If you've worked with hand-dyed yarn before, you have probably heard the advice (especially if you're working on a larger project) to alternate skeins as you are working on your project. But what exactly does alternating skeins mean? (Thank you to the amazing knitter who recently asked me about this topic, which spawned the idea for this week's newsletter.)
Typically when you work on a project such as a sweater, you start with your first skein of yarn, work until that skein ends, continue with your second skein of yarn and work until that skein ends, etc. Alternating skeins means to work with more than one skein (of the same color) at a time, switching between those skeins as you go rather than waiting until all of one skein has been used.
What's the difference? If you've ever worked with yarn from two different dyelots within the same project, you may have noticed a very clear "line" that marks where the first skein ended and the second skein started. You wouldn't expect this to happen with yarn from the same dyelot, but when you're using hand-dyed yarn, it's a completely different situation. Even yarn that comes from the same dyelot can have enough differences (due to the nature of hand-dyeing itself) to create that "line" on your project between skeins.
So alternating skeins is a way to blend any potential differences from multiple skeins of hand-dyed yarn so your project won't have that noticeable line.
Preparing the Yarn
Lay out all the skeins of yarn you plan to use for your project. Just by looking at them within the hank (or ball/cake), can you tell any differences among them? Order them from lightest to darkest (or any other way that arranges them by difference--perhaps, for example, some of the skeins have more blue and others have more pink). Number the skeins from left to right.
Let's say you have 6 skeins. You don't want to alternate the two that are the most different. So don't pair up Skein 1 with Skein 6. Instead, pair up Skein 1 with Skein 4, Skein 2 with Skein 5, and Skein 3 with Skein 6. That way there's not a huge difference between the skeins that you're alternating.
Start your project by knitting two rows of Skein 1. Drop the yarn and add in Skein 2; knit two rows using that yarn. After those two rows, you're back to the edge with the working yarn from Skein 1, so drop Skein 2 and pick up the yarn from Skein 1. Keep doing that, switching between the two skeins each time you come back to that edge.
Do not cut the yarn; just carry the yarn up the side as you work on the project. Because you're alternating every time you come back to the same side, the yarn you're carrying doesn't have far to go and is fairly unnoticeable. Just be careful that you don't pull too tightly when you are changing strands of yarn.
Extra tip: If you're concerned that your edge will be too tight, do this: add in a yarn over that you then drop on the next row. In other words, for the first row of each pair, you'd knit the first stitch and add a yarn over before working the second stitch. When you come back to that yarn over when working the second row of the pair, drop the yarn over. This gives you a little extra slack on the yarn at the edge. Just be careful that you don't accidentally work that yarn over and create an extra stitch!
Knitting in the Round
Start your project by knitting one round from Skein 1. Drop the yarn and add in Skein 2, knitting one round with it. Every time you come back to the beginning of the round, switch strands of yarn. (Again, do not cut the yarn; just carry it up the inside of the project.)
One big caution here. You'll want to make sure to twist your yarns around each other when you drop one and pick up the next. Otherwise, you'll create a hole at the beginning of the round.
If the first stitch at the beginning of the round is a knit stitch: When you finish working a round with Skein 1, pull the working yarn from Skein 1 forward (to the front of your work). Leave it there while you work a round with Skein 2. At that point, pull the yarn from Skein 2 forward and grab the yarn from Skein 1, bringing it to the back of the work and ready to make a knit stitch. (Make sure the yarns are actually crossing over one another at this point.) Doing this twists the two strands around one another, closing up the gap that would otherwise form.
If the first stitch at the beginning of the round is a purl stitch: When you finish working a round with Skein 1, make sure the working yarn is at the back. Work a round with Skein 2. When you come back to the beginning of the round, pull the yarn from Skein 2 to the back and the strand from Skein 1 to the front (again, making sure they cross over one another), ready to work a purl stitch.
Working with an Odd Number of Skeins
What happens if you have three skeins? You can pair two to alternate but then you're left with the third by itself. You have two choices here:
1. You can alternate using all three skeins at once, so work one round or two rows for each skein. (I would not recommend this method if you have more than three skeins.)
2. You can divide the three skeins in half, effectively creating six skeins that you can then mix and match to alternate. (Which is also a way of working with other odd numbers, such as five or seven.)
The "Fade" Method
Let's say you don't really want to juggle two or three different balls of yarn at once. Instead of alternating throughout the project, you can gradually shift from one skein to the next. You'd start with Skein 1 and work with it until there's enough yarn left to work about six more rounds/twelve rows. At that point, add in Skein 2 and work one round or two rows with it. Then work three rounds or six rows with Skein 1, work two rounds or four rows with Skein 2, work two rounds or four rows with Skein 1, work three rounds or six rows with Skein 2, work one round or two rows with Skein 1. At this point, you're finished with Skein 1 and can continue just with Skein 2.
If there is a big difference between skeins (such as the example above where one skein has more blue and the other more pink), this method is still going to have sections of your project show clear differences. All you're doing here is making it so there's not a super clear line between the two skeins. For big differences between colors, I'd recommend using the regular method to really blend in the colors.
You want to make sure your sleeves are as close to one another as possible. So set aside two skeins of yarn (or more depending on yardage) for the sleeves. Divide the two skeins of yarn in half and work sleeve one using the first half each of Skeins 1 and 2 and work sleeve two using the second half of Skeins 1 and 2.
Basically, you don't want to use Skeins 1 and 2 on the first sleeve and Skeins 3 and 4 on the second sleeve only to find out that there's enough of a difference to be noticeable between the two sleeves.
I know this adds some extra work into your project, but in the end, it can make a big difference between a sweater you're excited to wear and one that bothers you every time you look at it because you can tell right away where one skein ends and the other begins.
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