What Makes a Gradient Look “Smooth”?

People are always asking “Why do your gradients look so smooth while others have more obvious stripes?”

There actually is no one magic ingredient. There are a lot of things that go into making a smooth-looking gradient (If that is indeed a goal, and it doesn’t have to be).

A couple of things contribute to the smoothness of a gradient in which the yarn is dyed (as opposed to where the color is “dyed in the wool” and then spun- a totally different process -think Noro or handspun):

How many different colors (hues) does the gradient contains: A “color change” involves going around the color wheel clockwise or counterclockwise from one color family to another color family e.g. (red to red-orange). The more color changes there are in a fixed length of gradient yarn, the fewer yards that are available for each color to play out and blend. The colors have a limited amount of “room” to blend into each other. That is why you will see the smoothest gradients are usually ombres (no actual color “change” per se, just dilutions of same color/hue), or one-way gradients that have 2-3 main colors depending on the yardage. The longer the yardage, the more room there is for each color to run its course. The idea is that your brain will mix the colors your eyes see over a certain area.

Yardage and weight of the yarn: As an extension of the concept above, you will see a lot of gradients on finer weight yarns- fingering & lace bc there’s lots of yardage in the standard 100g to let the color changes blend and play out; there’s lots of “room to run”. This is also why it is very rare to see a smooth gradient on 100g of bulky weight yarn or on small circumference items like socks- there just isn’t a lot of room to run. It takes a lot of skill to get a smooth gradient on these types of projects.

The contrast of the values of the colors (or lack of): Value = how light or dark something is. When you look at a picture of colors and then make it black & white, it is easy to see what colors are lighter in value than others (e.g. yellow is going to be lighter in value than purple). If you have a large difference in value between adjacent colors, your eye will be drawn there. Big jumps in value contribute to perceived “stripeyness”.

How many different shades of dye are mixed and applied in succession, and how well they are blended once applied to the yarn/fiber:

Let’s say you have 700 yards of yarn and want to dye a rainbow. You decide, OK …
100y red, 100y orange, 100y yellow, 100y green, 100y blue, 100y indigo, 100y purple. BOOM done!
You will have awesome rainbowey yarn, but will be pretty stripey- your colors changes will be very distinct and there will be large jumps between segments.
It looks like this:

Gradient-Steps-1.jpg

This may be what you want and it might look great. Stop there- start your project and enjoy. Done 🙂

However, if you were looking to work towards something smoother looking- you could go up to 14 segments of 50y i.e. 50y red, 50y red-orange, 50y orange, 50y orange-yellow, 50y yellow and so on, and also blend at the junctions a bit more.
It will look like this with 14 hues x 50y each:

Gradient-Steps-2.jpg

The more steps you have, they more they will meld together into a fluid color shift.

Take in mind, it might look smoother, but it’s a lot more work- twice as many colors to mix and twice as many colors to apply and blend.

Take it further- this is 28 colors x 25y each:

Gradient-Steps-3.jpg

This is even smoother bc there are more hues for your eye to mix.

I typically mix anywhere from 24-48 dyes to apply to one skein then apply and blend them in a pattern to make inbetween shades. The more colors I’m trying to “accomplish” in one skein, the more dyes I have to mix i.e. If I’m trying to dye a cobalt ombre I might only need 24 dyes to accomplish a smooth result, a smooth rainbow might take 48 or more. This conceptually would result in at least 47-95 different hues (and then they blend on the yarn to make even more) to get my definition of “smooth enough”. That may be completely impractical/overkill for some, that might not be smooth enough for others. The smoother the gradient, the more time it takes to make. At some point, a dyer has to make a decision of how smooth is “smooth enough”. The human eye is exceptionally sensitive to differences in color and value; you need to decide what is “stripey” for yourself- everyone has different thresholds at which something goes from being smooth to “too stripey”.

The difference between:

Gradient-Steps-3.jpg

Gradient-Steps-1.jpg
and this

is a huge difference in time and expense.

Dyers who dye their yarns in the form of a “blank”, a pre-knitted piece of knit fabric, they can get some of those in between colors by letting the knitted fabric soak up the dye and letting the dye blend in and mix where it meets on the actual yarn. You can smoosh the dye around and make it mingle even more. It’s very fun to see the colors meet up and party! I initially started dyeing gradients in blanks, and it was great. However, there are a few drawbacks to this type of dyeing production-wise and it wasn’t my very favorite end product aesthetically, and that’s why I didn’t choose that method for myself. But there are plenty of gradient dyers who use this method exclusively and are very popular.

But then what’s an Ombre? Isn’t that the same thing?

Not, not exactly. “Ombres” are a subset of gradients. All ombres are gradients, not all gradients are ombres. Ombre is from the French verb “ombrer”, to shade or from Latin umbrare ; from umbra, shade. Without getting too crazy about color theory- ombre is basically the same color but on a progressively lightening (or darkening) scale= dark pink to light pink, but still the very same pink base hue throughout. Most paint chip cards you see at the home improvement store are ombre gradients because they are just increasing concentrations of the color i.e. increasing amounts (grams) of the same pigment will be put into a gallon of white base paint.

Magenta-Ombre.jpg

Magenta Ombre

Looks like this:

This is pure magenta on the left 100%, followed by 93%, 86%, 78%, 71%, 64%, 57%, 50%, 42%, 35%, 28%, 21%, 14%, 7% dilutions. On your monitor, the balance of the % is white (lack of color). On fiber, with dye which is transparent, the balance is water (lack of color).

Hopefully, this will give you a little insight into the types of things that your eye notices, but you probably didn’t consciously pay attention to.

So next time anyone is wondering “Why are smooth gradients so expensive?” Now you have an idea of what goes into making it smooth. They truly are highly technical works of art. When you take into account the time and skill involved, and then the quality/fiber of base yarn (e.g. superwash wool, vs cashmere/silk), you can make the judgment about whether you are getting fair value for money when you are comparing or evaluating different yarns. Truly, a large number of gradient dyers are underpricing themselves, while a few are labeling yarns and braids “gradient” when their products aren’t gradients at all.

This usually holds true: if it’s something that’s easy to do, a lot of people will do it and the price will be lower because there’s more competition.
And as in all things: generally, you get what you pay for.

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