Hello, friends! My name is Becky, and I’m the one woman show behind Thistle & Hart Fiber Co., a hand dyed yarn company based in Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley. I’m so thrilled to have the privilege of contributing to the blog today, and to be able to be here in front of you, letting my freak flag fly. So here it goes…. I am… a yarn nerd. A big one. It all began pretty soon after I started crocheting. I visited my first yarn shop and immediately fell in love with hand dyed yarn (we’re talking hearts, butterflies, woodland creatures…I was smitten). I must have spent hours exploring that shop, drooling over the complex colors, and super soft, twisty hanks, but it was so different from the craft store yarn that I was used to that I found myself overwhelmed. It took a lot of time for me to get comfortable enough to begin purchasing and using hand dyed, but once I did, all bets were off. Eventually I started experimenting and dyeing yarn for friends and family, and that turned into my little indie yarn company. I love inspiring makers with interesting colorways and sharing what I’ve learned about yarn with other fiber artists who are just stepping into the world of ‘luxury’ yarn. I know the thought of investing in your first skein of hand dyed yarn can be downright intimidating, but I promise it’s a lot less scary than you think! Think of this as ‘Indie Yarn 101’- a place to learn all the basics of navigating the world of hand dyed. Let’s jump right in and I promise by the time you’re done reading you’ll be armed with the information to confidently chose, use, and care for your indie dyed yarn!
The biggest difference between commercial and hand dyed yarn is fiber content. Most of the yarn you‘ll find in your local craft store is made of synthetic material. Hand dyed yarn, however, is made from blends of animal and/or plant fiber and more often than not, that fiber is wool. While wool has a little bit of a bad reputation (just the word ‘wool’ can conjure up images of thick, itchy, fisherman sweaters, uncomfortable socks, or scratchy camping blankets), the vast majority of indie dyed yarn isn’t like that. Most indie dyers use Merino, a breed that’s known for its incredible, baby softness and creamy white natural color.
Of course, sheep’s wool isn’t the only animal fiber you’ll find from indie dyers. Some dyers carry Alpaca, which is incredibly soft, and is actually about 4x as warm as sheep’s wool. You’ll usually find it blended with merino or silk, or sometimes even cashmere, and it’s usually a bit more expensive than standard sheep’s wool. Here are a few other fibers you might come across either on their own, or in blends:
Cashmere: fiber from certain goat breeds
Mohair: fiber from Angora goats
Angora/”Bunny”: Fiber from Angora rabbits
Nylon: synthetic, but has a chemical structure that resembles protein, making it dyeable
Silk: produced by silkworms; there are several varieties
Tencel: fiber made from wood pulp
Those Beautiful Colors!
The best part about indie dyed yarn are the drool-worthy colorways! While commercial yarn is all about consistency, indie skeins are pretty much unique. Not only does each dyer have their own style, but there are dozens of dyeing techniques that result in colorways that are impossible to replicate with a machine. Each skein has been given individual attention, with the dyer soaking, layering color, setting, rinsing, and drying. Depending on the colorway, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to dye a skein! Here are a few terms that dyers use to describe their colorways:
- Semi-solid/tonal: a colorway that’s comprised of one color in varying strengths
- Variegated: a skein that’s been dyed with multiple colors, have either random spots of color or more intentional sections
- Speckled: a skein with little flecks of color
- Self-striping: yarn that has very long stretches of color usually for making striped socks
There’s no rule for what kind of colorway you should use for your project, but it’s worth noting that variegated yarns with highly contrasting colors can look a little bit blotchy when they’re crocheted, whereas with knitting, they leave beautiful little lines of color. That’s not the case for all variegated yarns, but something to keep in mind.
Yarn weights are pretty universal, but if you’re used to looking at the number on the back of your yarn label, you might find yourself a little lost. Most dyers don’t use weight numbers to describe their yarn. Here are the names of the different weights of yarn, and their correlating numbers:
0 - Lace weight
1 - Fingering/Sock
2 - Sport
3 - DK
4 - Worsted
5 - Bulky
6 - Super Bulky
You’re probably familiar with most of these weights, but some of the yarns on the lighter end of the spectrum may be new to you. And even if you’ve heard of them, chances are, if you’re new to hand dyed yarn, you’ve never used a light weight yarn. I’ve found that a lot of people, especially crocheters, are a little leery of using a fingering weight yarn. Stitches are small, and compared to heavier weights, projects are pretty slow-going. But if you have the patience to crochet a blanket- even a small one- you’ll have no problem with lightweight yarn! There are a ton of gorgeous hand dyed skeins of fingering weight yarn out there, and it would be a shame to dismiss a colorway that really speaks to you just because it’s on a lightweight base!
Choosing Your Yarn:
Now that you know about your fiber, weight, and color options, how do you go about choosing the right yarn for your project? It all depends on what you’re thinking of making. If you’re planning on socks, try choosing something with a little nylon- it’ll give your yarn the strength it needs to hold up to being walked on. Single ply is always a great choice for things like hats and shawls. Doing colorwork? A multi-ply yarn is a better choice than a single ply, because stitches with multi-ply yarn have crisp edges. What about using multiple colors? Hand dyed yarn is perfect for mixing and blending colorways! Using a tonal or variegated colorway with a skein that has complimentary speckles is a great way to add interest to your project. And a lot of dyers carry mini 50-100 yd skeins meant for adding little bits of color to your make. They’re a great way to include something like a neon without committing to a massive amount of a color you wouldn’t normally use.
Caring for Your Wool Makes
This is a big one. Caring for hand dyed is much different than caring for commercial yarn. A word you’ll come across a lot while looking at indie yarn is “superwash”. This means the wool has undergone some sort of chemical treatment to remove the scales on the outside of the fibers. That’s right, wool has SCALES! When you’re trying to intentionally felt something like soap or a bag, you use alternating hot and cold water and friction. The scales expand and contract, grabbing onto each other and making a solid fabric. Removing the scales helps to prevent this from happening, meaning that technically speaking, superwash wool can be put into a washing machine on a gentle cycle, though most dyers will strongly recommend you don’t take that chance.
The best way to care for your finished piece is to fill a sink with cool water and a little bit of wool wash (preferably containing lanolin) or baby shampoo. I wouldn’t recommend using regular detergent or dish soap, as they can strip your wool of its natural oils. You want to press your finished piece down, gently squeezing the water and bubbles through it, without rubbing it. Let it soak for about 20 minutes, then repeat the process with clean cool water. Remember, the less you handle your piece, the better, but you also don’t want to leave a bunch of soap in there! Occasionally a skein of yarn will bleed slightly when you wash it. Most dyers work really hard to prevent this, but occasionally, for any number of reasons, it happens. If you’re washing a project that has a very light color or neutral and a contrasting dark color, it never hurts to toss a Shout Color Catcher sheet in while your piece soaks.
Next, gently squeeze out as much water as possible, without wringing, and roll up your piece in a dry towel. You can put the towel on the ground and slowly step on it to help squeeze out some of the water. Then lay it flat somewhere to dry. If you hang it, gravity will take over and your piece will dry stretched out and distorted. Another good option here is blocking. You can block your piece by laying it out on blocking mats, or a large piece of cardboard, and using straight pins to pin it down on the board in the shape it’s meant to be. You’ll be surprised at what a clean, professional look this gives your finished work! It’ll also open up any special stitches and lacework, making them look much more polished.
There really is something special about using hand dyed yarn. There is so much love and care that goes into each project- from the slow dyeing, to the care you take in choosing the right skein and color combinations, to the hand washing and blocking. The finished piece is always a unique creation specifically designed for the recipient. And yet despite all that, it’s important to remember that, it’s still yarn- don’t be afraid of it! Get out there and explore! Squish, read, search, and I guarantee you’ll fall in love like I did. And while you’re out there, keep in mind most dyers are happy to answer your questions about their yarns, whether it’s a question about yardage or fiber content, or even if you need help choosing the right colors for your project- we’ve got your back. For me as a maker, there is absolutely nothing better than seeing someone who’s been inspired to create with my yarn, especially if it’s the first time they’re using a hand dyed skein.
Good luck out there, makers! And if you’ve been inspired to jump in to the world of hand dyed, tag me on social media using #IndieYarn101! I would love to see your beautiful projects!