Yarn dyeing

Too White For Wooly Unicorns: The victim of the unprepared yarn-dyer.

Just have a look at this! Just look! It may not be quite so obvious in a photo but I assure you this is a picture demonstrating the nasty nature of hand-dyeing yarn: inconsistency. In an earlier post I was talking about the intuitive nature of creative processes, such as dyeing yarn by hand, and inconsistency is the natural trade-off of this enterprise. Subtle as it may seem there’s a distinct change between the yarn I started with and the second skein, a much less colour-saturated one. Unfortunately for me I just thought it would come out as a natural variation of the first yarn. I thought, stupidly, as long as the colours I used were the same, and the technique was the same, the product would be compatible – if not interchangeable. Evidently, I was wrong. I was brash, unprepared, happy-go-lucky (as usual).

If I did a third skein that looked more like the bottom one (which I personally prefer) and used it for the rest of my work I’d see a white stripe form. Since this is my first garment made with my OWN hand-dyed yarn, it’s very special to me and I’m particular about how it turns out. So, finally convinced this was not going to work, I grimaced and began unravelling literally hours and hours of knitting…

Unravelling mistake skein 2...
Trying to remember where to put my marker after I unravel the mistake now known as Skein 2: Too White for Wooly Unicorns.

Some of you may wonder why I knitted up so much before unravelling and the reason is simply that with speckled yarns the colour variations are naturally random which makes it difficult to distinguish clear changes. My sister-in-law A, who I asked for advice, said that you’re supposed to avoid skein variations by changing skeins every few rows so they get evenly distributed… but then she added that nobody ever bothers with that! Alas! I was going to have to work out a new solution evidently!

So, I stayed up and nervously dyed myself two new skeins, attempting to make them more colour saturated. I can’t remember if it looked as gruesome the first time, but when I’d finished these two attempts at the original I stood there, unsettled and frustrated, feeling like I’d just created something so hideous it belonged in the bin… Still, I’d come this far. I cooked them up in the microwave, cooled them off, washed them gently with soapy water, rinsed, and hung them up to dry (on my standing lamp…).

Colour comparison showing skein inconsistency.

Here you can see better what I mean. The photo above shows very clearly the difference between the second “white” skein, and the two I’ve deliberately attempted to make more colour-saturated to match Skein 1: The Original Wooly Unicorn. Although the bottom skeins are still wet (which does change their appearance a bit – so don’t go comparing skeins officially until they’re fully dry) it’s clearly much more speckled than Skein 2: Too White for Wooly Unicorns.

Today I’m going to knit with one of the new skeins, and watch closely to see if it matches Skein 1 enough to pass for “natural variation”. Admittedly, it could also go badly! Still, this post is an important one for new hand-dyers who want to avoid making unnecessary mistakes:

  1. Every skein you dye, take lots of photos! NOT just of the pretty end result all twisted up in a finished skein (top google result for “pretty yarn”, anyone?). Take a few of your unravelled wet skein just as you’ve finished your dyeing – close ups and of the complete skein – so you can see exactly where your dye has gone and how it looked newly applied. Don’t use flash, I find it changes the appearance of the skein and confuses you later.
  2. Keep a decent amount of your original dye in a little sealed bottle (I use glass test tubes with cork-tops because I like pretending I’m a dangerous Dr Frankenstein-type chemist…Childhood dreams). Even better, just make giant batches of the dye so you don’t have to worry about making more later! Especially if you concoct colours by mixing dyes together, you will find it extremely difficult to get the same shade twice UNLESS you either have an exact measurement written down (e.g. 2 tbsp water, 1 drop of yellow, 1 drop of green) or you keep a dye sample to refer to later.
  3. Dye TWO skeins at first go or dye another skein to match the first before you actually knit it up. One original skein kept for comparison when dyeing up new skeins is the best way to ensure they all match! If looking at it dry isn’t helpful, just wet the original and put it up against the new one to compare better! But don’t do what I did: knit up the only skein example I had, and have no idea wtf it looked like later on!

So, progress! I’m learning, one stuff-up and experiment at a time like all the best lessons are received, and whilst it’s a massive relief when you watch that last YouTube video and go “OMG so glad I realised this before I attempted —-!”, there is a singular sense of empowerment that comes with learning by experiment and experience, because you taught yourself!



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