For my first installment of Ask the Crafter, I'd like to answer the question "I think I know, but I'd love to hear details about the difference between hand-painted and hand-dyed yarn." sent in from Margaret of Three Sisters Knit.
First of all, these two things are totally different categories. Hand-dyed yarn would refer to the fact that a yarn was dyed by hand. Hand-painting yarn is a specific technique used which would produce a hand-dyed yarn.
There are many different techniques for making a hand-dyed yarn, a few that I use are: hand-painting, speckle dyeing, kettle dyeing, and space dyeing. These are all various techniques/looks you would go for when dyeing yarn, and can be combined further to create truly unique yarn (this is where the art comes in, the dyer is an artist) Personally, I like to combine techniques when dyeing using a multi-layered process (I sometime dye the same yarn 2-3 times to get more richness of color, one of the reasons most of my colorways are non-repeatable).
I am not going to go into details of all these different techniques today, since the focus is on hand-painted yarn. But I just thought I'd mention other techniques to show you hand-dyed yarn can be broken into many categories depending on the dye style of the artist. Also note that this post is not a tutorial on how to hand-paint yarn, it is an informational post that will hopefully help you understand what makes a yarn "hand-painted."
Hand-painting is a technique of dyeing yarn where it is typically soaked first in an acidic solution of either vinegar or citric acid diluted with water (if dyeing with acid dyes; there are other types of dye such as "reactive" dyeing used for plant fibers which use a different solution for dye adherence) then laid flat over plastic wrap, and "painted" in stripes of color with dye solution. It is then wrapped in the plastic wrap and steamed to set the colors.
Here is a photo from back when I first started dyeing. This was my colorway 'Anduin' on a superwash merino & nylon blend base and was my first time ever hand-painting a yarn. Notice how the yarn is laid out over plastic (there are other ways to do this, you could always wrap it in plastic afterwards, but I always found applying the dye over the plastic to be the least messy) and the different shades of color were painted across the yarn to create repeating stripes of color.
Note that this isn't a "self-striping" colorway, a yarn dyed in this way will create a variegated yarn where when you are knitting/crocheting/etc the different shades of color will mottle together. Sometimes a hand-painted yarn can make stripes, but it will all depend on the length of the strip of dyed color being the perfect length with the width of your project (usually a sock or something small to be able to do this) to create the stripes of color. Personally, I am not that calculating so I like to just let the yarn do what it wants to do in the project I am using it for. If I find it pooling in an unflattering way then to me that just means this particular skein of yarn wasn't right for that particular project, but it can be great for another project.
Here is an example of how a variegated yarn may stripe or pool colors. This is a baby hat, so it is a small project that just happened to be the same width of the blocks of colors dyed in the yarn. I often get questions like "Will this colorway pool?" And my answer is, "Is this a variegated colorway? Then yes, there is always the chance that it may pool colors, which will depend on the project you are making and typically isn't predictable." I think color pooling can be super awesome at times, as it was with this hat. It all just depends on your preferences, and if you are looking to avoid pooling you will probably want to avoid a contrasting variegated yarn (look for one with an analogous color scheme) or go for something more solid and balanced throughout the skein.
When I hand-paint yarn, I typically only dye 1-2 skeins at a time. From my experience with hand-painting, it can get quite messy and hard to control if you try to do more than this at a time, but maybe those more skilled than me can handle more. I find hand-painting to be very beginner friendly since you do not need to worry about multi-tasking that can happen when dyeing in a kettle, and allows you to focus solely on applying the color. Then you steam it afterwards, but the color is already applied so you just let the steam do the rest of the work.
I'd also like to mention another method of dyeing that gives a very similar look to hand-painted yarn, and that is dip-dyeing. You can see below my colorway 'Topsy Turvy' which was dip dyed. With dip dyeing I can usually dye around 3-4 skeins at a time (likely a reason many dyers choose this method over hand-painting after they get the basics of dyeing down since it is a bit quicker to produce) This yarn is dyed by dipping sections of it in a pot of dye on the stove and allowing the dye to absorb and set before moving to the next color. Dip-dyeing also produces a variegated yarn like hand-painting does.
The main point I would like to make, is that whether you are using a hand-painting or a dip-dyeing technique, the outcome will usually be a variegated yarn. Yes, variegated yarns can have pooling, but the word "pooling" doesn't have to be taboo. Color pooling can produce some really beautiful results and is part of the joy and wonder of working with variegated and eye-catching yarns. There are many methods of hand-dyeing yarn, and really in the end it doesn't matter which technique is used.
To the dyers: Combine techniques if you want, make up your own, have fun and be an artist. There are only rules if you choose to acknowledge them. Of course there are some that would be very useful to keep in mind, such as setting the dye correctly and taking care not to felt untreated wool. But when it comes to color, your own imagination is your limit. Dyeing is an art, be an artist and come up with your own colorways. Make what YOU like, and others will be inspired. You don't have to follow trends or dye colors you hate just to get sales. If you truly love the work you do, it will shine through and others will want what you dye.
To the knitters/crocheters/weavers purchasing hand-dyed yarn: You all are the backbone behind small hand-dyed yarn shops. Without you we wouldn't be able to offer all our crazy, whacky, unique hand-dyed yarn. Please always understand that dyeing is an art form and hand-dyed is not the same as commercially produced yarns, so please do not expect us to produce yarn to those standards (in high volume, with every skein matching perfectly, always repeating colorways to every yarn base, etc.). Allow us to express our creative self and make yarns that are sometimes not repeatable and are one of a kind and spontaneous so the knitter, crocheter, and other yarn crafter can make with what is truly a work of art. Using hand-dyed yarns requires a certain level of creativity and spontaneity, and adds a joy you just can't get from commercial yarns.
My mantra when working with a hand-dyed or handspun yarn:
The yarn already knows what it wants to be, so instead of trying to control it, let it flourish in its own beauty and allow it to surprise you when working with it.
I hope you found this article helpful in discerning the difference between hand-painted and in general hand-dyed yarn. If you liked this article, please let me know in the comments below. Also, if you have a question you would like to see answered next week in my next episode, leave me a comment and maybe your question will be featured. Or, if anything in the post was confusing or not well explained, I will be happy to clarify!
Thanks so much for reading, happy crafting!
Serene Fiber Arts
Amanda J. French
Fiber artist from Louisville, KY. Professionally, I spend my days spinning one of a kind yarns from wool and recycled fibers, and weaving with them. Other hobbies include; yoga, fitness, painting, studying languages, reading, and knitting.