Planning for Handpainted & Kettle-Dyed Yarns

Knitting problems happen, and they happen to every knitter. This post series will collect some common knitting problems and offer some solutions that don’t require ripping out the whole project and starting over. There may be some frogging, but we’ll keep it to a minimum! See Love of Knitting for more great tips on fixing problems.

Although you can salvage almost any knitting project, it’s less frustrating to plan carefully so you don’t have to salvage. Planning especially pays off when you’re using any yarn that has been dyed over its original natural color. With mixed dyelots, handpaints, and kettle-dyed yarns, your knitting can all too easily develop unwanted “color zones” unless you arrange the skeins thoughtfully. Once those color zones appear, you’re left with only two options: frog and start over or overdye the project to change its color.

Check When Buying

Dyed colors can vary a lot even in commercial yarns, so manufacturers mark dyelots on ball bands. When you’re shopping at a local yarn shop (LYS), staff will probably ask if you checked the dyelots (or they’ll do it for you just to be nice). Good online retailers check ball bands before shipping, and if they have any questions about combining dyelots in an order, they usually email or call the purchaser for clarification.

However, dyelots can’t always save the day. Some companies that specialize in handpainting or kettle dyeing don’t indicate dyelots because their dye processes are meant to create variations. Other companies dye colorways in small batches of five or ten skeins—if you’re buying yarn for a big project, you may have to combine dyelots. Finally, skeins may display signifi cant color variation even within the same dyelot, as shown in Figure 1. Color variations show up easily in the purple kettle-dyed yarn, but they’re harder to spot in the multicolor skeins. In cake form, the nuances become more obvious (Figure 2). Staff at an LYS or online retailer might suggest swapping out a skein or two to even out the colors.


kettle-dyed yarns

Figure 1. Compare two skeins from the same dyelots of (from left to right) Dream in Color Classy, colorway Velvet Port and colorway My Fair Lady. Malabrigo Yarn doesn’t mark dyelots for certain colorways of Rios, shown here in colorway Diana.


Figure 2. Once hand-dyed yarns have been wound off into cakes, it’s easier to see variations in color.

What if you don’t have any option but to mix dyelots? What if you don’t notice the variations until you’ve wound the skeins into cakes or even swatched, and now you’re stuck with those skeins? Simple planning can save the day before you even pick up your needles.

Plan Ahead

First, assume that every handpainted and kettle-dyed skein will produce a one-of-a-kind set of colors. The skeins can’t help it—it’s how they were dyed, and it’s why we love them. But you probably don’t want stark lines across your project wherever you switch skeins (as in the swatches in Figure 3), so plan to alternate skeins for your project. The swatches in Figure 4 display blended colors without any noticeable breaks between skeins.


Figure 3. In these swatches, the break between skeins formed a distinct and unwanted line.


Figure 4. Here, colors blend seamlessly because I alternated skeins.

Practice swapping skeins as you swatch. Don’t skip the swatch because it will help you evaluate colors as well as gauge. If I hadn’t swatched my purple kettle-dyed yarns and had just dived into the project, the stripes that showed up from alternating skeins (Figure 5) might have surprised me.

Figure 5. Kettle-dyed yarns, by definition, show tonal variations, but there’s such a thing as too much variation. These two skeins of Classy just don’t play well with each other, unless I want stripes in my project.

If you’re working in the round, simply switch yarns at the beginning of every round, twisting them around each other to prevent holes from forming. If you’re working back and forth in rows, you have a couple of options for swapping skeins. First, you can switch yarns after every third row: work a right-side row and a wrong-side row with the first yarn, then work two rows the same way with the second yarn. You can also swap yarns every other row using a circular needle: work two right-side rows (one with each ball of yarn), then two wrong-side rows. When I swatched, that mental adjustment took me some time, so it was worthwhile to practice. If your project involves cable charts or stitch patterns, work through them on your swatch while alternating skeins—because you’re working two right-side rows one after the other, you may have to make some adjustments.

As you’re knitting the project, intermingle partial skeins. Let’s say you begin knitting with two skeins, A and B. Work through about half or two-thirds of those skeins, then drop A and add in a third skein, C. When B runs out, add in a fourth skein, D. This “staggering” of skeins will prevent any stark lines that could emerge if you knitted A and B until they were both used up, then switched to C and D.

Working from two skeins at a time will add some bulk and inelasticity to a garment lengthwise, where you switched yarns on alternate rounds (for a seamless sweater) or along the edge where you switched skeins (when working flat). Carry the nonworking yarn loosely so that both sides of a sweater come out at the same length. Always twist the strands around each other as you switch skeins, as though you were working stripes.

Fixes After the Fact

If you use handpainted or kettle-dyed yarns in a project without alternating skeins and you don’t like the lines that show up, you have two options:

1. Start the project over, this time switching skeins as described above.

2. Overdye the project, altering the colors that initially caught your eye and maybe smoothing out those abrupt color zones.

Overdyeing isn’t difficult, but there are no guarantees about the final color. Select a dye color that is darker than your yarn, or the dye process will have no visible effect. You may find that once is not enough, and you have to overdye again with a new color. (You can always dye something darker, but you can’t take away existing color without risking damage to the yarn.) It’s easy to find great resources on safe dyeing at home; click the link for my favorite books and web resources.

At best, your garment will come out with rich layers of color—okay, maybe you had hoped for a purple sweater instead of a dark gray one with purple undertones, but you salvaged the project! At worst, it’s time to abandon the project, though breaking up is hard to do. I’ve forsaken many sweaters over the years, vowing to learn from my mistakes and do things properly next time. The last disaster garment (Figure 6) really hurt because I’d spun and dyed the yarn myself, then knitted a pullover with slip-stitch bands at neck and cuffs. If I overdye this sweater, those contrasting colors might disappear entirely. However, if I hang this creation in my studio, where I’ll see it often, it will remind me to plan ahead next time!

Figure 6. I knitted my handspun, kettle-dyed yarn into a sweater without alternating skeins. It’s too easy to see where I switched skeins at the top of the sleeves.

Say no to the frog with Love of Knitting!

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