Case Study: Same Dye, Different Fiber
In my job as editor of Interweave Knits, many yarns came across my desk, and a lot of color cards, as well. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that independent dyers often send a color card of their whole shade range, all dyed on one of their yarn bases. You can order the color in any of the bases, but with the way dye takes to different fibers, the final color of the yarn I order may not look quite like the snippet on the color card—because I chose a different base from the color-card sample yarn.
It hasn’t been a problem; the colors are close enough to serve editorial purposes of palette and story. But it does intrigue me. There’s something interesting here, a story about fiber, dye, science, and a little bit of magic. What happens when we let natural fibers do their thing?
My curiosity led me into the booth of Sincere Sheep at The National NeedleArts Association’s trade show. I was attracted by a wall of plump skeins in pretty earthy colors, and then greeted by Brooke Sinnes, proprietor of this small company based in Napa Valley. My roving knitter’s eye locked onto a skein of matte plied wool that jumped out at me—a yarn with character. It was Sincere Sheep’s Equity Sport (at left). And as I stood there bouncing it and turning it in my hands, Brooke talked to me about her yarns, her natural dyeing, and then, that very thing I’d been thinking about—how dyes take differently to different yarn bases. I perked up and got out my notes.
Later, Brooke sent me four skeins, four different yarns, all dyed in the colorway Deepest Desire. You can see them below. From left to right, they are: Equity Sport (100% Rambouillet), Diaphanous (80% merino, 20% silk), Agleam (50% superwash merino, 50% Tencel), and Resolute (100% superwash merino). There is a remarkable difference in the final color of these yarns. They reflected what Brooke had said, “There are five main reasons for the difference in how one colorway looks on different yarn bases: the original color of the undyed yarn, how well the fiber (given its content) takes up dye, how reflective the fibers are, how the fibers were processed and spun, and the interaction between fiber and mordant and/or dye.”
THE NAKED YARN
Dyers work with undyed bases, which range from a bright, snowy white to a creamy yellow. Obviously, the starting point affects the color when dye is applied. Brooke also works with bases that have natural animal colors—gray and brown— blended with white. Shalimar Yarns, another independent dyer (see the orange yarns below), starts with ecru bases, except for yarns that contain camel, which is a champagne color.
This phenomenon is illustrated nicely in the Masham yarn from Lorna’s Laces (see swatch at right). One ply is a mix of British wools and one ply is Masham, a particular British breed. The two plies and fiber types take the dye differently, leading to the heathery, mélange look in the knitted fabric. Beth Casey, owner of Lorna’s Laces, developed this yarn with the mill in England and was surprised with this result: “I knew that superwash and non-superwash yarns behave differently in the dyepots because of the pH variance, but I had no idea that fibers from different breeds did, too!”
What about superwash yarns? Brooke Sinnes explains. “The superwash treatment process for wool also affects how much dye attaches to the fibers. A superwash yarn consistently dyes a deeper shade than its non-superwash counterpart when exposed to the same amount of dye.” You can see this difference plainly in Sincere Sheep’s superwash merino Resolute—it’s the darkest purple of the four yarns here.
I’m holding Sincere Sheep’s Agleam (above, second from the right) in my hand, and it has a deep color and incredible luster. This yarn is 50% Tencel, a cellulose fiber that qualifies as a kind of rayon. “When viewed under a microscope,” Brooke says, “fibers such as silk, alpaca, and Tencel reveal why they are so much shinier than wool. Their fibers are smooth and lack the multitude of scales present on wool fibers. How shiny a yarn is affects our perception of the color.” Kristi Johnson, owner of Shalimar Yarns, uses a lot of luxury fibers in her line: silk, camel, cashmere, and more. “With its high Tussah silk content, Haven (below, on the left) takes the dye differently and produces a more heathery look. Paulie (below, on the right),” she continues, “with its 20% camel, has a ground color of pale champagne and tends to produce more understated colors.” The yarns shown here are all in the color Copper Pennies.
Of these three Shalimar samples, Haven is definitely the lightest in final color, though the difference is subtle. Kristi attributes the yarn’s lightness to the 37% Tussah silk and low-twist 5-ply construction, which gives the surface of the yarn a less dense appearance.
Beyond the types of fibers in a yarn, the way the yarn is constructed also affects color. “Fibers that were processed and spun using a worsted method,” Brooke explains, “result in yarns with a smooth surface that reflects more light. Fibers processed and spun using a woolen method result in a yarn with a more matte surface because the fibers are less organized. The surface of the yarn isn’t as smooth as the worsted yarn and therefore reflects less light.” Sincere Sheep’s Equity Sport is semiwoolen-spun, while the other three yarns shown are worsted-spun. Some of the beloved yarns on the market right now are woolen-spun—that matte, tweedy, woolly look is very popular at the moment—think Harrisville Watershed, Brooklyn Tweed Shelter, et cetera.
Both Shalimar Yarns and Sincere Sheep are hand-dyers, producing small batches at a time. Shalimar Yarns uses chemically-derived dyes—colorfast, acid dyes. Kristi Johnson uses kettle-dyeing and low-water immersion techniques to achieve a rich range. Brooke uses natural dyes for her yarns—meaning that the sources are found in plants and organisms. “The fact that I use natural dyes has a huge effect on the colors I can achieve, although I am always trying to push the boundaries. Synthetic dyes can be pure pigments whereas natural dyes are always a blend—so natural dyers don’t have the flexibility to achieve such a huge range of colors that synthetic dyers do. Additionally, my dyes are an agricultural product that’s subject to the whims of mother nature and the effects of location, so each batch can vary from the last.” Brooke adds that the chemistry of the water can also affect the end color. “It’s complicated to get repeatable colorways,” she says, “and more labor-intensive.” But as you can see, the end result is splendid—here, an earthy purple that sings a different tune in different fibers, each one pretty and particular.
There are many more reasons that different fibers take dye differently. If you’re curious, you can find a lot of science to explore. But the next time you pick up a skein at a fiber festival, hold it to the light, and think, “This orange is magnificent!”—consider why and how that color came to be. The fibers we knit with are unique and, before we even knit with them, have characteristics that should be celebrated. It’s a labor of love for these companies to bring unique and artisan yarns to market, from ranch to mill to dyepot, and the stories added to each skein along the way will only enrich your knitting.
Interested in the Dyeing Process?