christmas present.

Although we should take note that Forbes just recently published an article about weighted blankets and how they have made a significant impact on market share in recent years. So maybe there is a place for that weighted sweater.]

Design, Diameter, and Density explained…

The design of the yarn (color(s), texture, pattern, uniqueness) will give the buyer that initial inspiration to pick it up and buy the yarn and even fuel their desire to work with it. But it’s the diameter of the yarn where the rubber meets the road – or maybe where the fiber meets the finger. The gauge of the yarn has a direct correlation to the pattern they are using, and the size needle they will be using with it. Even a small 5% difference in diameter will have an impact on the stitch definition and the overall size and fit of the piece they are working on!

While the designer art yarn craze is certainly winning the day in terms of distinctness in the marketplace they are struggling when it comes to pattern support and uses for the yarn. These products tend to gravitate to artists more than crafters or hobbyist. It’s almost as if the yarn creates almost too much excitement for those who become anxious about what they would actually make with it.

Indirectly, the marketplace is also influenced in another way. Diameter and density can team up to create loftiness in a yarn, which allows the yarn to contain air pockets that will act as a natural insulator keeping your skin much cooler or much warmer than the outside air temperature – at least for a time. The converse is also, as they can team up to create very thin densely spun yarns that when woven tightly can act as wind breakers and greatly slow the saturation of liquids into the fabric. While most people are thinking of these qualities when they pick up a yarn off the shelf, there is a growing tribe of people who have this discerning taste.

These Realities in the Mill

When you’re spinning yarns in the mill you have to understand the dynamics between all three measurements and how they interact with each other. The TPI (twist per inch) will dramatically affect your WPI (wraps per inch) as well as your YPP (yard per pound). Or another way to state it would be to say it will affect your diameter and your density. If you only twist your fibers enough to hold them together they will be very soft and lofty but will have a tendency to pill and degrade quickly over time. The more twist we place into the singles the more it will take away from the loft but it will also decrease its tendency to pill and degrade. Up to a certain point, more twist will also help increase the tensile strength of a yarn, which is sometimes desirable.

So let’s get down into the weeds on this for a spell. The reality is that some mills can make yarns that are 1000 yards per pound and 8 wraps per inch, while others will choose to make the same YPP yarn and it only is 14 wraps per inch. While much of that can be attributed to the characteristics of the fibers being worked with, the spinning metrics will also have a significant impact. And which way is right? Ultimately that invisible hand in the market decides.

Freedom, Independence, and Choice…

I believe that each mill should have the ability to decide for themselves their spinning practices. Ultimately the marketplace will determine which of those mills will stay in business. But it’s important to note that each mill has the ability to decide what kind of yarn they want to make. It’s also important to add that these same mills will have to make their decision based on the fiber characteristics they are working with and the equipment at your disposal. It’s been said that you “can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. But it’s also true that it’s impossible for that same sow to give birth to asparagus in prepackaged bunches ready for market.

Four distinct realities engaged every day

Regardless of freedom, independence, and choice, anyone who is engaged in the business of creating yarn from scratch for sale will deal with the following realities every day.

  • personal preference in terms of how it feels and how it looks and feels
  • economic incentive of what it costs to make it.
  • profitability scope of what is possible in the market.
  • physical limitations of the fiber and the equipment.

Personal Preference

In the first reality of personal preference, we make these yarns so they can be sold and personal preferences of the owner are important when they are standing behind the counter representing the product. They want the yarn to be the kind of quality that they can promote with confidence. When looking at it from this vantage point there is a lot of discussion about the fiber type that is going to be used because of the desired preferences chosen.

Economic Incentive

In the second reality of economic incentive, mills have to make money at the work we do and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discover that one pound of fiber squeezed into 500 yards can be made in a 1/8 of the time that a pound of fiber that is stretched out over 4000 yards. You can imagine the incentive when you know there is a way to make 8x more product and only be paid slightly less per pound.

Mathy math alert!

[In case it isn’t apparent to those who aren’t as “mathy”, a single mini-mill could easily spin 32 pounds of yarn a day at 500 ypp. If they designed a system to do that consistently 250 days out of the year, at $24/pound they would easily make $175k in annual revenue. Then compare that up against the other reality that they could only make 4 pounds of 4000 ypp ultra lace weight even if they got paid 2x as much to do so would only bring in $48k annually. There are massive economic incentives for making yarns with lower YPPs]

Profitability Scope

In the third reality of the profitability scope, we make yarns that the market wants to buy. And those who are good salesmen are constantly searching the market to find those niches that have the greatest ROI. This means that the mill, who is capable of making 32 pounds per day of a yarn that is 500 YPP, may not find enough market demand to fill up their total capacity. This will cause that mill to explore other, potentially less profitable, yarn product lines.

Physical Limitations

In the fourth reality of the physical limitations in the fiber and the equipment, we need to make what the fiber wants to be and the machine wants to do most naturally. Everything else will only increase the level of difficulty and drive up costs. What’s most important in this reality is to know what you’re equipment does best and naturally and curate your product offering accordingly. Second, is to know what the fiber will want to do naturally prior to ever starting it in the process to design the necessary steps accordingly.

My dad is a big Clint Eastwood fan. I often heard him say, “A man’s got to know his limitations”, so I think this will be the end of the post.

If you’d like to talk about the realities of spinning yarns in your mill and how we might be able to help you don’t hesitate to drop us a line.

1 thought on “The Realities of Spinning Yarn

  1. […] week we began this three part series on the realities of spinning yarn. In that post we started off by defining terms: TPI, WPI, and YPP. By the end we had highlighted four realities […]

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