Handpainted yarn, frequently confused with hand-dyed yarn, refers to yarn a person has painted with dye. Normally, yarn is dyed by dipping it in a dye vat; conversely, a craftsperson uses a paintbrush or a foam brush to hand paint yarn. For hand painting, craftspeople typically choose natural fibers, such as plant-based yarns — cotton, linen, and bamboo — as well as wools, including alpaca, sheep, and cashmere wools. Generally, people are fascinated with handpainted yarn because every skein is truly unique in pattern and color.
To hand paint yarn, a craftsperson prepares the yarn by soaking it in pre-dye mordant or water with a small amount of dish soap. The next step is to lay the yarn out and paint it with the dye. Knowing how much dye to use to saturate the yarn and which colors to use typically comes with experience.
Experts suggest coloring more yarn than a project needs because it is nearly impossible to duplicate the handpainted yarn. Each skein is individualistic, unlike commercially dyed yarn. To ensure that the dye saturates the yarn properly, a person generally does not paint the yarn while it is wound in a tight ball but gathers it into loose skeins or hanks.
One of the first choices a craftsperson must decide on is the type of fiber to use. Normally, people paint common yarns, such as wool. Specialty yarns, such as angora, bamboo, dog, llama, and silk, usually accept dyes quite well. Man-made fibers, such as acrylic and nylon, typically do not dye easily and require special dyes.
Another choice that a craftsperson usually needs to address is the type of dye, including chemical, plant, mineral, or fungal dyes. Several types of dye require strong chemicals, called mordants, to set them. Other dyes will fade during washing, even with the use of a mordant. Many crafters prefer organic, less toxic products and some even use household substances to make dyes and mordants for handpainted yarn. By choosing the right dye, a person normally can improve his or her chances for success.
Craftspeople can hand paint fibers either before or after the fibers are spun into yarn. Painting unspun fibers, called roving, will produce a different look to the finished product. Each technique gives the yarn a different look. When using handpainted yarn in a project, a craftsperson typically alternates between two or more skeins to avoid noticeable color and pattern changes.
Generally, crafters substitute handpainted yarn for commercial yarn in all types of projects. Once it has been set with a post-dye mordant and thoroughly dried, it typically can be knitted, crocheted, or woven without any special treatment. Handpainted yarns usually are the creation of craftspeople who prefer completely unique and extraordinarily beautiful yarns rather than the commercially mass-produced variegated yarns.