A sweater expert’s advice on alternating skeins

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.

The search for the perfect navy

Yelena Navy main

In order to get some different perspectives on hand-dyed yarn, I will periodically run posts by other knitters. Yelena Malcolm Dasher, AKA ymalcolm on Ravelry, is incredibly talented and lightning fast, and she can probably finish more sweaters in a year than I could hope to complete in my lifetime. She’s also one of the coolest people I know. I guarantee you will become a fan of her writing as well as her knitting. —Lisa

Navy. It seems like such a simple thing, really. Pea coats, pencil skirts, blazers — they all come in navy. So why is it so hard to find that perfect navy in a hand-dyed yarn? As someone who has never tried her hand at dyeing, I can only conjecture based on the almost-navies I’ve encountered. The number one problem seems to be a tendency toward purple. I once saw a gorgeous version of Madelinetosh‘s Clematis colorway which was, I thought, the navy I had been searching for. Several purchases across different bases led me to conclude that either that one photograph didn’t represent the color well on my monitor or that single skein was an aberration. Clematis clearly leans purple. I tried other Tosh colors including Ink and Thunderstorm without getting the navy my mind envisioned. So the hunt began.

I was looking for deepest, darkest navy. The navy that looks nearly black in your closet until you hold it next to actual black. This is, apparently, a tall order. Quince & Co.‘s Pea Coat colorway, while not hand dyed, was the closest I could find for a while (and it became a zip-up cardigan for my dad) until I stayed up far too late on a Thursday night and managed to snag some Wollmeise DK in Admiral. When the package arrived, I was elated. This was a good, true, dark navy. Could it be a little darker? Yes. But compared with my other attempts, this was the closest. I started to knit it into a Breton-style striped sweater (which was subsequently frogged because it didn’t fit right and I’m still waiting to try again — perhaps as soon as I finish writing this).

Enter Ridgely of Astral Bath Yarns. She had heard my calls in the wild, my supplications to the hand-dye gods for Ultimate Navy. I like to think that she got out her alchemist’s robe and double-double-toiled-and-troubled over her pot just for me, but that’s likely just my narcissism talking. Whatever her motivation, when I saw the first photos of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, I did the knitter’s happy dance. When I snagged four skeins of Spectra and they arrived, the dance became more frenzied. Not a hint of purple, these. Just perfect, black-blue navy. In a bizarre twist of fate, however, I traded those skeins for four skeins in the heavier Spectra DK so I could make Mary Annarella’s Girl on Fire sweater. This lapse in my hoarding skills (why on earth wouldn’t I have kept both lots?) turned out to be more of a karmic offering: my sweater turned out perfectly, exactly as I wanted, and I was able to share the wealth that is RS&L with a fellow knitter.

Meanwhile, because one navy sweater is never enough, a new-to-me dyer popped up on my radar via the lovely folks at Happy Knits. Melanie, of Black Trillium Fibre Studio, seemed to have also decoded the perfect navy. I impulse bought six skeins of her Pebble Worsted in Moon Shadow and I’m glad I did. When they arrived, I discovered that perfect navy can happen in more than one way. These skeins were ever so slightly more tonal than the Astral Bath skeins, but they still achieved the look I wanted. Finding the perfect project for them, however, took a little more doing. Conventional wisdom says that dark colors don’t show off cables well. Yet I wanted a navy cabled sweater. When the Interweave Knits Winter 2014 issue came out, I decided I had found it in Amy Herzog’s Telluride Aran. Throwing caution to the wind, I cast on. And something amazing happened. Melanie’s base was so cable friendly that it didn’t matter that the color was the darkest non-black she dyes. The cables just sang in the yarn. With each passing row I became more smitten with the yarn and the color.

Yelena Navy 2

So now I have two perfect navy sweaters and, I hope, one eventually perfect Breton-style sweater, each using a different dyer’s navy. You would think a girl could be sated by this. But no, I’m constantly on the hunt for the next Ultimate Navy. After all, I still don’t have a cardigan!