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

The Knitter - - Contents -

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.”

Sourc­ing yarns

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

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