Worsted, Worsted, Worsted....Worsted?

Worsted has many meanings, and I was surprised by a few!

Susan E. Horton Jun 28, 2023 - 4 min read

Worsted, Worsted, Worsted....Worsted? Primary Image

Weave Shed. By unknown author or not provided—U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain

Rarely do my professional and weaving life intersect with my everyday life, with perhaps the sadly common need to explain the difference between weaving and knitting to nonfiber people. (“See your jeans, that is weaving, a twill to be exact. See your T-shirt? That is knit.”) One time I got to recite the legend of the Chinese empress discovering silk when a silkworm cocoon unspooled in her teacup, but really the instances are rare enough that I remember them.

Here is one that surprised me. We had a few couples for dinner one night. Two of the couples had lived for extended periods of time overseas, and they were talking about having clothes made for them out of “worsted.” As a knitter and weaver, I was perplexed. Worsted was already a little confusing as a word; for knitting and weaving it meant a medium-sized yarn that I might use to knit a sweater or hat or even put on my loom for a blanket or shawl. On the other hand, I knew it also referred to a type of yarn in which the wool fibers are long, smooth, and parallel. The opposite, so to speak, of a worsted yarn is a woolen yarn which basically means shorter fibers and fibers that aren’t so straight.

I'm pretty sure my friends weren't wearing dresses as fancy as this deep purple worsted wool dress circa 1892. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis

When we talked about it further, I realized that our friends were referring to a very thin wool fabric. They said the worsted fabric was so thin that although it was wool, it could be used for men’s summer suits. After that night, I looked it up and learned that one of the definitions of worsted is indeed a thin wool fabric. The fabric is woven using thin worsted-style wool and is usually twill or plain weave. For summer-weight worsted, also called tropical-weight, the fabric is woven loosely so that air can pass through it. Its name comes from the town in England where it was originally woven in the Middle Ages, Worstead.

Although clearly not the blue pair Mary Queen of Scots was sporting on the scaffold, these are a great example of worsted stockings! This file was contributed to Wikimedia Commons by Conner Prairie, Indiana’s Living History Museum, as part of a cooperation project. The donation was facilitated by the Digital Public Library of America, via its partner Indiana Memory.

I shared all of this at a team meeting and was again surprised when Kate Larson, the editor of Spin Off, told the group yet another definition of worsted. According to Kate, "worset" or worsted stockings were once considered a sign of wealth and worn by folks as a fashion statement. She shared a page with me from Textile History and Economic History: Essays in Honour of Miss Julia de Lacy Mann. In the chapter titled “The Fantastical Folly of Fashion” that Kate was remembering, there is a description of Mary Queen of Scots wearing blue worsted stockings on the scaffold.

So there you go, a yarn size, a yarn type, a woven fabric, and fine knitted socks that even royalty wanted to wear... not to mention the name of a town. It may seem a little confusing, but it makes for a good story ... should the term worsted ever come up in your everyday life.

Weave well,