To Split or Not to Split…

This post is a result of discussions I have had with several people in the recent past on this topic. The intent of this post to clarify some misconceptions about whether to split top or not. Actually, this post has been ruminating in my brain for quite a while now.  While I was cleaning up my hard disk, I came across notes for this post dated back in July 2007! I’ve decided that it’s time to sit down and just finish it.

Poor Judith*, and any other spinning instructor who has the misfortune of teaching to someone who worships at the foot of Judith. Why? Judith has got to be one the most often misquoted or quoted out of context instructors out there. You can spot newly minted Judith disciple by how often they utter “Judith says…” I know. I’ve been there. There are many evidences of it here in this blog if you care to search the archives. :)

I’ve often sat in on spinning classes where well known and respected spinning instructors will split a top lengthwise, and immediately give the class a long stare and state, “I know what Judith says, and here, she and I disagree,” before any of the Judith disciples gasp and faint dead away from seeing someone split the top in preparation for spinning.

Let’s backup a bit. You will often hear Judith say “Don’t split your top.”  (Often followed by “You may if you wish.”) And this is repeated often and vociferously by her disciples. And that statement has gone viral to the point that most people miss the original point.  I hope to clarify that with this post.

First, let’s get some terminology out of the way.

Top: This is fiber that has been combed so that all the fiber are in perfect alignment with each other.  Not only are all the fiber aligned, they are also of the same length.  Combs will remove all impurities, weak and fibers behind on the combs. Top can be commercially prepared or prepared by hand using hand combs.

Batt: This is fiber that has been carded and pulled off of the carding machine in a large rectangular batt.

Roving: This is fiber that has been pulled off of the carding machine into a long rope like strand. You can create rovings from batts or directly off of the carder through a diz.

Abby has a great in depth discussion on the different fiber preparation.

Worsted: This is yarn that has been spun in which all the fibers are in alignment with each other.  Worsted yarn, typically, are smoother and has more sheen because all the fibers are going in the same direction.  So, you want to use worsted yarn when you want showcase fabric texture.  Worsted yarn tend to be more dense,  shed water better, and resist wind more than woolen yarn. True worsted yarns can only be spun from combed top.

Woolen: This is yarn that has been spun in which the fibers are laying in all different direction.  Because woolen yarn consists of fiber laying every which way, there is a softer appearance that doesn’t show stitch definition as well as worsted.  Woolen yarn are used when loft is important.  Woolen spun yarn has a lot of air trapped in the strands, because the fiber is going in all different direction.  This makes woolen yarn warmer and lighter than worsted yarn.  Typically, carded fiber is used to spin woolen yarn, but top can also be used.

“Top can also be used.” Remember that statement. That’s the most important statement to keep in mind when you are talking about whether to split the top or not.

But let’s start with the question, what do you want your yarn to be? A worsted or a woolen yarn? For a true worsted yarn, you need to start with fiber preparation where the fiber is already aligned. The top. For woolen, you want a fiber preparation where the yarn is already in disarray. If it’s not, in the case of top, you want to take the fiber out of alignment before you spin.  (I’ll save semi-worsted and semi-woolen for a separate discussion.)

Now, back to Judith.  Judith says that you should never split a top to make it thinner and easier to spin. Let’s take that statement apart and examine it. What happens when you split a top lengthwise? At the point of separation, fibers on either side of the separation continue to cling to each other until they finally pull away from each other.  At this point, all the fibers at the edges are out of alignment. You no longer have perfectly aligned fibers nor can you spin a true worsted yarn from this fiber.  You can use a worsted spinning method (e.g. inch worm), but you still won’t have true worsted yarn. This also only applies to top, not roving, because the fiber in the roving is already out of alignment.

But is the “do not split” a hard and fast rule? Even Judith will say “no.” If a top has been dyed, the fiber has already started to move out of alignment in the water bath.  So, once the top has been dyed, you can no longer spin a true worsted yarn from the preparation. Now, the split rule no longer applies.  In fact, splitting may be desirable.  I almost always split dyed top.  Why? Some felting may have occurred during the dyeing or washing process. By splitting the top, you have the opportunity to open up the fiber and make it easier to draft.

I’ve already hinted at another exception to the split rule. If your intent is to create a woolen yarn, by all means, split it.  Splitting alone, even with a long draw, won’t allow you to create a lofty woolen yarn.  You will need to either re-card the fiber or spin from the fold.  They will help introduce pockets of air into the yarn.

What about top that has been compacted either in shipping or while stored in your stash? I find that a good shake along the length of the top will loosen it up again for spinning.

The bottom line on whether you split a top for spinning or not depends on what you want to spin.  Is your intention to spin a true worsted yarn? If so, then don’t split the top. The “never” part of the statement “never split a top” applies only if your intent is to create a true worsted yarn. If you don’t care about a true worsted yarn, then, by all means, do whatever makes it easier for you to spin.

What if you want color in your worsted yarn? You have two choices.  You can spin the yarn au naturel, and then put the finished yarn in the dye pot.  Or, you can dye the fleece and then combed the dyed fleece into top for spinning.  There are lots of exciting reasons for doing it either way. But that’s another discussion.

* I love Judith. I worship Judith. I will gladly drop everything to take a class from Judith. Since I’ve started to spin, I have spent several hundreds of hours in classrooms with Judith, learning everything from dyeing, spinning, plying, and weaving. As many would say, I would even take a class on how to boil water from Judith. I’m sure to learn something new.

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