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Apr 28

Designing Knits with Handspun Yarn

From our Spring Quarantine Spin Along 2020. View the first post here.


Welcome back, Spinners! I’ve finally started knitting things with my Colorful Colorado Spring handspun yarn and wanted to share my WIP experiments. If you’ve been hesitant to knit with your handspun, or you haven’t been happy with the results, this post will encourage you. If you’ve been so happy with your projects that you want to publish your designs, you’ll find some useful tips below.

Embracing Design

I’ve long thought that knitters and weavers approach their crafts with different mindsets. (This is a gross generalization, and your mileage may vary.) Knitters look at the photos in a pattern and think, “Oooh—I want to make that!” They may change the colors, substitute yarn, or adjust a few design elements, but they don’t wander too far away from that pattern. In contrast, weavers often begin with a pattern draft. They don’t see finished fabric; they see weave structures that they will create with yarn, color, and so on. When I worked at Interweave, I heard people identify themselves as knitters or knitting designers, but I never heard anybody distinguish weavers from weaving designers. Weavers are designers.

Where does handspinning fit into this continuum? It’s much closer to weaving and to knitting design than to knitting. Consider spinning magazines and books: they provide inspiration, techniques, and projects made from handspun, but not really patterns for the yarn itself. They resemble weaving pattern books and stitch dictionaries far more than knitting magazines. Contributing spinners tell you how they made the yarn, but these are guidelines rather than rules. That makes sense: handspun yarn can’t be replicated as precisely as machine-made yarn. Even if everybody participating in this spin-along had decided to use the same color techniques on our Colorful Colorado Spring braids, we’d still produce different yarn. And of course, we all decided to do different things, which is half the fun of a spin-along.

So if you’re a handspinner, you’re a designer. Congratulations! Making the jump from knitter to knitting designer won’t be that hard! You can apply everything you know about knitting to the design process.

  • It’s okay to start with small, simple designs. In fact, these types of patterns can teach valuable lessons about knitting handspun yarn.
  • You can always reclaim and reuse your handspun. If you frog and need to revive the yarn, make a skein with your niddy noddy. Soak that skein and let it air-dry. All the kinks will come out again.
  • Design swatching and tinking are not chores; they’re opportunities. You’re not wasting time if you’re perfecting your design concept and execution. (This can be a difficult lesson if you’re used to knitting for a deadline.)
  • Swatch, swatch, and swatch some more. It’s non-negotiable for the design process. See below for reasons.
  • Steam and water are your friends. Blocking can work miracles.
  • You can learn just as much, and maybe more, from a less-than-perfect design. Again, if you’re used to knitting from published patterns, this can feel weird at first.
  • If you want to publish your design, take lots of notes and pictures. Take notes even of what you ripped back. It’s easier to decipher scribbles than to deconstruct a knitted piece after the fact. Also use the standard abbreviations and the general format found in commercial knitting patterns—this will save you a lot of time later.
  • Finally, there’s nothing wrong with using other people’s patterns, with one major exception. I almost never design projects from scratch because I’m just too lazy. Instead, I add patterns on Ravelry to a “handspun” bundle. The major exception: if you want to submit knitting designs for publication, they have to be original. You can draw inspiration from some other pattern, and you can use stitch patterns from stitch dictionaries, but everything else in a pattern has to come from your own brain.

Knitting with Handspun

Keep these guidelines in mind whether you’re designing from scratch or knitting someone else’s pattern with your precious handspun. They’re starting points, not rigid rules.

First, and most importantly, the louder the yarn, the quieter the knitted fabric should be. Stitch patterns should complement your handspun. High-contrast colors or intense texture in your yarn will fight against stitch patterns. The yarn’s color and texture will win, sometimes completely overshadowing the fabric’s patterning.

  • Yarn with high-contrast colors or frequent color changes: try simple allover lace, lightly textured stitch patterns, stockinette stitch.
  • Yarn with low-contrast, gradient, or tonal (kettle-dyed) colors: can be great for cable patterns, lace panels, lace motifs, as well as the stitch patterns that complement high-contrast yarns.
  • Yarn with lots of texture: use stockinette stitch, maybe lightly textured stitch patterns.

Second, consider how the stitch pattern reflects light and works with color. Yes, the principles of optical mixing can continue to work for you! Stockinette stitch creates continuous colors (until the color changes in the yarn) and reflects light evenly, because the fabric is smooth and flat. Lightly textured stitch patterns form shadows and, thanks to a purl bump or slipped stitch, break up colors. Reverse stockinette, garter stitch, moss stitch, and slip stitch patterns like linen stitch fall into this category.


Textured stitch patterns work best with colorful handspun when they don’t create vertical lines or cross horizontal ones. No matter what stitch you’re using, you’re working loops sequentially to form knitted fabric. The yarn’s colors play out in a line from side to side (even when you’re working a side-to-side pattern, though everything rotates 90 degrees). You keep knitting the next rows or rounds, and you’re vertically stacking these lines-of-stitches on top of each other. But their colors are still working horizontally across each row/round.

These horizontal color lines explain why lightly textured stitch patterns work even with high-contrast handspun and why cables and lace motifs usually require less dramatic yarn color. In all the swatches above, the texture patterns and the color lines follow horizontal lines. However, most cable patterns form strong vertical lines, perpendicular to the color lines. Lace motifs often create diagonal lines or shapes that cross the color lines.

For all these reasons, design swatching helps you understand how well a given stitch pattern will complement your colorful handspun. Swatch early. Swatch often. Take notes and take photos.

I’ll close with a final word on stripes. All the yarn I’ve made from the Colorful Colorado Spring braids has been self-striping, except for that little bit of gradient. All the factors described above will affect how a self-striping yarn knits up. But we also have to factor in the fabric’s width. The two samples below come from the same yarn, in stockinette stitch, and the swatch’s width controls each stripe’s height.

We have to give up some stripe control with self-striping yarns! Gradient yarns work under the same rules. If I were designing a project that varied in width, and I wanted the stripes or gradient changes to line up, I would do better to spin solid-color yarns. With a self-striping skein, I would have to break the yarn and start knitting at a different point in the color sequence.

Whatever you do with your handspun yarns, enjoy the swatching and designing parts as much as the actual knitting.