Splitting Yarn

Dividing a ball of really thick yarn
into two balls of thinner yarn
Sometimes a yarn comes along in a perfect color, but it's just too thick.  Many yarns are available in worsted weight in colors not available in thinner weights.  Crochet works up thicker than knitting, so thinner yarns can work better for crocheted fabrics.

Lion Brand Thick & Quick:
split on left with L/8mm hook
whole on right with P/11.5mm hook
Sometimes yarn has been doubled for a project, and now that the project is over, it would be nice for the remainder to be split back into its parts.

Sometimes there isn't enough of a yarn to make something, but there would be enough if the yarn were thinner.

Splitting, or unplying, yarn takes a little time, but it isn't hard.

People who know about spinning may gasp a bit at this exercise in going backward.  Unplying yarn results in yarn that is structurally different from what you started with, so the fabric you make out of it will be a bit different from the thicker fabric that the original yarn makes.  The resulting yarn has a softer twist, is a bit fluffier, and is weaker than a yarn with more twist.   Splitting or unplying works only with yarns that are plied -- where 2 or more strands are twisted together to make the yarn.  Many worsted weight yarns are 3 or 4 plies.

Splitting a yarn with an even number of plies (2, 4, 6, for example) is simpler because the resulting balls of yarn can be the same size.

A solid color 3-ply yarn can be split into a 2-ply and a 1-ply, then doubling the 1-ply makes it the same size as the 2-ply.  The two resulting balls will be slightly different, technically, but at my level of stitching, they work up the same - I have not been able to see any difference in the resulting fabric.  If the yarn is multi-colored, it does not work to double the single ply because the colors won't match up.

Implements to secure the strand
To start, you will need an alligator clip (found at the hardware store) or a binder clip. Even a ponytail band can work, but it can be tricky if the yarn tangles with it.  Once you have that, here's how the process goes:

1.  Start by splitting a bit of the yarn, a few inches, to identify the two strands you want to end up with.  If the resulting strands break easily, the yarn is not good to split - don't bother to continue.  If the resulting plies hold their own nicely, continue to the next step:
2.  Draw out a length -- a yard or two -- of the yarn.
3.  Use the clip to secure the ball so more won't come undone.
Secure the strand to the ball
before splitting
4.  Let the ball hang and twist as the two strands come apart.
5.  As the ball spins, wrap each split strand around a hand to start each ball.
6.  When one length of yarn has been split, remove the clip.
7.  Draw out another length of yarn.
8.  Re-attach the clip to secure that new length of yarn to be split.
9.  Let the ball hang and twist as the strand continues to split.
10.  As the ball spins, continue to wrap the resulting yarn, each into its own ball.
11.  When that length of yarn has been split, remove the clip.
12.  Repeat from Step 7.

Repeat steps 7 through 11 until the thick yarn has been split into two balls of thinner yarn.

If you are simply separating strands you held together for a project, they won't be that tightly spun together anyway, so you may be able to divide out the separate yarns quite a bit before they start to tangle and need the clip to give the process some order.

Best to do this in an area where the floor is clean and does not have too much lint / dust bunnies floating around to get mixed in with the yarn.

It is not unusual for some fiber to join the two strands and slow down the process.  Gently assert your authority over the process and separate the two strands to continue.

I prefer starting with yarn that has been wound on a ball winder.  This makes a shape that is easier to manage.  But splitting yarn from a pull-skein works just fine, too.

The strand can come from either the center of the ball or from the outside.  I prefer the outside because the ball keeps its integrity better.

The resulting yarn can be twisty.  If the new yarn is just one ply, don't be tempted to go an additional step to untwist it -- you might end up with a lot of roving and no yarn at all.

Unsuitable yarns for this process include:
  • Single ply yarns can't be split.  
  • Novelty yarns are often combinations of completely different strands, so the nature of the split yarn would be different from the original yarn.  
  • Some yarns are made of plies that are unspun or so loosely spun that they are very weak when split.
  • Ribbon or tape yarns - they are not plied.  
Shown above is Lion Brand Thick and Quick, an extreme example.  The label recommends a size 13 (9mm) knitting needle or size N (9mm) crochet hook.  I'm aiming for a sweater out of this yarn, so my sample out of the whole yarn uses a size P (11.5mm) hook.  I'm using an L (8mm) hook for the split yarn.  With my gauge, if I used the 9mm hook with the unsplit/whole strand, the fabric would be very stiff, like for a basket or a rug.  Interestingly, the split yarn has the look and feel of a single-ply handspun, which gives it a classy look.

Another yarn ripe for splitting is Plymouth Fantasy Naturale (right), a chunky weight cotton in lots of colors and interesting combinations.  The yarn is very well defined and twisted, so it splits easily, resulting is a perle-like thinner yarn.

First split
Second split
I came across a hank (100 grams) of Fantasy Naturale in a pastel combination of blue (2 plies), green (1 ply), and yellow (1 ply).  I really liked the idea of one ply each of blue and green, to make a mottled aqua,  Splitting the yarn that way left the second ball of blue/yellow (see First Split picture), which was not so attractive to me.  So I split that again, ending up with a ball of the aqua, a ball of blue and a ball of yellow, now looking rather creamy.  Each ball is 140 yards long (according to label information), My plan for them is doll clothes:  a lacy cardigan with the aqua, maybe underthings with the cream, and another cardigan or vest with the blue.  The point here is that the initial color (large ball in the First Split picture) ends up looking very different after splitting.


Unknown said…
thank you , thank you, thank you, I have been googling this for a week. tried a few things I saw, but didn't get it until I saw your clip on the ball of yarn. OF course! brilliant.I am making scarves and matching hobo gloves in a multi colored yarn. But the yarn is too thick for the gloves. so splitting the yarn will be perfect!
Thanks for the feedback. I only just now saw your comment. It is always really nice to find out that something that makes sense to me also makes sense to someone else.
aunty I said…
THANK YOU, THANK YOU, thank you. Worked so well. Brilliant. I had knitted holding 2x4ply together but ended up frogging it. Wanted my yarn back to 4 ply. So good.
dakota said…
Here it is 2018 and I've just found your post. Your idea works !!!!! See so many other ways to split yarns but none worked very well for me until I tried yours. So grateful to have found it. I'm using yarn for dreamcatchers and wanted to get the look of the yarn when it's split. Love it !!!
Anonymous said…
Three years after this was posted, I found it last night after thinking there had to be a simpler - and faster - way to split the 3ply ball of cotton yarn I wanted to work with. Amazing, five times faster than how I was doing it, minimal tangling. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Anonymous said…
This is something I learned as a kid, I grew up very remote and there were few options back then. We would split 4 ply worsted weight into 2 strands for doing fair isle. It was also used with 4 ply cotton, splitting into single strands to make multi-color table cloths and such as we could only get number 10 cotton in white.
Wes said…
The strategy I use involves some different hardware: two "umbrella swifts", a 2-liter bottle that has the top portion cut almost along the entire circumference (to act as a lid) and a cap with a hole poked in it just for the size of a strand of yarn with a slit cut from the edge of the cap to the hole for sliding in a strand of yarn.

What I do is put the skein of yarn or "cake" I wound with a yarn winder inside the 2-liter bottle, slide the end of the yarn through the slit in the cap so it can move through the hole I made in it, and then tape the 2-liter closed. Then it works very similar to the method mentioned in the blog post, letting gravity untwist the yarn in the 2-liter while I wind it around both umbrella swifts. Oh, I forgot to mention that I turn the swifts sideways and attach them to some sideways surface. For now what I've been using are two kitchen drawers.

Using this method, I still have to look out for when the yarn binds up because of extra fibers getting caught up in the twists, and sometimes I have to unscrew the cap on the 2-liter and unbind the yarn underneath. One major benefit I have with this method though is that as the yarn unwinds and the 2-liter's weight pulls more yarn through, I can let the built-up momentum keep the yarn unwinding and simply turn the umbrella swifts to wind up more split yarn.

It takes a bit to get the hang of it, but it works decently well. It has the added benefit of being ready to use a yarn winder once you're done with the process.

I'm definitely open to better/more efficient methods though. Anyone else have other ideas?