Wednesday, January 31, 2007

About colorways

At Stitches East last year, I helped a customer who was looking for Koigu. She was a very nice woman and she came clutching a Vogue Knitting in her hand, one that featured a beautiful multi-colored garment designed by one of the Koigu ladies. She also had a handwritten list of the color numbers and quantities used in the sample shown in the magazine. She handed me the list and asked which of these colors we had.

The simple answer was that I had no idea, nor did anyone in the booth (except maybe Lisa, whose steel-trap mind can recognize some colorways of Koigu; you’ve haven’t lived until you’ve trawled a yarn festival with Lisa, only to have her stop mid-sentence and dash over to a nearby booth, saying over her shoulder “I think they’ve got 107B!”)

But we generally don’t pay much attention to color numbers or dyelots with Koigu because it’s a handpainted yarn created by artists. Even skeins from the same dye lot can look drastically different, and skeins from different dye lots in the same (alleged) colorway often look very different too. I tried to explain this to the customer, but she just couldn’t wrap her mind around it. She settled for searching through each bin of Koigu, examining the tags carefully for color numbers. She found maybe three of the ones she was looking for. We offered to help her find alternatives that would look good, but she refused. She went on to the next booth, after carefully crossing off the ones she had purchased, confident that she could replicate the list by the end of the weekend.

I haven’t seen this customer again, so I don’t know whether she found all the ones on her list. But I would bet serious money on the fact that when her Holy Grail of Koigu quest is done, and the garment is complete, it isn’t going to look exactly like the one in the magazine.

When you’re a new knitter, you invariably discover the importance of dye lots when it comes to commercially-dyed yarns. Sadly, this often happens when you start a project, run out of the yarn you originally bought, and get more. Happily you knit along until you notice that the last part of the sweater is a noticeably different shade than the first part. Then some kind soul takes pity on you and explains why it’s best to purchase all yarn for a single project dyed in the same batch, or dye lot. Why? Because variations in the dyeing process – even when commercial mills do it – can make the same shade of the same yarn look like a different color if the dye lots are different.*

This is particularly true of hand-painted yarns. Even if I take careful notes of the exact process I used – dye colors and proportions, the way I apply the dye, and so forth – I still can end up with two strikingly different batches of yarn that are supposed to be the same “colorway.” There are just too many variables, many of them intangible (perhaps different skeins of the same yarn were made from the wool of different sheep, or maybe one batch soaked longer, or maybe the strength of the dye varies slightly from container to container. I could think of a dozen more variables like that.).**

For this reason, when I do stuff for Black Bunny Fibers, I don’t profess to have a set of regular “colorways” nor do I profess to be able to exactly repeat any given set of colors. I can take a shot at it, and I might produce something that looks pretty close, but I can’t guarantee it. There are certain batches that I know beyond the shadow of a doubt I can’t replicate, because I sometimes mix all sorts of dyes together and it would be impossible to ever mix the same batches in the same ways again without taking painful copious notes – and at the risk of sounding like a smacked ass, part of the fun for me is playing around and seeing what I come up with. You know, following my muse and all that.

Still, I do struggle with the issue of replication. I frequently get emails from people saying “Hey, are you going to dye up any more of that [fill in the blank] colorway?” And I’d like to accommodate them, and I try, but it doesn’t always work out. Part of what makes my stuff unique (I hope) is the way I do it and becoming too anal about that would, I think, make my stuff more generic. This is not meant as an apology but simply an explanation.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that when it comes to handpainted yarns, particularly from small producers like me, try to ease up on the expectations. Sure, it may be comfortable and predictable to believe that your garment will look exactly like the one you saw, or that your skein will look exactly like the one on etsy. But isn’t it also kind of cool knowing that you have a skein that, by definition, is unique in all the world? Isn’t there something exciting about diving into the color and putting aside your -- or someone else's -- preconceived notions about it? Is making a mistake or getting something different than you anticipated such a horrible thing, or is it an inevitable byproduct of using unique yarns and fibers?

That was what I tried to explain to the Stitches customer. She’s probably still going from yarn shop to yarn shop, though, desperately trying to score 3 skeins of color 375 rather than trusting her own instincts about what she likes and what she thinks looks good.

*I learned this while knitting a baby blanket for my oldest kid. I ran out of cream cotton yarn and was stuck taking a different dye lot. When some friends came over and were admiring the blanket, my husband’s asshole observant friend said “Oh, look at the stripe in the blanket!” Yep, it was where the two dye lots diverged.

**In fact, even two skeins which are dyed together as part of the same dye lot, exactly alike in every controllable way, may look different – startlingly so – when you knit them up. This freaks a lot of people out, but it’s inevitable when it comes to yarns that are individually dyed.


Janice in GA said...

I remember the first time I found out that even white yarns can be different shades. That freaked me out. You'd think white cotton was white cotton, but noooooo....

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. It's a shame so many people are afraid of trusting their instincts when it comes to color.

Anonymous said...

But, hang on--I'd certainly stop in my tracks or chase around Stitches for 107B.
Or 823.

Ruinwen Dagorielle said...

Dye lots can be scary things. Thanks for your insight on the subject.

I've heard Koigu can hardly fill the orders these days they've become so buy it when you see it.


Bridget said...

Carol, I think all of your colors are amazing, and to be honest, part of the fun for me is to see what's next!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE your post! I'm a total color junkie and am just now able to have the time to get back to my creative side. I'm going to explore shibori dyeing and my DH is trying to convince me to take precision notes for replication purposes, yada, yada, yawn. I am sooo not going to do that. Basic notes, yes. Detailed, no. I want to create art, not an assembly line. You are an artist and a well spoken one at that.

That's all.

Anna M

M-H said...

I'm with Miss T. I can't believe how little confidence people have in their own judgement around colour. It's as if someone (maybe at kindergarten) told them they 'had no colour sense' and they've been paralysed over their choices ever since.

Anonymous said...

That's a terrific blog entry! I can sympathize with the customer, though, because I'm usually too busy to take the time to work out color substitutions. Of course, when I knit with handpaints, I just sit back and enjoy whatever the yarn is doing.

Sherry W said...

I have a mill end of 803. It sits on my desk at home. It goes through almost every shade of amazing, rich deep red to an orange. Lisa manged to score me some 803. It was hot pinks. In fact every other 803 I've seen, hot pinks. I hardly see that it can be the same number.

I'm just convinced this mill end was put on this earth to tease me. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

Kathy Merrick, I know for a fact you're a total ho for 608. As am I.

gabriella said...

Carol, as a previous customer (who will buy again, one day) for whom a "custom order" was done, I can confirm that you do a damn fine job accommodating requests while still making each skein a little different and thus, even more beautiful. And yes, I agree, therein lies the fun. And I say: more power to you (or as we Siciliani say: forza!!). ~gabriella

Krista McCurdy said...

as a fellow dyer (, I totally appreciate this post! I keep notes for some of my colourways, but so far only for the fibers, and usually only for when I use dry pigments. Even so, handdyed fiber and yarn will change according to the amount of dust in the air, it seems!

Anonymous said...

I knew a dyer who said that the best colours were in the sink, when she dumped her odd remaining glugs of dye and they blended as they were going down the drain.

I was a bit horrified that she was putting dye down the drain, but I think she's right. Beautiful colours, and not a single one was reproducible.