Now back to our seminar on what to do with the stuff.
So, you've fallen in love with a skein of hand-dyed yarn. My first advice?
Let the yarn drive.
No matter how soft or subtle the color, these are strong yarns. Don't fight them.
Ask the yarn what it wants to be. I know, you really want to make Icarus. And someday, you will. But the more you ask, "Will this yarn work for ___?" rather than "What does this yarn want to be?", the less satisfied you'll be with the results.
How do you know what the yarn wants to be? First, here are a few topics we'll cover little, or not at all: gauge; fiber content; appropriateness of yarn structure to project. That's all stuff that you have to consider with any yarn. We're going to concentrate on issues that are specific to hand-dyed yarns. Which means . . . COLOR.
Chapter 1: Contrast
Let's be sure we speak a common language here. Color is commonly described as having three characteristics: hue, value, and saturation.
Hue is what we first understand by "color": is the yarn blue, pink, or yellow?
Value describes a color's position on the "gray scale" from white to black; it's what we usually mean when we describe a color as "light" or "dark." If you're having trouble identifying a color's value, imagine xeroxing it on a black-and-white machine: would it come out as a light gray or a dark one?
Saturation is the subtlest aspect of a color. It's sometimes described as how much gray or black a color contains, but I've never found that very helpful. Saturation describes a color's vividness. One way to think about it is from a dye perspective: does it look like there was lots and lots of pigment in the vat with the yarn, or just a little? How muddy is the color, or how clear?
Now, the most important thing I can teach you about color: visual perception is a matter of contrast, and contrast in value trumps anything else.
In other words: the eye sees light-dark contrast first.
Don't take my word for it. Do a simple experiment: get two strands of yarn, one a dark gray and one black. Put them on a piece of black fabric or paper, and you'll see the difference between the strands clearly. Then put the same strands on a white paper, and see how much alike the two strands look. From even a short distance away, they may look just the same.
Get it? When the strands are seen against a background of similar color and value, the difference between the strands is visible. But when they're against a much lighter background, the eye can't help but focus on the greater contrast--between dark strands and light paper--to the exclusion of the smaller contrast (that between the two strands).
Try one more: this time, find two dark colors--maybe eggplant and forest green. On the black background, you can see the difference between the colors much more easily than on the light--contrast of value trumps contrast of hue.
What does this teach us about yarn?
If a yarn has very light and very dark shades in it, the contrast between them will dominate the knitted fabric.
So: when you look at the skein, you may love the multiple shades of green at one end, and the variety of golds at the other. But when it's knit up, you're going to see yellowstripe-greenstripe-yellowstripe: the shadings within each will fade away.
And: even if 85% of the skein is a symphony of royal blues and plums and purples, it's the occasional shot of sky-blue turquoise that's going to jump out at you when it's knit.
And: even if the only color in the yarn is pink, if it varies from cotton-candy to fuchsia, it will obscure all but the simplest lace pattern. (What kind of contrast is stitch pattern? I think of it as a matter of value--knit/purl combinations "read" because of the shadows cast by raised or recessed stitches; openwork uses the shadow cast by the fabric itself--the eyelet holes appear darker than the knit surface.)
And: if you want to combine two yarns, and one or both of them is multicolor, the strongest contrast should be between the two yarns--even fire-engine red is likely to disappear against a "background" yarn with a wide value range.
SO: the first thing I consider about a skein is its range of values. How much difference is there between the lightest shade and the darkest? And does the whole range appear in even distribution, or is there a dominant value punctuated by brief shots of high contrast?
I'm reluctant to provide too many photo illustrations, because cameras tend to flatten color ranges for exactly the reasons I've been discussing: the camera focuses on the greatest contrast in the skein, and subtler areas lose definition. But here are some examples:
These two skeins use exclusively (in the case of the Claudia Mohair, on your left) or predominantly (in the case of the Koigu, on your right) light values. Note how different they look on the two backgrounds: the darkest tones in the yarns--lavendar for the mohair, medium green for the Koigu--disappear against the black background, but become much more prominent against the light one.
These two yarns both have wide ranges of color values: on the left, Great Adirondack Silk Noir in "Chagall"; on the right, Handmaiden Silk Maiden in something wonderful and nameless. Raw silks (like Silk Noir) yield colors that are dustier and less saturated than shiny silks do, but you can tell that "Chagall" is going to be a very active colorway in any fiber. The Silk Maiden, on the other hand, varies only from medium to very light--but that's still enough to overwhelm most stitch patterns. (The Silk Maiden has lots of rose in it that's unfortunately invisible here. You really ought to see it for yourself.)
Three skeins that are composed entirely of medium values (or almost entirely, in the case of the middle skein--Silk Maiden again--where the yellow is really a light). There's plenty of variation in all of these, but it's variation of hue, not of value.
An example of the problem of photography (at least in my amateur hands): in person, these skeins are examples of predominantly dark values, with medium accents (top photo) or light accents (bottom); on my monitor, all the highlights look lighter than they really are.
Now, on to the matter of saturation. Both of these skeins of Black Bunny Superwash DK are entirely medium-value. But Rocket Pop there on the left is very bright--that is, very saturated--while Plum Jam is very muted. (No matter what it looks like here, I swear to you, it's very muted.)
Two skeins of Andrea, both with entirely medium values, both with fairly low saturation. All that varies is the hue. Want to knit a complex lace pattern with a hand-dyed yarn? These are the sort to look for.
A few very saturated skeins, one with dark values and two with medium. No matter what you knit with any of these, color will be the first thing you see.
What's going on here? These skeins are more complex than the others because they've got variation of every kind: hue (at least three separate colors in each skein, plus shadings and mixes where they overlap), value (though note that none of the three has any really dark tones), and saturation (some colors are very vivid, some are washed out or muddy). Once they're knit up, the stronger colors will tend to jump out, and the muted will recede.
In our next lesson: color patterns, repeats, sequences--and the dreaded pooling.