All the yarn-y joy... and getting just the right color

On my studio Fridays I have been working toward getting a big tapestry on the loom. Because dyeing takes so long, I’m still working on that part of the puzzle though my fingers are itching to be weaving. I am finding that having some space between the days I’m making color and dye decisions has been helpful. The yarn I pull out of the pot dripping wet and prop in the corner of the living room to dry* might not get assessed until the next Friday. Somehow that lets my brain relax around those decisions and I’ve found myself much more willing to accept what came out of the pot even if the small swatch I was dyeing from feels different in the larger amounts of yarn.** So colors that I didn’t like when I hung them the last Friday actually seem great by the next Friday. I suppose that could be mostly the realization that if I don’t go with those colors or keep fussing with the formulas, I may never actually start weaving… but we’ll go with the first idea that space allows acceptance.

I spent last Friday dyeing and the rest of the weekend finishing up the dye run while scurrying around the “yarn management room.” That room which occasionally is pressed into service for very tolerant friends as a guest bedroom, contains a lot of things that spin. Here is the sequence that happens before I end up with yarn that is ready to be woven.

First you have to order a base yarn. Mine is Harrisville Design’s Koehler singles. It comes in 40 pound boxes.

Yarn arrival: Those boxes are full of white tapestry yarn.

This yarn is put up in approximately one pound cones. Obviously I can’t dye it in cones, so it has to be skeined. This is where things in the yarn management room start spinning. My Crazy Monkey skein winder was a great addition many years ago now. I was winding all my skeins with a niddy noddy which now seems completely insane.

The marvelous Crazy Monkey skein winder which has been making skeins for me for 5-6 years now.

The skein winder makes three skeins at a time but I have to be nearby to watch the counter so the skeins are the size I need them to be—tiny skeins for samples, larger ones for final yarn amounts. Then each skein has three or four figure-8 ties on them. Finally they can be taken off the skein winder to be weighed. I mark each skein with vinyl electrical tape with the weight in grams written on it. The tag is attached to one of the skein ties.

Weighing out skeins before dyeing.

Piles of skeins ready for dyeing

Though it has been casually referred to as a “fire hazard,” this is a good way for me to keep my plan sorted out as I’m going through a dye run. Each side of the step has a pile that will be one color. This is clearly a big tapestry.

Yarn waiting to be dyed sorted into colors. Stairs are useful this way.

Next the yarn gets scoured and soaked out at the same time and then gets dyed. Of course before the yarn actually goes in the pots, there is a long decision-making process about what the colors will be. I keep multiple yarn sample books and have a few that other people have created from which I choose formulas or concoct some new ones. Often I do some sample dyeing in mason jars because I can put multiple jars in one dye pot and get 8-10 colors quickly instead of each color having its own pot.

Yarn samples dyed in jars so multiples can be done in one pot.

I’ve been using yarn wraps to help me decide on the colors because I can get a better feel for what a combination will be like woven when the yarns are next to each other on a card. Soon I’ll do some quick woven samples, but this is an even quicker way to see the colors. I wrote a blog post about this last month which shows you how to make a yarn wrap and talks about why you might use this approach. The image below is after several days of sample skein dyeing—I liked these but needed some even grayer versions. They’re still in process.

Blue-violet yarn wrap example

Often I’ll play with what kind of toner I’m using in a yarn that I don’t want to be pure saturation. Sometimes I’ll use a compliment, but often I’ll use either black or brown. The photo below shows two formulas—one has more violet than the other—with black toner in the two balls on top and brown toner in the two balls on the bottom. Unfortunately my camera refuses to recognize the actual color of these yarns. (I can hear my photography friend say, shoot in RAW though I’m 100% sure I took this with my cell phone.) They are all blue-violet but you can see the difference that changing the toner from black to brown makes.

Same formulas top and bottom, black toner on top, brown on the bottom

I also make sure that not only do I mark all the balls with either a code or the dye formula but that I make yarn sample cards. Because after all that work, you want to be able to hone in on a formula faster the next time. These are just pieces of cardstock with holes punched in them.

It is important to me to track what I did so I can replicate it or create new formulas faster in the future.

Then the yarn gets dyed. Currently my dye studio is my garage but one day I will again have a separate shed to dye in. Despite the lack of hot water (or any water besides the garden hose), I did love this dye shed my sweetie cleaned out for me in a prior home. It takes real dedication to sweep out all the packrat nests so I could have a roof over the pots and myself. I have dyed in the sand in carports, on open back patios, in garages, in a rental house’s woodshop, and in a state-of-the-art dye studio in college. Of course the college studio was the best, but after that, this little open mouse-infested shed was my favorite. Probably that is because it was just for dyeing and I didn’t have to store all the stuff somewhere else between dye sessions.

Some of the yarn I’ve dyed for this project.

And then there are the sample skeins that somehow just don’t match the final skein. I dyed the smaller skein in a jar and it is true that the amounts of dye being so much smaller, they aren’t always accurate. This one was pretty far off when I dyed a larger skein. For this project, it is close enough.

Sample skein to the left dyed in a jar, full skein with same formula dyed a few days later… not exactly a match!

Then after all the dyeing is done, more winding. I can’t use yarn in skeins so it has to be made into balls. My Nancy’s Knit Knacks ball winder with electric base is amazing though it still takes forever to wind all the yarn.

Nancy’s Knit Knacks ball winder with electric base, yardage counter, and umbrella swift

So when I look back at that, I think maybe I’m nuts to dye my own yarn. I could purchase weaversbazaar or Paternayan yarn in hundreds of colors and that would be enough. But then, after I forget the hard manual labor and messy “dye studio” garage, I remember the sheer joy of being able to make almost any color I want to. The adventure of that is stunning and I can’t give it up.

Last I looked I only had about 25 pounds of base yarn left. Might be time to reorder.***

Below is a Facebook Live I did showing myself using some of those revolving tools.

Do you dye your own tapestry yarn? What makes you do it? Tell us in the comments.

I’ll be making some more YouTube videos this year, so if you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so HERE. The subscription just means that you’ll get a notification when I post a new video or if your notifications are turned off, you can find me in your subscription links on YouTube.

*Because: winter in Colorado.

**Bear with me here. I’m trying to rationalize the excruciatingly slow progress on this project beyond just the facts of having to work on other things the rest of the week.

***Because one of my favorite strategies is just to allow myself to keep dyeing until I get what I want. I either use the extra yarn later or bring it to retreats I teach for students to use. If you use enough yarn to get wholesale prices and you can sell the excess, why not? Oh yeah, maybe lifting all those heavy pots should be taken into account.