Of “piggy tail” and splitty yarns

Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to detain the Truth, but rather would like to share my thoughts, and make room for discussion. This is a subject I have been thinking about for a good long while (ask Janice… she is probably tired of my rambling by now!), and I’m happy to share my thoughts with you. And yes, it has been two weeks and one day since my last post. This is because I had set my reminder on Fridays!


Ever wondered why your working yarn goes all “piggy tail” as you knit on your project? Or why it becomes all splitty as you crochet? Or as you (thumb) cast on a gazillion stitches? I have, and here are my “two pennies”…


Context and Empirical observations

I knit quite a bit. I think it’s no secret to anyone at this point. And when I knit those endless stretches of stocking stitch, my brain wanders to weird places, and pays attention to little things, and starts questioning them, and (over?)analysing.

I am a “thrower” (English-style knitting), and hold my working yarn in the right hand. However, when I started knitting stranded patterns, I figured out how to knit with the working yarn in my left hand too. And naturally, when working crochet chains (for provisional cast-on only, I can’t crochet!), I also hold the yarn in my left hand. Similarly, I hold the long tail in my left hand too when I (thumb) cast on.

Among many things, I noticed over time that:

  • Sometimes, the working yarn would turn all “piggy tail” when I knit, leading to an annoying mess between my work and the ball.
  • The long tail becomes all splitty, and seems to “untwist” when I cast on a large number of stitches, and I need to “straighten” the long tail to let the yarn “re-balance” somehow.
  • When working a long crochet chain, the working yarn (often cotton yarn, since I want it to be smooth) becomes all splitty and seems to “untwist” too, and can turn into a mess if the crochet chain is quite long.


Back to basics: Yarn Anatomy

Now, let’s come back to the basics of how yarn is constructed before we discuss the matter further. A piece of yarn is usually constructed out of several (2 or more) thin strands, called plies, twisted together into the final yarn. For this discussion, we won’t bother about those thin strands, but we will only consider the general direction of the yarn: whether it is plied “Z” or “S”.

Take your current project on the needles, and look at the yarn in the ball closely. No, closer than that. What do you see? Is the twist more parallel to the middle bar of an “S”, or to the middle bar of a “Z”?

"S" or "Z" construction?

“S” or “Z” construction?

Almost all commercial yarns I have worked with are plied “S”, which means that the individual “strands” hold together thanks to an anti-clockwise twist. There were a few exceptions to this “rule” (as for all rules…), like the now discontinued Rowan Colourscape Chunky, which was (softly) plied “Z”.



Somehow, I figured that knitting with the yarn in the right hand (throwing / English-style) adds a tiny amount of twist anti-clockwise to the yarn for every stitch worked. And ever so slightly, this extra twist builds in the yarn, and causes the usual commercial plied yarns (almost always plied “S”) to become a little over twisted. This can lead to an unpleasant piggy tail mess in some extreme cases.

This is noticeable for example when knitting (yarn in the right hand still) in the round forever with a never-ending ball of yarn (a vanilla sock, the body of a jumper, a blanket knitted in the round), as one doesn’t “release” the extras twist every now and again by turning the work over. Have you ever noticed, when cutting the yarn to darn in the toe for example, that the tails you just cut seem to have that “need” to “untwist” to go back to their “normal” state? It’s that extra twist that gets released: that same twist you added as you knitted!

On the other hand (pun intended…), holding the yarn in the left hand leads to a slight inverse motion which adds a tiny bit of twist clockwise for every stitch (knitted or crochet). Adding twist clockwise to a yarn plied “S” is equivalent to “removing twist”. And as you knit/crochet/long-tail cast-on with the yarn in your left hand, more and more twist is removed from the yarns, leading to an underplied splitty yarn: the plies seem to separate, and the yarn becomes a pain to work with.

Here is what happens to the long tail when I cast on... Underplied, and splitty!

Here is what happens to the long tail when I cast on… It becomes underplied, and splitty!


I have read here and there some knitters complain about a yarn coming apart as they knit, and in particular as they cast on. Especially, this seems to be a common complaint regarding some softly spun and plied yarns (gently plied “S”…), like Brooklyn Tweed Shelter (which I’m very lucky to have been given a skein from over the pond), or Rowan Felted Tweed (a favourite of mine). I am not very surprised of the yarn untwisting as they cast on, but I would be very very curious to know whether those knitters were knitting “English” or “continental” style! I would bet a skein of yarn that they knit with the yarn in their left hand!

Similarly, some people (and lots of crocheters) complain about some yarns, especially cotton or cotton blends, for being too splitty. Cotton is a non-elastic fibre, contrary to wool, so it doesn’t bounce back in place like wool does. I am not entirely sure how much this plays a role in our matter, but I am sure that a lot of the “splittiness” is not so much that the yarn is “wrong” or “faulty”, but that it has not been spun and plied in a way that’s adequate for crocheters (or continental knitters).

In an ideal fibre world, I think there should be yarn constructions specific to crocheters and continental knitters (plied “Z”), and yarn constructions (plied “S”) for English-style knitters. This is where spinning comes in handy: one can just spin the yarn to suit a certain knitting style, and/or a certain project… Isn’t that fantastic?

Anyway, I have another few dozen ideas, interrogations, theories, etc which I’d love to discuss, to infirm or confirm my hypothesis and analysis. So, perhaps there could be future posts on this subject, who knows? I find looking at the engineering part of the yarn-to-knitting interaction fascinating (as you will probably have guessed by now!)


Now, I’ll stop rambling for a minute, and kindly ask you to share your experience. Do my “two pennies” worth of thoughts match with your experience as a knitter / crocheter? Or am I completely wrong (entirely possible, mind you…)?

Oh, and one last question to crocheters out there: I was wondering if, by any chance, the yarn that is specifically labelled as “crochet yarn” (for instance the crochet cotton) would be plied in the other direction, to avoid the splitting issue.


Thanks a lot for reading this far…


PS: Anything I forgot, anything you think of, please leave a comment below, or in the Ravelry group!



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3 Responses to Of “piggy tail” and splitty yarns

  1. Interesting thoughts. I’d never really got beyond just grumbling about ‘splittiness’ to consider WHY it happens.

  2. knotrune says:

    Doris Chan did a blog post about Z twist being better for crochet, so I’ve come across the concept before. I never knew about the difference between English and Continental style in that regard though – useful for someone equally happy in both! Thanks 🙂 I suppose it makes some sense that it might be to do with which hand the yarn is held in. As I started with crochet, when I was taught English style knitting I was not mad keen on holding the yarn in what felt like the wrong hand, so I taught myself Continental. I find it useful to be able to switch between both to stop my hands getting RSI. As I don’t tend to use ‘crochet cotton’, preferring wool, I’m not sure about that, but I have some cotton I use for lace making which is S twist and some vintage crochet cotton which is Z twist.

  3. Margaret says:

    I agree with your observations. I’m an English style knitter so I hold the yarn in my right hand and when I crochet I also hold the yarn in my right hand. So particularly when doing a long tail cast on the yarn tail definitely needs straightening out from time to time. And now I know why. I did know about theS and Z twists but I never look at my yarn to see what it is….

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