Woolen Spun Yarn
On the left, a woolen yarn spun from hand-carded rolags. On the right, a worsted yarn spun from combed top. Both skeins are 100% Bluefaced Leicester wool. Note how the way they are spun (woolen or worsted) makes a huge difference in the texture of the yarn. The woolen spun skein is fuzzier and you can hardly see the 2-plies. The worsted spun skein is more plump, smooth, and you can clearly see the 2-plies. The skein on the left weighs 2 ounces, the skein on the right weighs 3.5 ounces.
Worsted Spun Yarn
Often when I list a yarn that is spun "woolen" style, I am questioned why I am listing it as a full size skein, when it isn't the "normal size" of 3.5 ounces/100 grams. My woolen spun skeins are often right around 2 ounces in weight, so folks may think they are getting less yarn when really they are not! It is just spun a different way and is a different kind of yarn than they may be used to.
I just want to put it out there that there are two main categories of yarn spinning which will make a world of difference in the weight of a skein of yarn. These two categories are 'Worsted' and 'Woolen' and are defined by the preparation that goes into the fiber before spinning. Hopefully by reading this blog post I can help inform the knitter/crocheter/yarn crafter what to look for when buying a skein of handspun yarn in regards to the way it was spun and why not all skeins are 3.5 oz/100 grams but are still a full-size skein.
Now the lesser known of the two, woolen spun yarn. For yarn to be spun "woolen" style, it is spun from fibers that are carded (worsted = combed, woolen = carded). Carded fibers are prepared as either rolags or batts. Rolags are small, thin rolls of fiber generally prepared on hand-carders (though they can also be made on a drum carder or blending board). Batts are made on a drum carder and are basically a larger version of rolags where all the fiber is in one "batt".
The main difference with carded fibers as opposed to combed fibers is that the fibers are not aligned, they go all sorts of directions. When spinning woolen style, the fibers are facing away from you and you are basically spinning the fibers sideways. This creates a fuzzy yarn with fibers sticking out, which makes your stitches less defined. Air is trapped with the fibers to create a less dense, lightweight and loftier sort of yarn. A skein of woolen spun yarn will generally weigh less than a skein of worsted spun yarn since the fibers are not packed as close together.
When I am spinning, I generally spin until I fill up my bobbin to the max. With worsted-spun yarn, I can usually fit around 3-4 ounces of fiber. With woolen-spun yarn the skein will usually weigh around 2-2.5 ounces when it fills up the bobbin. I want to emphasize that this does not necessarily mean you are getting less yarn, these two skeins could have the exact same yardage and be the same weight (in thickness - fingering, sport, bulky, etc.) yet the total weight (in ounces) of the fiber will be completely different. This is because worsted yarn is more dense, woolen yarn is more lofty.
Here is a great little video further explaining carding and combing: https://youtu.be/3U3fWNJLVyw
Some more examples of woolen-spun yarns and the fibers used to spin them:
First off, we have worsted spun yarn, which is probably the type of yarn you are most familiar with as it is a much more commonly spun yarn and is the style most commercial yarns are spun (which are usually the "normal" 3.5oz/100g and the cause of confusion for skeins of the other spinning style). Note that "Worsted Spun" is not to be confused with "Worsted Weight" - that's a whole different story which I won't be going into today, but worsted weight is in regards to the actual thickness of the yarn (other weights would be sock/fingering, sport, DK, Aran, Bulky, etc.) and says nothing about the actual preparation of how the fiber was spun.
Worsted yarns are generally spun from combed top. Combed top is a fiber preparation where the fibers are aligned and when it is spun the fibers will be pointing towards your spinning wheel. There is hand-combed top and there is commercially combed top. These are essentially the same thing, but commercially combed top will be the more "perfect" of the two, with the fibers completely aligned and most of the air between the fibers being eliminated.
Here is a nice little video I found on YouTube that describes hand-combing very well, and may help with your understanding of the combing process to make combed top: https://youtu.be/bGbhEuqyTGo
When spinning worsted, the main attribute is that the fibers will be aligned and when it is being fed into the spinning wheel, the fibers will be pointing from your hand to the spinning wheel. This creates a dense, smooth yarn that is hard-wearing with defined stitches.
For the spinners out there who would like a demonstration on spinning worsted, here's a nice little video I found on YouTube which demonstrates it well: https://youtu.be/1-njYxfsk98
Some more examples of worsted-spun yarn, and fibers used to create worsted-spun yarns:
Worsted or woolen? Which is better?
The answer is both! Both yarns have their own pros and cons; projects they shine in, and others they may not. Many people have a preference to which type of yarn they like better. Personally, my favorite is woolen since it is the most fun for me to spin, and I just loooove the loftiness and fuzziness of it. But I do still love worsted spun yarns for their stitch definition and for projects that will take a bit of wear such as socks and mitts. It all depends on what qualities you are looking for in your yarn for what you are making!
Here are some general ideas of projects more suited to each type of yarn (but don't let this list restrict you, like I said it is all a matter of personal preference and really there are no rules)
Worsted spun yarns make wonderful socks, mittens, gloves, household textiles, cabled sweaters, knitted cables in general, hats, scarves, cowls, amigurumi, and really just about anything else. Worsted yarn is a very versatile yarn with positive qualities of great stitch definition and withstands wear better. The only downfall can be if you are using a lot of yarn for a project that will be worn, it can get quite heavy. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you are making and your own preference.
Woolen spun yarns make amazing shawls, shrugs, hats, fuzzy sweaters, lace knitting, ruffles, leg warmers, and anything else that you would like a lighter weight fabric with a bit of fuzziness and an elegant drape. Woolen yarn has the positive qualities of being light weight with a beautiful drape and soothing texture. Downfall can be when using it with items that take a bit of wear, such as socks, you will see the yarn wear out much more quickly. This type of yarn will also have more pilling and shedding than worsted spun yarn.
I hope this article helped you understand more about how yarn is spun so you can be better informed when purchasing handspun yarn online, or if you are learning to spin maybe this has helped you understand different fiber preparations and the instances when you may choose one over the other.
If anything in this article is unclear or you have further questions, feel free to comment below and I'll be happy to help!
Serene Fiber Arts
Amanda J. French
Fiber artist from Louisville, KY. Professionally, I spend my days spinning one of a kind yarns from wool and recycled fibers, and weaving with them. Other hobbies include; yoga, fitness, painting, studying languages, and knitting.