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!


Yarn dyeing

The Wooly Unicorn of 2017

It may be the first day of February but it feels like 2017 has just started, and I have a hunch it’ll be a colour-filled crafty one! To start this year off I’ve dived enthusiastically into hand-dyeing yarn, and boy-oh-boy, this is colour at its most addictive! I was originally inspired in January by my sister-in-law A, who is a professional yarn dyer and sells her products via her own online store. She put up a two-part video series showing the DIY of how to make one of her most popular speckled yarns, and it looked so easy I immediately was compelled to try it. There’s nothing like the ecstatic creative enthusiasm that erupts when you realise you can actually do something fun without too much difficulty! Crafty endeavours are most enjoyable when they’re easy to start, but have the potential to be very challenging and complex. The more complex it can get, the more avenues there are for experimentation and I really believe this is at the heart of all truly great learning. All my greatest moments of learning have felt more like alchemy, an enthusiastic pursuit of various paths of knowledge and skill without a time limit or someone looking over your shoulder. Even seemingly structured pursuits, like learning a language, are really made up of a plethora of branches of new knowledge, dynamically applying different types of words in different ways to exact a seemingly limitless variety of expressions! That’s why I love language too, although my brain doesn’t seem very skilled at listening/speaking… reading/writing is my bag.

As I watched the videos I realised I could actually do this! Soak yarn in citric acid bath, squeeze out most of the water, sprinkle yarn with acid dye powder, and stick in the oven for a bit! Wham bam thank you ma’am! Of course I wanted to start right now but the dyes she used were Landscapes professional dyes and I’d have to order them… *snorts* I don’t think so! I trawled youtube until I caught onto the fact that you can use plain old food dye instead, and cook up yarn in the microwave in 2.5 minutes. I jumped in my car, ransacked Spotlight for a handful of food dyes and Australian merino wool (acid dyes like food dye won’t work on acrylic or plant fibres) and sped home to begin…

You know the stereotype of Dr Frankenstein standing there laughing maniacally when he realises he’s brought his monster to life? I literally did that laugh, “mwahahahaha!”, when I saw my colourful creation, speckled with rainbow colours like the sprinkles on a pink donut. It was magnificent! Unfortunately the only colour missing was purple. As soon as I’d finished I realised I’d neglected to buy my favourite colour and it just didn’t look… well, like a wooly unicorn. It was my first colourful experiment – it had to be unicorn rainbows, y’know? It’s the crayon dilemma all over again. Think back to when you were six and you opened that fresh box of crayons. The whole universe of colour sticks out at you, infinite possibilities at your fingertips! Who the hell pulls out only one crayon? Which damaged child picks out the brown, black, or (dare I even suggest it?) cream crayon? NO CHILD, that’s who. You pull out as many colours as you can hold in two hands, sometimes with a crayon in each hand and colouring in two separate bits simultaneously because you can’t wait long enough to switch it up!

So obviously a couple of days later I got time to buy purple… and teal…and “electric purple” which is basically fuchsia. After concocting a new speckled dye using just those three colours (gorgeous, IMO), I attempted to capture The Wooly Unicorn. Successfully! The picture in this post is the final product, and I’m immensely proud of it. There’s something about speckled yarn; it feels more “me”-ish, at least when I’m excited or chirpy. Solid colour is dense and definite; speckled colours dance on the yarn like giddy children in a playground, colours everywhere in a haphazard but perfect balance, much like galaxies, even the Universe itself.

It is this colourful, haphazard beauty of movement and vision that I am drawn to pursue and embrace in 2017, and I wish with all my heart that it works its way into your life too. As 2016 ended I was amazed by the consensus internationally that it had been the shittiest year for a long time and we were all only too glad to see the end of it. So I’m assuming you could use a little upbeat creative happiness this year… as could I.