Plying from a Centre-pull Ball

A small tutorial-type post squeezed in among the Advent pictures!

Well I say tutorial; it’s more pictures showing how I ply small samples from a centre-pull ball. This is my preferred method for plying small samples and it’s quite straightforward. I do know that for some it’s a bit frustrating though and I’ve tried to look slowly at what I do and see if there are any tips I can pass on for how I do it. I’m not an expert or saying this is the “correct way” – it’s simply what works for me. Perhaps you can try it and see if it helps or refine it better for you.

I’m not going to go into huge amount of detail about winding the balls or how to do basic plying. I use a regular ball winder like this one. Other designs are available and you can also wind a centre-pull ball using a nostepinne. You can buy beautiful hand turned nostepinne from sellers of knitting and spinning tools or you can improvise and make one yourself. One spinner I knew wound beautiful balls of her handspun yarn using the handle of her dustpan and brush! The really important thing whichever method you use is ensure the beginning section of the single is well secured in the slots of the winder/visibly free if using a nostepinne before you wind the whole ball. You need both ends and if you lose the beginning section it will be very hard to find it inside the ball once wound and make a very stressful start to plying. You may even have to just pull a lump of tangled yarn out and discard it. MAKE SURE OF YOUR ENDS before winding.

For me, plying from a centre-pull ball is about control. In fact all plying is about control but in this case I’m focussing on keeping the ball itself and the singles coming off it tidy and measured. That’s pretty much all it’s about.

Freshly spun singles are full of twist energy and can get a bit unruly and “pigtail” by plying back on itself in small sections which is a right pain. The thinner the yarn and higher the spinning twist, the worse this is going to be. So for your first attempt it’s probably smarter to use a sample that is going to end up at around DK weight or thicker and not highly twisted. Use a nice bouncy wool not something tricky and slippy like silk. Leaving your singles on the bobbin for 24 hours will help calm it down too. I do ply straight after spinning, it really isn’t that terrifying once you’ve taught the ball to behave and play nicely. But it always helps to stack the odds in your favour the first time so be kind to yourself and start with plump stale singles!

You have the two loose ends on your ball – the one from the outside and the one from the centre. Join these to the leader on your wheel (or spindle) in the regular way and ply a small amount to wind it onto the bobbin.

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I use my left hand to hold the ball – this is because I also spin this way round. If you use your hands the other way around that’s fine, do what you would normally do and just reverse the hands for each task. I’ll refer to them as front and back hand to simplify it.

You need to keep the singles under the control of your fingers at all times. Normally the bobbins are keeping the singles under control and a small amount of tension. If you have a tensioned kate too this is even more applicable. The centre of the ball is going to collapse slightly when you slide it off the winder. This the bit that can get tangled into a lump so this is why  you need to MAKE SURE where the beginning section is before you slide the ball off (yes it is really important enough to repeat this!)

Keep your front hand holding the twist back and only allow it to run back when you are ready.

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If you hold the ball in your back hand like this picture below, it will start to go wrong after a while. The singles won’t be running off the ball under control and you won’t get even tension.

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The single from the middle is more direct, the outer single has to travel further around the ball so they aren’t equal like plied this. The middle one can also spit out a gobbit of kinky singles as the pressure loosens on the inner surface of the ball and that’s very much not fun to untangle.

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The outer one with it’s longer length can start to pigtail up on itself if left to its own devices – this is equally frustrating and makes for tangled plying and snarly yarns.

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So the way I hold the ball is to cradle it lightly in the palm of my hand and use my fingers as the means for tensioning the singles and keep them equal.

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To break this down into how the yarn feeds off like this, I’m using my thumb to lightly cover the outer single. My touch on the plying ball is very light at all times, I’m not really holding it back, just allowing the touch of my fingers to slow it down so it doesn’t kink up as it feeds. (my fingers are pinching off the twist here in this picture below purely because I’m using my right hand to take the photo! Normally that job would be done by my front hand – but it does at least show how you can still keep all the twist and singles under control at all times should you need your other hand to move flyer hooks, sort something out … or even pick up your mug of tea/ the phone/ pat the dog etc!)

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Treadle very slowly and allow the first wrap of singles to slide off the ball and hook your forefinger into the “X” that forms to hold it back. It’s something you’ll have to do to “get” what I mean so don’t worry if you’re thinking “eh?! What X?” at this moment.

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With the twisty singles safely held back lightly like this you can then allow your front hand to permit the twist to travel back into the length by sliding the forefinger and thumb of the front hand towards the plying ball. As you reach the end of the singles between your hands, straighten the hooked forefinger of your back hand slightly and slide/lift the “X” off it with your front hand. Your front hand can now allow the plied yarn to run onto the bobbin as you would normally do with plying and as it does so the next section slips from the plying ball and the back hand forefinger once again hooks into the next “X” formed and holds it back. You simply repeat this over and over smoothly.

Like all spinning skills, it’s one of those things that takes a little bit of doing to realise what goes where and at what time. Take it slowly. If necessary, treadle a little to build twist and then stop treadling whilst you concentrate on the hand motions whilst the wheel is stationary. Once you’ve done  a little bit you’ll soon settle into a steady routine that feels quite natural.

It’s best to use this for small amounts of yarn so the plying ball will be quite small. You can do it with larger amounts – and I do – but the benefits are fewer for the effort. With larger amounts of fibre you may as well split it in two and spin two singles on separate bobbins. However you may suddenly change your mind part way through spinning some fibre and have spun the whole amount on one bobbin or have some other reason that makes plying larger amounts like this logical or desirable.

In that case, you’ll find it hard to keep the ball in your hand until you’ve plied enough and when it’s smaller it will be looser and lacy and more inclined to tangle. I have mine in my lap or even on the floor beside me to start with. But be aware that there is greater scope for stretches of single to pigtail and tangle simply because it’s under less control than in your hand. You might also find with a larger ball that you want to use two fingers and spread them to change the angle at which the twist runs in.

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This works OK. I still prefer to hook my forefinger though for really even plying. You’ll soon get to feel the amount of tension required to make a nice snug plying twist!

It’s really not that different to regular plying; all you’re doing differently is using your back hand as an active kate to manipulate the singles, your front hand is doing all the usual things.

Try it and see!

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