Make & Hue, Make & Hue // issue 001 // Colour

To Speckle or Not to Speckle

Rainbow Sprinkles yarn

Question: Will you ever include a line of speckles to go with all of the stunning variegated and semi solids that we already know and love?

This has been on my heart for some time now and I feel strongly that I just need to put wrap some words around these thoughts. I’ve been told that in art or business, explanations are often not necessary nor are they expected, but I’ve long felt compelled to share this.

Trends will come and trends will go. Big sunglasses? Jeggings? That ombré balayage hair colour trend that has my husband saying, “doesn’t that just look like you need to get your roots fixed?” Even in knitting yarns, the trends come and go, some in short cycles and others in much longer cycles. Remember the novelty eyelash yarn that was around? Rowan Kid Silk Haze that was available as a preknitted tube? Even ombré gradient mini skein sets. The ombré trend has had a long ride so far. And another big trend has been speckled hand-dyed yarns.

In nearly each one of the ten classes that I taught at Vogue Knitting LIVE last winter, I got the question, “How do you dye speckle yarn?” And again the question came up just this morning during our Live Office Hours for the School of SweetGeorgia Dyeing Intentional Colour course. It’s what everybody wants to know. It’s the thing.

No doubt, the look of speckled hand-dyed yarn has it’s appeal. In a world of handpainted yarns, it feels fresh and modern, anti-establishment and vital. Like how sometimes wearing ripped jeans is exactly right for the outfit. It describes a subtle stylistic segmentation of knitters. Not all knitters dress in one style just like not all people have the same aesthetic. Everyone has a different personal style and a way of dressing, choosing colours and expressing themselves aesthetically. This is not about that at all.
This is about why SweetGeorgia doesn’t currently dye speckled yarns. It’s not an aesthetic issue. It’s not a style issue. For me, it’s purely a personal issue.

How could you know, if I had never shared this before, that SweetGeorgia in fact has a mini “manifesto” that we work by. Years ago, the thoughts, beliefs, and values that I carried around in my head and my heart were finally put down on paper. I personally lived by these principles for many years and finally, just last year, I shared this mini manifesto with our team. You can find the mini manifesto on our website.

There are a few things that this question of speckled yarns touch on for me.

On Consistency

One of the fundamental beliefs that I try to express through SweetGeorgia is that I believe that hand-dyed color can be beautiful and reliable. I say this often, that knitting something can take tens or hundreds of hours and at the end of the project, you want a yarn and a color that will work up beautifully, be consistent in hue and saturation from batch to batch, and last the lifetime of the garment. If a dye color runs or bleeds, ruining a project, it is heartbreaking. And so, one of the things we strive to do is to ensure we create consistent and trustworthy hand-dyed yarns. We are as flawed as any human being, but we strive for this ideal.

Depending on how the speckles are dyed on the yarn, it can be incredibly challenging to produce a colourway that will speckle the same way with each dye lot. The lack of control over the consistency of appearance is one of the things that we aim to avoid.

Since dyeing speckles involves sprinkling loose dye powder on top of wet yarn, there is often too much dye relative to the yarn that it can bind to. The result is that a significant amount of unbound dye that will wash out at the end of the dye process. This can lead to unpredictable results with the potential for colour bleeding when you wet-block.

On Health & Safety

If you are not a dyer, you may not know that the acid dyes that we work with are available to us as fine powder. Very, very fine powder. Fine powder is a hazard, in and of itself, as an inhalation irritant.

We always say that the most dangerous part of dyeing is mixing dye stock solutions. When you open a jar of dye powder, you can see the powder float up into the air. This fine powder can float through the air and land elsewhere in unexpected places. In the past, we discovered that if one dyer was mixing dye stock solutions from powder at the dye table, we could find dye powder residue on a computer terminal that was 10 or 15 feet from the dyers workstation. The ability for dye powder to travel is more insidious than you might realize and dye residue can be found pretty much everywhere in a dye studio.

Prolonged exposure can increase chances of developing respiratory issues. The solution, of course is to wear a mask.

At the beginning, I was very good about wearing my respirator all day every day that I was dyeing. I had read or heard about other dyers who had been affected by respiratory issues, but I figured it could never happen to me.

One day, I watched an instructor in a big dye workshop mix dye stock for us without a mask. I can understand — it was hot outside, just a quick demonstration, and it was “just for a second”. But those tiny, seemingly insigificant moments can be permissive. They gave me (what I felt was) permission to not wear my mask all the time. So when I went to mix dye stocks, I would opt not to wear the respirator and just tell myself “it’s just for a second”.

Over a summer of doing this, I started to find that I was constantly trying to clear my throat. And when I went to bed at night, it would feel like I couldn’t take a full breath. It was incredibly scary and I was freaked out about not being able to breathe well. I started to notice that on the days when I dyed, I would get this difficulty breathing. And when I was not dyeing for a couple days, the feeling would go away. It became clear that there was a direct correlation between my work as a dyer and my ability to breathe comfortably and normally.

What does any of this have to do with speckles?

The process of dyeing speckles involves tapping small amounts of undissolved dye power directly onto the wet yarn. It’s the ultimate nightmare situation for me. Loose dye powder being flicked into the air where it can be inhaled or sent flying to other people’s workstations is a health hazard in my view.

SweetGeorgia has always been a place where I come to push myself creatively. To constantly be experimenting with new colour combinations or dye application techniques. In addition to being strongly internally motivated, we are also, of course, inspired and moved by trends and fashion both in the knitting and non-knitting worlds. In recent seasons, in a response to the rough and rugged look of speckled yarns, we released new colourways like Windswept, Seedling, and Anthem that embody this strongly splashy and splattered look without using any loose dye powder. And I do love the random and impressionistic effect of these yarns.

Our decision not to dye speckled yarns is not at all an aesthetic or values judgement. I love what many dyers are doing. And I love what other dyers create with their colours. That is not the point. There are plenty of dyers that I absolutely admire.

In the textile and yarn industry, there are many fascinating and complex issues (like global vs local, superwash yarns, organic wool, and bamboo viscose, among many others). There are also many very grey areas where it’s hard to know what the “best” decisions are. But in this one issue, I’m reminded that we are nothing without our health. Something as basic as my ability to take a full breath is enough for me to say that the health and safety of those people I care for will always trump fashion and style.

To speckle or not to speckle. This is the simple answer for why we don’t dye speckles at SweetGeorgia.

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  • Grumpy Knitter

    I had no idea how speckles are made! I thought you’d have a dye solution and “flick” a paintbrush or something at the yarn, not place actual powder on the yarn. I do agree that consistency can be an issue, and whenever I’ve used more than 1 skein of speckled yarn, I’ve had to alternate skeins without a doubt.

    • For sure! There are mostly likely more than one way to make speckled yarns, but one of the techniques is to use dry dye powder. We do use a more concentrated dye solution (dissolved dye) for our Colour Splash colourways, which produces a more random effect, but not individual specks of dye :)

  • Thank you so much for supporting our decision, Suzie! I know it’s not necessarily a popular one ;)

  • patricia burgess

    I was so interested and pleased to read your company rationale about speckled yarn; just yesterday, I saw a young woman forego her mask because it interfere with speaking. – I was horrified.. Thank you for putting health and common sense first.,
    glad to know your priorities are so ethical.

    • Thank you so much for your feedback Patricia! Yup, it’s unfortunate… wearing a mask while dyeing is uncomfortable and a bit of a hassle….but so so so important :)