Anyone who knows me on Ravelry even a little bit well, probably knows that I have a fondness (well, more of a passion) for transforming variegated spinning fiber into a continuous color progression or gradient, and then, if possible, knitting a sweater from it.
This isn’t nearly as complicated as it looks, or sounds: it just takes a little planning and preparation before you start actually spinning your yarn.
The sweater shown to the left here is actually a bit of a cheat – I forgot to plan the sweater, and only planned the gradient. I paid the price, as I had to knit the both sleeves and the body simultaneously, breaking and rejoining yarn all the while, in order to get the progression to travel evenly up the entire garment. Normally, that can be managed rather more elegantly, as we’ll see later.
Anyway, let’s use this sweater (because I just finished it, and I am super-proud of it and think it’s about six kinds of awesome) to show off the process of making the gradient yarn.
I started off with three bumps of fiber (12 oz) from two of my favorite dyers – Southern Cross Fibre and Hello Yarn. The colorways were the HY/SCF collaboration Lazy Eel, on Falkland, and HY Bristling, on Shetland (I had two lots of this). This what they looked like to begin with:
First, I pulled the fiber apart into into color sections, and then I made fauxlags, using a dowel and the technique David (of SCF) documents here, although he uses a rolling pin. My dowel is a lot smaller – only about an inch in circumference – but I find it easier to handle. If you want to play with this for yourself, I don’t believe there is any right or wrong – all you are doing is finding an easy way of tearing off a staple length at a time and wrapping it loosely around itself – so just experiment and see what works for you. There’s no need to make a fetish of having the “right” tool.
Full disclosure: I am a lazy long-draw-ish type of spinner, and I like an airy woolen two-ply for sweaters, and spinning from faulags gives me that, so it suits me very well, in addition to providing nice little bite-size chunks of color I can manipulate easily.
You don’t need to make fauxlags, however.
The yarn I am spinning at the moment is Polwarth, and I want a smoother, more worsted spin, so all I did was pull my fiber into chunks. The sections of darker/ lighter/ a.n.other color on the edges of each strip will produce some subtle variegation through your yarn.
If you just want a gradient yarn, all you need to do now is arrange your fauxlags in the order that pleases you, and if you are making singles, or navajo-plying, you’re good to go.
If you want a traditional plied yarn, there’s one more step before you start spinning: you will have to divide your fiber into equal piles corresponding to the number of plies you want in your finished yarn. This is pretty easy, and there is unlikely to be much difference in the amount of fiber in each pile, especially if, like me, you use smallish fauxlags, or shortish strips of fiber. (If I’m doing a two-ply yarn, I simply divide each strip in two. Voilà! There’s never more than a few yards difference between the bobbins at the end of the day.)
And there you go. You should now have gradient yarn. All that’s left is to pick a pattern, pick a needle and knit. Enjoy. Admire.
But wait, I want to knit a gradient sweater
No problem. This just requires a little more fiber organization before you spin. I’m going to assume here that you are happy to let the pretty yarn do the talking, and knit a plain, simple raglan or yoked sweater. Anything else will require more calculation, but for a plain sweater, you can make some rough-and-ready assumptions based on Elizabeth Zimmermann’s percentage system.
Here’s a project constructed on this principle. First, the fiber - again, a mix of Hello Yarn and Southern Cross Fibre (this time on Bluefaced Leicester).
This was turned into a nice tray of fauxlags, arranged by color.
I assume I will need approximately one third of the total fiber for the sleeves, and one quarter for the yoke. So, 2/12 for each sleeve, 5/12 for the body up to the armpits, and 3/12 for the yoke. It’s important to remember that ALL of the yoke color comes AFTER (or BEFORE) the sleeves (depending on whether you are knitting bottom-up or top-down), so the yoke section is an an unbroken quarter of your total, at one end of your progression. You don’t need to separate this part other than for your plies.
If I am working with fauxlags (which is the easiest option, in terms of dividing the fiber evenly) I lay out my remaining fiber (three quarters of the total), and just divvy it up – two here on the one side, then five in the middle, then two more on the other side, then another two-five-two, and so on, until it’s all shared out. If you find it easier than taking 25% off before you start, you can take three off the (top) end for every round for the yoke at this stage. I like to lay the whole thing out on the floor as I go, keeping the progression so I can look at it as I work, and swap things around if I think they need it. Remember to make any adjustments at this stage, if, say, you don’t want to use the entire progression of colors on your sleeves. Then, I decide how many plies I want. OK: I lied about that. I have always decided that two is a good number. It gives me a yarn I like, and doesn’t make my head go too splodey when I do the final part. Because, yeah, you’ve probably guessed by now: I divide each of my sections – each sleeve – the body – the yoke – according to my total plies. For my two-ply sweater, I now have 8 piles of fauxlags. Granted, they are small enough piles, but it’s still quite a bit to keep track of.
Behold the master-stroke. Kebabs.
I call these “kebabs”, but I actually use straight needles in the small sizes. (When I started knitting, before I even knew about circular needles, I ordered a cheap set of bamboo straights off eBay. This turns out to be almost the only thing I use them for.) I run each progression onto a needle, so I know what order to spin the fauxlags in for each ply and each section. Shown here are the “sleeve kebabs” for the BFL sweater.
Note. I only do this if I’m feeling super finickety about the color progression. If it’s more organic, I simply put each section into its own bag, and pull bits out and spin them at random (or for a two-ply yarn, I often spin “pseudo-fractally” – one ply random, and the other ply dark to light). In that case, the only important thing is to mark your bags and not get sloppy, or you will (if you’re like me) start off convinced that you know what’s where, and end up, well… finding out that you, er, don’t. Do yourself a favor: label the bags.
So, sooner than you know it, you should have four yarns:
This was not exactly divided as per the technique described, so the sleeve skeins are clear to see, but don’t follow the full progression of colors along the body, and the “yoke skein” (the gold to blue) is larger than it would be if divided in accordance with the instructions, incorporating as it does about half of the body section. I ended up not using the dark blue on the outside of the last skein at all.
It honestly isn’t anything like as fiddly as it sounds, and it has some benefits. I find I enjoy reducing a big, potentially intimidating, sweater spin to a series of discrete – and much less scary – units. Another really nice thing is that you also get clear and early feedback from your yarn about whether you have enough, or too little, or too much. You can chop out sections of yarn if you want, or spin up something extra if you need to. Knowing your yarn proportions acts as an early-warning system, alerting you to trouble. Having the yarn divided up appropriately even has the bonus of making it a more travel-friendly project (I carry a sleeve around instead of a sock, and no more yarn than I need. I take more pleasure out of that little economy than I should perhaps admit.)
So, give it a go, and if you do, I’d love to know. Good luck, and happy spinning. (And any questions, just ask.)