Friday, July 14, 2006

Hand-dyed Studio, pt. III

Wow! That was some day, yesterday! When I closed my eyes last night, I began to dream of skeins and colors before I was even asleep.

For those of you who missed it: yes, there's yarn left; and no, we're not sending it back where it came from. We won't be serving wine, but there's still plenty to see.

Those of you who have new yarn now need to know more about it. You've got some color theory and color vocabulary. Let's move on to the matter of dye "pattern" or color distribution.

There are two questions to ask here:

Are the lengths of each color long or short? With thanks to my colleague Carol, here are examples of short, medium, and long color lengths:

Note that there's no rule saying that all the colors in a skein have to appear in equal lengths. In fact, they seldom do. The white in the top skein would tend to dominate if it had as much area as any of the other colors, but as a shorter segment, it provides a pleasing accent "zap."

What effect does color length have on the knitted fabric? By and large, the shorter the average color segment, the more the colors will tend to blur together when knitted:

Longer segments produce more stitches of each color, and are therefore more likely to produce distinct areas of color:

Question 2: What is the length of the yarn's "repeat"? That is, how many inches or yards of yarn go by before you return to the beginning of the color sequence?
(First, a sidenote: must all hand-dyed yarn have a repeating sequence? In theory, no; the dyer could work along the length of the strand, applying colors one at a time in random lengths and sequence. In practice, however, almost all yarn is dyed in skeins. Because the yarn is wound in a series of virtually identical-sized loops, dye applied to one area of the skein produces color at regular intervals along the knitted strand.)

Mostly, the length of the color repeat is the circumference of the skein--but that's the dye-skein, which isn't necessarily the same as the skein in which the yarn is sold. (The form in which yarn reaches the retail customer is known as its "put-up": a 50-gram pull-skein, for instance, for Nashua Creative Focus Cotton; a 100-gram skein of approximately 42" circumference for Schaefer Yarns Andrea.)

When a skein is sold without being re-wound, it's pretty easy to determine the repeat, as with any of the skeins above. But when the skein has been wound into a ball, or re-wound into a different-sized skein, it's tougher.

Fortunately, this yarn's repeat length isn't lost forever. To figure it out, though, you'll need to open the skein. (As opposed to color-segment length, which you can usually see at a glance, or by laying the skein out flat and running your finger under one strand for a foot or two.)

On a large, flat surface, start drawing out a strand, and lay it in a doubled line:

Continue to enlarge the loop, always holding the part that's newly emerging from the skein next to the cut end. Eventually, one of two things should happen: either the sequence of colors on the emerging strand will start to duplicate the sequence from the beginning of the skein, or it will start to mirror it. If the strand repeats, the skein was originally painted like the short-repeat skein above. If it mirrors, it was originally painted like the long-repeat skein above.

Should you care which? That depends on what you want to do with the yarn. The chief difference is that only the mirroring skein works for the semi-famous "Pooling Colors Scarf":

This design works by engineering a single knitted row to use exactly half a skein-loop of yarn. When you turn your work at the end of the row, you're at the "fold" at one end of the skein. As you work the second row, each color lines up over the same color in the previous row--the same way the top of the skein lines up over the bottom in this photo.

If your skein repeats but doesn't mirror, you can't make the colors "stack" in any fabric that's knitted flat (i.e. by turning the work over at the end of each row). But you can make them stack if you knit a tube in which one knitted round uses up exactly one skein-loop (that is, one repeat) of yarn. Why would you want to? Well, you could make a bag, or a pillow.

Sometimes, the colors zigzag across the face of the fabric in surprisingly regular ways. Here's Jen's scarf made out of Anne, producing argyle all by itself:

Most of the time, though, this kind of stacking is what people want to avoid:

This is the medium-repeat yarn from the skeins at the top of the post. The break just above the center occurred when Carol broke off the yarn and rejoined it half a cycle later, just to see what would happen. Strangely, it shows signs of returning to the original pattern--white blotch in center of row--at the very top.

Commercially-dyed yarns, especially older ones (and that haircut tells you something about how old this one is), are also vulnerable to pooling.

(This picture courtesy of Wendy). It's not that the pools themselves are so unattractive; it's just that they never seem to land anyplace good. In this case, the problem is weirdly inherent in the garment's shaping: it was knit from the top down, increasing from neckline through shoulders, then dividing for sleeves and rejoining for the body; then the body tapered from bust to waist and increased again from waist to hips. But by a strange coincidence, the bust and hip measurements were the stitch-counts that used almost exactly one repeat of the yarn. Presto: stacking.

Perhaps the simplest way to avoid this kind of accidental patterning is to use two skeins at the same time, alternating a row/round or two of one with a round of the other. This also helps to blend any differences between the skeins--and with hand-painted yarns, there are almost always differences between the skeins. For larger projects that require several skeins, some people cut the skeins into smaller balls while they're winding them, and jumble the balls as they knit, to blend the colors as thoroughly as possible. This is a fairly extreme strategy; it should only be necessary when the skeins are visibly, significantly different from one another.

But my advice is: don't make plain stockinette-stitch sweaters from hand-dyed multicolor yarns. There are exceptions:

Why does this design work? First, the yarns have very short color lengths which tend to blur together. Second, the design uses multiple colorways; the greatest contrast is between colorways, so the eye concentrates on that rather than on variations within one color. Third, the colors change fairly frequently, so no single color appears over a large enough area to develop problematic blotches. Finally, while some colorways of KPPPM have a color sequence repeat, some do not.

Another strategy to avoid unpleasant side-effects of the color repeat is to combine yarns by double-stranding them. You can choose two multi-colors (their similarities will tend to reinforce each other, but their differences will be dampened; the overall effect will be busier but more muted than either one used individually)
[forgive me, temporary inability to find illustration. Hope to remedy later.]
or a multi and a solid:

Or you can blend many colors by changing one at a time:
[same problem again]

Finally, you can change the row length. If the knitting features rows of inconstant lengths, or proceeds in different directions, the yarn won't have an opportunity to fall into its natural repeat. Many shawls work this way: the Landscape Shawl,

triangular shawls that start at the center top edge:

(Faroese shawls are the same case, though knit from bottom to top).
Anything with short-rows, like the Perfect Pi shawl from Weekend Knitting:

Also, anything modular--things made of diamonds or log-cabin squares or mitered squares, like the Rambling Rows:

In all of this, you have to look for the changing row length. Just because the Clapotis is knit on the bias doesn't mean its rows are any less consistent than an ordinary rectangle; it's as likely to stripe or stack as anything else:

And entrelac, though it moves the stripes in different directions, is made up of thousands upon thousands of rows of identical length. The Half-Pi Shawl is mostly a miracle of blocking: at first, the stitch count (and therefore the row length) changes often; but when the increase rows get further and further apart, remember, every row from Row 90 to Row 184 has the same number of stitches--plenty of opportunity for patterns to develop.

This raises another concern about row length: the law of diminishing returns. At the small start of a triangular shawl, adding 4 stitches every two rows makes a more significant difference than it does in the long rows at the end. When the rows are long enough, the effect of the increases can be almost nil--or at least not enough to prevent color pooling.

In our next episode: stitch patterns, especially lace.


Leigh said...

Thank you for this fascinating explanation. I use these types of knitting and weaving yarns, and dabble with dyeing, so I've had questions about some of the things I've observed. You did a good job of filling in some of my knowledge gaps.

msloloknits said...

Thank you for the informative posts on hand-dyed yarns. I have never had it explained to me in this manner. Can't wait to get to the shop after the heatwave. Hope there is some yarn left.

jackie said...

Wow!Wow!Wow! Thanks for all the info! And the wonderful illustrations to get the infomation across!


Kate said...

So informative! [I actually don't mind the pooling in the 70s vest - there is something hypnotic about it.]

Anonymous said...

I ran across your wonderful post on hand-dyed (also pts. I, II, IV, V), but unfortunately (for me) the photos aren't showing. Any help?