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Common Terminology in Dyeing

  • Rob Colon

In my last post, I tried not to throw around too much lingo… I think I succeeded, but now I’d like to talk about said lingo so that in my future writings, I can be all technical and stuff. It’s a lot more fun, and it makes me sound like I know what I’m doing. And then if I share it with you, then when you talk about it, you’ll sound like you know what you’re doing too, right? See, I’ve got your back. ;)

My real goal in decoding the terms for you is to deepen your understanding of dyeing itself. There is a lot of information to be found in simply knowing what things are called, and the why behind it. I won’t pretend to know ALL the why stuff, but I’ll share what I do know. It will still help demystify the art of dyeing and give you a better handle on it.

As I’ve been thinking about how to organize this list, I thought at first I would do it alphabetically, but I’m reconsidering because I want the most important building blocks you’ll need to be at the top. That way you won’t have to sift through it all and ask yourself what is truly relevant to you right now, at the beginning of your dyeing journey. Maybe it’ll help with the head-spinning sensation you might have from all the information I’m going to be throwing at you!

Ready? Then let’s get started…

Terms for Yarn’s Various States

Hank: This term is typically used to refer to the loop of un-dyed (bare) yarn you will be starting with. It’s just a loop, and it usually has a few ties to help it not tangle during the dye process.

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Skein: Once a hank is dyed, dried, and twisted (or in my case, braided), we refer to it as a skein. It’s a form of measurement, if you will, and you’ll probably know this from working with yarn in general. The standard weight for a single skein is 100g / 3.5oz. Some dyers use larger skeins or smaller ones depending on their preference, or based on the need of their customers.

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Ball/Cake: Again, I’m pretty sure you’ll already know what this one is. A ball or cake refers to a skein of yarn that’s been wound for working with. It’s hard to carry a loop of yarn with you when you’re working, so winding it into a ball or cake makes it easier. There are different tools used to wind yarn, such as a ball winder and swift. I use those for higher yardage yarns since it’s so fast, and the result is what I personally call a cake because of its shape. For thicker yarns with much lower yardage, I do admit to enjoying the process of hand-winding it into a traditional ball. It’s a quiet, meditative process, and I get to truly admire the yarn I’m working with for what it is, pre-knitting.

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Terms for Basic Dyeing Ingredients

Base: If you’ve shopped indie yarn brands, you’ll know that they refer to the various types of yarn they carry as “bases.” It’s made of the various yarns’ characteristics, like weight/yardage, fiber content, plies (the number of individual strands of fiber twisted together into one strand), etc.

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Mordant: This term is used for the substance that causes the dye to be absorbed by, and adhere to, the yarn you’re working with. There are so very many different mordants out there that it does make my head spin, I’ll admit! And each one can produce different color results depending on the variables involved in the dye process—temperature, fiber being dyed, dyes being used, etc. As I mentioned in my previous article, my personal experience thus far only includes two mordants: white vinegar and citric acid. But I’ve read about others, such as copper and iron, as more natural mordants.

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Dye: I know this is self-explanatory, but this is the colorful part! This is where the magic happens because it’s what enables you to take a thought, place, food, or memory and turn it into a tangible piece of art that you can use to craft something lovely. The process of mixing dyes is one of my favorite parts. Watching colors transform from their normal state into the hues I pictured in my head is mesmerizing. I could go on and on about that, but I won’t. I’ll spare you. (wink) As far as the dyes themselves, there are quite a few options out there. I mentioned in my first article that I use acid dyes from Jacquard and Dharma Trading Co. because I work with primarily animal and synthetic fibers. Again, the use of the word acid denotes the type of mordant, being acid in this case, used to adhere the color to the yarn.

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Colorway: The colorway is the product of all the other ingredients coming together. It’s the finished piece of art that’s ready to be enjoyed in a project. The base, mordant, and dye have all interacted and decided to be friends so we can knit, crochet, and weave with gorgeous colors! While we can refer to it as a “color” of yarn rather than a “colorway” technically, and some people do, it does sound more intentional to call it a colorway for some reason. Perhaps that’s just me, but I’ve always felt like that as a dyer.

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That’s a lot of info, so I’m going to leave it at this for now. Make sure you come back soon, though, because I’ve got more to share with you!

About Me

My name is Annie, and I’m a knitwear designer and yarn-dyer living south of Atlanta, GA. When I’m not doing yarn-related things, my other hobbies consist of reading, playing ultimate frisbee, photography, and video games.

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