How to knit with hand-dyed yarns
As Elizabeth Bagwell has been raving about hand-dyed yarns, we asked her for some tips for how to knit with them.
Hand-dyed yarns feel the same as commercially dyed yarns as they slip through your fingers. You can use a hand-dyed yarn to knit any pattern that you’d use a commercially dyed yarn to knit. That said, they do have a few quirks you might want to be aware of.
1. Most hand-dyed yarn needs to be wound
Hand-dyers work on a much smaller scale, so they don’t have the fancy ball-winding machines big companies do. They typically sell yarn in what’s called a skein (UK) or hank (USA). This is essentially a coil of yarn, like a coiled up garden hose. As with the garden hose, you want to uncoil it carefully to avoid a big knot. The easiest way is to get one person to hold the yarn loops tight across two hands while the other winds a ball starting at a loose end.
2. Colours look different knitted up
We see colours differently depending on what they’re next to. This means that hand-dyed yarns with dramatic colours can look very different in the skein, in a ball and knitted up. The ball gives you a better impression of the colours, as they’re more jumbled.
3. Many colourways are unrepeatable
It’s not that dyers don’t want to repeat a colour, they may not be able to. So if you want to knit a big project, buy yarn for the whole project at once as later dye lots may not match well.
4. No two skeins are identical
As they’re hand made, even skeins from the same dye lot will vary. This means you’re unlikely to get identically matching socks, mittens, etc.
5. Dealing with pooling
Many hand-dyed yarns have short colour changes, where just 2-10cm (1-4in) of yarn is dyed each colour. When you knit them up, the colours may ‘pool’. This is where the same colour stacks on top of each other each row. You may like the effect or you may not. If you don’t, knit 2-row stripes using two different balls of the same colourway. The colours won’t sync up so much and pooling is avoided.
6. Colours may shed in the wash
Even if a hand-dyed yarn is machine washable, it’s a good idea to wash a garment by hand the first time as a little bit of dye will often come out. Hand-dyed yarns are often not fixed as firmly as industrial dyes, as the chemicals required are too dangerous to use at home. This means that you may see some fading over time. That said, I have socks made from lovely bright yarn dyed by a friend in their kitchen, which I have machine washed dozens of times with no noticeable fading, and commercial yarn which is a ghost of its former self after a couple of careful washes.
7. Washing instructions vary
Washing instructions are often conservative as no one, particularly a small business, wants you to ruin your knitting. Knit a swatch and wash it on your usual setting to see if it’s safe to treat your hand-dyed project that way.
Last updated: February 20th, 2015.