Felicia's Notebook, SweetGeorgia, Taking Back Friday

Our 10 Favourite Tips for Working with Hand-Dyed Yarns

Tips for working with hand-dyed yarns

Over the past month, we’ve continued reading through all of the responses from our SweetGeorgia survey and found that, overwhelmingly, many knitters have deep fears about working with hand-dyed yarns. We really do appreciate and value all of the feedback provided, and we want to help you face those fears.

In today’s Taking Back Friday vlog episode, I talk about helpful tips in answering these survey questions. At the bottom of this blog post, you can also find a downloadable PDF guide to act as a reference tool to feel confident in any of your future hand-dyed project planning.

Taking Back Friday is the space where I come every Friday to talk about knitting, spinning, weaving, and dyeing. I enjoy talking about the fibre arts and specifically, I like to talk about making time to make things. One of the fundamental things I believe and value is that it’s important to our well-being to make time to make things. That time is precious. And when you spend hours and hours making a sweater or a shawl from hand-dyed yarn, it’s important that the yarn performs well so you don’t feel like you’ve wasted precious time. 

So, reading through the list of things that knitters, weavers, spinners, and crocheters fear, it’s critical to us as a team of people who MAKE hand-dyed yarn, to ensure that the yarn is faultless. 

Among the survey results, we discovered ten major fears when it comes to knitting with hand-dyed yarn, so let’s talk about each one and I’ll offer some ways of approaching, or resolving, each situation.

starts at: 1:54

1. Fear of bleeding

This is the biggest fear that we all have when working with hand dyed yarns. The fear of bleeding is the fear that you’ll knit something out of hand dyed yarn and then when you go to wash it, the colour will run out of it and either leave your garment a paler or duller version of what you started with OR the colour will run out of it and into another lighter colour yarn. Both of those situations are terrible and to be avoided if possible.

Before I dive into bleeding, I want to preface this by saying true bleeding is hopefully pretty rare. The way I personally define bleeding is like this … if I were to submerge my yarn or fabric into cool to warm water and plumes of colour are flowing out of the fabric… that’s what I consider bleeding. If, however, I’m washing or wetting my knitted fabric during the wet blocking process and there is a tinge of colour in the water bath…. that, I don’t consider bleeding. That’s just some excess dye that is rinsing out and that should go away within two or three rinses. With some colours like magenta or turquoise, it might take five or six rinses, but it’s still just excess dye. But if we’re talking about tons and tons of colour flowing out of the fabric, that’s when it’s an issue and if it happens to you with one of our yarns, then you just straight call us.

Now, let me first talk about what the dyeing process is, and then what bleeding is. In the dyeing process, in order to get colour onto these skeins of wool and protein fibre yarn, we use acid dyes. So acid dyes, in combination with the presence of a weak acid plus the addition of the correct amount of heat, will produce a permanent bond between the colour and the fibre. They will be permanently bonded to each other and cannot be separated. Acid dyes are beautiful to work with because when all goes well, all of the colour in the dye bath will bind with the receptor sites on the wool and there will be no more colour left in the dye bath. All the colour will be in the yarn and in the pot we’ll just have plain old clear water. That’s the goal at the end of the day when we’re dyeing… 100% clear pots. Even if the pots are clear, we still give the yarn a little rinse with clear water before we spin out the excess water and hang the skeins to dry.

There are a few things that can go wrong with the dyeing process and prevent those permanent bonds from happening between the yarn and colour. First, it’s possible that the acid is not added to the pot and so the acid environment is not there, which then the dyes can’t bind and so the loose dye will just be left in the dye bath and wash away. And any colour that is IN the yarn won’t be fully bonded to the yarn, so it will likely wash out too when you go to wash and block your cloth. The second possibility is that the temperature doesn’t get high enough for those permanent bonds to form. We call that the temperature at which the dyes will strike. If the temperature never gets high enough, the dyes won’t bind and will eventually be prone to washing out. And finally, the third possibility is that with a very intense colour formula that uses a large quantity of dye colour, it’s very possible that there are not enough dye receptors on the wool to accept and bind to all the molecules of dye that are in the dye pot. And so in this case, the excess dye will be left in the dye pot. And it might also happen that the excess dye coats the outside of the yarn and rubs off on your fingers as you knit with it. This is called crocking.

So there are some aspects of good dyeing and the prevention of bleeding that are the responsibility of the dyer — things like creating a good formula or recipe that doesn’t use an inappropriate amount of dye, ensuring that you add enough acid to lower the pH to a point where the dyes bind properly, and heating up the yarns to the right temperature for the right amount of time. Then it’s also the dyer’s responsibility to rinse and wash out any excess dye until the water is clear. Some dye colours are inherently problematic, like turquoise, magenta, mustard yellow and red… some of these colours don’t exhaust easily and might take a significant amount of extra time to cook or to rinse. But ultimately, that’s our job as dyers to take care of those details.

There’s also some responsibilities of the knitter or weaver or whoever is using the yarn at the end. I tell this to everyone who will listen… if you buy a brand new pair of dark wash jeans, is it a good idea to sit on a pristine white couch? Probably not a great idea. I sewed a quilt for my daughter and it had all these white half square triangles on top and then for the back, I decided it would be super cool to have a dark purple backing to my quilt. When I washed it, the purple seeped into all of the white triangles and my quilt came out pinky purple at the end of the day. How could this have been prevented? Prewashing colours separately. This is something I typically recommend to anyone who is wanting to knit fair isle or stranded colour work with very light and very dark colours. Prewash your yarns. Now, you’re probably thinking, why would I need to prewash my yarns if the dyer already washes them and ensures that no colour is coming out of them? Well, it’s a bizarre thing but water in different areas of the world has different chemicals in it, different hardness or softness, and all of this can affect how much the colour may or may not wash out of it. So even if we rinse the yarns here on the West Coast until they are clear, when the yarn ends up on the East Coast and someone goes to wet block their finished garment, it’s true, you might see some colour in the wash water. If you’re making a one-colour garment, it’s no big deal. If you’re making a fair isle sweater with white and dark navy, then I’d suggest pre-washing, just to be extra safe. You could even knit a test swatch with your colours together and wash and block it to see if any of the colours run together. If you have a situation with crocking, we’ve never found a good solution for crocking… you could try to wash the skein some more, but more often than not, it will just continue to crock. It’s more an issue with the dye formula for that particular fibre and usually it means the formula needs to be fixed. Again, if you find yourself in that situation you can give us a call or email.

So, if you are buying hand-dyed yarn from a reputable, responsible, and reliable hand-dyer, then bleeding yarn should never be an issue. But to be safe, if you are making a project that mixes two or more high contrast or very saturated colours together, then I would suggest making a test swatch and/or pre-washing your yarns.

starts at: 9:59

2. Fear of running out of yarn

If you and I were in a yarn shop together, and you said: I want to make this project out of this gorgeous hand-dyed colourway, but I’m afraid of running out of yarn … my suggestion would be to buy an extra skein of yarn, just in case. I know it’s an added expense, but it will be an even more expensive mistake if you find yourself running out of yarn when you’re three quarters the way through knitting your second sleeve. If you have that extra skein, and you haven’t wound it into a ball, it might be possible for you to return or exchange that skein for something else depending on the yarn shop you go to. I know the yarn shop here in Richmond used to offer this service where they would reserve and set aside an extra skein of yarn for your sweater… so if you bought five balls, they would save a sixth ball for you, put it in a bag and label it with your name on it. You could come back within 3 months to get that skein if you needed it. If you didn’t come back within 3 months, they would just return that skein to the shelf. It was such a thoughtful service. But if you don’t have that available to you, just get the extra skein.

starts at: 11:19

3. Fear of pooling

As you will know, hand-dyed yarn is dyed in hanks. In this format, it is possible for there to be a regular rhythmic repetition of colour. Say, if I have a spot that is lighter and then darker, every time I knit one cycle of this yarn, I’ll knit the lighter spot and then the darker spot. Now, depending on what circumference you are knitting, it is possible for those light spots or dark spots to start stacking and you’ll produce areas of fabric where the colour will pool together and it can look really distracting and terrible. This is one of the biggest fears of working with hand-dyed yarns. We are attracted to the nuance and variation in the skeins, but then when they knit up, we get all frustrated by the nuance and variation in the colour. To prevent this very issue, we can introduce more mixing and blending of those skeins in order to break up the rhythmic cycles of colour. So by that, I mean alternating skeins. So, for any garment project, I will alternate between at least two, if not three, skeins of yarn at any given time. If I’m knitting flat, then I’ll knit across and back with one skein of yarn, drop that one, then pick up a strand of a second ball of yarn and knit across and back with that one. So that’s two rows. If I am feeling particularly peppy, I’ll alternate with three balls by knitting one row with one, knitting a second row with a second ball, and then knitting a third row with a third ball, then when I go to the fourth row, I pick up ball number one again. Each time, I just knit across and drop that yarn, and then pick up the yarn from a previous row to keep knitting. This produces the most evenly blended hand-dyed colour and is an easy way to prevent unwanted pooling.

starts at: 13:36

4. Fear of knots

Nobody likes knots, I know. They are annoying. When I first started knitting, one of my favourite things to do was to buy yarn on cones so that I could just knit an entire sweater straight off a cone of yarn and never have to deal with joining yarns. But when I became a hand-dyer I came to realize that getting yarn on cones was a pain on its own because I’d have to wind the yarn into hanks before I could dye it. So then I’d eventually need to learn to join yarns. Then as I began working with yarn spinning mills, I saw how yarn was spun and saw how spinning yarns would break and then be automatically re-joined. I also was told by more than one spinning mill that it is in the yarn industry standard that one skein of yarn could have up to 5 knots in it and that it could be considered ok. I don’t know about you, but most of the knitters that I know would be pretty annoyed if there were five knots in one skein. At SweetGeorgia, we have a quality control process where every skein gets checked after it’s dyed and dried and before it gets twisted and labeled. Charlotte at our studio literally looks over every single skein to make sure it’s ok. If the dyers and the packagers or Charlotte notice that there’s an unusually high number of knots in a skein, we’ll pull it out of the system. But otherwise, if it’s just one or two knots in a skein, we encourage you to look at the tutorials we made about learning how to join yarns, either at the edge or in the middle of a row. It’s not difficult and it can free you from this fear of knots in your yarn.

starts at: 15:25

5. Fear of cost

For sure, this is a big one and it goes hand in hand with the challenge of time. Nobody wants to spend a huge amount of financial resources on something that isn’t going to turn out well. Wrapped up in this fear is creative decisions around choosing the right colours or choosing the right pattern, but let’s just talk about cost for now. For me, there is something that I learned early on that has guided all my purchasing decisions – that is to always buy the highest quality that I can afford. That doesn’t mean to buy the most expensive brand. It means buying fewer things but better things. Better quality things. It’s this idea of really considering the materiality of your material purchases. Will this fabric last? Will this fibre last? Will the garment that I make have longevity that honours the investment of my time into it. So for me, investing in luxury natural fibres ensures that the project will last for a long time. It’s for this reason that SweetGeorgia doesn’t dye singles yarns (single-ply). With singles, we might make a lot more business revenue in the short term, but it’s not what I want to put out there for the long term. I want your knitted projects to last for a long time. It’s how I honour and respect your time and effort. And that is also how I respect your financial investment in this yarn. So if you’re only able to invest in one skein of our yarn, that’s perfectly fine. Just know that we worked really hard to make sure that that one skein of yarn will serve you for as long as possible. It’s the fundamental principle here… to maybe buy fewer things, but better things.

starts at: 17:25

6. Fear of inconsistency

This is a very subtle fear… it’s a little bit related to the idea of pooling, but it’s really a fear that is mostly linked to hand-dyeing, I think. We love and use hand-dyed yarns because the colours present in a really mottled, tonal, shaded, and moving way. They are beautifully inconsistent. Hand-dyed colour is not flat or solid. It’s meant to have this shifting and unique appearance. One of the selling features of hand-dyed yarns for many dyers is this idea of uniqueness and that you never know what is going to come out of the dye pot. There are dyers I know that really enjoy the fact that the same colourway always looks different every time they dye it. It’s fun and exciting for them as the dyer to see the colours appear slightly differently each time they dye it. But just think about that from a knitters point of view for a second, and how frustrating that would be as a knitter. As a knitter, it would make me feel like I couldn’t trust a particular colourway… if I like it this time, would I like it the next time I see it? If I needed to buy an extra skein of yarn because I forgot to get an extra when I first started my project, would I be able to get one that would match with the skeins I already have? This is why we have another fundamental principle to our dyeing at SweetGeorgia and that is to dye everything as reliably and consistently as possible. I know it’s not sexy for an artist to be like: we’re going to be the most reliable and consistent dyers possible and make everything the exact same way every time. It doesn’t sound sexy or creative… but honestly it’s not about US feeling artistic or creative all the time… we are making supplies so that YOU can feel artistic and creative, and you can’t do that if you don’t trust the supplies that you’re working with. All this to say, you don’t have to feel inconsistency with us… our goal is to dye the same colour from dye lot to dye lot and from dyer to dyer. You shouldn’t be able to tell if Heather dyed this batch or if David dyed that batch — we want all our colour ways to be as reliably consistent as possible.

starts at: 19:56

7. Fear of not finding the right colour

I understand this fear for sure… when you order online and you can’t see it in person. Colours appear very differently on screen versus in real life, so ideally we would encourage you to buy your yarns in your local yarn shop. If your local yarn shop does not carry SweetGeorgia, then please ask them to contact us and we can fix that situation. Also there is a fear of choosing the wrong colours, so I created a whole bunch of content around that inside the School of SweetGeorgia. We have the Colour Play workshop which is all about creating colour combinations, and we also have the Colour Mastery course which includes a segment on personal seasonal colour and how to find the colours that look good on you. But ultimately, I’ve given myself some new rules about choosing colours for my knitting and weaving projects. 1) do I like the colour? 2) does the colour make me feel good? 3) does the colour make me feel good about myself? They sound like the same question, but the are subtly different. Do I like the colour? Is this a colour that I enjoy looking at? If I don’t like beige, I’m never going to want to be surrounded by beige. But question 2, does the colour make me feel good? I have a love for sunshine yellow and just looking at it lifts my mood. So it becomes a contender for the kind of colour that I want in my life. Does the colour make me feel good about myself, is somewhat related to finding colours that look good on me. If sunshine yellow is one of my favourites, but it actually looks bad with my skin tone, then I’ll consider wearing it as a skirt rather than right next to my face. So you can go through a similar checklist to find the colours that suit you.

starts at: 22:04

8. Fear of not finding the right pattern

Before we had Ravelry, you know what I had to do to find knitting patterns? I went to the public library… and I had to go to the reference stacks where all the Vogue Knitting magazines had been archived and bound into books… and I would flip through those books to find patterns. Now we have Ravelry and such an enormous overwhelming wealth of knitting patterns that it’s hard to know where to start. Now, we have our choice of patterns and we can see what people have knit, what yarns they used, and how the garments turned out. Finding the “right” pattern is more about learning how to match yarns and colours to patterns and techniques. We’ll never tell you which pattern is the “right” pattern for you, but my main guideline around using hand-dyed yarns for knitting patterns is to consider how variegated or high contrast your hand-dyed yarn is. The more variegated or high contrast the colours in your yarn, the simpler your knitting pattern needs to be. So, don’t be using handpainted yarns for things like complex lace knitting. The colours will obscure the texture and pattern of your knitting and you won’t be happy with the results.

starts at: 23:27

9. Fear of not being able to finish

That’s what the entire Taking Back Friday vlog is about… every week when I come here, I’m mostly talking about my knitting and how hard it is to find time to do it and about how I get distracted all the time by other projects. One of the reasons that I make this vlog is to share my struggle because I think it might be possible that you have this same struggle… and when we share what we’re going through, we can get support and encouragement from each other. When I get a comment that says, “Hey where’s your Hitofude cardigan?”, I remember that I was knitting the Hitofude and that maybe I should work on that next. So if you ever feel like you’re worried about not finishing your knitting or your craft projects, you can find support within the SweetGeorgia community at the School of SweetGeorgia. Right now, we’re collectively working on our Make 9 and our brioche projects. Tabetha is teaching a lace knitting workshop, and I’m working on weaving projects. As we do it, we’re sharing our progress and THAT allows us to move ever closer to the finish line. If you would like more support and resources to help you finish your projects, you can also check out my Epic Cloth workshop in the School. That comes with a workbook of tips and ideas too.

starts at: 25:05

10. Last but not least, the fear that I will ruin it

This is a big one. I feel like this is the situation when knitters buy yarn they love and then it sits on a shelf for years and years. Because you’re worried that you’ll ruin it somehow. Ok, here is how I resolve this fear… I’m a foodie – I really, really, really love food and I love eating. I’m not great at cooking. I like cooking and I enjoy entertaining, but I’m not a particularly good cook. If I get a beautiful heirloom tomato from the market and take it home to cook it, it’s very possible that I might do a poor job of cooking it. Maybe my knife skills aren’t the greatest and some of the slices are thicker than others, but in the end, I’m still going to eat it and I’m still going to enjoy it. I’m going to enjoy the colour of the tomato, the shine of the skin, the texture, the flavour, and tanginess or sweetness… I’m going to experience every bit of the sensation of that tomato. Did I ruin it? No, I experienced it. All of it. I extracted the enjoyment that I could out of it. And that’s what I want for you as you’re working with a skein of hand-dyed yarn. I don’t want you to fear it or think that you’re not good enough for the yarn. I want you to look at it, enjoy the richness and nuance of the colour, enjoy the feel of it in your hands, the feel of it as you make stitches… to extract the sensation, experience, and enjoyment of working with that yarn. And never fearing that you’ll ruin it…. Because as I have come to believe, there’s always more where that came from. 


Download our tips for working with hand-dyed yarns guide

This reference guide covers all of our top tips for working with hand-dyed yarns, addressing the 10 major fears shared in our survey when it comes to working with hand-dyed yarn. I’ll talk about each one and offer some ways of approaching, or resolving, each situation.


About Felicia Lo

founder + creative director of SweetGeorgia // designer + dreamer // wife + mama // dyer, knitter, spinner, weaver, youtuber + author // been writing this blog about colour and craft since 2004 // see what I am making @lomeetsloom and @sweetgeorgia.

Related Posts

One thought on “Our 10 Favourite Tips for Working with Hand-Dyed Yarns

  1. John Carston says:

    It’s great that you elaborated on the importance of knowing the right mixture for the yarn to prevent mistakes. My mother told me that she is looking for hand-dyed yarn and needles for her upcoming project, and she asked if I have any suggestions. Thanks to this informative article and I’ll be sure to tell her that we can consult a trusted yarn and hook shop.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *