One of the reasons I love knitting and making yarn is that the outcome is only mostly predictable. I like the organic quality of making, especially when my outcome doesn’t look machine made or store-bought.
I’m not criticizing anyone who loves the lined-up perfection of a sweater flawlessly made or a yarn perfectly spun. It’s just not my thing. My world is messy, a little asymmetrical, a little mixed up. When I step up to the window for soft-serve, I always get the swirl.
There is a type of dyed yarn that is the knitting embodiment of the beautifully, unevenly swirled ice cream cone: semi-solid.
Neighborhood Fiber Company has wonderful semi-solids in their Organic Studio line of yarns. The magical kind, the ones that look pretty much solid in the skein, but when you knit them, they come alive, light, dark and mid tones tumbling over each other. Karida Collins and her team are master dyers. For my swatches I used Organic Studio Chunky in Belair, Worsted in Truxton Circle, DK in Bolton Hill, and Sock in Canton. That’s them, from left to right, all in a row above.
A lovely irregularity
I had a classmate in elementary school who claimed the ice cream truck in her neighborhood had a soft-serve machine. (I still am skeptical.) I wanted that truck to come to our neighborhood so badly. In the 1970s before DQ was everywhere, soft serve was elusive and the swirled flavors were gold. I feel the same way about really well-done semi-solid like Neighborhood Fiber Company’s yarn.
Semi-solids are not for everyone—knitters have asked me how to “fix” them, to make them look solid. Semi-solid yarns will never look solid, some colors are less semi than others depending on how the dye strikes, but there will always be variation.
The yarn is dyed unevenly on purpose to get this very specific effect. Some dyers lay the dye on by hand; some use a submersion method. My very first weaving teacher in my 20s dyed her semi-solid skeins by hanging a portion out of the dye pot, and rotating through the skein. One thing these methods have in common is they let the dye soak into the yarn how it wants to, no squeezing, no saturating, it sits and absorbs as much or as little as it wants. That’s what creates the lovely irregularity in color.
The result is knitted fabric that looks organic, like dappled light through trees. I can see the changes in color saturation in each of the swatches.
It’s easy to see the differences in stockinette stitch, my eye follows the changes across the swatches, giving the most basic of knitting stitches the feeling of movement.
My swatches are about four inches square—in a sweater the variation will be more drawn out, especially if you knit in the round.
Change it up
Your gauge can change the look of semi-solid yarn. These two swatches are knit at 5 stitches to the inch (left) and 6 stitches to the inch (right). In the tighter gauge the yarn is squeezed together when knit, the result is a more uniform semi-solid look to the swatch. At a looser gauge the yarn has more loft, more space to plump and spread. There is more surface of the yarn visible at the looser gauge, so the semi part of semi-solid is more apparent.
The knitting hive mind often talks about switching skeins to lessen the effect of semi solid yarn. When a yarn is dyed with such little manipulation, the color undulates within each skein, and also from skein to skein, even when dyed in the same batch. In the swatch I knit, I can see that the portion of skein A I knit is lighter overall than the portion of skein B, which has darker sections. When I alternate skein A and B every two rows, it blends the two subtly while still remaining mottled, it’s like a double swirled ice cream.
When I add a texture stitch and a lace stitch to the swatch mix, I can really see how stockinette shows the dye variation the most. If you like only a bit of semi-solid effect, you might try using it in texture or lace. Nothing too complex or the yarn could detract from the stitch pattern.
The tumble from light to dark is still there, but it shares the stage with shifting stitches, making the play of dye more subtle. I find that a semi-solid yarn combined with lace and texture stithes creates a something beyond how they look knit from a solid yarn. The simplest of stitches are elevated into fabric with depth and lushness.
I was completely surprised the first time I knit a tiny, quick lace stitch in a semi-solid yarn. I had never particularly liked the stitch before, but now it was something else. My ice cream parallel for that is the first time I bit into a Good Humor Chocolate Candy Crunch, the one that had chocolate bar in the middle—mind blown.
You might have noticed I didn’t talk about the organic in the Neighborhood Fiber Company’s Organic Studio yarns—that article is coming. The shift that Neighborhood Fiber Company made from superwash Merino to GOTS-certified organic Merino needs a celebration of its own.