The fall fiber festival season is in full swing, and I know many of us have been lured into buying that beautiful skein of hand-dyed yarn without a plan for how to use and love it. Well, I’m here to help with this.  I sold beautiful hand-dyed yarns for 10 years on the Yarnover Truck and I gained a lot of knowledge that i want to share with you. I’ve created a series of blog posts to help you feel more confident when you are Creating with Hand-Dyed Yarns.  This is the first post and I’m going to help you to understanding the terms and names of the different hand-dyed yarn techniques.

Commercial or Machine-Dyed Yarns

First off, let’s talk about commercial or machine dyed yarns. These are obviously not hand-dyed, but this is still an excellent place to start. Commercial yarn companies can create solid colors when they dye in a single hue. These colors are applied to fibers before they get spun into yarn. Commercially dyed yarns are what you see most often in the big box craft stores like Joann’s and Michael’s, but many of the more prominent brands carried by your local yarn shop are dyed this way, too.

image of 6 skeins of yarn sitting on a window sil.  The colors going from left to right of light blue, teal, royal blue, dark blue,dark blue and a lighter purple.

As you might have guessed, hand dyeing is the process of applying dye to a textile by hand. The colors are accomplished by people power, and this human touch is what makes it so beautiful! Hand-dyeing allows the creation of colors that a machine simply cannot. And each dyer gets to add their own unique spin or take on these different techniques to make their amazing creations.  

I will explain many common dyeing techniques and what the resulting skeins typically look like to help you better understand what you’re buying. I am not a dyer, but I’ve got many friends who are, and many have helped me create this series. If you know more, it helps everyone!

Semi-Solids

Let’s start with semi-solids. These are as close to a solid color as you will likely find from hand-dyers, and it’s when they dye using a single-color hue. The color variations come from two things. First is the nature of the hand-dying process, where the colors get applied in a dye bath of water. You end up with the natural color variations because of the unevenness of the dyebath. The other reason is that most indie dyers work with skeins spun by a mill, which means they’re dyeing fiber already in yarn form. Often, the dye adheres to the yarn unevenly, and there is no way to redistribute the color to make it even in this process. 

Below is Minty Unicorn from Anzula. It was the first exclusive color we ever carried and ordered for the Yarnover Truck and is a great example of a semi-solid colorway.

Closeup image of three skeins of a light green yarn color.

Tonals

Next, let’s talk about tonals. This is where things get confusing and a bit more technical. A color tone is created by mixing a pure color or a hue with a grayscale color in the range between black and white. For example, if you added an almost black grey to a red, you would get a darker “shade” of red. Then, if you added a white or lighter grey to red, you would get a lighter “tint” of red. The different shades (darker) or tints (lighter) are the tones you get in the yarn and why these are called Tonal colors. No other colors are mixed in it, just the different shades and tints used to achieve the variations.  

A great example of a tonal color is Bunny Food from Yarn Love. You can see it along the bottom edge of this version of the Dippe shawl by Deanne Ramsay (Addydae Designs). You can see the light and dark sections easily showing off the tonal elements of this colorway.

The bottom corner of a crochet shawl showing a 6 rows of a green border plus stripes of white with a pink, orange and green multicolor above.

Something to keep in mind: semi-solid vs tonal will also likely vary from dyer to dyer. The colors from some dyers might look similar when comparing a semi-solid to a tonal, and some might be vastly different. When in doubt, ask the dyer which technique was used to create the color you are interested in.

Variegated

When discussing hand-dyed yarns, many people think of beautiful variegated colorways that appeal to us because of their wonderful mix of colors, and we buy them without knowing what we’ll make with them. These variegated skeins are typically multi-hued, and the final color result is achieved by adding layer upon layer of different colors during the dyeing process. Within the category of variegated colorways, you’ll find gentle or low contrast colors, wild variegation or high contrast colors, and hand-painted variegated colors. 

Hand-painting is when the length of the color can impact and add to the color variations. Long colors can look more variegated, while short repeats look less variegated, regardless of the actual number of colors being used sometimes. Hand-painted variegated colors are great for planned pooling or assigned pooling projects that have become very popular where the colors are painted onto the skein, and you might use a different stitch in your project when you come to that color.

1 skein of yarn with three swatches, one knit and two crochet forming a square. The yarns colors including tan, yellow, and red.
1 skein of yarn with three swatches, one knit and two crochet forming a square. The yarns colors include blue, white, green, yellow and a hint of pink. plus a wooden needle sizer in the share pf a truck.

I am very partial to these beautiful variegated skeins, and here are a few of my favorites. Goonies Grub from Candy Skein on the left is an excellent example of a gentle or low-contrast variegated color. The one on the right is Kaua’i from Destination Yarns. This was a popular color on the Yarnover Truck and a higher contrast variegated color.

For a hand-painted example, I had to show off one of the Ass colorways from A Whimsical Wood Yarn Company. This color is Notorious Ass and is perfect for a planned pooling project. You can see how she painted the colors on the skein once it’s unwrapped.

One yarn skein laying on the floor with another skein unwrapped surrounding it. The yarn color has white, shakes of blue, pink, yello and speckels.

Speckled

Another popular technique is the speckled dyed skeins. This technique is one of the most difficult to replicate from skein to skein because, essentially, the dyer is tossing or sprinkling the color onto the skeins in the dye bath. Usually, the “speckles” get added to a base color randomly. This is why these skeins can also be referred to as sprinkle dyed.

Canvas project bag with Yarnover Truck logo printed in with three swatches and 1 skein of yarn on top. The yarn color is white, pink, tan, red and green.

Ali from Western Sky Knits was one of the speckled colorways we carried on the Truck.

If you shopped from the Truck and were interested in this color, I’m sure you heard me tell you that if you liked how this color looked to buy it all that day. I couldn’t guarantee that it would match the next time we got more of that colorway. It would always contain the same base colors, but their mix and placement could change with every order.

Gradient

One of the more striking and beautiful dyeing techniques is the gradient. These are often referred to as ombre colors, too. With a gradient-dyed skein, you’ll notice that the color gradually changes as you work your way through the skein. The process of creating gradient-dyed yarn is a very labor-intensive one. First, the skeins are knit into sock blanks, usually using a knitting machine. Next, the colors get applied to the blank in sections. Then, the yarns are processed and rewound into cakes so you can see how the colors change throughout the skein. When the dyers create these, it is in small batches, and many do it one at a time. This is why these skeins are usually more expensive than other hand-dyed skeins.

This example of gradient dyed skeins comes from Apple Tree Knits. This was a special colorway created for one of the Truck’s yarn clubs. The process of creating these beauties was so much that Liz, the dyer behind Apple Tree Knits, no longer makes them because it was too taxing on her body.

6 gradient cakes in purple to orange to yellow. sitting on a white wood floow.

Self-Striping

The last technique I’m going to talk about is self-striping. Many dyers have a love/hate relationship with self-striping. They love how it looks at the end but hate the work required to create it. You might have noticed that very few dyers dye self-striping yarns, and I’m told mainly because of the added work. The dyer first decides how many colors they want to stripe, then they create buckets or jars with the different colors and lay the skeins into each container to add the colors. My friends at Inner Yarn Zen shared this image with me to show how they do it.

A work table with four mason jars with dye in them plus a ribbon on yarn going into each jar so the color is applied ot the yarn.

This whole setup just looks complicated to me, but it also makes me appreciate all that goes into creating those beautiful skeins.

And speaking of beautiful, here is an example of the fruits of their labor. All of that hard work does create some gorgeous stripes!

A pastel ball of yarn connected to the beginning of a knitted sock. The sock has stripes in varying shades of pink, teal, and light blue.

I hope you found this helpful. Now that you know what all the different terms means, it’s time to go yarn shopping. Here’s the next post in the series where I share my best tips for buying hand-dyed yarns, both in person and online!

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