How to Care for your Hand Dyed Yarns and Fibre

One of the worries that I hear most often from customers who are new to hand dyed yarns is as follows:


‘but how do I care for it – I don’t want to ruin such beautiful yarn’


let’s face it – it’s a very valid fear, particularly given the higher price point of indy dyed yarns and their uniqueness compared with their mill-dyed cousins.

Firstly, and most importantly, do not fear. Unfortunately incidents can and do happen but there are a few things to bear in mind and I have provided a few handy tips that can help you make the most of your beautiful yarn or fibre:


How Do I Knit from a Skein? 

Ahhh, good question. You don’t.

Hand dyed and hand spun yarns are generally sold and stored in the form of skeins which is a twisted hank of yarn and the reason for this is threefold:

When the yarn is received from the mill it is usually either pre-hanked into the total length or weight of yarn required or occasionally arrives on cones for the dyer to hand wind using a swift or niddy noddy. For hand dyeing the yarn should be in hank form in order for the dye to completely saturate and ensures that the dyer has access to the full length of yarn for techniques such as speckling.

Once dyed, the skein allows customers to see all the colours in the yarn and the ratios in relation to each other. The look of the yarn will change dramatically once it is balled or caked and again when it is worked up. Skeins are not only more attractive, they are more practical for both dyer and consumer and give a more accurate representation of the colourway.

Lastly, a yarn that is wound into a skein has even tension across the length of the fibres and is perfect for long term storage. Once balled up the tension on the yarn changes and the yarn in the centre of the ball or cake will over time become squished or lose its elasticity. Although not too much of an issue in the short term, say a few months, as time goes on this unevenness in the tension risks becoming irreversible and will affect the way in which the yarn knits or crochets up. (I was always a little skeptical of this until I inherited my Grandma’s old yarn stash – some of which was likely purchased before I was born and was so inelastic it was like working with string)


Ok, So What Do I Do With It? 

In order to prepare your skein of yarn for use it has to be hand wound into a ball or caked using a ball-winder or nostepinne. Although there are tools dedicated to this possibly daunting task it is possible to perform alone using the back of a couple of chairs or with the help of a willing participant (back in the day I used to use my sister – somewhat begrudgingly).

knitpro swift

Ensuring that the ties keeping the skein together are cut off – usually one of the ties includes the two ends of yarn knotted together so you can easily find the starting point – and keeping the oval shaped hank in place with hands or inanimate object, begin to wind the yarn into a ball. The length of time it takes to hand-ball yarn varies considerably but it once took me an hour and a half to finish a 150g skein of 4ply. That’s when I invested in a ball winder and swift.


If you do decide to make that particular leap my advice would be to look into purchasing a swift first and ball winder second. The swift comes in a couple of styles, most notable ‘umbrella’ and ‘amish’. Having owned and used both I would personally recommend an umbrella swift (pictured is the umbrella swift by KnitPro) as it is the easiest to adjust and works better in conjunction with a ball winder should you wish to add one at a later date. The beauty of the swift is that it allows you to wind up a ball by yourself and for the most part prevents the worst cases of yarn barf – although in the interests of full transparency it is not infallible.

The ball or cake-winder also helps to speed up the process but is only really necessary if you are going to be winding up a fair number of skeins on a regular basis. I am, however, completely enamoured by mine and it quite possibly the best practical purchase I have ever made for the shop.

Bear in mind that any yarns purchased at Sealy MacWheely can be balled using the in-shop swift and winder, if I forget to ask please don’t be shy and remind me – it is free to use and can save a lot of time and heartache in the long run!


Why is Dye Rubbing off onto my Hands?

Dye transfer from hand dyed yarn and fibre can happen for one of two reasons, either you are experiencing crocking or, less likely, the dye hasn’t been completely set and is bleeding colour. There is a subtle difference between the two but before discussing how to resolve this we need to firstly determine how and why it happens.

Crocking in fibres, yarns and fabrics is the transfer of colour or dye particles from one surface to another due to rubbing or wet activation, this can be in the form of dry crocking (most commonly occurs when spinning hand dyed fibre – particularly turquoises) or wet crocking which usually becomes apparent during the soaking and blocking process. Crocking is not necessarily due to bad dye technique and in many cases is due to differences in the local water quality and pH versus the location in which it was dyed, likewise certain colours are more prone to crocking (fuschia is the worst – oh lordy it is a pain of a colour to dye) and can be difficult to predict.

Crocking is the hand dyer’s ultimate nightmare, no one wants to be accused of creating a yarn that bleeds or be responsible for a ruined project. During the dyeing process the colours are fixed using heat and citric acid (for acid dyes – a variety of different mordants are used in natural dyeing) and yarns are kept under these conditions until all the dye has struck and has become fully saturated.

Once the dyeing is complete the yarns are rinsed to remove any traces of citric acid (there is nothing dangerous about acid dyeing, the citric acid used is food grade and is the same thing you’ll find in a bottle of coke, or indeed a lemon) and any potential dye particles which were not absorbed by the yarn. When the water rinses clear it is fair to assume that the yarn is good to go.

A bleeding yarn, however, has not been set correctly and will be apparent to the dyer during this rinsing process and would require reheating in acid to prevent later issues from occurring.


How do I fix a Yarn that is Crocking?

There are constant discussions about this circling the internet and the fibre arts community and really it depends on how bad the crocking or bleeding is, whether it is likely to cause issues with a contrasting yarn and at what stage of the process the issue is realised.

For hand spinners for example, if you notice your fingers turning a funny shade of blue while you are spinning it is likely that the dye is being affected by the natural oils and pH of your skin. This may turn out to be a false alarm so don’t freak out, keep an eye on your finished yarn during its final soak and ensure that your water is lukewarm or the goldilocks temperature – neither too hot nor too cold.

When you have finished your knitted or crocheted project it is generally advised that you block your work to allow the yarn to settle and bloom, this is particularly important with garments as they will often change shape during the blocking process – it is also a good opportunity to wash away any dust or oils that have adhered to your yarn whilst knitting. The downside to soaking, of course, is that this is the time you are more likely to encounter colour running.
In the words of Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic.

For both hand dyed yarns and fibres you can use a number of wool washes during the soaking such as Eucalan (now available in the shop in both 100g bottles and Fill Your Own container) which do not require rinsing out and therefore make it less likely for non-superwash yarns to be accidentally felted. If you notice at this stage that colours are running, remove your project from its bath and drain the water, refill and repeat the soak until the water runs clear.

If you are concerned about a yarn before you have started balling it up it is a good call to knit a test swatch and block it to test for colourfastness, soak it with any contrasting colours that you are planning on using to ensure that any potential run off will not affect the overall colourway and remember: prevention is better than cure. On the off-chance the yarn you’re using is a bleeder, now would be a good time to soak it and rinse away any residual dye particles and, in extreme circumstances contact the dyer if you have any further questions.

(If you do need to contact the dyer please be polite and not accuse the dyer of bad technique – I can assure you that any incidents with hand dyed yarns are unintentional and finger pointing and badmouthing online is not the way to get your issue resolved) 

If in doubt invest in colour catchers. They are designed specifically for this purpose and are usually put inside the drum of a washing machine to catch any dye that runs off denim and bright coloured clothing. Stick one in the bath with your finished project and hey presto.


I hope that this has been at least a little bit helpful. By all means if you have any further questions or any tidbits and advice that you want to share with the fibre arts community please feel free to comment below or get in touch.

Happy knitting, crocheting, spinning or weaving


Katie x

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