Cable ply yarn

Cable ply yarn DEFAULT

Begin by spinning your singles as you normally would for a smooth, two-ply yarn, and then allow the twist to set overnight. (I’m using light and dark strands here to make the process easier to see in photos.) Then ply the two singles in the opposite direction, making sure to add plenty of twist.

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You are actually aiming for an overplied—not a balanced—yarn. You can test whether your plied yarn has sufficient twist energy to create a balanced cable by hanging your orifice hook over a section and letting the two-ply twist back on itself (this is the same trick you use to test the twist in singles).

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Alternately, you can follow Judith MacKenzie’s recommendation and make a balanced two-ply from your original singles and then run it through your wheel again, adding additional twist in the same direction to make sure you have enough twist.

Your two-ply yarn will have an overabundance of twist energy, so you may find that you need to secure the ends with a bit of tape.

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Once you have two bobbins of overplied yarn, don’t allow the twist to set: go ahead and cable your yarn right away so you can evaluate the twist energy in the final yarn. This time, your goal is a beautifully balanced yarn. You want to create your cable by plying in same direction that you used to create your original singles. For example, if I spun my singles S-twist (counterclockwise), I’d spin my two-plies with a Z-twist (clockwise), and then cable the two two-plies together with an S-twist again.

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Test your yarn occasionally as you work by allowing it to hang down without tension to be sure that the cabled yarn is not over- or undertwisted.

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You can get fancy and cable more than two two-ply yarns together; you can even cable two or more Navajo-plied yarns together.

How does cabled yarn behave when you knit it up? As with plump, multi-ply yarns, cabled yarns give you great stitch definition—stockinette is nice and smooth and cables really stand out. But cabled yarns can be heavier and denser than other yarns with similar diameters, so sample before you decide to spin a thousand yards for an elaborate Aran sweater. You might find that you want to plan a finished yarn that will knit up at a finer gauge to compensate for the extra weight.

Knitters should also be aware that their knitting style—Continental or English/American—will also have an effect on the fabric they create with a cabled yarn. Judith MacKenzie, in The Intentional Spinner, notes that cabled yarns in which the singles are spun with an S-twist will loosen when knit Continental style; the same thing will happen when a cabled yarn with Z-twist singles is knit in the English style. This may or may not bother you. As always, sampling before spending lots of time at the wheel is the best way to avoid unpleasant surprises later.

Judith MacKenzie (in The Intentional Spinner and in Spin-Off, Spring 2008) and Amy King (in Spin Control) both offer excellent instructions for creating cabled yarns and experimenting with their many variations. If you’re a spindler, check out Abby Franquemont’s Respect the Spindle for complete info on making cabled yarns with only a handspindle.

I definitely recommend giving cabled yarns a try. It’s true that creating a cabled yarn is time consuming, but I find that because the building blocks of this yarn type are so simple, I can spin along on autopilot for much of the time, making the work relaxing and meditative. And knowing that the resulting yarn is durable enough to pass on to the next generation makes it feel like time well spent.


Theory Thursday: Ply Counts and Cables

Q: I read somewhere that you should use 2-ply yarns for lace, and 3- and 4-ply (or higher ply) yarns for cables. Is that true? Why?

So, as usual, there’s a long and a short answer to this question. The first answer is: no! Of course not. You, fearless knitter, should use whatever yarn you like for whatever you want to use it for. The second answer, like so many things in knitting, is, “sort of.”

The origin of the “ply rule” is this (approximately): a strand of yarn is made up of plies. A given strand of yarn may have almost any number of “plies” (strands of spun fiber that are lighter in weight and smaller in diameter than the final yarn), but for the most part, between one and twelve. Usually these plies are twisted together in one of the final steps in yarn production, and typically the plies are twisted in the same direction as the individual plies are spun (there are more exotic production methods than this, but we’ll cover those on another day).

Plies provide structure. If you’ve ever knit with a single ply yarn, like Malabrigo Worsted, or Madelinetosh Merino Light, or Brooklyn Tweed’s Quarry, or Quince’s Puffin, you know they don’t have much structure. Lots of softness, lots of drape, lots of flexibility, but not a lot of heft or dimensionality. Adding plies adds structure and energy to the yarn, and helps it hold together. Move to a two-ply yarn and it’s still somewhat vulnerable, but it breaks less, and it has a little more resistance when you go to pull it out of a center pull ball. Your stitches stand a little prouder and are easier to “read” in your knitting. Move to a three-ply, and suddenly the yarn feels round instead of ovoid, and your stitches are clearer and more defined still. The effect continues as the ply count increases, particularly if you use a yarn with a lot of twist. Ever knit with Magpie’s Domestic Worsted? It’s a 4 ply yarn spun super tightly, and it basically jumps out of the ball when you go to knit with it. It also produces cables that are approximately 8 miles high off the background fabric (that’s a scientific measurement, I promise). These two things are linked.

Two-ply yarns, which are more oval than round, tend to flatten out when you block them, and the stitches tend to roll away from each other. This makes them wonderful for lace, where you’re trying to get big open holes where your yarn-overs were that are easy to read, and for times when you want the overall texture of your knitting to kind of blur (this is doubly true of tweedy two-plies, like Harrisville’s Flywheel and Watershed). Three- and four- (and more!) ply yarns have the opposite effect: the round structure of the yarn tends to make the stitches lean into each other. This is lousy for lace, as it tends to make your yarn over “holes” shrink, making your lace pattern harder to read, particularly from a distance.

For cables, the effect runs the other way. Two-ply yarns tend to flatten out, taking your glorious, fluffy, three-dimensional cables with them. Three-ply yarns stay upright and round, helping your cables stand well proud of the background fabric. Thus, the general wisdom is that you should use single-ply and two-ply yarns for lace projects, and multi-ply yarns for projects with cables (or bold gansey textures, even, where you want to be able to see excellent stitch definition from a mile away).

So, is that general rule of thumb true? Yes (and not just because it is the approach found in Clara Parkes’ classic The Knitter’s Book of Yarn, which is a book that you should read). There’s a reason traditional Arans and Ganseys are made out of four-ply yarns, and this is it, or at least one version of it. Typecasting sometimes works.

If the effect you want is dramatic, holey lace and high-definition, three-dimensional cables, this conventional wisdom works, and is worth following. And sometimes, you absolutely want that! For example, I will pretty much never say no to a hat with mile-high cables on it that scream “LOOK AT ALL THE KNITTING I WAS KNITTING!” from halfway across the Dutchess County Fairgrounds, and I think you probably shouldn’t either (really—that is a hat that you need in life). Sometimes it’s wisdom worth following because that structure has benefits beyond stitch definition, and the added cable height just comes along for the ride, like on a big cabled cardigan that you want to wear like outerwear.

Sometimes all that height isn’t that exciting, though. Sometimes you want the cables to blur into a kind of overall texture, and you’re not going for a particular graphic impact. Sometimes you want a finished object that feels lighter and airier, which a less-structured yarn may tend to provide, like if you’re making a gigantic shawl. And sometimes you really, really, really don’t want your fabric to be super thickly laden with cables because of where it has to go on your body. This is particularly true with pullovers, because, well, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but they tend to cover the front of your body, which, at least for many people I know, is not a place where they think, “gosh, what I really need is adding a ton of visual and physical bulk right here.” In these kinds of projects, casting “against type,” and using a single-ply or two-ply yarn, even in a cabled design, can give you the texture you’re looking for, without the height or bulk you don’t want.

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Layers of Texture: Cable and Crepe Yarns

Sometimes a 2-, 3- or regular 4-ply just won’t do. I want a meaty yarn, something that is full of texture on its own, but not crazy texture or an art yarn.

That’s when I spin cable and crepe yarns. Both are multiple plies, plied in two directions. Some spinners called them layered plies. They are both very round yarns with lots of surface texture.

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L: cable yarn, R: crepe yarn


A basic crepe yarn is a 3-ply yarn made with a 2-ply and a singles. The 2-ply is spun Z in the singles and over plied S. The single is spun S with enough twist to make a regular balanced ply and plied Z with the original 2-ply. The yarn looks bubbly when it’s finished. The single traps the 2-ply which pushes out between the singles as it untwists and expands on its second ply.

A basic cable yarn is two 2-ply yarns spun Z in the singles and overplied S in the first ply then plied together Z to finish. The yarn looks pebbly, like a bridge cable. On the second ply, the two 2-ply yarns lock together and bloom.

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L: cable yarn, R: crepe yarn

If you break apart cable and crepe yarns visually they look like this.
Cable yarn:

beauty shot
Two 2-ply yarns with singles spun Z, plied S with lots of over twist, then plied together Z to finish.]

Crepe yarn: beauty shot

Make 2 yarns, an S-spun singles and a 2-ply with singles spun Z, plied S with lots of overtwist, then ply the two yarns together Z.

There are two keys to making wonderfully textured crepe and cable yarns: overtwist in the first ply and light twist in the final ply. Every time a crepe or cable yarn has gone wrong for me, the problem was in one of those two spots.

The first ply needs to be overplied. If your first ply doesn’t have enough overtwist, the yarn won’t pop into the delightful crepe or cable structure; it will just untwist and look like parallel yarns.

beauty shot
L: double the ply twist, R: balanced ply

I put in double the ply twist I would use for a balanced 2-ply yarn in my first ply. I use a whorl a size or two smaller than the one I would use to make a balanced 2-ply. If you ply for a cable or crepe and realize that your first ply isn’t plied enough, you can always run it through your wheel again on the same setting, adding more ply twist. The first ply needs all of that twist because it will get untwisted on the second ply layer.

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Cable yarn with a loose first ply

I am always surprised at how little twist the second ply needs. I think part of it is that I’ve just plied the snot out of the first ply, but the second ply needs a very light touch. You will see when it locks into a cable or crepe structure. You can practice looking for the pop by doing ply-back samples while making your first set of plies.

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Cable yarn ply back sample

Here’s just how little twist I used for my second plies for the yarns in this article. For my first overtwisted ply, I went down a whorl size from the whorl I used to spin my singles. I figured out that a balanced yarn would take 3 treadle counts, so I put in 6 treadle counts to make it over twisted. For my second ply, I went back up a whorl size to the same whorl I used to spin my singles and used between 2 and 3 treadles to make my texture pop. That’s not a lot of twist.

If there is too much twist in the second ply, both your crepe and cable yarns will look smooshed with no texture at all.

Here’s a peek at the good bad and ugly of twist with cables and crepes.

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Cable yarns, left: too much second ply twist, center: a yarn with a good amount of twist in both plies, right: too little twist in the first ply

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Crepe yarns, left: too much second ply twist, center: a yarn with a good amount of twist in both plies, right: too little twist in the first ply.

Getting basic cable and crepe yarns under your spinning-skills belt is just the first step with these textured yarns. These are some of the most fun yarns to play with, mixing color and varying sizes of yarns in the plies.

Making a basic 2 ply yarn

I get a little giddy over ply, the twisting together of two or more strands of yarn. I talk about it a lot when I teach spinning, and have even converted a knitter or two to spinning based solely on the power of ply.

Ply does deep-down delectable things to your knitting. It can transform color (hello, marl), texture, durability, weight, and—cue the choir—stitch definition. You can change how your knitting looks just by changing the number of plies in your yarn.

As a knitter choosing a yarn to use for a project, my big three are durability, weight and stitch definition.

Plied yarns are more durable, less susceptible to pilling.Imagine a single-ply yarn, she’s lithe and beautiful, but lonely. When knit into fabric she stands alone against the stretching and rubbing of the world. Imagine she had a sister or two by her side. By twisting strands together, each strand has a lot less of its surface exposed, and they are able to stand strong against the patriarchy of pilling.

Plying can contribute to the weight of a garment. Want a light sweater? Don’t look at a five-ply yarn. There is an exception to this (isn’t there always?): a multi-plied yarn is lighter than a single-ply yarn of the same size. Why? There is air between those plies, and the single-ply is just one solid chunk of fiber.

The sweetest spot of plied yarns is in stitch definition. Depending on the number of plies in your yarn the finished knitted fabric will look, sometimes dramatically, different.

The Yarns

The yarns I’m using are all fine yarns, spun from Merino and Cormo. All three have an intrinsic look of softness and a matte surface.

Single-ply (singles): Mrs. Crosby, Satchel (100% Superwash Merino), Color: Spun Gold.

2-ply: Sincere Sheep, Cormo Fingering (100% Cormo), Color: Vit C.

3-ply: Sincere Sheep, Cormo Sport (100% Cormo), Color: Vit C.

The Big Three: Single-Ply, 2-Ply, and 3-Ply

Today’s yarns are single-ply (spinners call these singles),2-ply and 3-ply yarns.There are lots of other yarn constructions, yarns that are wrapped, cabled or chained. Those are for another day. Today we’re hitting the big three.

Yarn is built from energy, which we talk about as twist. Single-ply yarn has a single twist in one direction and plied yarns have two twists, one to create the single (in one direction) and one to create the ply (in the opposite direction). These twists create shape and motion in the yarn and contribute to the look and performance of knitted fabric.

Single-ply yarn has a roundish shape that can flatten easily. It has motion in only one direction, which can cause biasing when knit, if there is too much twist in the yarn.

Two-ply yarn is oval in shape. The ply twist moves the strands outward, they push away from each other when knit.

Three-ply yarn is round in shape. The ply twist moves the strands inward, they push toward each other when knit.

In the MDK Shop

We're wild for this single-ply fingering weight yarn from Neighborhood Fiber Co. Thanks for your purchases. They support everything we do here at MDK.

Ply, as Applied: Stockinette

Single-ply (left): Single-ply yarn is smooth and stays where you put it when blocked; the stitches line up nicely. In stockinette stitch, it shows every weirdness in your knitting. I row out, my knit and purl tension is very different, and it really shows in stockinette with a single-ply yarn. This is the stitch that will bias if there is any over-twist in the yarn. Sometimes you can block it out, sometimes you can’t.

Two-ply (center): Two-ply yarn has itsown party, look how textured the surface of the 2-ply swatch is. There is no bias with a 2-ply yarn because the plies balance the twist. But because of the outward motion of the two plies pushing away from each other, there is a lot of visual movement on the surface of the knitted fabric. It looks toothy and organic.

Three-ply: Three-ply yarn is round and creates even fabric. The stitches line up and the surface of the knitting is smooth and placid. I am fascinated by the difference in the look of 2-ply and 3-ply yarn in stockinette. The 2-ply is rocking the soul train to funky town, and the 3-ply is ballroom dancing a serene waltz.


Single-ply: Single-ply yarns are obedient. When you block them into lace, they stay. Because single-ply yarn sometimes flattens and it doesn’t have the extra shadows between plies, the lace has a much softer, less crisp look.

Two-ply: Theobstinate attitude that makes a 2-ply yarn so frisky in stockinette makes it a glorious yarn for lace. The stitches roll away from each other; opening the lace holes. The surface playfulness leads your eye all over the lace pattern.

Three-ply: The roundness of a 3-ply makes smooth lace. The inward twist energy of a 3-ply yarn makes the stitches roll toward each other, causing the lace holes to try to close. What strikes me even more is that 3-ply yarn makes textured stitches stand out in bold. When I look at a lace pattern knit in a 3-ply yarn, the first thing I see are the decreases gorgeously stacked up, overpowering the lace.


Single-ply: Cables knit out of a single-ply yarn are soft and flat-ish. A good look for a light summer top, but not what I want for an Aran sweater.

Two-ply: A 2-ply cable is a big step up from a single-ply cable. There are edges to these cables, but they really don’t stand up.

Three-ply: A 3-ply (or more) yarn makes the best cables and textured stitches. They roll in and push up. Three-ply yarns make themselves heard. They are crisp, have sharp edges and stand up like the Cliffs of Moher.


Colorwork swatch background colors: French Chambray in Mrs. Crosby single-ply, and St. Barts in Sincere Sheep 2-ply and 3-ply.

Single-ply: Single ply yarns are soft and flow-y when used for any kind of color work. The lines between stitches are undefined because the yarns spread out. This contributes to the classic look of Lopi sweaters, in which colors seem to flow into each other.

Two-ply: The pushing away motion of a 2-ply yarn leads to soft blurry edges between colors. Two-ply yarn is fantastic when you want that misty-water-color-memory look for Fair Isle or Bohus knitting.

Three-ply: Three-ply colorwork knitting has crispy clean edges. Each stitch is distinct, making colors very clear. Three-ply is great for intarsia, or if you want your Scandinavian snowflakes to really stand out.

Ply is so alluring. It’s exciting that an attribute that is so easily overlooked can have such impact on knitted fabric.

Which ply will you choose for your next knit?

About the author

Jillian Moreno spins, knits and weaves just so she can touch all of the fibers. She wrote the book Yarnitecture: A Knitter’s Guide to Spinning: Building Exactly the Yarn You Want so she could use all of the fiber words. Keep up with her exploits at


Ply yarn cable

Kate Larson’s Tips for How to Spin Cabled Yarn

What is a Cabled Yarn?

The cabled yarn construction combines at least four singles that have been plied with several layers of twist. The most common cabled yarn, a 2-by-2-ply, is created when two 2-ply yarns are twisted together opposite the plying direction. This results in a yarn that can still be supple and lightweight but is composed of fibers that are well secured, reducing pilling and surface abrasion—perfect for socks!

How to Spin Cabled Yarn

Cabled yarns can take some practice, so I always spin a few small samples before beginning a project. Finding balance in the final yarn depends on getting the right amount of twist in several previous steps.

1. Spin four bobbins of singles to the right (Z).

2. Using two of these singles, create a 2-ply yarn by turning to the left (S) as usual. Repeat for the remaining two bobbins of singles.

3. Send each 2-ply yarn back through the wheel or spindle to the left (S), adding the same amount of ply twist again. These 2-ply yarns now have twice the normal amount of ply twist.

Cable Yarn Step 4
4. Cable the two 2-ply yarns to the right (Z): Set up the two yarns to ply as usual. Send them back through the wheel while it spins to the right, but do this fairly quickly and do not guide the yarn into place. Simply let the twist enter an arm's length of yarn, feed into the orifice, and repeat. Check the bobbin every so often to see that the yarn has the right amount of twist.

Cabled Yarn Troubleshooting

  • After washing your yarn, does it feel too dense and tight like rope? Try starting with less twist in the singles (Step 1).
  • Does your final yarn look like two 2-ply yarns instead of a cohesive 4-ply? The most common reason for this is not having enough extra twist in the 2-ply yarns (Step 3).


How To Ply Cabled Yarn on a Spinning Wheel A Wheel of Mystery Fiber Video!

Plied yarns

Note: In this article, the number of plies refers to the number of strands of fiber within the yarn. Confusingly, a ply number is used as a yarn weight in some countries, e.g. a fingering weight yarn is often called "4-ply" in the UK and Australia, regardless of how many strands the yarn actually has.

Single ply

As the name suggests, this is just one strand of fiber. With a single ply yarn, manufacturers walk a tightrope between too much twist - leading to an 'unbalanced' yarn that might leave you with a biased piece of knitting - and too little twist, giving a yarn that breaks and pills easily.

The rounded cross-section of a single ply yarn allows individual stitches to fill all the space available to them, giving a cohesive look and a cosy feel to the fabric. The stitches are smooth and bright, without the shadows that come from multiple plies.

Singles are not well-suited to items which will get a lot of wear and tear, like socks or gloves for example.


Two-ply yarns have a definite wavy edge, as the two strands wind around each other with nothing else to fill out the gaps. They are stronger than single ply yarns, with the fibers more supported and protected from breaking by the extra twist. They are also more balanced and unlikely to produce a biased fabric, with the excess twist from the individual plies being used to twist each around the other.

The wavy edge means they can be good for color-work, blending the borders of color changes. They are also traditionally used for lace knitting.


Three-ply yarns are more durable than single or two-ply yarns, with all of the twist in the individual plies plus the extra twist to ply them together. They are more round in cross-section than two-ply yarns, less round than single ply yarns, but stronger.

Four-ply plus

The more plies in a yarn, the stronger, more durable and more rounded it becomes, giving good structure to textured stitches and cables. The more plies you add, the more dense the yarn becomes, as all available space within the column of yarn is used up.

Cabled yarns

Plied yarns can themselves be plied together. This is a great construction for a wool fiber like Merino, with the relatively short, soft but delicate fibers being protected by the high total twist in the yarn. These yarns are perfect for textured stitch patterns like seed stitch (UK = moss stitch) and cables. They are strong, and resistant to pilling. But all those plies also keep the fiber very much under control, so it's not a yarn to choose if you're after a more rustic look.

Chained yarns

This is where the plies themselves are knitted, or chained together to form the yarn, a bit like i-cord. Using a chained construction for fibers that have no inherent elasticity, like silk or plant fibers, gives the yarn as a whole some elasticity. This works because a knitted fabric can stretch in all directions and can produce a more forgiving yarn for these smooth, inelastic fibers.

S-on-S plied yarns

S-on-S plied yarns—also called multi-thread or millefili yarns—are constructed from ultra fine single plies that are S-twisted into 2 ply yarns that are themselves plied together with an S-twist, hence the name S-on-S.

This differs from traditional yarns where most often a single ply is spun with a Z-twist, and then two or more of these are plied together in the opposite direction, giving a yarn with a final S-twist.

The S-on-S construction gives flexibility to the big mills, which can use the fine yarns for commercial knitwear, while also having them as building blocks for yarns suitable for use by the handknitting industry.

The result of the S-on-S construction is a light, airy yarn with lots of bounce. But it's also sleek and well-behaved, with the high level of twist keeping the fibers firmly caught up within the body of the yarn. Since the fibers can't escape easily, the finished fabric is not prone to pilling.

They're usually made with superwash wool, treated to smooth the individual fibers (and stop the naturally-present scales from locking together and felting). That also means that the finished fabric is liable to relax and stretch with only a little encouragement, i.e. from washing, blocking or gravity.

Related articles

  • Yarn twist direction, along with your method of knitting or crocheting, affects whether the yarn splits as you work.

  • Blown yarns are made by blowing fibers into a mesh tube. This gives them interesting properties compared with plied yarns.


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