Variegated yarn can be a contentious topic. Much digital ink has been spilled espousing the values or arguing against its use — but no matter your position on this lovely yarn, it’s clear that variegated yarns can provide a range of effects in your art, from eye-popping holiday decorations to subtle shifts on the backdrop of a finely-crafted scene.
There can be no doubt that this yarn type has uplifted fiber arts, from the finest Noro to a Red Heart super bulky yarn stripes, so let’s take a deep dive into this multi-color yarn to gain an appreciation for what it has to offer your art.
What is a Variegated Yarn?
Many beginners make their first foray into multi color yarn crafts with variegated yarns, whether they’re knitting or crocheting. Variegated yarns are yarns that change color along the length of the yarn, using either subtle or dramatic shifts in colors to create different effects. Some will work as a self-patterning option, creating automatic stripes or a pattern as the colors change.
Others, such as Noro, provide a more subtle transition between colors for an ombre appearance. Other types will include subtle changes in tone, shifting from mallard green to deep teal to forest green and back again, making it easier to create the perfect depth in a piece without a million color changes designed into the piece, such as trees in the background.
Typically available in every yarn weight from lace through fingering and worsted to super bulky yarn, variegated yarns can serve as a universal yarn for any number of solid areas in knit or crochet pieces. That’s among the reasons why you’ll find this type of yarn in any number of familiar brands, including Red Heart, Plymouth Yarn, Berroco, Caron, Noro and many more.
You can find it at a great price in economy brands, up to higher prices for hand-spun custom yarn from your local fiber spinner. A wide selection of items is available both online, at your local craft store and at your favorite luxury yarn store.
A Yarn is Born
But how is this type of yarn created? During the process of making yarn, the fiber is dyed, either as the fiber itself or as a completed yarn. If the fiber is dyed before spinning, it may be that the fiber is dyed as it will come into the spinning device, whether that’s a drop spindle, spinning wheel or automated spinning system.
The other option is for the spun yarn to be dyed after it has been spun. Generally speaking, you’ll see rapid transitions in machine-spun yarn that is dyed as yarn, with the most subtle and unique transitions occurring from handspun yarn that is dyed in the fiber. This is because the spinner has creativity in choosing which fibers will next be turned into spun yarn, selecting the colors for individual sections as they proceed.
A Variety of Uses
Variegated yarn works well in a wide range of projects, with the type of variegation determining the suitability for specific projects. For yarn that rapidly shifts colors that are dramatically different, such as the ubiquitous holiday yarn of white, green and red that one’s mother made strong use of during the holidays, you’ll do best to stick with a one-color pattern that will make it pop, such as a granny square pattern.
Note that this is different from heathered yarns that have flecks of a different color mixed in with a solid color throughout the rest of the yarn. You’ll want to avoid complex patterns that will be lost in the pops of color that appear as the piece is worked up.
The next type of yarn is monotone variegated, in which the yarn makes subtle shifts between shades of the same color, such as our forest green, dark teal and mallard green example above.
Because the change in colors is not so sudden or shocking, you can expand the yarn’s usage to a range of other areas, including backgrounds in intarsia, fair isle or brioche pieces, adding a subtle hint of texture to your piece. Imagine a sailboat in intarsia, with the subtle shifts of the water’s color creating a pooling effect on the piece, as one example.
It’s also a great option to give granny squares, ganseys or gloves a more modern appearance, adding subtle shifts that don’t drown out the beauty and intricacy of the piece itself. Finally, it does a great job of adding even more texture to textured stitches, such as bobbles, popcorn, butterfly and fan stitches.
Finally, we have rainbow-variegated yarns, such as Noro yarn, which starts out in one color for a number of yards, then makes a shift to a completely different color or tone, such as orange to red to purple.
This type of yarn works very well in one-color pieces to provide an interesting shift in color, though careful planning and purchasing additional material may be needed if you choose to use it in matched pieces, such as gloves or mittens, or in seamed pieces, such as sweaters, to avoid discordant disruptions in your color flow.
However, one area where it really shines is in unseamed brioche knitting, where the yarn is used for the background color to provide a constant shift of color in the background or surface to add interest to the piece.
Now that we’ve talked about the many places where variegated yarns work in fiber arts, let’s talk about the few in which it doesn’t. If you’re working up a piece that has a complex pattern, such as complicated cables or lace work, you’ll want to especially avoid high-contrast variegated yarns, which can make the piece seem too busy and cause your stitch work to fade into the background.
Similarly, this type of yarn should be avoided for your background in intarsia or fair isle pieces, because it can confuse the eye on where the pattern should be compared to where it appears because of the contrast. Though monotone variegations can be used in these situations, you may want to make a test swatch to see if the effect is overwhelming in these types of projects.
Tips and Tricks
For making matched pieces, try winding half the ball off to ensure that you’re going in the same direction in terms of variegation, using the center pull of the original skein for one and the rolled ball from the outside loose yarn for the other.
Pull off the yarn to a specific point on both balls, such as the point that it shifts from blue to brown, so that you’re starting at the approximately same point, giving you a mirror image when working up the pieces.
This will work much better for machine-spun yarn, which tends to have a higher level of variation consistency compared to handspun yarn, though that level of accuracy can be managed by an accomplished spinner.
Though we tend to think of dye lots as something that impacts the color of our project, it can also impact variegation. Spin and dye machinery is like any other type of machinery, and between dye lots, adjustments may be made to the equipment while it’s undergoing downtime anyway.
For this reason, it’s important to get sufficient yarn of the same dye lot at the beginning of your project, to ensure that the yarn will continue to vary in the same general way across your entire project, as compared to a different lot that may introduce too much variation into the piece, causing a discordant appearance to your hard work and artistry.
Pay attention to gauge as well, as that can impact how quickly the new color is introduced on one piece versus the other. We’ve all been guilty of changing our gauge in the middle of a project, whether it’s a stressful life circumstance, aches in our hands or boredom in the middle of a background.
Because gauge change also impacts the speed at which the new color is introduced, it’s important to be especially attentive of gauge when you’re working with variegated yarns, especially if it’s for a large piece such as a blanket or throw that will take a lot of work to complete effectively. If you need to, create a quick gauge before you start on a project again, especially if it’s one that you’ve put away for a while.
If you’re like me, you don’t want to simply view the ideas, you want to be able to click a link to see how they look with variegated yarn. These patterns will help you make some amazing items with your variegated yarn, whether you prefer needles or hooks, fast color shifts or subtle changes.
Brioche in Montreaux (Knit Cowl)
This pattern uses a variegated yarn as a counterpoint to the white surface stitch, creating a subtle shift throughout the background that makes this piece pop. At the same time, the gentle changes in variation don’t overwhelm the fine brioche work on the surface of the piece.
Additionally, the reverse side showcases the shift in color with a subtle white pattern at the back, making this a beautiful piece when reversed.
Dragonfly Bandana Cowl (Crochet Cowl)
Though you can’t do intricate lace with some variegated yarns, this pattern is an example of where you can really make it stand out, with simple lacework dragonflies and edging giving what would otherwise be a relatively plain bandana plenty of spirit.
However, it’s important to stick with a smooth yarn, such as a bamboo or silk blend, so that the fuzziness of a regular yarn doesn’t overwhelm the pattern and hide the hard work you put into the precise stitches.
Sand & Sky Tank (Knit Tank Top)
For a simple knitting-on-the-go pattern with a self-striping yarn, this tank top is an easy way to get into variegated yarn without a lot of headaches. Pick out a striping yarn to match the gauge needed, then work through the piece as you would a monotone knit top.
Set in your stitch markers after casting on, then use the circular needles to simply keep going around, with stripes forming automatically as you go through the beautiful yarn you’ve selected.
Bandito Cowl (Crochet Cowl)
A great option for a variegated yarn that has great drape, the Bandito Cowl will give you a simple option to put together to showcase the amazing yarn you’re using. This makes it a great entry into using variegated yarn for beginners, because it uses three easy stitches, and most yarns that have good drape will make it pretty easy to see the stitches as you go because it will have some cotton or bamboo content.
For a smooth transition, use a yarn that has subtle shifts between dyed sections.
Slip Stitch Beret (Knit Beret)
To add a bit of life to what would otherwise be a two-tone fair isle beret, this pattern uses one solid colored and one variegated yarn to create an outstanding effect.
Though you would typically use the solid color in the background and a range of other colors in the foreground of a fair isle pattern, this one reverses this convention and uses a lighter variegated yarn for the background and a solid color in the foreground to make the pattern pop.
Though granny stitches always look amazing with variegated yarns (and were the first bit of crochet work I picked up from my mother after years of knitting) there are some other stitches that make your fiber arts look awesome with variegated yarn.
Basket Weave Stitch (Knit)
With seven different variants available at the link above, a basket weave stitch is a great way to add some additional texture to the background in your knitting, especially for larger areas of background.
Crochet Moss Stitch (Crochet)
The moss stitch is especially fun with wild and self-striping yarns, as it adds a ton of texture and pops of color throughout your entire piece. However, it may fade into the background with subtle variations.
Two-Color Brioche Stitch (Knit)
I have to confess, I LOVE two-color brioche with a variegated background! It adds even more drama to what would already be a dramatic piece and plenty of tonal variation.
Closing The Loop
Variegated yarns provide plenty of options and opportunities to grow your fiber arts chops, provided that you’re using them correctly in the process. Stick to one-color or simple textures, use to create interest in backgrounds or to otherwise add artistic effects without overwhelming complex patterns.