Taking up a hobby can lead to exciting adventures and a whole new career, as Sheila Hewitt, known as DyeNinja, discovered. She tells her story to Penny Batchelor
Creating vibrant yarns is Sheila Hewitt’s passion
WHEN MOST of us take up a new hobby – if we can bear not to spend all our free time knitting – it’s usually something mainstream such as running, or joining a book club. Sheila Hewitt plumped instead to take part in a yarn dyeing workshop with Lilith of Old Maiden Aunt Yarns, and was instantly hooked.
A year later, Sheila, along with her husband David, founded a company called DyeNinja, based in their hometown of Livingston. Sheila dyes all the yarn, while David is responsible for the development and operation of the DyeNinja website.
The company is a labour of love, but one which Sheila relishes after 30 years spent working in “a proper job, moving from pillar to post”. She appreciates having a settled base that provides creative ideas for her dyeing work, as well as being in charge of her day. “It’s my routine, and I can vary it as I please,” Sheila explains.
For an independent yarn dyer, of course, colour is key. When setting up DyeNinja, Sheila had a strong vision of what she intended to create. “I wanted bright, clear colours, something with a bit of life to them. There was a lot of very soft, muted colour at the time and that’s lovely, but just not me. I wanted clear, vivid shades.”
The yarn bases she uses for dyeing, and their provenance, are vital for Sheila, too. “I wanted yarn that handles well,” she says. “If you’re coming to spend some of your precious leisure hours working with a yarn, then it has to feel good in your hands. Animal welfare is important to me, too. So, for example, all my merino is from non-mulesed flocks in South America and the Falkland Islands, and my silk comes from Switzerland, where they don’t boil the silkworms.”
DyeNinja yarns are kettle-dyed in batches of three skeins to a pot; Sheila prefers this method, because it gives her control of the quality and consistency of her dyeing. “The unpredictability of this method sometimes produces great new colours that I would not have found otherwise,” she adds.
Sheila layers on “oodles of colour” to the base yarn. “I look for depth and vibrancy, a bright richness of hue in almost solid, semi-solid and tonally variegated yarn… Used as a single colour in the knitted garment, the layering and shading give life to what might otherwise be flat colour, so a single-coloured sweater becomes a thing of infinite interest as it moves in the light.”
Creating a rainbow
Getting her colours right takes trial and error, and throughout her learning process there have, Sheila says, been yarn weights that haven’t worked and shades that haven’t sold out. During the summer of 2018 she revamped her popular High Twist Merino Fingering range down from 60 colours to a long-term, more manageable 20-plus. “I’m keeping all the favourites,” she explains, “but those less popular will have a wee holiday.”
Solid colours and tonally variegated shades are DyeNinja’s speciality. “There’s something about the life and vibrancy in the colours that keeps customers coming back. It comes out of the dyeing process itself, and while everyone who kettle dyes will have that advantage, it works differently on the colour for each of us, giving infinite variety,” Sheila enthuses.
The shades most popular with her customers are “the deep vibrant colours that customers come back to year after year, particularly the deep teals and lively purple/pink range. There’s a lovely true red, not too much orange in it and not too much pink – like fire engines! It’s called Heartfelt, and it regularly sells out at yarn festivals. I don’t know how many skeins I’d have to dye to keep it permanently in stock!”
More traditional ‘woolly’ colours are popular, too. “The next best sellers are the five shades of grey, arranged in a gradient from dark charcoal Pilgrim to palest grey Silver Lining,” Sheila reports. “These work very well at setting off the brights and making them pop.”
Sheila restocks the DyeNinja online shop intermittently, with new products making their debut in spring and autumn. DyeNinja makes regular appearances at yarn shows, where Sheila relishes meeting customers, and in autumn 2018 she revealed sweater packs in eight popular colours of 100% Merino Aran for them, along with sets of delicious mini-skeins offering 13 shades to play with, called NinjaPops.
And the future? Says Sheila: “I’m developing an interest in British yarns currently - watch this space! I’d like to see more British yarn made readily available to customers.” There are also plans for a DyeNinja blog and, in addition to yarn festivals in the UK, exhibiting in Vienna, Berlin and Scandinavia – something Sheila never dreamed of when she took that first dyeing class.
- Discover the full range of Dyeninja yarns at www.dyeninja.com