Knitty�: little purls of wisdom
Yarn Workshop

What to do When the Yarn You Love is the Wrong Color

Have you ever bought yarn online and didn’t like the color when it arrived? But you tossed it in your stash anyway because some day you might find the perfect project for those 10 skeins of bright orange cotton, right? Or maybe you found your favorite 100% baby alpaca on sale for 75% off or available for trade at a yarn swap, but it’s in an awful kelly green? Logic might dictate sending the yarn back, or passing up the great bargain, but we all know that when it comes to yarn most of us aren’t all that logical. But don’t just toss the yarn in your stash and wait for the right project to come along. Get proactive and change the yarn into what you want it to be!  You can alter the yarn itself by dyeing or bleaching, or create different visual effects with colorwork, or even spin it into a whole new yarn.

Dyeing is a very easy way to alter the color of any natural fiber yarn. There are many great online resources for dyeing, so I’m not going to cover the process in detail in this article. Wool, silk and other protein fibers can be dyed with acid dyes, kool-aid, fiber-reactive dyes, and of course natural dyes. Cotton and other cellulose fibers can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes and natural dyes. Synthetics are very difficult (and sometimes impossible) to dye at home, but you can experiment with blends of synthetic and natural fiber. For example, if the yarn is a 50% cotton/50% acrylic, the cotton will take the dye and the acrylic won't, creating an interesting new color, possibly somewhat heathered in appearance. There is a lot of information about dyeing online, including the following articles in Knitty:
Dyeing with acid dyesDyeing with Kool AidDyeing with Food ColorDyeing plant fibers with Fiber Reactive Dyes

Dharma Trading Company is one of my favorite resources for both dyes and instructions. For each type of dye they offer, they provide basic instructions (look for the “instructions” link under “Quick Links” at the upper right of the page when you have found the dye you are interested in. Additionally, they have created the following special tutorials:
Acid Dyed YarnHand Painted (aka space dyed) Cotton Yarn

This just barely scratches the surface of the dyeing information that is available online. There are also very active dyeing discussion groups on Ravelry and Craftster that are well worth your time whether you’re new to dyeing or a seasoned pro.

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When overdyeing an already dyed yarn, you will need to consider how the colors will blend. Is the original yarn a light tan or ecru color? Then you can probably dye it almost any color you want. Is it bright turquoise? Then you probably won’t be able to dye it yellow. The turquoise might show through the overdye job in some way. It might blend with the new color, and it might show through as a sortof subtle highlight. For example, if you dye a bright turquoise with a bright red dye, you’ll probably end up with purple yarn. Or, depending on how the dye reacts, it might be a very reddish purple, with very blue highlights. The yarn in the photo above started out as the bright orange on the left. I overdyed it with a bright red-brown, and the orange definitely had an impact in creating the finished orange-brown color you see on the right. Experimenting and being willing to accept unexpected results are key here, but if it’s precision you want you will need to test swatches and measure your dyes meticulously. Personally I think part of the fun is tossing it in the dye pot and seeing what happens, but precision is (sort of) possible if you become familiar with the dyeing process.

Bleaching or dye removal is another way to change the color of the yarn.  Regular household bleach will destroy protein fibers, and can have harsh effects on cellulose fibers. Special dye removers such as Rit Color Remover may be a more gentle way to go about bleaching, but may still damage your yarn. Dyeing is probably the best way to preserve the integrity of your yarn, but if you are desperate for a lighter color, dye removal is worth considering. Removing dye is covered fairly well online so I won’t go into detail here. Dharma Trading Company also offers a dye remover, and the instructions suggest it can even remove the dye from polyester.

Just as for overdyeing, you need to take the original color into account. You might not be able to remove all the color, but you may be able to lighten the color somewhat. Just as with dyeing, the removal of color can be an unpredictable process so if you’re interested in precision, test it on swatches first.

You don’t have to change the color of your yarn to change the overall look of your finished work. Consider all of the possibilities presented by colorwork. Carrying another yarn with your original yarn, striping, intarsia, fair isle, and edging the finished work in a different yarn are all ways to change the look of the original yarn. I refer to knitting in these examples, but I’m sure the concepts would work fairly well with crochet as well.

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Carrying another yarn with the original yarn as you knit will give you a sort of heathered look and change the overall color of the finished piece. You don’t have to use the same type or brand of yarn. Consider carrying a yarn that’s much thinner, thicker, or a completely different texture than the original. You can work your project in stripes with another yarn for a whole new effect. You can try striping with yarns of different weights, textures, and colors, and you can experiment with the number of rows you work with each yarn.

Striping will not drastically change the color, but the overall effect will be much different than knitting the piece entirely in the original yarn. See the photographs of the examples in orange above. The bright orange swatch is too bright for most projects. Knitting it together with the same yarn that I overdyed, or striping it with that yarn opens up more possibilities. Of course you don't have to stick with the same type or brand of yarn. You can mix wool and cotton, thick and thin, novelty and luxury yarns, and so on. The possibilities are endless.

wrong color

Other colorwork such as intarsia or fairisle can be used to break up a harsh color, such as in the examples knit in green above. The green is a rather nice color, but on its own, it’s overwhelming. It becomes more pleasant as a background for colorwork. You can even peruse your favorite stitch dictionaries for stitches that are suited to colorwork, such as the Speckled Rib used in the sample on the bottom right, from The Harmony Guides.

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Edging your project with a different yarn doesn’t have the same impact as all of the above methods, but it is still something to consider for certain purposes. For example, I love the color orange but it makes me look pale if I wear it close to my face. If I really want to knit an orange top, I can work the edges in a different, more flattering color, such as pink. The pink would be closest to my face, making me look just a bit less pale. This is a subtle way to remedy the bad effects of an unsuitable color. The drawing with swatches --> illustrates this idea, albeit very conceptually. The model on the left looks a bit washed-out in her very yellow dress. The model on the right looks a bit more lively in her yellow dress edged in flattering pink.

Any colorwork will involve experimentation with different color combinations. A color wheel might be useful to you, to determine which colors will look good together. Color theory is a whole different can of worms that I’m not going to cover here, but don’t be intimidated if you think you don’t "get" color. Swatching is your friend. If you like the swatch, then go for it. Or you can do a bit of sketching first to save yourself some time. It’s not exactly the same as seeing the actual knitted swatch, but you can experiment with a lot of different colors before swatching, by sketching by hand or even on the computer. Your sketches don’t have to be sophisticated. Trace a figure from a fashion magazine and then color in your garment idea. Or print out some graph paper and color the boxes in your proposed fairisle or intarsia pattern. Stripes are easiest of all. A few lines is all you need to decide whether or not your colors will work together. If you know how to use a drawing program on your computer, draw an outline of whatever you’re knitting and color it in or print it out to color it by hand.

If you know how to spin, you might even consider the various possibilities that presents. You can spin the yarn into a new yarn, either by spinning it with different fibers or roving, or by overspinning the original yarn, and plying it with another yarn that has been overspun. Spinning the yarn into something entirely new is probably the most labor intensive of all of the options, but it is an option that provides a lot of creative control. As with dyeing, it is not my aim to go into detail about spinning, but rather to suggest the possibility to get your creativity flowing. If you would like to learn to spin, plenty of information about spinning can be found online, with ample help available in the spinning discussion boards on Ravelry and Craftster. Try your local public library for books and videos, or consider a subscription to Spin-Off Magazine. Lexi Boeger has developed several techniques that combine commercial yarn with spinning, which you can find in her books Handspun Revolution and Intertwined.

I hope this brief article has inspired you to break out all those odd-colored yarns from your stash and give them a chance. By experimenting with dyeing and the removal of dye, colorwork, and even spinning, you can create something completely unique. You no longer have to regret your online purchase that didn’t quite match the picture, and you don’t have to pass up that bargain that doesn’t suit your skin tone. I hope this inspires you to think of even more possibilities for changing the yarn you sortof like into a yarn you will love.


Robin spends every spare second on whatever craft is catching her fancy at the moment. She procrastinates on crafting by working her day job, playing around in her vegetable garden, and experimenting in the kitchen. She sells handspun yarn, knitting patterns, and other goodies here and runs a website focused on fashion-forward knitting.