The colourful world of indie dyeing

The world of yarn has changed dramatically in the past number of years. The options available to fibre crafters today are limitless, and that endless variety of fibre and colours is reflected in the amazing designs and patterns we’re making. Driving part of this revolution is the rise of the independent dyer.

Independent dyers are often one-person operations hand dyeing yarn on a small scale. Because they’re dyeing on a smaller scale, their colourways have a uniqueness to them that we don’t typically see in larger, commercial operations.

A good time to be an indie dyer

It’s a good time to be an indie dyer. There seems to be a something in the air; a movement towards not only wanting to know more about the origin of yarn but also of supporting local designers and dyers. The discerning crafter is more aware than ever of what they like and they’re not afraid to pay that little bit more to get it.

Here in Ireland the indie dyer sector is growing slowly and there are some amazing dyers creating wonderful colourways inspired by the surrounding landscape, everyday life and their own imagination. In fact, for many of these indie dyers the only limits to the palettes of colours they’re putting together is their imagination.

A selection of Irish indie dyers

A Fine Fish Yarn, Dye Candy, Coolree Yarns, Dublin Dye, Ellie and Ada, Green Elephant Yarn, Irish Fairytale Yarns, Life in the Long Grass, Strand Designs and Smudge Yarns

Twinkle Twinkle by Green Elephant Yarn

Indie dyers in Ireland

Based in Dublin, Green Elephant Yarn is run by Fiona Waters, who started her dyeing business just over a year ago after noticing the rise of the indie dyer in the UK, and all the wonderful colourways they were achieving. After starting off by dyeing using food colouring and a microwave in her kitchen (check out our craft make for tips on how you can do this at home), Fiona attended a dyeing workshop held by Clodagh McDonagh of the Irish Spinners, Dyers and Weavers Guild to learn more. Inspired by the techniques and the variety of what you can create, Fiona began dyeing in earnest, migrating to Jacquard acid dyes. “There are no limits to what you can do when hand-dyeing yarn. I get my ideas from everyday life, things that I see, or simple things like a nursery rhyme, which is where I got my inspiration for one of my bestsellers ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’,” said Fiona.

Fiona takes detailed notes of the dye mix she uses in each batch in order to re-create as closely as possible the same colourway time after time. Gabriella Hefner of Irish Fairytale Yarns in Cork, is also methodical about taking notes when hand-dyeing her yarn. Since starting to dye yarn in May 2014, Gabriella has created 66 unique colourways all inspired by the Irish landscape and Celtic mythology.

For Gabriella, dyeing is a creative process that starts with a name. “I have an ideas notebook that I keep with me all the time. When I get inspired, either by the landscape or something I’ve read about, I write it down. I’ll then think about the colours I associate with it and visualise them in my head before mixing them together,” explained Gabriella. “I need colour in my life, so this is the perfect job for me.”

Irish Fairytale Yarns drying on the line

Terri Carroll, of A Fine Fish Yarns in Belfast, considers herself an experimental dyer. “Experimentation is really what I love most about what I do – the constant experimentation and discovery of new methods or colour mixes. When I look back at everything I’ve dyed over the course of A Fine Fish Yarns I can see how my style has evolved and refined with each skein and it’s great,” said Terri. “I’d call myself an emotional dyer. Not that I’m sobbing into my dyepots or anything, just that whichever mood I happen to be in when I set to work usually has a bearing on the colours and methods I use.”

Xmas Party by A Fine Fish Yarns

The process of dyeing yarn

Dyeing yarn is a relatively simple process with four main elements: a colourant, acid (like vinegar), heat and water. Hand-dyers will all have their own favoured variations of these elements that they’ve tried and tested. Some might use an acid dye, others might use food colouring, or natural dyes for example. There’s also the yarn itself; however, this is liable to change from dyer to dyer too. Merino is a popular yarn for dyeing as it takes colour well, but there is no one fibre that all dyers use.

There are three main techniques to hand-dyeing. For solid colours (although this is most likely to be semi-solid as there will always be some variation in hand-dyed yarn) dyers typically soak the yarn in a large pot. For variegated yarn, dyers use a shallow dish which helps them to apply different colours to different parts of the yarn (this technique is sometimes called kettle dyeing). Finally, some dyers will hand paint their yarn, a technique that gives them more control when applying the colour to the yarn.

Pot Dyeing
Kettle Dyeing
Hand-painted yarn

Fiona favours kettle dyeing but appreciates the control you can get when hand-painting. Gabriella has great success with pot dyeing her semi solids, while she has also come up with some of her own techniques for getting colour where she wants it to go. Meanwhile, Terri has been known to use the pot, the kettle and hand-painting all in one skein.

With all of these techniques heat is used to ‘set’ the colour into the yarn. The pot or shallow dish will be placed over heat and simmered until all the dye has been absorbed by the yarn. For hand-painting, where the yarn is not immersed in water, some dyers might use the microwave to set the dye or steamer basket over a low heat.

The sky is the limit for indie dyers

Although the process itself is uncomplicated, the genius of hand-dyeing comes from the dyer’s imagination and vision. Successful indie dyers conjur up feelings and memories through their colourways, bringing to mind autumn evenings, skipping stones on the beach, relaxing by a roaring fire or a favourite childhood story. And that’s the beauty of the indie dyeing scene and why it’s enjoying its time in the sun. Knitting up a garment in a skein of a hand-dyed colourway has that element of mystery that reveals itself in the final piece.

Because of the various techniques and limitless colourways that can be produced, the indie dyer sector can continue to grow, and there’s room for more practitioners. The uniqueness of the final product means each dyer’s work is completely different and distinct to them.

Fiona of Green Elephant Yarns is offering Olann and readers a 10% discount on yarns purchased via her Etsy shop. Simply pop in the code OLANN10 before you check out. 

Terri from A Fine Fish Yarns is offering Olann and readers a 10% discount on yarns purchased from her new-look website. Just use the code OLANNAND10 before you check out up until 3rd April.

Gabriel and Carlo from Irish Fairytale Yarns is offering Olann and readers a 10% discount on yarns purchased from her website. You can use the code olannand2016 at the checkout. 

Fiona Waters of Green Elephant Yarn sells her hand-dyed yarn in Winnie’s Craft Café and The Constant Knitter in Dublin. She also sells via her Etsy shop and at festivals such as the Sheep’s Head Yarn Festival in West Cork.

Gabriella Hefner of Irish Fairytale Yarns sells her yarn at markets in Cork City and in Skibereen, and via her own website.

Terri Carroll of A Fine Fish Yarns sells her yarn in Studio Souk in Belfast city and the monthly Fine and Dandy market. She also sells via her Etsy shop and her own website.