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.


And While We’re on the Subject…

Click these links for sign ups for Holiday Giftapalooza and The Smart-Ass Knitters/World Domination Club.

Available Yarn is here.



Doing it.

It coincides perfectly with our little Sweater KAL, after all.

You saw me swatch this yarn. So you all KNOW the swatching happened in September. And it is now…November. And I’m just knitting the sweater now.

So why did it take so long?

I knew I wanted to do this right. This time, I’m working with Amy Herzog’s Fit to Flatter series. I’ve never worked with waist shaping that didn’t occur at the side seams of a sweater, or horizontal bust darts. How will this change the fit?

The sweater I’m knitting is the Cooke Cardigan (Amy’s pattern in the fall issue of Knitscene), in the colourway The Pursuit Of Meh. I spent quite a bit of time with my measurements and the pattern to determine the right fit. I also really love the shaping in Amy’s version (Rav project page), which required a little more brain bending. Not difficult, mind you, but I’m a visual person and I often learn by doing, so I was having trouble picturing how this was all going to work.

Well, I’ve started:


I’ve finished the back, with all back shaping, shifting the “waist” up to the narrowest part of my torso.

And I’m well on my way through the right front.

Modifications so far:
1) Knitting the size that best fits my upper torso, with plans for bust darts
2) Modifying the bottom half of the sweater, so that the hem fits my hips. This requires extra decreases to the waist
3) Moving the “waist” up 3 inches to correspond with the narrowest part of my torso
4) Widening the fronts by 1″ for better coverage
5) Horizontal bust darts
6) Plans to decrease all extra stitches (from extension of width and bust darts) into the neckline

WHEW! Sounds like a lot, but now that I have it all mapped out, it’s really just fine. Again, as it’s the first time with this type of waist/bust shaping, I did have 3 runs at this shaping on the right front, but have now worked out the best way to do this and am very happy with the results.


Other (obvious) discovery? Worsted weight sweaters? SO. MUCH. FASTER!

Putting it into Practice: Sweater KAL

So we’ve talked about swatching and about making your sweater fit YOU.  What can that all look like when you put it together?

This summer, I knit Cria from Ysolda’s Little Red in the City, using the techniques and concepts Ysolda talks about in the first half of the book.


(it’s these buttons up the sleeves that really hooked me)

DSC_0014 copy

I started by knitting a swatch, washing it and testing it by hanging it and carrying it around in my purse for a week. This gave me excellent information about how the yarn would behave when knit into a sweater: how it would change when washed, how it would react to gravity and how it would wear.

There was measuring (of me) in more places than I’ve ever measured before.

There was comparing my measurements to the size chart of the pattern to find which size would fit me best.

I chose a size FOUR sizes smaller than I usually knit.  Why did I do that?  Because sweaters look best when they fit in your shoulders. I chose to knit the size that fit my shoulders (cross back measurement) and upper torso measurement best. And planned my modifications from there.

Note that the narrowest part of my torso is not at my waist, but just under my bust. This means that I will always modify sweaters so that the narrowest part of the waist shaping lands at this point.

My upper torso and the narrowest part of me are exactly the same size, which means that if I knit the size that fits my upper torso, it will always fit the narrowest part of me as well.

BUT! My bust is larger. Four inches larger, to be exact. Which means that in order to make the smaller sized sweater work, I had to add bust darts to make the sweater 4 inches larger for the short time the sweater needed to be larger.

Also: my hips are larger, and this is an A-line cardigan. So the other modification I made was to add extra increases down the length of the skirt of the cardigan, to match my hip measurement.

I also made the skirt longer, as I wanted to wear this as my fall “coat”.

And because the sleeves are knit top-down (in fact, the whole cardigan is), the sleeves are actually the right length!

All did not go perfectly smoothly. My first run at the bust darts placed them far too high. The second run had them a touch too large. So there was ripping back. But ripping back and re-knitting with the knowledge that this was a learning process and that the end goal was to make a sweater that fit well. And, you know, I like to knit. 🙂 Go into this process with the mindset that you’re learning a new skill, and new skills take practice. It’s completely worth it in the end.

To summarize, here are the modifications I made:

1) Chose the size that fits my upper torso, cross back and waist (narrowest part of torso) measurements
2) Added horizontal bust darts, using the instructions in Little Red in the City, starting just under the fullest part of my bust
3) Added increases evenly down the skirt to increase to my hip size and the length I wanted
4) Knit sleeves the length of my actual arms so that I wouldn’t have to do this again.

So after all that, I have a sweater that fits PERFECTLY for the first time ever!

Make It Fit! (or, No, I’m NOT Wearing My Mother’s Sweater)

Looking for yarn?  Click here for all available yarn

Want to order the perfect yarn for you? 

Find all our Undyed yarns in stock here (descriptions, prices and number of skeins available are listed with each base) We will update this as more yarn becomes available.

And choose your colours! We will also update this page as photos become available.

Until November 1, 2011, all yarn ordered for the Sweater Knitalong (sweater amounts only) is 10% off! Just mention that you’re participating in the Sweater KAL of Doom when you place your order.

Let’s face it: almost none of us are “sample size”. Standards are set for each “size” in the knitwear industry so that there is just that: a standard. If every designer out there had to create a pattern to fit every single one of us, I’m fairly certain they would all quit.

So we have a choice. We can knit sweaters, hoping they kind of fit. Or we can learn to make modifications to the patterns to make them fit us. The first one is the hardest. And often there is ripping out. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent the equivalent of weeks on sweaters that never get worn because they look like crap on. Shoulders are halfway down my upper arm. If it fits my bust, it’s tight across my hips. If it fits my hips, it’s baggy from the waist up.

I’m done.

So I’m on a mission to make sure every sweater I knit from now on fits. Fits the body I have now.

To help me, I’ve been reading some resources:

I started with Sandi Wiseheart’s SweaterWise. This was a workshop, with chapters emailed every few weeks, and worksheets and spreadsheets with formulas to make a completely customized sweater. The Wheatgrass Truffle cardigan is the sample pattern used in this course.

Amy Herzog’s Fit to Flatter series: This is an excellent resource available free as blog posts, or for $10 US, you can buy the series as a PDF. Amy goes through a series of exercises that give you a better sense of what your body actually looks like, what is generally flattering for your shape and how to modify all sweaters to make them fit you better. Yes, one of the exercises involves dressing in close-fitting clothing, photographing your whole body and marking up the photographs to really understand your shape. But it really helps. I found out I’m not top-heavy, as I’ve believed my whole life…but actually proportional. Which is not at all what I would have thought of my body shape. And my waist/narrowest part? Not even close to where I thought it was!

Ysolda Teague’s Little Red in the City: The entire first half of this book is all about how to make sweaters that fit you well. Measuring yourself and how to transpose those measurements onto a pattern is key, and Ysolda takes you through those steps. My only criticism is that although she tells you to look at the measurements in the schematics of a pattern to determine which size will actually fit you best, and where to make adjustments…but there are no measurements on the schematics in the patterns in this book. So there is a bit of guesswork for those of us who are visual people. (It’s not too difficult, and if anyone is planning to knit Cria, I can help you with that).

So what makes a good fit?

1) Having a realistic view of your body shape, and choosing styles that suit that shape. Everyone has at least one element of their body that they hate. Time to get over that, and working with it.

2) Taking accurate measurements. All three of the above resources talk about how to do that. a) have an accurate measuring tape available (I have a cloth one I bought for $1 at Fabricland that I only use for measuring myself…my knitting tapes get stretched and tossed and I’m pretty sure they’re way out of wack). And although all three resources have some similar elements they ask you to measure, Amy and Ysolda go into more detail…both provide measuring charts and detailed instructions.

If you have someone available to help you, you’re likely to get more accurate measurements.

What I’m doing: I’ve decided that every time I knit a new sweater, I’m remeasuring my body, and labelling the chart with a) the date and b) what sweater I’m measuring for.

3) Determine how much ease, and where that ease should be. Sweaters look best when they fit well in the shoulders, with minimal ease. Equally important is a good fit through your bust. Not tight, but you can get away with 0 ease or even a little negative ease. In actual fact, the largest part of your bust is only the largest for a short amount of your knitting. You may want more ease through your waist and hips.

If you have a sweater that fits you well, it’s definitely worth measuring the sweater itself and comparing those measurements to your body measurements. Where do you prefer more ease? Where does a closer fit flatter you most? Consider keeping a fit notebook or spreadsheet that keeps track of those measurements.

4) The fabric itself. This is where swatching comes in. All the measuring and modifications in the world won’t matter if you don’t take your swatch into consideration. And if you knit a swatch that doesn’t match the gauge for the pattern, but you prefer the fabric, there’s nothing to say you can’t make modifications to the pattern based on the new gauge. It’s extra work, but consider this: you will be putting 20+ hours of your life into knitting this sweater. You want it to be right.  You want it to fit you and be made of a fabric you’re going to love to wear.




Swatching, or How to Avoid Getting a Sweater the Size of Manhattan

I’ve come to love swatching. I know. It’s crazy. But think of it this way: it’s knitting. It’s knitting with the purpose of making you a better knitter, learning about yarn and the fabric every yarn makes, and how that can make better finished knits.

I’m going to take you through my swatching process, complete with photos. I’ve tried many things over the years, and this is what works for me.

I haven’t learned it all on my own though. Most of my swatch boot-camp has come with practice, some success and a lot of failure, and some great advice from resources like:

Sandi Wiseheart’s SweaterWise
Yarn Harlot‘s Knitting Rules
Ysolda Teague: Little Red in the City

I’m swatching for Amy Herzog‘s Cooke Cardigan, which calls for worsted weight yarn knit at a gauge of 20 sts & 28 rows per 4”/10 cm square.

The first thing I’m going to consider is my yarn choice. The original yarn has alpaca in it. Alpaca and silk added to wool creates some drape. I’ve chosen superwash wool. Superwash also creates some drape, so I think I’m going to be fine.

I’m swatching with Merino Sock, doubled (working with 2 strands at once). One of my favourite, most worn sweaters is knit with this combination, so I know it will work. I’m also using a subtley variagated yarn, so working with 2 strands at once will help mix up the colours.

I almost always start with the recommended needle size and cast on more stitches than are called for. In this case, gauge is measured at 20 sts; I cast on 30. Gauge is measured at 28 rows of stockinette; I knit 35 rows.

My swatch:

Your swatch is practice for your sweater.

One thing that I’ve found to be important with swatches, is to treat the swatch the way you’re going to treat the sweater. If you’re going to machine wash and dry the sweater, make sure you machine wash and dry the swatch. If you’re going to soak the sweater, squeeze out the water and lay flat to dry, with no additional blocking — do that with the swatch as well. If you’re going to steam block or wet block the sweater every time you wash it: steam or wet block the swatch.

Because I’m not likely to wash or iron or steam block the sweater as I’m knitting it, I’m going to measure the gauge of the swatch BEFORE washing. This will let me know whether to expect any changes to the fabric.

One trick I find helpful in seeing if my gauge is on track, is to use contrasting yarn to stitch lines on each end of the stitch and row numbers:

Horizontally, there are 20 sts between the orange lines. Vertically, there are 28 sts between the orange lines. (to mark row gauge, I stitch through the centre of a line of stitches, count up 28 rows and stitch through the centre of that line of stitches)

So when I lay a ruler down, I can tell whether I’m on gauge or not:

(stitch gauge is 20 sts per 4”/10 cm – exactly what’s called for)

(row gauge is 29 sts per 4”/10 cm – off by 1/4 of a stitch per inch)

At this point, I make notes on a little tag that I will tie to the swatch when I’m done.

And wash the swatch:

I always make sure there’s lots of room for the fibres to expand and align themselves. Soaking really is magical.

When I removed handknits from water, I’m very careful to support the fabric. Wet fibres are very weak, and I don’t want any unnecessary stretching or warping of the fibres and stitches to happen. I have a large colander I put handknits in to transport them from water to where they will be blocked and/or dried. I gentley squeeze as much excess water out of the piece as possible…but DON’T WRING IT OUT. Gentle squeezing is enough.

I laid the swatch out on a small towel and rolled the towel up to soak up excess water. (with a garment, you may need to do this 2 or 3 times with fresh towels to get most of the water out). Then I laid the swatch out on a dry towel on a flat surface to dry.

(excuse the dark photo…it was really late!)

Once dry, I measure the swatch again. (there was no change to the gauge) And then I hang the swatch. Think about it. How many times will you be wearing your sweater while lying flat out on the ground? (Don’t answer that. I have very pristine views of all of you. Let’s not change that.) Most of the time you will be sitting or standing and gravity will have something to say about how your fabric will behave.

So I hang my swatch. You can use clothespegs or binder clips to clip it to a hanger. I use the shelving unit in our office:

I leave it overnight. Given 12 + hours, the fabric’s going to stretch as much as it’s going to.

And then I measure one last time.

Stitch gauge: dead on

Row gauge: dead on!

At this point have the celebratory drink/cupcake/chocolate of your choosing.

More often than not, you won’t get the result you want on the first try. Sometimes it’s way off. Sometimes your stitch gauge is fine, but your row gauge is way off. Many times I’ll knit swatches with a few different needle sizes in the same night, and put them all through their paces. I tend to be a very loose knitter, so often have to go down a needle size or 3 before I get gauge. And sometimes, when I knit 2 or 3 swatches, I may find I like the off-gauge swatch fabric better, or that row gauge is impossible to get. If I like the fabric and how it behaves, I will make adjustments to the pattern to suit the new gauge.

Want to join in on the gauge discussion? Have some tricks and tips of your own? Join us on Ravelry.