A plied yarn is greater than the sum of its parts. The mere act of twisting strands of spun fiber together produces a material that occupies more space than would those strands if they were simply held together without twist. Blue Sky Fibers (formerly Blue Sky Alpacas) Hand Dyes has a lot of plying going on.
Plying also helps give strength to a yarn. The more twist, the more energy holds all the fibers together. When you have many strands of plied fibers being plied together into a yarn—as is the case with S-on-S cabled yarns and traditional cable-spun yarns such as Hand Dyes—you end up with an extraordinarily strong and vigorous material.
The difference between S-on-S cabled yarns and traditional cable-spun yarns is all in the final ply. S-on-S cabled yarns are usually made from several two-ply strands that are then twisted together in the same direction as the original plying. With all that twist going in the same direction, your fabric can sometimes bias in the direction of the excess twist. S-on-S cabled yarns also tend to produce a tighter, completely vertical left leg in knitted stitches.
Cable-spun yarns are also usually made from several two-ply strands—but then they are plied together in the opposite direction of their original plying. By countering the twist of the original plies, the final plying locks the strands together and produces a strong, voluminous, and extremely well-balanced yarn.
For whatever reason, most of the traditional cable-spun yarns in recent history have contained cotton (Tahki Cotton Classic and Brown Sheep Cotton Fleece are two of the most popular examples). The combined inelastic cotton and interlocking twist have resulted in a pretty dense and unyielding yarn.
Blue Sky Fibers Hand Dyes changes things by applying this same strong, rounded yarn construction to lofty, stretchy wool and alpaca. It also ups the cable-spun equation by using five strands of three-ply yarn that are then plied together in the opposite direction. The result is a round, full-bodied yarn that begs to keep you warm on a cold winter day.
Hand Dyes comes in 13 colors that are hand-dyed (as the name suggests) and appear mostly solid in hue.
My skein of Hand Dyes had no knots or irregularities. As soon as I cast on, I was reminded of the one downside to cabled yarns: Twist, even when well-balanced in a cable-spun yarn, still enjoys coming undone.
As I worked my knit and purl rows, I immediately noticed that the yarn’s five plied strands wanted to come untwisted, especially on purl rows. Untwisted strands of plied yarn are like bull’s-eye symbols for needle tips. Sure enough, as soon as my attention wandered, I began stabbing the plies by mistake, snagging only half in my stitch and leaving the other half dangling from the fabric.
The yarn produces such clean, well-defined stitches that any loose strands are as visible as a large run in a pair of brightly colored stockings. I immediately took evasive action, switching to a blunt-tipped bamboo needle. The snagging slowed to a halt. Only once did I snag the yarn again. Otherwise, knitting became easy and my progress swift. Yet another example of how a simple needle change can alter your whole day for the better.
Hand Dyes produces an open, comfortable fabric in plain stockinette, but it really sings in ribbing. Even a simple k1/p1 ribbing was perfectly even and fantastically springy. The yarn also renders cables and even garter-stitch in glorious high relief.
Blocking / Washing
All that twist makes Hand Dyes a rather dense yarn. It took quite a bit of tapping and prodding for my swatch to become fully saturated with water.
I let it linger for a while, letting the warm water reach all the nooks and crannies and help the fibers relax, before I rinsed the swatch and set it out to dry. There was a vague hint of light green in the water, not really enough to call “bleeding.”
My swatch required very little blocking. It slowly dried to shape (all those plies do make it dense) without any stretching, shrinking, or visible bias.
A high-touch, no-itch yarn, Hand Dyes is an exception to the “soft is fragile” rule. The layers upon layers of twist help fortify the yarn’s fine fibers, creating a remarkably sturdy yarn.
Under duress, the yarn slowly softened and bloomed, producing an inviting surface halo. Quite reluctantly, the halo began to coalesce into faint pills, but only after quite a bit of relentless friction.
I’m happy to see a cable-spun yarn that uses softer, spongier fibers. In terms of fitting uses for Hand Dyes, Pam Allen’s Marian Cowl, with its deep, broad cable motif, would be splendid and perfect for our snowy winters. It requires approximately 525 yards of yarn, which translates to six skeins, or…gulp…$146 and some change. A bit pricey for what’s considered an accessory—but that cowl would keep you toasty warm in even the heaviest snow storm.
Those numbers do seem high for a yarn that’s been sourced in Peru, a place that tends to produce many of our lower-cost yarns. The cost could be driven by the fact that royal alpaca is one of the finest and most expensive grades of alpaca available, or by the fact that the yarn is dyed by hand.
Bottom line? Yarns are like tools. Each fiber blend and each twist and ply combination gives us a distinct and useful alternative for our creative output. The curiously named Worsted Hand Dyes is a welcome new alternative to the cable-spun yarn market. It is soft and spongy, with gorgeous colors, substantial body, and a stitch definition that lets you tell almost any story you’d like.