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Painted-Skein Warps

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I find myself completely unable to resist hand-painted skeins. Their gorgeous colors, all the watercolor-like blendings of hues, fill me with an embarassing amount of glee.

I'm also a sucker for a great colorway name. I know it's just marketing, but in the dead gray of a Seattle winter, I'm helpless to resist a yarn called "Summer in Jamaica."

So you can imagine what happened when I walked into my local yarn store and found a line of yarn that was not only a huggable merino boucle, hand-painted in amazing colors, but also had colorways named after admirable women. There were even little hang tags describing each woman's contribution to history. I draped skeins around myself, wondering if I was more of an "Eleanor Roosevelt" or an "Indira Ghandi?"

painted skein

I adore handpainted skeins. The problem comes when I try to use them in a project.

knitted swatchMost painted skeins are marketed to knitters. If I take a gorgeous skein and knit it up, however, I get something that looks like—and let's be frank—the cat's breakfast.

Colors pool and muddy and create odd zig-zag patterns. I lose the subtle shading that drew me to the skein in the first place.

Yes, you can knit from alternate skeins, or strand the multicolored skein along with a solid colored yarn. But those are improvements to the problem; not a solution.

The weaver in me wanted to be able to use those gorgeous painted skeins in a way that worked with the colors. To somehow recapture the look of the skein in the finished piece.

My first idea came from conversations with Bonnie Tarses: she creates warps thread-by-thread and builds elaborate and precise designs using Turned-Weft Ikat. I've wound warps with this technique; it is indeed a peaceful and meditative experience.

I, however, live with cats and an active four-year-old boy. There isn't a lot of time for quiet contemplation around my house.

Was there a way to work with the color repeats of the skein to make the warp automatically fall into color patterns that mimicked a painted warp? ( A painted warp is a group of yarns measured for a weaving project and then painted with dye in the much the same as a handpainted skein.)

My first attempts to solve this problem involved using a multiple of the circumference of the skein. The skein was 50" around, so I tried winding a warp 100" long. The problem was when I hit the end of the warp and turned around to go back to the start, the colors reversed.

For example, if you had a skein painted red, blue, yellow, and green, the first length of warp you would wind (assuming that you're initially traveling from left-to-right) looks like this:


Then you would hit the "turn around" point on the warping board or peg, and go back right-to-left. What you wind next looks like this:


The colors do not match up.

What was maddening was that sometimes the colors would match up. Very occasionally I would try winding a warp with a painted skein and like magic, I would effortlessly get something that looked like a hand-painted warp.

All I had to do was figure out what was going right on those occasions. Looking closely, I discovered palindrome skeins.


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Theory: Palindrome Skeins

palindrome (p?l'?n-dr?m')

A phrase or sequence which is the same backward as forward. For example: "never odd or even"

In an palindrome skein, the dyer lays out the skein, and paints across the skein from top to bottom. This is a very efficient and common way of hand-painting skeins.

palindrome skein

Why are palindrome skeins magic? Because the color pattern has mirrored symmetry, just like a palindrome. In the picture above, the color changes (starting at the left and going clockwise) are:


See the symmetry? The color sequence in the palindrome skein the same no matter whether you start from the left or right. This means that when you turn around at the end of your warp and go the other direction, the colors match.

This symmetry only appears if you fold the skein at the pivot points (in the picture above, blue on the left, and magenta on the right.) In other words, you only see the symmetry if you fold the skein the same way the dyer did.

painted skein

When you are looking at a skein and trying to decide if it's a palindrome skein, you may have to play with folding it a couple of different ways.

In a non-palindrome skein, the dyer goes around the skein in a ring, painting as they go. You can get more and varied color changes using this method. Non-palindrome skeins are also created by randomly pouring dyes on a skein simmering in the dye pot.

non-palindrome skein

You can use non-palindrome skeins to get painted-warp effects, but it takes more work. Here are some ideas:

  • You could do the thread-by-thread design Bonnie Tarses describes in Designing with Turned-Weft Ikat.
  • Weave double-weave (so alternating directions of the colors appear on opposite sides of the fabric.)
  • If you are warping front-to-back, you can move the reversed-color threads (ie: every other thread) to group them into stripes. This is easiest when using the peg method of warping.
  • If you are winding the warp on a warping board, don't reverse direction at the end. This is demonstrated in the Bonus Content.


Project Details


  • Schacht "Flip" rigid-heddle loom. (This technique could also be warped and woven on any loom capable of weaving plain-weave.)
  • Warping peg
  • Mini boat-shuttle or stick shuttle



"Nancy" handpainted 95% Merino, 5% Nylon by Schaefer Yarn (8 oz./600 yards) from the "Memorable Women" color series.



  • Cascade 220, worsted-weight, 100% highland wool (red shawl) (3.5 oz/ 220 yards)
  • Dale Baby Ull, fingering-weight, 100% superwash merino (blue scarves) (1.75 oz./192 yards)

I recommend a single, solid colored yarn for the weft, preferably in a dark shade such as: navy, charcoal gray, maroon, dark teal, etc. The solid-colored yarn lets the colorplay of the warp carry the piece, and dark shades make the warp's colors "pop."

Weave Structure

Plain weave


8 ends per inch (epi)


Winding the Warp: Random Colors

If you don't care about duplicating the effects of a painted warp, you can simply wind a warp without trying to create any special effect. The result is a series of random dashes of color. It doesn't capture the look of the painted skein, but it can be pleasing.

To create this effect, start with any kind of painted skein, and simply wind a warp.


Winding the Warp: Color Blocks

With a palindrome skein and a little planning, you can quickly wind a warp that gives the look of a painted warp, where color lays in horizontal bands across the fabric.

The steps are:

  1. Start with a palindrome skein.
  2. Fold it to find the two pivot points.
  3. Measure the folded skein to find its folded length, L. (In other words L is half the circumference.)

    Note: L can be a bit tricky to measure, especially with a stretchy yarn. How much tension should you put on it while measuring? Ideally the same tenison that it will undergo during warping. For example, In the picture below L is about 20 inches because the yarn is under no tension. At warping tension, L is closer to 25 inches. Don't obsess about this number, however, take your best guess, you'll be able to tweak the warp length to make the colors match in step 6. The important thing is to be in the right ball park. measuring L

  4. Starting with a pivot point color, tie a loop so that the middle of the pivot point is in the center. Slide this onto the loom's apron rod. (The idea here is that you want to start the warp so that the middle of the pivot point is centered on the apron rod. You'll know you have the loop tied right when the colors line up.tie a loop
  5. Clamp down the rigid heddle loom to a table, and clamp the warping peg a distance away that is a multiple of L, such as twice L or three times L.
  6. Starting with the yarn that is tied around the arpon rod, pull a loop through one of the rigid-heddle slots, carry it over to the peg.warpirg with a peg
    Now look at the color shifts: do the colors on the two yarns match up? If not, adjust the distance between the loom and peg until they do. It is important that a pivot point also be centered on the peg. In order for the colors to line up as the warp is wound, you must have a pivot point at the two "turn-around" points of the apron rod and the warping peg. (Note: The super-short warp is for illustration purposes only.)
  7. Continue pulling loops through the rigid-heddle's slots until you have wound the full width of the warp. Cut the warp from the cone or ball of yarn, and tie the last string onto the apron rod.
  8. warp separatorPull the loop off the peg and wind the warp onto the back beam under tension, inserting warp separators as you go. (Based on a tip from Laura Fry, I use reed placemats as warp separators for narrow warps.)
  9. When the end of the warp gets near the heddle, cut the peg loops in half to free the yarn. In each slot you will find two threads. Take one of those threads and feed it through the hole next to the slot. threading the holes
    Continue all the way across the warp.
  10. Tie onto the front beam, making sure to have even tension across the warp.

Winding the Warp: Creating Stripes

scarf #1I'm a big fan of Sara Lamb's work, especially her kimonos and fabrics where she blends two painted warps to create stripes of alternating colors. I wanted to see if I could duplicate this using painted skeins.

It turned out to be remarkably easy. The basic procedure is the same as for the Color Blocks, with the addition of one simple trick: tying off lengths of warp to "flip" the pivot points.

Note: This method works best if you have a skein where the pivot points are contrasting colors. If they are the same, you will end up with something that has stripes interrupted by solid blocks of color.

  1. Warp the first stripe as described in Color Blocks. (I alternated 2-inch stripes with 1-inch stripes in the scarf pictured above.)
  2. Then, when you are done with the first stripe, use a simple overhand knot to tie off a loop that takes up exactly one L of yarn length. Remember that about an inch of length will go into the knot itself. (Since the yarn loop is folded, the measurement of 12-13 inches in the picture below corresponds to an L of about 25 inches, and a total skein circumference of about 50 inches.) . charging the pivot point
    What happens is that when you "eat up" one L of yarn in the loop, it causes the pivot point at the apron rod to shift to the color on the other side of the skein.

    shifting the colorsThis shift occurs all the way down the length of the warp.

    Notice how in the picture to the left, you can clearly see the pivot point change from magenta to blue at the peg.


To switch back to the original stripe, tie off a second loop the same length. tying off color changes

Continue winding the warp, tying off loops whenever you want to create a new stripe, until you have wound the entire width of the warp. The rest of the warping process in the same as steps 7 through 10 in Color Blocks.


Weave in plain weave. When beating in the weft, don't beat too hard. The fabric will look a bit cheese-cloth-y on the loom. That's normal. It's because the warp yarns are stretched out under tension. When the fabric comes off the loom it will relax and those holes will fill in, especially after you wash it during finishing.

If you beat too hard and really pack the weft in there, you'll end up with a potholder, not a shawl. (Go ahead, ask me how I know...)


I used to hate twisting fringe. It was slow, boring, and involved a lot of repetitive counting. Then I heard about Conair "hair braiders" on the Yahoo Weaving Group. (Note: This gadget is misnamed; it doesn't braid hair, it plies it.)

fringe twister

Using the Conair Hair Braider to twist fringe is easy:

  1. Secure your fringe threads in the clips.
  2. Slide the button up and count to a number (say, eight.) This causes the fringe to twist tightly.
  3. Slide the button down and count to the same number (say, eight.) This causes the fringe to ply back on itself.
  4. Tie a knot at whatever length you want your fringe to be. (I recommend using a ruler to keep the length consistent.)

fringeWash your shawl gently in warm-to-hot water with baby shampoo or a product designed for washing wool. Agitate by hand if you want to felt it a bit for a firmer fabric. (If you are really brave, you can do this in the washing machine even, but be sure to check how the felting is going often, else...potholders.)

Wring out most of the water. Squeeze out even more by rolling your shawl or scarf in a towel and squeezing. Hang the shawl or scarf to dry.

If you like the little "lion's tails" on the end of the fringe, leave them. Otherwise cut them off. Trimming the knots after washing lets the knots felt a bit and reduces the chance the knots will untie. Fabric glue also helps the knots hold, but make sure to pick one that dries clear and flexible. It's fringe, not a flail.


Syne MitchellIn a personality test at business school, Syne was catagorized as: "Smart, Lazy." After she got over the initial insult, the teacher explained that "Smart, Lazy" people make great optimizers, as they will always try to find ways to get the job done with the least amount of effort. She blogs in a "Smart, Lazy" way over at WeaveGeek.