You see a gorgeous skein of variegated yarn and it immediately jumps in to your shopping cart. Once it's at your house you have no idea where to even begin. You cast on a few things, but nothing looks right. The pattern is obscured or the colors muddy. Quickly you lose patience and swear off variegated yarns forever. As someone who makes their living with variegated yarns, I have to say waiiiiiiiiiitt! Let me teach you some tricks before you swear off gorgeous variegateds entirely, ok?
Being able to read the yarn in your hand will help guide you towards patterns that really show the yarn off to its own gorgeous potential. This post is going to refer mostly to knitting patterns because I am mostly a knitter, but reading a skein of yarn is a good skill for our crochet and weaving friends, too. Ready? Ok!
Variegated hand dyed yarns are sold either as-is from the dye pot or rewound (aka rehanked or reskeined). There is a lot of information you can learn from both put-ups. One put up is not better than another. It is a matter of personal preference for the dyer. I've offered both and I've bought both from other dyers. To read more about rewinding, see this blog post from 2013.
Once you have a variegated yarn, knowing how to read the yarn can help you plan your next project. First, some definitions. The dyeing world is vast and sometimes people use different words for the same concepts or different definitions for the same words. Consider the definitions below to be working definitions for the purposes of this post.
What is a variegated yarn?
A variegated yarn is a yarn that has more than one color in it. Today I'm referring specifically to short repeat, spaced dyed (or space-dyed like) hand painted or kettle dyed yarns.
Space Dyed yarns are short repeat yarns that have a relatively consistent color repeat. The dyes are applied at regular intervals and create a (semi) predictable color pattern when knitted at a certain gauge using a certain number of stitches. There are other hand dyed yarns, such as speckles and true random no-repeat dyes, that are dyed in a small circumference skein but do not regularly repeat a color sequence. Those are not considered space dyed yarns.
Short repeat vs. long repeat
A short repeat variegated yarn will have a color repeat that is anywhere from a few feet to a few yards long. A short repeat variegated yarn may pool, flash, spiral pool, or all/none of the above.
Long repeat variegated yarns have a color repeat that will usually create regular stripes or a gradient effect. Hand dyed long repeat yarns will usually be identified on the label with the words self-striping, patterning, stripes, striped, gradient, or ombre.
Kettle dyed vs. hand painted
Some people reserve the term "kettle dyeing" to refer to yarns dyed in a big pot or cauldron filled with water and dyes applied semi-randomly. They reserve the term "low water immersion" for yarns dyed in a pan filled with a low level of water where the dyes are applied deliberately. For the purposes of this post, I consider kettle dyed yarns are yarns to be yarns dyed while immersed in water whether or not they are submerged in a pot or barely covered in a pan. Dyes are allowed to freely move where the water takes them. There is a greater degree of randomness in kettle dyed yarns, but some amazing new colors can happen when one dye color strikes another color.
Hand painted yarns are yarns that have pre-mixed dyed applied to wet or dry skeins in deliberate sections. Dyes are not allowed to migrate wherever they want. There is a greater degree of control from the dyer. The colors can be VERY saturated and there is little to no blending that occurs through happenstance. Any blending present was deliberately introduced by the dyer.
Rehanking is taking a dyed hank of yarn and winding it up again at a different circumference to neaten the finished yarn and redistribute the colors.
How can I tell if my yarn has been rehanked?
It can sometimes be tricky to tell if a skein of yarn has been rehanked or not, but a good indicator is that you can still see big chunks of color hanging out together in the hank. Another way to tell is to look for stray loops. This doesn't always happen, but sometimes yarns shift during dyeing and there may be a few looser loops in the hank that is not rewound, like the hank on the left. Rewinding neatens all of that up for a smooth, tight hank like the hank on the right. [Regardless of whether these "loose loops" are present, the yarn should not be tangled. Make sure all of your ties are smooth and that the yarn is facing the right direction before starting your ball. Fish out both yarn tails and everything should unwind with out drama.]
Which is better- rewinding or not rewinding?
Neither is better. I like both. I find it easier to see how the yarn was dyed when it is not rewound, but easier to see how the colors play together when it is rewound. My electric skein winder has rewound thousands of hanks of yarn until I stopped rewinding earlier this year. No regrets either way.
Reading the color repeat of kettle dyed yarn:
|Flower Shop Inferno|
The skein above is a short repeat variegated yarn. If you were to measure this skein you would find that the hank has about a 1.75 yard circumference and that the yarn is dyed across the skein rather than opened up and dyed around the circle. This means the color progression will double back on itself.
The color progression will be (primarily) orange, blue, purple, blue. We can see that the purple and orange sections are about twice as long as the blue section. I also know that one full color repeat of this particular yarn will knit about 1.75 rounds on a sock knitted at my gauge using a standard vanilla pattern. 1.75 rounds of a sock (for me) is 112 stitches. So there are 112 stitches per full color repeat. I can plug those numbers in to the Planned Pooling Calculator and get an idea of how this color might knit up at different stitch circumferences. (The calculator doesn't take gauge in to account, so swatching is still important.)
The colors are primarily orange, blue, and purple, but if you look closer there is also some green, and a blue-ish purple, as well. Those areas of color happened when the orange met the blue in the dye pot and when the blue met the purple. Those few inches of serendipity are a clue that this is a kettled dyed yarn.
The orange fades out and the blue fades in. If you look across the full width of the skein (the white line in the picture below) you can also see that the color is not consistent across the full width of the skein. This is a sign that this color was probably dyed using a kettle dyeing technique rather than laid out flat and painted by hand.
|Signs it was kettle dyed|
- Because the main colors have the regularity of a space dyed yarn, a planned pooling project will still work, but because the color transitions are soft and because the variation within each color is greater, the edges of a planned pooling project might not be crisp. There could be some feathering or softening of the pattern. In a planned pooling project, it will still argyle or stack, but it the edges of the argyle or stripe may be less defined.
- This color might be really good in one of the many shawls designed for handpainted yarns. It may still pool in spots, but because there is so much variation both between and within each color these soft color shifts will make the areas of pooling a little softer and a little less likely to stand out in stark contrast. The areas of pooling that do occur will add welcome bits of color accent.
- If socks are on the agenda, the socks will likely be fraternal shades rather than identical shades. They will be recognized as close siblings, but they won't be identical twins. That's ok! If we wanted a pair of perfectly matched socks then we wouldn't be knitting our socks by hand with hand dyed yarns.
|Photo courtesy of TheKnittingSarah|
Reading the color repeat of a hand painted yarn:
|Christmas is Coming|
I know that I can knit 1.75 rounds of a 64-stitch sock with this particular yarn. That's 112 stitches. 44.8 stitches (roughly) would be green, 11.2 white, 44.8 red, and 11.2 white. I pop all of those numbers in to the planned pooling calculator, choose the type of knitting I want (round in this case) and get get a good approximation of what the yarn might do in various knitting scenarios. In the ornament picture below, the bottom right bauble has a 64 stitch circumference at the widest point. See how closely it resembles the mock up that the pooling calculator gave us?
|Scrappy Christmas Baubles|
- If we do any planned pooling with hand painted spaced dyed yarns then the patterning will likely be sharper than if we used a kettle dyed yarn.
- Hand painted yarns can really highlight pools of color, making any pools in your project really pop out. Depending on what your objective is, this could be good or bad.
- If you are doing any planned pooling in an argyle- or column-type stack, then your colors will have a crisper definition.
- Your socks will be more identical than fraternal.
- The color in the yarn itself will likely be deeper, clearer, brighter, more saturated, and have less of a watercolor effect.
But my yarn is reskeined....?
I wound this hank in to a ball and then pulled out a few yards. I looked for any regular repeat to the yarn and started laying it out to get an idea of what the original skein looked like. Most variegated hanks will have a repeat that is about 1.25-3 yards long.
Do you have any questions or comments? Any ideas for future posts? Comment below or email.