What do you call that color?
Solid — You’ve heard the old phrase, “dyed in the wool,” right? Well this is what they’re talking about. Solid colors are exactly what they sound like; color is consistent throughout every fiber. Every nook, every cranny every individual strand is saturated with dye until it’s all uniformly colored. This kind of color can be achieved by dying the fleece before processing so the color is consistent before it is even spun. It is dyed in the wool red…or blue, or orange…and won’t surprise you. It can also be achieved by making certain dye penetrates evenly throughout a skein despite density or twist. No matter what you do to it, you’ll only see uniform color throughout.
Kettle Dyed — Once upon a time, all dyeing was done in small kettles at home. The dyers were chemists, but did not have tools or dye stuffs as sophisticated or precise as we have available today. If the pH or temperature of the water, the age or potency of the dye materials, the precise measurement of the mordants, the average microns of the fiber or twist ration of yarn, or the rate of manual stirring during the process varied even a little bit, the saturation of dye into the fiber could be subtly different from one batch to another, or even within a single batch or skein. When all dying was done by hand, the skill of the dyer was judged by the consistency of the colors they were able to produce. Even small variations in color within a batch of dyed fiber or cloth were marks of lack of skill or carelessness. Now-a-days, there are still small batch dyers who do their work in small kettles. Some of them are extremely skilled and can created clear, consistent, uniform colors when they choose. But subtle variations in color saturation, which once meant lesser skill at dying, have come be a mark of individual artistry. Rather than prizing the clear consistency of skilled hand dyers or large commercial operations, we consumers have come to admire and prefer the variations. Which is why large commercial operations, as well as skilled dyers, have learned to mimic the subtle variation of small batch dyers.
Heathered — You know that if you mix red paint with blue paint you’ll get purple paint. Red and blue make purple. Red and yellow make orange, and yellow and blue make green. In pigments, like paint or dyes, red, blue and yellow are called the primary colors, and purple, green and orange are called the secondary colors. But if you take two or more different colors of fiber and card them together, the colors don’t mix in a chemical way. If you look closely at the resultant yarn, you can see individual fibers that retain their original color. The color with the most fibers will be dominant, but the color or colors in smaller amount will still be present and give an overall effect of a subtly richer color. This is heathering.
Marled — Like heathered yarns, marled yarns rely on mixing two or more colors for their effect. Where heathered yarns are two or more colors combed together, marled yarns are two or more solid colors spun individually and plied together. Think of it like the swirled stripe on a candy cane or barber pole. The result when marled yarns are knit or crocheted is an all-over speckle. Ragg Wool Socks and Sock Monkeys are examples or fabric knit with marled yarns. (perhaps because sock monkeys were originally made from ragg wool socks?) Most marled yarn have two colors spun together, but there is no real limit to the number of colors, or plies for that matter, that you could include. The colors that are spun together, while they don’t actually mix, will reflect each other and subtly change the over all effect. It can get even more complicated if the strands are kettle dyed or heathered before being spun together. A finely spun rich, dark forest green spun with a deep merlot maroon will give an overall affect of soft warm brown even though, when you look closely, there’s no brown in it.
Tweed — Tweed is a term we sometimes apply to anything with a somewhat speckled appearance, but real tweed has a structure and effect all its own. Tween is made when small bits of a contrasting color are spun into the surface of yarn. The small bits are called neps or noils and are usually pulled out and discarded either during carding or spinning. They are purposefully added to tweed yarns to give the flecks of color. While the effect of Marled yarns is an all-over speckle that gives a blended color appearance, tweed has a sparser proportion of random flecks that give the appearance of a predominant color with small highlights here and there.
Variegated — Yarns that have more than one color. Normally, in large commercial dying operations, yarn is run through a machine that applies dye in precise patterns repeated in sequence. There are no limits to how many colors you can include, and no hard and fast rules on how long each color segment or the repeat will be. Noro is a variegated yarn with really long color segments and may only have one or two repetitions of the sequence per skein. This is what gives the striping effect. Many so called baby yarns have short color segments and the sequence repeats many time within each skein. This gives the random appearance of colors in a traditional variegated yarn.
Space Dyed — When hand dyers set about to make skein with more than one color, they lay our the yarn in an oval and apply dye to specific areas of the oval. Or, they dip separate segments of each skein in different dye baths. While this makes space dyed yarns technically a type of variegated color, the main difference is in how the sequence is established and the length of each color segment. The yarns we are used to calling variegated usually have short color segments in a repeating sequence, while space dyed yarns have larger color segments, possibly repeated out of sequence…which creates just a different kind of sequence. It’s a small distinction and not an altogether reliable one as large commercial dye houses can easily reset their machines to create sequences the mimic small batch artisanal space dyed yarns, and small batch artisans can space dye in such a way that they make linear color sequences. Space dyed is one of those terms, like kettle dyed, that gives the impression of individual artistry which we have come to prize over commercial mass production.
Tonal — Any variegated yarn that uses two or more values of the same color. A yarn that incorporates cornflower blue, robins egg, blue and periwinkle, or burgundy, maroon and merlot, or forest green, avacado green and olive green are tonals.
Hand Painted — This term once meant that individual artists actually applied dyes by hand to specific lengths of yarn within a skein according to a personal aesthetic. The colors might be laid on in sequences and repeats. They might be applied only to part of a skein with other colors or no color at all in another part. Hand paint is another term, like kettle dyed and space dyed that implies individual artistry and rarity. But it ain’t necessarily so. The term has come to be applied to many variegated yarns that have a sophisticated, contemporary color palette whether they were actually painted by hand or not.
Striping — A variegated yarn that makes stripes when you knit it. The length of each color segment is calculated to make a predictable number of stitches. As long as the width or circumference of each knit row is within the calculated range, the stitches of each color stack up on each other and make a stripe. Then the color changes and a new stripe just come along without the knitter having to do anything to make it so.