Working with Hand Dyed Yarns

Working with hand dyed yarns is very satisfying and frustrating. Often at the same time. Variations between skeins can be difficult to manage. The things we love about hand dyes are also the things that make them challenging to work with. Especially for larger projects like sweaters or big shawls, where great variation between skeins…even skeins dyed in the same pot…is not uncommon. Whether working with a semi-solid or a sharply contrasted variagated yarn, here are some tips and tricks for bringing out the best in your hand dyed yarn.

Stitch patterns

Textured stitch patterns are a great way to break up the colours in a strongly variagated yarn.

*Asterisk* is a fine example of this. Stephannie requested a highly variagated colourway and planned her design to work WITH the variagation instead of against it.


Yarn: MCN Lace Colour: Paging Dr. Smart-Ass

Stephannie’s Roam is another great example. Laura purposely used this textured stitch pattern to break up the variegation.

Copyright Stephannie Roy

Alternating Skeins

If you’re knitting a sweater and your hand dyed skeins are REALLY different, sometimes the only solution is to alternate skeins.  When I do this, I tend to keep each skein/yarn cake in a different project bag (or ziploc bag) to make it easier to keep my strands from getting tangled.  (I also tend to only do this kind of knitting at home on my couch where I can keep one bag on the left side of me, and the other on my right. It forces me to think when I’m turning my knitting so the strands don’t get too twisted)

When alternating skeins, I always switch skeins at a seam edge so that the carried yarn will eventually be sewn into the seam and won’t show.  If that’s not possible, I look for the least obtrusive place to change yarns.  In the case of a sweater knit in the round, this may be in the “side seam” (where you would normally expect the side seam to occur. This will be hidden inside the sweater and will not be a place you have to look at often.  You’ll forget it’s there.) Or, if there are built in button bands, I’ll switch at the inside edge of the button band.  Again, neatly hidden away.

Underarms. Side seams. Edges of a new stitch pattern. Sleeve cap edges. Inside edges of collars. All of these are great places to “hide” your carried yarn.

Andrea’s Tea Leaves Cardigan is an excellent example of how alternating skeins can work. The skeins for this sweater were not at all uniform. Alternating skeins for the whole sweater was really the only solution.

Yarn: DK Organic Merino Colour: limited edition

And also my Cormorant:

Cormorant of Insanity

Yarn: MCN Worsted & MCN Sock Colour: Cliffs of Insanity (limited edition)

Alternating for a Few Rows Between Skeins

This is my goto method for larger projects.  I hate alternating skeins with the firey passions of hell. This method works well if your skeins are pretty close, but you can visibly see a difference between them. In fact, doing at least this much overlap between skeins is always advisable when knitting with hand dyed yarn.

When I’m fairly close to the end of a skein (enough to knit 8 or 9 more rows), I start alternating with a new skein. I alternate for 8-10 changes, cut the yarn from the first skein (with enough of an end to weave in later) and continue with skein #2.

I used this method with my Cria. This photo shows all regions of the sweater where I alternated skeins.

Cliffs of Insanity

Sweater: yarn - Polwarth Silk in My Boyfriend Had a Bicentennial Scarf: yarn - Merino Silk 4 ply Sock in Only the Exact Phrase I Used Was Don't

I’m pretty pleased with how well the changes blended into each other.

Both Reunion Cowls are a more extreme example of using this technique. With both cowls, I ran out of yarn well before finishing and had to pull skeins that didn’t at all match the ones I started with.

Reunion Cowls

Yarn: Merino Cashmere Blue: Rachel H's Tiara; Red: Self Elmolation

You can see the difference (well, I can), but they’re still very well blended.

Doubling Yarn

A few years ago, I fell in love with a sweater pattern and decided I wanted to knit it, but couldn’t find a worsted weight yarn I loved.  At the same time, sitting in my stash was a very lovely merino/silk fingering weight blend with skeins that just didn’t match well at all.

So I doubled the yarn and got this: a perfectly blended hand dyed yarn.


This is a technique I’ve used often for sweaters. When I belonged to Sundara’s yarn club, I scraped and scrounged, begged, borrowed and traded to get a sweater’s worth of her sock yarn in Deadly Nightshade. Every. Single. Skein. was completely different. There were skeins that were almost all dark purple. There were skeins with hardly any purple at all. But I valiantly doubled them up and made Off Kilter:


It remains one of my favourite sweaters.

And so this is also the technique I’m using for Cooke.

These are the skeins I started with.


Yarn: Merino Sock Colour: The Pursuit of Meh (light)

They’re OK, but some are definitely a different shade than the others. And they were all in the same pot. I’ve paired them up and now I have this:

Cooke Cardigan

Can you see where I changed skeins?

When one strand ends, I use a Russian Join to join a new skein in, and just continue knitting with 2 strands until I reach an end again. This means that I’m never changing both strands at the same time, which helps blend the colours further. (If, by some strange fluke, both strands end at the same time, I cut one several inches early to offset the joins)

The combined marks of the dyer’s hand and your hand can create beautiful fabrics, as long as you’re aware of the challenges and how to work with them.


5 thoughts on “Working with Hand Dyed Yarns

  1. Thank you! Wonderful post – I may start giving the link out to people who aren’t familiar with hand dyed yarn and the challenges and opportunities it offers. (And if I liked knitting cardigans, I’d be doing a Manu in And Then Buffy Staked Edward The End. But I think I’ll keep to my plan to find the perfect shawl for that colourway. Much easier on my head.)

  2. Great information for reference. May I recommend the book “Knitting Socks with Handpainted Yarn” by Carol J. Sulcoski for those who are just joining the group of us that have fallen for working with hand dyed yarn.

  3. Thanks so much for this great post! I hate alternating skeins, too, but a few rows? Totally do-able. I’ve also occasionally wanted to double strands of hand dyed yarn to make a thicker weight, but I thought it might muddle the awesomeness too much. Obs, I’ll need to swatch and see how it goes, but this is encouraging.

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