Dyeing to knit

At KnitCircus Yarns, Bug Richardson helps transform raw, white yarn into a kaleidoscope of colors.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Everyone knows that colored yarn does not come from colored sheep any more than chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Both require human interaction to reach their full potential, and at KnitCircus Yarns on Madison’s west side, textile artists revel in bringing yarn to life.

Jaala Spiro opened KnitCircus (knitcircus.com) in 2012. Last fall, the business added a retail store just a few steps from its studio in response to a booming knitting community.

“Madison has the largest knitter’s guild in the country with over 500 members,” Spiro notes. Still, 80% of KnitCircus’ sales are generated online and through wholesalers around the U.S. Spiro planned it that way, admitting that she’d still be working out of her basement if it weren’t for the internet.

From top, yarn dyer Bug Richardson douses wet yarn with several bottles of dye using a recipe the KnitCircus staff created for a color they named Dizzying Intellect. Middle, resembling spaghetti noodles, speckled skeins of yarn move through the dyeing process. Bottom, Richardson designed the gradient yarn cake named “Cindy Lou Who.”

The business is known for its gradient yarn cakes that allow a knitter to create a multicolored sweater, scarf or pair of socks from one piece of yarn without ever having to roll a ball of yarn or stop in the middle of a pattern for a color change.

KnitCircus didn’t invent yarn cakes, certainly, but the business has become known for a yarn-dyeing technique that transitions through six different colors on one continuous strand. Not surprisingly, their method is both unique and proprietary.

“It’s an intense dyeing process that not many people have figured out how to do or have the capability to do on a large scale,” she explains. “We’ve been working hard at that over the past year.”

The color bug

Michigan-native Bug Richardson Seling, 26, is one of several yarn dyers on the KnitCircus staff. With a liberal arts degree in fiber art from Berea College in Kentucky, she can describe the dyeing process down to the molecular level.

Here, her job is largely production-based. “I produce things for people,” she says. “I knew in college about the dichotomy between craft and art. I work in the craft industry, which is an important distinction.”

She and her colleagues respond to inventory demands, quotas, and deadlines, but the real fun, she says, is when they get to design new prototype colors or patterns. After one recent in-service day, the yarn dyeing team created 30 new colors or color combinations. “It was really fun and took some pressure off,” Richardson reports. “For a yarn dyer, that’s the most glamorous day you can possibly imagine.”

Richardson recently created a yarn cake she named “Cindy Lou Who,” featuring a gradient that starts out blue before transitioning to green, yellow, orange, pink, and finally raspberry.

In fact, KnitCircus staff is always posting new colors online, from twisted solids to speckled skeins, which Richardson says are particularly hot right now. “Think of candy sprinkles on white frosting,” she describes.



Disappearing act

The magic happens in the KnitCircus production studio a few doors away, where yarns in various stages of completion are on display. The dyeing area includes an oversized dyeing tray, a three-bowl stainless steel sink and faucet, a water-extracting machine, and a couple of standard kitchen stoves.

From top, Richardson inspects a hank for quality. In the dyeing room, she puts a speckled skein into an electric water extractor. Dyeing yarn black requires a stovetop process called kettle dyeing. Bottom, in the KnitCircus retail store, a kaleidoscope of colors are on display.

As we arrive, Richardson is ready to dye a sopping wet clump of white yarn into a bright yellow color they’ve named Dizzying Intellect, part of KnitCircus’ “Princess Bride” color series. Wearing rubber gloves, she quickly douses the wet yarn with several bottles of a yellow dye according to a specific recipe. Flipping it over, she does the same on the backside, ensuring that all fibers are coated.

Lifting the soaked yarn, she squeezes excess liquid onto the tray with her opposite hand. Surprisingly, the liquid runs clear. “That’s because everything that goes on the yarn stays on the yarn,” Richardson explains.

An electric water extractor sits on the edge of the sink. Apparently, it’s a luxury in the industry and saves a great deal of drying time. Without it, Richardson explains, yarn can take as long as a week to dry completely. Instead, water is extruded in just a couple of minutes, allowing yarns dyed today to be ready for sale and shipping within a week.

Opposite the sink area, another skein of yarn steams in a black kettle. Kettle dyeing works well for black, which is the most difficult color to dye with any consistency. Richardson climbs up a small stepstool and peers over the mixture. “We want the water to be as clear as possible. With black, the water actually ends up looking a little pink when it’s ready to come out.” She decides to let it stew a bit longer.

After being dyed, wool-based yarns must be heat set, so they’re baked in an oven until the yarn temperature reaches 200 degrees. They’ll be washed and dried several times before dry processing begins.

Making cakes from hanks

Richardson spends three days a week dry processing the company’s yarns. In fact, it’s her favorite part of the job when unwound loops of dyed yarn called “hanks” are spun into cakes or twisted into skeins.

To demonstrate, she selects a hank from among several hanging on a rack and distributes it gently and evenly on the top of what resembles a wooden umbrella (aptly called an umbrella swift). She hooks the loose end of the yarn onto a take-up reel, flips a switch, and the umbrella swift spins as yarn is wound into a colorful cake, ready to be hand-labeled and entered into KnitCircus’ inventory. Richardson can process 60 to 70 of the 400-yard hanks in a day.

She also handles KnitCircus’ quality control, inspecting every skein or cake of yarn for imperfections before the products get shipped or placed in the store. Occasionally she may even be called upon to repair a temperamental machine.

“This is the most satisfying job I’ve ever held,” Richardson says. “The creative challenges of working for a small, textile-based business are invigorating and I know that what I do makes a significant impact for customers. My creative work
is noticed and brings joy to people.”

She seems to have found her calling at KnitCircus, where she’s been employed for just over two years, but until about 18 months ago, she’d never tried knitting.  Turns out she’s a natural. “She’s incredible,” admires Spiro, “and super fast.”

Richardson smiles. Her goal is to knit a sweater in one week, and apparently she’s not far off. “Many people think I’m a beginner, but it’s a well-kept secret that I’m actually a knitting rock star to my family.”

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