Recently, I posted an Instagram poll asking about alternating skeins and knitting with hand dyed yarn. I will admit, I was surprised that when hundreds of people answered, it was a perfectly split yes and no. However, many of you who said you're not alternating also expressed some remorse about it… "I know I should..." or "I'm just too lazy." So, here's a pretty comprehensive collection of my thoughts for those of you who feel intimidated about alternating your skeins. I hope this might help as personally, I find my knits much more satisfying when I've gone through the trouble of alternating skeins.
First and foremost, I don't think anyone should do anything with their art. If you like what you're doing then who cares what anyone else has to say on the matter. Wondering why so many people advocate for alternating? It comes down to a matter of dyeing.
Types of Dyeing
For this conversation, there are two main types of dyeing: hand dyeing and commercial dyeing. Hand dyed yarns are popular and plentiful, and even some large companies are selling hand dyed (or sometimes called hand painted) yarns. However, the very largest yarn companies are most likely using commercial dying methods. If a company offers both they will typically label the hand dyed yarn very well to promote the extra work it took to create that yarn by hand.
Knitters love hand dyed yarn, it's often more fun to knit with and it produces the gorgeous tonal shifts that bring a stockinette sweater to life. There is a large drawback, though - it is virtually impossible for any two skeins of hand dyed yarn to be the same. When you're looking at even a small sweater quantity, you may end up with a skein that is visibly different from its mates. Sometimes it's easy to spot these differences, especially while winding yarn. Sometimes, it's really only apparent when you are knitting and seeing the fabric each skein creates.
"Pooling" is the term that refers to the splotches/blobs of color that happen when you're knitting a tonal or variegated yarn. The sections of the skein that are a certain shade are aligning on top of each other in your fabric. Additionally, the alignment of these sections will shift as your stitch counts change. Finally, if you're knitting a section of your garment in the round and a section flat, you'll see a noticeable difference in the way the colors stripe or don't in these different sections of the finished garment.
The more garments I have knit, the more I have dedicated myself to alternating skeins. Always. Unless I am working with a true solid yarn, from a large dyer, with numbered dye lots which are the same. Sometimes I make exceptions for seamless sleeve caps, and sometimes I still alternate three skeins in those sections in order to achieve the look I want. I’ve summarized my personal practices that have helped me use heavily speckled yarns in garments and love my results. Just like all of the other parts of knitting, there are no real rules. You can truly do whatever makes you happy with your knitting, these are just my practices in case they help.
The Good Girl Rules for Alternating Skeins and Knitting with Hand Dyed Yarn
- Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate.
I pay very careful attention to the skeins while winding them to look for outliers which may knit up differently. This usually looks like a skein which is a lot lighter/darker in overall tone, a skein with a lot more or less speckles, or a skein which has more of a certain color than the others.
- Decide the general plan.
If I noticed any outlier skeins, I know I need to distribute them as evenly as possible through the whole project. This often means alternating more than 2 skeins at a time. Yes, I know that's a pain, but I have never once regretted it. Otherwise, you will always end up with a section which looks noticeably different. If there are no outliers, I simply decide how many rows/rounds I'll knit with each of 2 skeins.
- Consider the garment construction.
If a knit is seamless with some flat knitting and some in the round, I usually alternate skeins every round/row. If the entire garment is knit flat or the entire garment is knit in the round I'll alternate every 2 rounds/rows.
- Keep Evaluating.
As I knit the garment I take note of the way the speckles are coloring the fabric. As stitch counts change and different sections are worked, many times I add in an additional skein to keep the color shifts visually similar. I find when I go from knitting in the round to flat I’ll often add a skein.
- Not Helical.
Okay, okay, if you like helical knitting, more power to you. I don't. I alternate skeins as if I am working intarsia. I drop the first skein, pick up the second and loop it around the first, then go on my way. I work the first stitch or two a little looser because they tend to tighten up, but I find this method causes way less distortion than the helical method for me. Additionally, in seamless garments, the twisting of the alternating skeins adds structure where the seams would be.
- Alternate Where You Will Notice It Least.
When knitting in the round, I’ll place the alternation where the seams would be. If I'm working a Raglan, I place the alternation in the raglan lines. I have been known to want to place a skein alternation at each faux seamline or each raglan line in order to add structure and balance the tension evenly at these lines.
- What about Sleeve Caps?
Sometimes, I will work short row set-in sleeve caps with three skeins, alternating with every short row. Sometimes, I just use one skein of yarn for the sleeve caps and it works out totally fine.
- Follow Your Heart.
Don't be afraid to use that colorway that sings to you. If you're not sure how it will look knit up, I find it very helpful to hold up the skein and squint. I like to use speckled colorways which look like one color when I squint at them. However, the only real way to know is to go for it. Not every knit needs to be a masterpiece. If you find a finished garment is unwearable for you, you can always reclaim the yarn or gift it to someone who loves lots of color!
I hope these tips encourage you to knit with yarns that make you happy and create garments that also make you happy! I would love to hear what you think, your practices, your favorite speckled project, or your questions, so please comment below!
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