Why & how to alternate skeins in a project.
If you're new to hand dyed yarn you may have seen advice to alternate your skeins while you're working, indeed it's in my FAQ's too, here's a little bit more information on why, when & how to follow that advice - or not!
Hand dyed yarn is an art as well as a science and due to the way most indie dyers work we won’t have dye lots like factory made yarn batches. Dye lots are a way to ensure you can colour match all the yarn you use for a project by getting the same dye lot number, these skeins will have been dyed together in the same vat, the same lot, so will have very little variation in the colour between them as the variables of temperature, dye mix, time, amount of water etc will have been the same for this batch of yarn. Commercial dye vats are often very large and can take many more skeins per lot than an indie dyer can dye together. There may still be some colour variation in commercially dyed yarn in the same dye lot but it is usually slight & doesn't require alternating skeins to even out. There can be quite significant variation in commercially dyed yarns from different dye lots so this is still useful info! This is quite normal.
Back to hand dyed yarns; due to the methods used to hand dye yarn colour variation, even between skeins in the same dye pot, is expected, it may be practically unnoticeable to the eye or quite distinguishable but it’s there and it’s not a bad thing! Each hand dyed skein is unique & these small changes often add depth & interest to a yarn. It looks very appealing in the skein and can make stunningly beautiful unique hand made pieces but can look jarring in a finished fabric if not done with intent, it can also look great but just not be the effect you wanted.
There are different styles of hand dyed yarn:
Semi - solid: This is a single colour with even dye saturation through the whole skein. Due to dyeing variables, including your base fibre and even which sheep it’s from, there will be areas of slightly lighter or darker colour throughout so it doesn’t quite qualify as a solid colour.
Tonal: This is a single colour with deliberately uneven dye saturation to get areas of different tone throughout the skein, lighter and darker, either randomly or regularly (say if a skein has been dyed in twist).
Gradients: Different colours or different tones of the same colour from light at one end of the skein to dark at the other. When wound one end will be light transitioning to the dark end of the skein, there are no colour repeats.
Ombre: Similar to gradient but the whole skein is dyed in the gradient so the gradient is repeated along each wound circle of yarn. If you had an unwound gradient yarn one end would be light getting darker along the length of the yarn to the dark end, the colour doesn’t repeat. If you had an unwound ombre yarn there is a gradient transition from light to dark multiple times along the length of the yarn, this distance will be the length of the Niddy Noddy used to skein the yarn so, for example, an ombre yarn may have a gradient colour transition every 34 inches along its length.
Speckles: Small dots or specks of colour(s) on any base colour. Due to the methods used in speckling even deliberately regular patterns will be different between each skein. Many dyers aim to have completely random speckles of colour. Think of it like hundreds and thousands on a cake, you won’t be able to get each speck in the same place across multiple cakes so your cakes won’t be identical but the effect will look the same.
Variegated: Now, variegated yarn is technically any yarn of more than one colour so gradient, ombre & self striping are all variegated yarns but we tend to differentiate them for ease of identifying the effect we want. What I am referring to here is every multicoloured yarn dyed irregularly or in a pattern that isn’t one of the above mentioned techniques. A lot of hand dyed yarns are variegated as it allows such freedom of colour use & is responsible for so many of the gorgeous yarns available from indie dyers.
Self striping: Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Long stretches of yarn dyed in multiple colours or tones of one colour so that when worked into a project it will form stripes without the crafter having to add other yarns. Commonly found in sock yarns.
This isn’t meant to be exhaustive but give you an idea of what I’m talking about. There are two different issues that come up with different techniques so there are different reasons to, and not to, alternate your skeins.
The most common one is colour blocking when using a semi-solid (usually but also can be an issue with speckles on a coloured base & some styles of variegation), an average jumper may use 6 skeins of yarn so you can end up with 6 different & obvious blocks of colour change or sleeves that are two tone and/or different from each other. All actually things very clever people spend a lot of time carefully working out how to do in many patterns because it can look wonderful but if it isn’t intentional it can look a bit odd.
Colour pooling is another ‘problem' that you may have seen many people carefully working through the maths to create, again the issue is intentional vs unintentional. Intentional colour pooling aims to give you an even & regular result throughout the whole finished fabric, unintentional colour pooling can mean you have discrete patches of uneven pooling that interrupts the colour flow in your finished fabric & looks out of place, it can be in one or multiple sections of the fabric. This can be a problem with variegated yarns. Not all variegated yarns will pool, it depends on how they were dyed, but the problem is it can be very difficult to tell which will or won’t before you use it, a yarn that potentially will pool may not with one pattern, gauge or tension but will in another pattern, gauge or tension, the time to find this out is not a couple of hours or more into your project!
Mismatched dye lots of commercial & hand dyed skeins - as discussed commercial yarn dye lots will be on the label but if buying at your local yarn shop (LYS) they may not have the quantity you need in one lot. Hand dyed skeins may or may not be from the same batch whether bought from the dyer or from your LYS. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.
A problem can be that swatches aren’t a large enough area of fabric for the potential issues to become apparent but the cure is the same - alternate those skeins! It really isn’t a lot of extra work, it certainly isn’t as much hassle as frogging work back and starting again.
This is one of those ‘do or do not, there is no try' situations. The very very first rule of knitting, or crafting, is ‘it’s yours, do what you like' so really anything goes as long as you like the results but when you have a specific result in mind then it is generally best to alternate from the very beginning of your project. You absolutely don’t have to but if you get some way in & find you have a blocking or pooling effect you don’t like then you can’t really start alternating at that point because you’ll have an obvious odd little bit that doesn’t match. So alternate or don’t but don’t start part way through & do accept that not alternating is an adventure that can lead to amazing treasure or a booby trap and you may be ripping back a lot of time and effort. As much as I love adventure I have to say the chances are it will lead to a booby trap. Sadly. Sometimes it’s hard to resist though!
Actually easy peasy! It is only very slightly different alternating when knitting flat or in the round but the main thing to be aware of is your tension when swapping yarn strands, pulling too tightly can cause your project to pucker. It may sound like a lot of extra effort but really preparation is everything and once you’re wound and ready to go there's very little difference while you’re knitting and only a few more ends to weave in. For the difference it can make to a finished project it is definitely worth it.
Alternating in the round:
Cast on and knit one round in pattern.
Add in the second skein leaving enough tail to weave in. Knit one round in pattern.
The yarn will be carried up the inside of your work. When you swap yarn strands hold the non-working yarn against the fabric by passing the working yarn over the non-working yarn.
Continue alternating yarn strands every round until finished.
Now there are lots of methods to prevent jogs in joins, holes or tension issues and which one works for you will be a combination of your technique and personal preference but I have found the easiest most simple way is to not twist the strands together. Simply work your round, pick up the new working strand with the old working strand in front of it, let the old working strand drop (to the back inside the project) and continue working when your tension is correct, the strands will be touching but not twisted around each other. With that said, always do what works for you.
Alternating in flat knitting:
Cast on and knit two rows in pattern.
Add second skein leaving enough tail to weave in. Knit two rows in pattern.
The strands will be carried up the side of your work. When you swap strands again hold the non-working yarn against the fabric by passing the working yarn over it. To do this drop your now non-working yarn in front on the now working yarn and bring the working yarn up behind to work your first stitch. This is much more simple than it sounds!
Don't pull too tightly here or you may end up puckering your edges.
Continue knitting two rows and alternating strands until finished.
But Sam, that’s 2 skeins & I have a multi-skein project!
I know! Unless you exclusively make teeny tiny things then you are likely to be using at least 3, and likely more, skeins so how do we deal with that?
You have a couple of options here:
The Stagger or The Mix ‘N' Match, both have pros and cons depending on your personal preferences. You only really need to consider these if you are using an odd number of skeins for your project.
One note before I start though - if you are making a garment with sleeves then regardless of the method you use for the rest of the project take 2 skeins (or however many are required to meet your yardage to do both sleeves), split the skeins in half and alternate between those skeins. This way both sleeves will look the same as they will have been knitted with half of the same two (or 3) skeins of yarn.
If you need 3 skeins for your sleeves (perhaps you have 50g or smaller skeins of special yarn) or 3 skeins total for your project then you can alternate as described above but with 3 strands instead of 2 & just remember to carry both non-working strands as you go. While in theory you could just use this method for all 6 or 8 or X number of skeins in a big project I wouldn’t recommend it for two reasons: 1) It's tangly. Yes, even you master colour workers or tapestry crocheters (not that you need my advice!), due to the carry it’s much more difficult to keep your skeins separate and tidy enough that something won’t tangle when you move your work, or just because it’s Tuesday, or raining or because it can and 2) Carrying multiple strands of yarn up increases the chance of intractable tension issues and looks bulky. Even if you nail perfect tension what was unnoticeable at the edge or inside now just looks lumpy and out of place. Don’t recommend.
If you have a project that uses an even number of skeins then you can simply alternate 2 by 2 using the method above. Before you start sort your skeins by colour and then into their pairs, wind and continue 2 at a time until you’re finished. If you have an odd number then you can choose between:
This is the halfway house of alternating because you’re not truly alternating all your skeins but you’re softening the transition so there’s no abrupt colour change. This is a method for preventing colour blocking but not if you suspect colour pooling will be an issue.
Before you start it is often helpful to sort your skeins so the colours that best match each other follow one another. Once you’ve decided what looks best to you knit or crochet until you have enough yarn left for approximately another 12 rows (in the flat) or 6 rounds (in the round). Then working in pattern:
Add skein 2: Work 1 round or 2 rows
With skein 1: Work 3 rounds or 6 rows
With skein 2: Work 2 rounds or 4 rows
With skein 1: Work 2 rounds or 4 rows
With skein 2: Work 3 rounds or 6 rows
With skein 1: Work 1 round or 2 rows
You’re now finished with skein 1 and can just continue with skein 2. As you can see you’re just mirroring the amount of rows you do with skein 1 and 2 after the halfway point to give an even transition between the skeins. You can continue this with as many skeins as you have in your project.
The Mix ‘N’ Match:
This is my preferred method simply because the set up is all at the front end and once I have my skeins wound I can just happily knit away with the 2 strand alternation above and really don’t have to think about it.
This is the only method wherein you will cut your yarn. Each skein will be split in half so one skein will end up as 2 cakes or balls, how accurate you are about this depends on the needs of your pattern but the simplest way is to weigh the skein and then weigh the cake or ball you’re winding as you go, when it is half the skein weight then cut your yarn and wind the second half of the skein. Do this for all of the skeins you’ll need for your project.
Once you have your cakes or balls wound then sort them into pairs as is your preference. Done. Now you can work your pattern using 2 alternating strands, love your result and only have a few extra ends to weave in!
Thank you for sticking with me all the way to the end! Again these are really suggestions and the most common techniques, it is not meant to be prescriptive as your work is your own and there are many paths to the same destination, hopefully this is at least a useful jumping off point to explore, experiment and find the methods that work for you.
All images Copyright Black Stag yarn & Fibre 2021