Have you ever wondered why your plain-weave fabric sometimes takes on the illusion of a multishaft twill? It’s quite the phenomenon, isn’t it? I usually find this happens after it comes out of the washer and dryer. It goes into the wash as a typical piece of plain-weave fabric and comes out of the dryer as a plain-weave cloth with very noticeable diagonal lines resembling twill. These lines are called tracking.
I was talking a while back with Handwoven’s associate editor, Christina Garton, about this not-so-unusual condition. I have always attributed tracking to the amount of excess twist in the thread. I find it almost always happens when I am weaving natural-colored cotton toweling. If I have woven stripes or a check towel, I never seem to notice it. Maybe it’s because there is a pattern that creates a distraction, or perhaps it’s from combining threads from different spools of cotton. It really is something to ponder.
In my time, I have woven yards and yards of toweling. I have used 8/2 and 10/2 cotton from different sources, and I can’t tell you which thread is going to cause tracking and which one isn’t. My hunch is that a thread with more twist is more likely to track than one with a softer twist.
I am always amazed at how the universe seems to work. Within just a few days after that conversation with Christina, some interesting information about yarn twist dropped into my lap. My friend Julia showed me an article written by Elena Phipps titled “Woven Brilliance: Approaching Color in Andean Textile Traditions” (see Resources). Phipps shows photos of plain-weave tunics and mantles that have the appearance of twill. Julia and I had discussed this subject before: How could a plain-weave fabric take on the look of a herringbone twill? I had seen these fabrics before when the Textile Museum in Washington put on an exhibit of early Peruvian textiles. The guards allowed me to “nose up” close enough to see that it was actually woven as plain weave, though it had the appearance of twill. Elena Phipps clearly explains in her article that this phenomenon happens because of alternating groups of Z-twist and S-twist threads in the warp. The weavers sett the warp threads closely to weave a warp-faced textile. This makes perfect sense because these fabrics were woven hundreds of years ago on backstrap looms as opposed to the four-shaft looms we typically associate with weaving twill.
If you are unfamiliar with the terms Z-spun and S-spun, they describe the directional angle of twist in a thread. The threads that you and I buy are commercially spun as a single thread with Z-twist and plied in the opposite direction with S-twist. These are often two-ply threads, but they can have more plies. To see for yourself, take a piece of yarn and pinch it between your index finger and thumb on both hands and place some tension on the thread. Hold it so that it’s in a vertical direction. Now look at the angle of the twist in the thread. Can you see that the angle of the twist resembles the downward stroke in the letter S? If you were to untwist the yarn and look closely at the single strands that make up that thread you would see that each single thread has a Z-twist. Cool, right? Who knew? Well, spinners do. We are taught about Z- and S-twist in the first lesson of a spinning class because it’s a very important part of yarn construction.
All right, universe, I am listening. Those conversations with Christina and Julia got my attention, and I couldn’t shake it off as coincidence and let it go. The seed had been planted, and I just had to weave some samples to see how it worked. But how? You can’t just go to your favorite yarn shop and ask to buy a cone of Z-spun and a cone of S-spun threads.
It didn’t take but a second to realize that to carry out my experiment, I needed to spin my warp threads myself. I chose to spin my yarns from a soft, luxurious-feeling Bluefaced Leicester wool. Because my sample might as well be useful, I decided to weave a scarf.
I began by spinning two bobbins with Z-spun singles and plied them with S-twist. I then spun two bobbins with S-spun singles and plied them with Z-twist. When I finished spinning the yarns, I labeled them carefully so as not to mix them up. I then followed in the tradition of my Peruvian weaver friends by alternating eight strands of Z-plied thread with eight strands of S-plied thread in a warp. Because both yarns were off-white in color, I kept them in order by twining a marking thread at the end peg of my warping board. After sleying the reed to a warp-emphasis sett, I threaded a simple four-shaft straight draw. After all, I only needed to weave a simple plain-weave fabric. I used a neutral-colored 18/2 merino wool from Jagger Spun for my weft at 10 picks per inch to allow for a nice drape. After only a few inches, I could see the herringbone pattern develop. It worked as I had hoped, but the pattern became even more noticeable after I wet-finished the scarf.
In my mind, I couldn’t leave the fringed ends plain. After all, this is an exercise in twist. I had to finish with a twisted fringe. If the fringe threads had a Z-twist, I attached the fringe twister to those particular ends and added more twist in the Z direction. I then allowed them to twist back on themselves in the S direction. I did the same with the S-twist threads. I attached the fringe twister to these ends and built up more twist in the S direction and then let them twist back in the Z direction. When the finishing was completed, I have to say that I was very happy with what I learned from this exercise.
As if those previously mentioned coincidences weren’t enough, a third related “twist” encounter appeared right before my nose. I was going through my library and randomly pulled a book off the shelf. The book’s title was intriguing: In Celebration of the Curious Mind. It was written to recognize the lifework of fiber artist and scholar Anne Blinks. Anne had the ability to take a textile with a complex structure and decipher how it was woven. Each chapter in the book was written by a friend or colleague as a sort of memoir, discussing how they knew Anne and her amazing mind. One section is about using highly twisted and energized thread to create textiles that collapse on purpose. These threads play an important part in textiles that you want to naturally pleat and buckle.
This little portion of the book helped to solidify in my mind how important the twist in a thread can be in weaving. Never, in all my years of spinning and weaving, had I taken the time to contemplate the importance of twist so intensely. It just goes to show that after 40-plus years of weaving, this old dog of a weaver can still learn something new, and I’m excited to do so.
Stay curious and happy weaving to you all.
- Phipps, Elena. “Woven Brilliance: Approaching Color in Andean Textile Traditions.” Textile Museum Journal 47 (2020): 28–53.
- Rogers, Nora, and Martha Stanley, eds. In Celebration of the Curious Mind: A Festschrift to Honor Anne Blinks on Her 80th Birthday. Loveland, CO: Interweave, 1983.