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Spinning for Socks: Colour

When I said the next post up in the sock yarn series would talk about colour, Sara playfully asked:

colour?? colour? Of what do you speak? Are you *that* close to Canada that u’s have infiltrated??

There are quite a few ways to address this, such as reminding Sara that I’ve never known her to avoid Canadian contact, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Indeed, some of my favourite fiber folks are Canadian (and probably yours too!) But well, yes, there is evidence of Canada invading Ohio. I could go on at some length about this evidence — there’s plenty — but the really telling piece is simply this business listing in the Yahoo! yellow pages.

That’s right, folks, there is a Tim Horton’s within 10 miles of my home (or do I mean within 16 kilometers? Nah, the invasion is still not complete). Indeed, there are a dozen Tim’s in a 25-mile radius. So there’s no way this is a coincidence, any more than that Tim’s in Afghanistan is a coincidence. I haven’t seen Canadian troops… or have I? How would I know? Hrmmm. Perhaps they’re responsible for the periodically suspicious niceness I keep encountering. Perhaps they’re the reason my Kroger has been sold out of Wasabi-Soy almonds for the past 6 weeks or so — Denny may be sending them down after nuts, and leaving none for me.

But in any case, Sara, the bottom line is that for reasons I can’t pin down, I have always apparently been a Canadian speller. I do enjoy the use of colour, but I realize (instead of realising as our friends across the pond might do) that in the fiber arts (not fibre arts) we often use it somewhat haphazardly. So in this bit about spinning for socks, we’ll talk about using it in planned ways, in the spinning stages, rather than in the dyeing stages. And I think we’ll do it using some fiber that came my way via some Canadians — Southwest Trading Company’sKaraoke, now distributed by Louet North America, a 50/50 blend of merino and soy silk. It comes in white, and three predyed handpainted colours; we’ll be working with the colours today.

These colour techniques work with any multicolour top or roving, and can be extended to work simply having multiple colours instead of a handpaint (in which there’s one top or roving with different colours on it in sequence) ; we’ll have a few examples of those as well.

Well then, let’s get to it.

There are a couple of interesting things to point out about this fiber. I know, it looks like a mish-mash of contrasting colours in a random placement — but it isn’t.

You may need some floor or a counter to spread things out on to see it, but there’s order and a clear colour sequence. You can preserve this and depend on it when you’re spinning, and (lest it not be obvious) make choices like this when you handpaint your own fiber as well. This is convenient for socks if you want to more or less match up the colour shifts between both socks. Start by lining up your fiber into two like parts, as you see above.

Once I’ve lined the colours up, you can see there’s some fiber that comes after the end, or before the beginning, of the full colour sequences we have laid out. I broke off this excess, and set it aside for later. You can also see that what I have is two folded pieces of top, right? And the ends are in either extreme of the colour sequence. Hrmmm.

Solved! Now I have four similar lengths of top where the colours are all pretty neatly lined up the same. Some of you, I’m sure, have already seen where this is going. These aren’t totally identical lengths, but hey, they’re close enough for government work. That’s right — government work on self-striping sock yarn! Hey, it could happen.

So now let’s divvy this up further. I’m going to take the top one, and the third one, and put them together; and then I’m going to take the second one, and the bottom one, and put them together. Each of these pairs will become an individual skein of two-ply yarn. Here’s what we do:

1. Start at the blue end of length 1, and spin it onto one bobbin.
2. Start at the blue end of length 3, and spin it onto another bobbin.
3. Ply these bobbins together.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 using the remaining 2 lengths.
5. Admire your results.

Now, if you look closely, you’ll see places where there’s one ply of blue and one ply of yellow, or one ply of yellow and one ply of pink, or just in general, places where the colours don’t like up perfectly. Click here for the honkin’ huge version of the photo if you need to look closer — there are sticky notes on it to point out these marled (or barberpole, depending on your terminology preferences) sections.

Yes, you could have made them line up more closely by using fiber lengths 1 and 2, and then fiber lengths 3 and 4; but if you had done that, would you have had two skeins that matched as closely? Nope. But, maybe that’s what you wanted, instead of having marled sections. The choice is yours!

Well, allright then. What if you didn’t have a handpainted fiber with that clear and consistent colour sequence, but you still want to pretty much match things up? Don’t despair! This is a great example of a time when you might want to split your top.

Now I have two narrower strips where the colours do line up. I can split these again, and follow the first set of instructions… or, you know what? I could just spin singles from these two, and chain ply.

I pulled tufts off the end here, which I then spun from the fold, muddying up colours a tiny bit. Then I took those bobbins of singles, and chain plied them (some folks call it Navajo plying). Paimei helped.

Good thing we had that snow day so the manchild could snap these photos.

The chain plied example is at top; at bottom is our prior two-ply yarn.

So why would I chain ply anyway? Well, I’m going to be assured of almost no marled areas. My colour transitions are going to be clear-cut and definitive.

It’s also fast, uses all the yarn, never requires lots of extra bobbins, and works to preserve colour shifts even where they’re vague. In other words, I chain ply for reasons of speed and expediency, and for specific colour reasons. I don’t do it for structural reasons (unless we’re talking about using a chained single instead of a plain ol’ single), but we’ll take about that in a later article.

A chain-plied yarn has essentially the appearance of a 3-ply yarn. For most knit applications, it’s indisinguishable from a 3-ply and the structural differences truly are immaterial. If you’re looking for crisp colour shifts, it’s likely what you’re after.

At first glance, the two yarns above — yes, it’s two yarns, from two different colourways — seem incredibly similar, and close enough to match each other gaugewise and everything. And that’s true. But the blue-green-purple at left is a chain-plied yarn in “Mermaid,” while the one at right is a true 3-ply in “Rainbow.” Observe…

I spun the “Rainbow” fine, blurring the colours a little (we’ll get to that) and here’s a bobbin of single. I did three such bobbins, after splitting a length of top in thirds — just like how I did it above splitting it in half, only I split it into rough thirds. Since it can be hard to eyeball that kind of thing, the colour shifts didn’t line up particularly well once it came to plying.

See? We’re getting some marl effect happening. But you know…

…I kinda like that.

Yeah. Yeah, there’s definitely lots of marling, and it’s a 3-way effect, not just 2-way. YOu can see it wonderfully on the left side of the photo.

Now, you can get marling with chain plying too.

See? This is that same chained single, and you can see that the single has some barberpole effect, and then so does the ply.

Let’s back up a tiny bit, by the way. I almost forgot to say that there is no reason you have to preserve colourways. We’re just talking a bit about how you can. Observe…

At left, our colour-preserved yarns; at right, a 2-ply yarn in which I did nothing whatsoever to make two bobbins line up colours or what have you. That’s right — nothing. In some places it did, in some places it marled, and it’s all totally random. This works very nicely with analogous colour combinations (that’s when, if you were looking at them on a colour wheel, they’d be right next to each other — as Beth would say “more blendy!”) But results can be more startling and perhaps less pleasing to the eye if you’ve got a colour combination with stronger contrasts.

Well, so what if we don’t have a handy-dandy space-dyed or handpainted fiber? What if we have, say, three fibers in different colours, and we’d like to get them all in there?

You know, like these guys.

I can just take the ends, and spin from them going straight across. That’ll preserve the colour shifts cleanly, or…

I could also press them closer together, and draft from the end a bit, creating a bit more blurring. I could predraft these together, too, and then spin the resulting fibers.

So what if I find myself getting just one colour coming out?

Yeah, that can happen. So I’ll just stop spinning that colour, and break off…

Then I can just start spinning again from a different colour.

You know, I can do this from the fold as well.

I don’t have to leave my finger in there — once it’s drafting, it’s good to go.

I’m going to get blue, then white, then grey, and in between, the colours will blur from one to the next. And then I can chain-ply if it I want to preserve that colour sequence, which I can also make up as I go along. I mean, I can just grab whatever fiber I feel like, and spin a bit.

You know, there’s something useful about doing this on a spindle, too. If I want to be confident that I’m getting the same length of yarn each time, I can be pretty sure of that with a spindle, because the lengths I’ll spin between wind-ons are likely to be similar. So I might spin two wind-ons each of blue, then grey, then white, then blue, then grey, then white… and then do that again for a second single… and then ply those. That’s going to be some very closely aligned 2-ply self-striping yarn.

You can do that on a wheel, but it’s harder to track than it is with a spindle. This is also a great way to use up odds and ends of leftover fiber, and make them into a striping yarn.

Okay folks, there’s one other thing to let you know about the fiber I used in these examples, in case you’re going to use it too.

Oh boy. That looks bad, doesn’t it? Well, I have to say, this is something I’ve encountered with soy silk (and remember, this fiber is half soy silk). I think it’s particularly pronounced here because this is a blend, and the dye exhausts at different rates. What seems to have happened is that a bit of excess dye has piled up in the soy silk; it’s exhausted from the dyebath but it’s not fully bonded to the fiber. Well, synthetics can be a bit tricky to dye. You can do a few things about this.

I discovered the problem when I went for the hot-cold fulling wash — you know, the “Judith Says” wash, of which I’m also a proponent. I encountered it a few minutes after starting the super-hot soak. Once said soak was completed, I rinsed in super-cold water, till the water ran clear. Then I repeated the super-hot soak, and less dye came out. Again, it rinsed clear in the cold, and there was no dye hitting the other colours in the yarn, thankfully. I gave it one more super-hot soak, and it was clear. I wrapped up with one more cold soak and the ol’ beating of the yarn.

Here’s before…

and here’s after.


and after.

If you’re going to do the abusive wash, this is a good way to deal with excess dye. In fact, the possibility of excess dye is another good reason for the abusive wash, when you get right down to it. Wouldn’t you rather know now, and be able to take steps to do something about it now, rather than after you knit socks and then washed them in with some other clothes or something? I know I would.

Excess dye, while not ideal, is a fact of life. Blues and reds are the most common culprits (and blacks, but those are often dyes which contain blues), and man-made fibers are by and large more prone to dyeing peculiarities in non-industrial processes, at least in my experience. While every dyer at any scale of operation makes every attempt to avoid having any such issue altogether, sometimes it’s not entirely possible to address it at one given stage rather than another, and sometimes you can’t even spot it until you reach a specific stage. Fiber is a particularly vulnerable stage of things, especially if you’re talking about a blend of a fine, easily felted fiber such as merino and a more resilient man-made fiber such as soy silk; you can really ruin fiber by subjecting it to a treatment like the one I use for finishing yarn. And sometimes yarn is too vulnerable, so you need to solve the problem in the fabric or the garment stage. Plus, sometimes you encounter it in storebought clothes! So, what’s a textile nerd to do?

I keep Synthrapol on hand. If I’m in doubt, I do a cold wash with Synthrapol — and I do it with off-the-rack clothing of certain types as well (say, blue jeans). So what’s this product I’m talking about? Paula explains it really well. Honestly, I believe this is a product that has a place in the household of even the textile non-geek; it’s there to keep you from turning the whites pink by accident, and so on.

Other than my abusive removal of excess dye, other than a wash with Synthrapol… you know, sometimes things really are HAND WASH COLD – DRY FLAT. That’s often partly because of industrial processes not doing what they could potentially do to eliminate any running issues or what have you, but sometimes it really is the best idea. There are many variables; to be sure you know what will happen, this is a reason why I like to recommend testing by spinning samples, finishing them, swatching them, and then subjecting the swatch to the care intended for the finished object. It’s sort of the yarn or fiber version of pre-shrinking your yardage of fabric before you cut your pieces for a garment that you’re sewing. It’s a good idea.

Anyway, back to the sock yarn.

Top: chained single. Bottom: 2-ply. At first glance, the same yarn — right? But they aren’t. We’ll talk more about that in part 3 of this series, Structure!

16 thoughts on “Spinning for Socks: Colour

  1. Ah I see what I have to look forward to.

    Do you need me to bring you some nuts?

  2. Great read! Looking forward to the next installment!

  3. Every time I hear the word “Synthrapol” I think of the Ferengi beverage that the United Federation of Planets serves in their bars. 😉

    Oh, wait, that’s Synthehol. My bad. 😛

  4. I loved this post and have saved it as a pdf file. I am really eager to try this. Have you ever posted about your dyeing methods?

  5. Great! Thanks. I’m just about to spin my very first sock yarn.Then I guess I have to knit socks…no wait I know lots of sock knitters. Perfect.

    I did not take your nuts.

    Tim bits= road trip. Always.

  6. I just discovered your blog about a week ago, via a Ravelry pointer to your post on how to clean a drum carder. Already you have made me laugh, cry, and sit amazed at your knowledge. You are a wonder.

  7. Nice yarn porn post, in which we realise some of the amusements of two peoples divided by a common language. Also, lots of colour, fibre, and helpful cats.

    All this, and sock yarn 🙂


  8. Very informative, thank you. Thanks for taking the time so that we can all benefit.

  9. I love your essays. I am an essay glutton. ~hangs head~.

    To Divine Bird: LOL!

  10. This is brilliant! Thank you very much.. I’ve only been spinning since Jan and I’ve tried chain plying, but on a solid. This is going to help when I come to spinning some of my coloured roving!! 🙂

  11. Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou from a very new spinner! Great article, I’m looking forward to the sequel 🙂

  12. Thx so much! I’m totally inspired, bought some roving months ago that has three colours next to eachother and didn’t know what to do with it (bought it cause I thought it would be pretty), now I do know! I think it will be a selfstriping somewhat blurry blended yarn. Thank you so much!

  13. I need to go over this again to get the hang of chain-pying (Navajo-plying? Whatever.) I have found that I cannot do it on a Saxony-style wheel, but that it is manageable on a castle wheel. If I hold my tongue just right. 😛

    Canada, eh? Felt like it down here in SW Ohio last weekend. Now it feels like Seattle!

  14. I’m so excited that you’re doing this series! I look forward to each installment. You’re such a great teacher, and I appreciate how much time you put into this for the fiber arts community. Thank you!

  15. Good post, I think it is especially helpful to have such clear pictures for newbies.You trained the cat well!

  16. So…I just looked through every post from here onward, and I’m wondering if you’re going to pick this theme back up. My comfort zone does not yet include a weight that when plied will produce sock yarn (just worsted weight…), but I’ve got some lovely alpaca here that I’d like to push in that direction.

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