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A sweater expert’s advice on alternating skeins

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This lack of alternating is not immediately noticeable, but read on.
This lack of alternating is not immediately noticeable, but read on.

Ed.’s note: When I knit a garment with hand-dyed yarn, I often waste a lot of time hemming and hawing before ultimately deciding to alternate. The one time I didn’t, with my Urban, it turned out beautifully, but I did consult with Expert Sweater Knitter Yelena Dasher before making that decision. So, I decided to again turn to Yelena, this time asking her to share some advice on when to alternate. Turns out, she has some experience to back up her advice. I think even her sweater “disasters” still look pretty awesome, but if you’re going to play with hand-dyed fire, you should definitely read this first.

Nothing is as decadent as laziness. Think about it: lying on the beach with a stack of guilty pleasure magazines or books, leaving the dishes until the next morning to enjoy another glass of wine and something on TV, not alternating your hand-dyed yarn because how bad could it be…?

Wait. One of these things is not like the other. Crusty dishes? Meh. Slight sunburn and a suspicion that you need $1,000 worth of new, must-have makeup and skincare products because the article said so? You’ll likely come to your senses before you remember your credit card number. But failure to alternate will likely leave you with a garment you won’t frog, but won’t wear. Because, holy wow, the sleeves really are a different color from the body and yes, everyone can tell that you changed skeins right where your hips start.

But do I always practice what I preach? Obviously not or this would be an incredibly boring, preachy post. I have selected some of my favorite cock-ups for your amusement and, I hope, edification.

Trapezius 3

Exhibit A: Trapzius. From far away we do not have a problem. Truly we don’t. I would argue that up close, while there is a problem, it is a manageable one and does not distract from my enjoyment of this dress. I had two skeins that had been purchased together and the third I got from a destash. In the hanks, they did look different, but not hugely different. However, once fully into the bodice, having not alternated, I wound the other two skeins and realized the outlier was an outlier. OK, I wasn’t going to start from scratch, so when the first skein was exhausted, I alternated with the other two for the rest of the body and sleeves. And if you zoom in on the photos you can see there is a more variegated vibe to the body from my hip bones down and the sleeves from the underarms down. End of the world? No. Should I have been better about alternating the outlier skein from the beginning? Yup.

In the Red

Exhibit B: In The Red. This is another example of shoulda, woulda, but hey it’s not so bad. Even a cursory look at this sweater will reveal that I didn’t alternate. That’s why there’s both pooling and a much lighter shade of wine running through my midsection. The difference is that I bought this lot of yarn at the same time proving that there are no guarantees in the hand-dyed world. Whether vagaries of the dye job, or accidental combining of different “lots” (and I’ve put lots in quotation marks because I know hand-dyers don’t have traditional lots, but I trust you all know what I mean), there is a strong chance that your skeins will not be uniform even if you bought them at the same time from the same place.


Exhibit C: Agrippina. Now we’re cooking with gas — Terrible mismatched gas. The thing is, I DID alternate on this one. Sort of. I had gotten four skeins beautifully matched in a destash and then ordered two more from the website. I begged for super dark skeins so that they’d match what I already had, but what arrived was… well… less dark. Fine, I thought, this thing has a belt and a big ruffle, I’ll use the lighter stuff there since I definitely don’t want light bits running through the entire sweater. This is, by the way, another tactic. I don’t swear by it, but other people do, and it is true that some stitch patterns obscure a mismatched skein better than others. But in my case, nothing was going to save this. I should have given up. But instead I knit an entire sweater with that huge ruffle. And where is that sweater now? Destashed. Someone else didn’t mind what drove me nuts. So that was a lucky break. Next time, I’ll just find a different project for the four matching skeins.

Boots Required It

Exhibit D: The Boots Required It. I’m guessing I don’t have to point anything out to you on this dress. The good news is, I have a partial skein that is more like the rest of the dress so I can rip out the silly areas and repair. The bad news is I made this dress two years ago and haven’t gotten around to fixing it…

Have I had lucky breaks where I haven’t alternated and everything has turned out peachy? Absolutely. But I enter into those arrangements knowing full well it is likely to bite me in the butt down the road. I have found that if I wind all the skeins I plan on using first, I can get a better idea of what they look like (or conversely, merely unwinding the hanks and looking at them next to one another can show if variances in color are uniform skein to skein, or if one skein is completely not like the others), and that some dyers are more likely to have consistency in a single order (the two skeins I had bought for the burgundy dress would have been 100% fine without alternating, it was the third skein from a wholly different update that required me to alternate), but if want to be assured that my project will be uniform in colors throughout, I suck it up and alternate.

So please, I implore you, think long and hard before you choose not to alternate with hand-dyed yarns. Sometimes the fates will be kind to you, but sometimes they will be very very, very unkind — and usually when you are so far along in your project that you’d rather bin it than start over (or at least that’s how it goes for me). And if you happen to see me wearing the navy dress and it still looks like this, remind me to fix it as soon as I go home.

If you want to ogle even more of Yelena’s fabulous sweaters, please go her knitting/fashion blog, Le Pull Juste.

What’s your philosophy an alternating skeins? Share in the comments.


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8 Responses

  1. I agree with the sentiment behind this post… but I don’t think any of your disasters are disastrous at all. I cant’ see any difference in color anywhere in the red dress, the purple sweater does have a bit of pooling but seems fine in the photo, the blue ruffled cardigan looks great as is, and I like the way the different skeins work in the turtleneck tunic… so perhaps I’m super lazy and will never have to alternate!

  2. In these photos the red dress is difficult to evaluate (and, in truth, is the one that bothers me the least), but I might be a bit of a perfectionist (except when I’m not) and feel like when I look at certain of my projects and see where I failed to alternate, it’s a big deal. Not so much for the visual and dear-god-everyone-sees-my-mistakes, but for the if-you’d-just-sucked-it-up-and-alternated-this-could-have-been-better 🙂

  3. I decided to add one of Yelena’s other Trapezius photos, which I think might show off the non alternating a little more clearly. It still doesn’t read to me as a “disaster” though, and just looks a little more obvious that the yarn is hand dyed in the skirt, which could easily be passed off as a design element if you were being a perfectionist. Yelena can certainly wear the hell out of that dress proudly.

  4. I’m wondering if you can offer some advice about how to alternate skeins on a larger garment. I’ve made a 2 skein shawl and it was fairly straightforward to alternate. But now I’m embarking on a sweater with 9 hand-died skeins. It is knit in pieces. I can’t possibly alternate all 9 (without losing my mind)…but don’t I run the same sorts of risks of the colors looking different if I only alternate 2 at a time?

    1. That’s a good question. I’ve alternated three skeins at a time before, so perhaps that’s the way to go? Also, if they’re pretty well matched (hopefully they are!), it shouldn’t be too noticeable in a garment knit in pieces.

  5. My question about alternating skeins relates to the edges of cardigans–the edge where I switched from one yarn to the other is more “stable,” while the edge where I turned the work and purled the same yarn back is much more drapey. I tried very hard not to pull the yarn to tightly during the switch, so I don’t think that is the issue. I’m at the point where I’m ready to add a button band, and I’m wondering if I can stabilize the “drapier” edge somehow before I add the band? And, if so, how would I go about it? I’d love this sweater to have front edges that are the same length! Thanks for any help!

    1. Hi LuAnn, I’ve seen a lot of knitters stabilize their button bands by placing a ribbon on the back. I’ve never done it before, but I imagine if you used a wider ribbon, it could help stabilize the twisted edge. You can also add a “selvedge” stitch and/or pick up one stitch in. That’s what I’ve generally done when I’ve alternated skeins on a cardigan.

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