Perhaps you’ve seen beautiful color gradients in handwoven projects, but you’re not sure how to achieve them, especially with a limited yarn palette. Here are six ways to create gradients in handwoven cloth.

Color Gradient Method 1: Alternate colors thread by thread.

The first way is to alternate colors. Basically, you mix different colors by alternating threads of each color in different proportions, gradually swapping Color A for Color B until you’ve completed the color transition. So the color sequence might look like: AAA ABA ABA ABA BAB BAB BAB BBB for a short color gradient. For a longer color change, you might use larger thread groupings: AAAAA, AAABA AAABA, AABAB AABAB, ABABB ABABB, BABBB BABBB, BBBBB, for example.

Alternating colors is most effective when the colors are close to each other in darkness. In the swatch below, the yellow-green and the green are close to each other in hue (they’re right next to each other on the color wheel), but the yellow-green is much lighter than the green, so the blending is incomplete and the transition is pretty obvious. 

yarn wrap showing yellow-green and blue-green to green color gradients

Blue and blue-green are also right next to each other on the color wheel, but this blue-green is almost the same darkness as the green, so the color gradient is much smoother and easier on the eye.

Color Gradient Method 2: Purchase yarns that create a color gradient.

You have several options if you’d like to purchase yarns that create color gradients. First, some yarns come in color gradient palettes. Lunatic Fringe Yarns’ Tubular Spectrum yarns are mercerized cotton in a rainbow palette, and are designed and dyed in a color gradient that moves smoothly around the spectrum in 20 different colors. Recently they’ve added pastel and dark versions of the original Tubular Spectrum yarns to their palette, so you have color gradient options beyond the usual brilliant rainbow.

Lunatic Fringe Yarns are available at many vendors (check out your local yarn shop!) or you can order directly from them online.

If you’d rather use silk, Redfish Dyeworks sells a color gradient palette of silks, and Treenway Silks carries over 100 colors of silk that can be used to create color gradients.

If you are comfortable using knitting yarns, Knitpicks carries knitting yarns in color gradients. Many indie dyers offer gradient mini-packs, too.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of vendors and yarns, just the ones I know about. Have one to add? Send it to me and I’ll add it to the list!

Color Gradient Method 3: Use skeins dyed with long color changes.

In addition to purchasing many individual skeins of yarn, you can also purchase skeins that have been dyed or spun with long color gradations. Some skeins change colors slowly along the entire length of the skein. You are most likely to find these in knitting yarns, often from indie dyers.

Dyeing your own gradations.

Methods 4-6 all involve dyeing your own yarns. There are two major suppliers for hand dyers in the U.S. – Pro Chemical and Dye on the East Coast and Dharma Trading Company on the West Coast. You can’t go wrong with either of them, and both have great instructions for dyeing with acid and fiber-reactive dyes on their websites. (Acid dyes are used for wool, silk, and animal fibers generally; fiber-reactive dyes are used on cotton, linen, and plant fibers generally, but can also be used on silk.)

Color Gradient Method 4: Dye your own mini-skein color gradations.

For this method, you simply create lots of mini-skeins and dye each one in a gradually-changing set of colors. (Plastic drink cups – or glass mason jars reserved for dyeing – work well for this, depending on the size of the skein and whether heat is needed.) If you want to avoid knots at the color changes, you can also split a larger skein into smaller skeins without cutting the smaller skeins apart. Then tie the mini-skeins well, and put them into individual cups. Just make sure that the yarn between the cups is thoroughly soaked with dye.

The number of mini-skeins you’ll want to create depends on how smooth you want the transition between colors to be. If you want a seamless transition, you may need a LOT of skeins. In my shawl “Black Jewel,” dyed using the mini-skein method, the color gradient is nearly invisible – but I dyed 28 different skeins to get the smooth gradient from turquoise to fuchsia.

"Black Jewel" shawl

A much simpler approach, if you want a really smooth gradient, is to dye a smaller number of colors, 5-8 depending on the colors involved, and then alternate thread-by-thread as mentioned in Method #1 to smooth out the transition between colors. This can create a nearly invisible gradient with far fewer skeins.

Color Gradient Method 5: Paint your warp.

If the color gradient is in your warp, of course, you can simply paint the warp. If you are trying for a smooth gradient, it helps to mix up several cups of the intermediate colors before you start painting, rather than trying to mix them on the fly. (Mixing on the fly almost always results in lopsided proportions and abrupt color changes – ask me how I know!) 

Pro Chemical and Dye has instructions for painting cotton warps here.

Color Gradient Method 6: Use a knitted blank.

A third option for dyeing yarns to create a color gradient is to use a knitted blank. Knit your yarn into a long rectangle, dye it, and then unravel it and use the resulting yarn for warp or weft. This method can be used for any color gradient, but is particularly useful when you want to create custom color gradations in the weft. Knitting the yarn into a rectangle of fabric keeps it under control when dyeing, and then you can unravel it again when you want to use it.

Commercially available knitted blanks are widely available (search for “knitted blank” and you’ll turn up lots of options), but are more or less universally created for knitters. If you want to use finer yarns, though, you can make your own using a standard bed knitting machine. A used standard bed knitting machine is not too expensive, and not too hard to figure out – though you may want to buy one from an active machine knitter, so you know you are getting a machine in good working condition, and you may want to ask someone for lessons!

It is possible to get very accurate color gradients using a knitted blank – I used ten knitted blanks to create my piece Autumn Splendor, matching the color changes precisely across 10 different panels of fabric. The coat color changes match so exactly that it looks almost like it was dyed after it was sewn, but it was not.

Autumn Splendor

To use a knitted blank, simply calculate the length needed for your warp or weft, knit a rectangle with that length of yarn, and paint the rectangle with dye. Take care that the entire rectangle is thoroughly soaked with dye – the bumps of the knit stitches will tend to resist the dye and may cause lighter spots, especially in thicker yarns. Set the dye, rinse, and let dry thoroughly before unraveling the blank. The yarn will be curly but will straighten out when under tension, either when wound as warp or wound onto a bobbin or pirn for weaving.

And that’s it! Six ways to get color gradations in your handwoven cloth.

Happy weaving!

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