Why It Matters that We Dye from Primaries

Why It Matters that We Dye from Primaries

At TNNA a few months ago, I discovered something I hadn’t realised before.  Talking to several of my fellow dyers, I became aware that many of them have large collections of different dye colours that they work from.  In some cases, dozens of different shades of powder that they use to dye their yarn.


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That took me by surprise, because we don’t use anything like that many dyes.  In fact, we use only 5 colours of dye: cyan, magenta, yellow, red, and black — the primary colours in the  CMYK and RYB color models.  And we then use these primary colours to hand-mix all the hundreds of other hues that we use on our yarns.  When you look at a SpaceCadet colourway, no matter what shades you are seeing, they are all created from those five colours of dye.


And that’s when I realised that perhaps what we do at SpaceCadet is a little unusual.  Instead of buying premixed colours from the dye manufacturers, we use only the primary colours — and mix all our hues by hand here in the studio.  Every day, when we start to work, we start with only those five colours, but by the time we leave, there are dozens of stunning shades on our yarns.  To achieve them, we constantly experiment — pouring in a base of this colour, then add a little of that colour, and maybe a splash of another, until we think we’ve hit the right mix.  Then we submerge the yarn and see…


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I started out this way for one simple reason: when I first began dyeing, I just couldn’t afford to invest in that many colours of dye.  I sat down with my notebook and wrote the names of all they dyes I wanted to try — Pumpkin, Chartreuse, Salmon, Periwinkle…  The list went on and on but, when I tallied up the price, I realised how quickly all those lovely-sounding colours added up.  Disappointed, I told myself I’d have to make do for the time being with only the primary colours and I placed my smaller (but much more affordable) order with the dye manufacturer.


I always planned to widen my colour selection when finances allowed, but then an odd thing happened: I found I could make every colour I wanted myself!  Good old colour theory and the primary colours didn’t let me down — by mixing those five colours in different configurations, I could achieve everything I’d hoped to buy  …and more.  By the time I could afford a whole palette of pre-mixed dyes, I realised I didn’t want them.  The joy of dyeing for me was not about applying someone else’s colour to my yarn — it had become about making my own colours, creating them completely from scratch, and controlling the tiniest changes from one hue to another.


I guess, really, it was no longer just about the dyeing.  It was thrill of hunt when I spotted a colour I wanted to recreate — maybe the searing blue of the sky on a clear day, the rust on an old Pittsburgh bridge, the grey of a tire left out too long in the sun — and I’d spend a little time really looking at the the object to reverse engineer the colour…  then rush to the studio to try to capture it before the memory was gone.  I’d mix a bit of magenta with a glug of yellow, throw in a splash of black, and…  let the yarn soak it up and find out if I’ve hit it.  No, if dyeing is about putting colour on yarn, this was so much more — this was about about the hands-on creation of every single shade I produced.  And for me, that’s where I find real artistry when I’m dyeing.


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Five years later, SpaceCadet could afford to buy all the colours I so longed for in the beginning, but we still mix from just five colours of dye I started out with.  And it wasn’t until that weekend at TNNA that I realised that might be a little unusual.  When you buy a skein of yarn from SpaceCadet, you’re getting the real artistry of our hands, our own colours that we’ve mixed just for you.  In all honesty, I think that’s what our customers really value when they’re working with hand-dyed yarn — a real connection from one maker to another.  And I have to admit, I’m pretty proud of how we make what we make!


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FAQs: Why Doesn’t This Skein Look Like That One?

FAQs: Why Doesn’t This Skein Look Like That One?

I was having coffee the other day with a friend who is knitting a pair of socks in SpaceCadet Oriana yarn in the colourway “Honey”. It’s a lovely tawny-gold, perfect for bright summer days, and her project looks beautiful. But she pulled her yarn out of her project bag and asked, “Is this different from the last skein of Honey I got from you? It looks different…” And she turned the ball over in her hands with a puzzled look on her face.

She’s not alone in her confusion — I get asked this question fairly regularly and I suspect I’m not the only hand-dyer who does. So if you’ve wondered the same thing, don’t worry — you’re in good company. And, here, I have a photo I want to show you…


Five Yarns Dyed in the Same Dyebath with Very Different Results


Mmmmm… I love do Tickled — that’s the colourway above and it’s such a juicy, vibrant shade! So, which one of these skeins is Tickled? They each look different but the answer might surprise you… it’s all of them! This is a photo of five different SpaceCadet yarns, each with a different fiber content or yarn construction, and all dyed together in the exact same dyebath — and look how differently they’ve all come out! Can you guess which yarns you’re looking at?

Most people don’t realise how much of a difference the fibers a yarn is made from and the way that yarn is spun make to how that yarn takes colour. One yarn drinks in the dyewater as if it’s been stuck on a desert island, and another tries to pretend the dyebath doesn’t exist like a kid with his eyes squeezed shut and his fingers stuck his ears. And that means that, as a dyer, I have a choice: I can either try to rework the recipe for every colourway on each individual yarn or I can keep the recipe the same across all the bases and allow each yarn to take the dye the way it comes naturally.

Embrace The Differences!

Well for me, the answer is easy. Unlike commercial yarns, it’s the nature of hand-dyed yarn that each skein is distinctive and individual, and so it just feels right to go with that and embrace the different way each of the bases takes on dye. I never get tired of seeing a batch of mixed bases come out of the dyepot and just falling in love with each yarns individual beauty. And after they’re dry, I love combining different yarns in the same colourway and seeing how those differences contrast and combine in my knitting.

So, that picture above… let’s see which yarns you were looking at:


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Celeste is a light and generous 3-ply fingering in 100% Superwash Merino
Lyra is our incredibly sproingy cabled 8-ply sport, also in 100% Superwash Merino
Thebe is a 2-ply heavy laceweight in a wonderful 65/35 silk and linen combination
Maia is made with 80% bamboo and 20% Superwash Merino, giving it stunning drape and a sheen that creates an “iced” effect
And Capella, our delightfully squishy single-ply worsted in 100% Superwash Merino.

Let’s go back to the coffee shop with my friend, who was still looking quizzically at the yarn in her hands. I explained that the yarn she was holding is Oriana, which has eight plies that soak up dye deep and fast. That’s very different from Lucina, the last SpaceCadet yarn she worked with, which has similar yardage but is constructed from only two plies — meaning each ply has to be much thicker. The difference in the way these two yarns take on dye is sort of akin to the different ways a paper towel versus a cotton ball might soak up a spill. And so even though both Oriana and Lucina are dyed in the same recipe — and might even have been in the same dyebath — the results can be noticeably different.

And now you know why!

(PS — here’s another example.  This is the same five yarns in Drizzle)

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