Ask a knitter what ‘Malabrigo’ means to them, and you’ll likely hear a variety of exclamations about sumptuous softness. Or ravings about the oh-so-gorgeous colors. But in Spanish, Malabrigo literally means ‘bad shelter.’ Chatting with one of Malabrigo’s owners about the name, he chuckled, admitting that satire doesn’t seem to be a device often used in names of companies in the English-speaking world.
Rewind back to 2005 when the small, Uruguayan-based yarn company probably couldn’t have guessed it would become such a huge player in the English-speaking yarn world. The company began with two brothers-in-law dyeing skeins of locally-spun yarn in a kitchen kettle. After selling a small number of skeins in the United States, the company’s popularity quickly skyrocketed. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Malabrigo is well-known to (and coveted by) knitters and crocheters around the world. It is one of the few companies that has successfully executed hand-dyeing on a massive scale — something typically done by small, independent and one-person operations.
A favorite of independent designers, the company has skillfully walked the razor-thin line of artisan production and ‘big yarn company’ distribution. Eagerly accepting an invitation, I visited Malabrigo at their facility in Montevideo, Uruguay, to see how it’s done.
Back to Basics: About Yarn and Hand-Dyeing
For readers who aren’t immersed (pun intended) in the world of dyeing and yarn, let’s set the stage for how those skeins of yarn come to be. Yarn is made from fibers that have been spun together into a stable strand that can be used for knitting, crocheting, or weaving. Although wool might be the most quintessential fiber (and is even more well-represented in the hand-dyeing segment due to its color-absorption properties), yarn is also made from a variety of animal fibers like llama or angora, plants like cotton and linen, and synthetics such as acrylic.
Typically, white or bleached fibers are spun into what is called a ‘yarn base,’ ready for dyeing. A commercially-dyed yarn is a yarn that has been dyed on a large scale, and these yarns are renowned for their consistency in color which is achieved through various processes.
White or bleached fibers are spun into what is called a ‘yarn base,’ ready for dyeing.
Photo courtesy of Stacey Trock
Hand-dyed yarn is exactly what it sounds like: a skein of yarn is dyed by hand, often using multiple dyes or multiple dips into the dye pot. This labor-intensive and hands-on process results in colors with extraordinary depth and subtle color variation and intensity. ‘Kettle-dyed’ yarn is another name used to describe this process because these yarns are usually dyed in a giant kettle.
You’ll find no shortage of tutorials that will show you how to dye your own yarn at home. In fact, it’s quite easy to do and can be done safely without goggles and masks by using Kool-aid or Wilton icing dye. The ease of dyeing a white skein of yarn partly explains the proliferation of thousands of indie-dyers (short for independent dyer: a colloquial term for a company with only one or two people involved. The point at which a dyer is no longer ‘indie’ is a hotly debated topic.). However, talk with any professional dyer, and they’ll tell you that the hard part isn’t dyeing one beautiful skein of yarn — it’s replicating that same colorway, time and time again across varying environmental conditions.
Hand-dyeing large quantities of yarn is hard labor. To achieve the rich, deeply tonal colors, skeins must be put into scalding hot water, picked up (wet yarn is heavy!), repeated if necessary, and then dried and skeined — twisted into the beautiful package you see in shops. All by hand.
About Malabrigo’s Yarn
Given the difficulty of hand-dyeing, it’s no surprise that few companies pull off producing such labor-intensive yarns in high quantities. And it’s no wonder such yarns command a higher price tag than commercially-dyed yarns. Because of the labor cost involved, hand-dyed yarns are typically reserved for high-quality yarn bases. Madelinetosh, Anzula, and Lorna’s Laces are examples of companies who also produce hand-dyed yarns in scale.
All of Malabrigo’s yarn comes from Uruguayan sheep, which are known for their high-quality, soft wool. The climate in Uruguay is favorable to sheep-rearing, as is the excellent pasture land (read more here: http://www.wool.com.uy/). With the early import of Merino-type breeds, a significant amount of sub-24 micron wool is produced. Microns are a measurement of the thickness of a wool; the lower the number, the finer and softer the fiber. There is now a growing amount of superfine Merino wools (less than 19.5 microns) becoming available.
Even though there is a rich wool culture in Uruguay, there are very few international yarn companies based in the country. Upon inquiring why, I was told that the amount of space required for processing and meeting the laws and regulations of the country are a great expense to starting a company in Uruguay. Furthermore, establishing a robust network of local suppliers that can provide consistent and high-quality product on a regular basis is a logistical challenge not for the faint of heart. The fiber used for Malabrigo’s yarns comes from a variety of farms, some of which feature mills that spin the bases used for dyeing.
A Peek into the Process
The process that Malabrigo uses for dyeing their yarn is surprisingly similar to the process a single person would use to dye yarn in their kitchen, except on a larger scale. To start, the yarn is received from suppliers around the country.
The yarn is then dyed in-house in kettles and dye pots. Each skein is dyed 2-3 times, depending on the colorway and desired effect. Despite operating on a larger scale, the varied, kettle-dyed coloration cannot be achieved any other way than dipping skeins of yarn into dye in small batches, by hand.
Once the yarn is dyed, it is hung in a heated drying room. This can be a potentially energy-intensive process, but the company has taken measures to ensure the energy used is as sustainable as possible. Once dry, the yarn is taken to the sorting room — a room flooded with natural light — which is necessary for accurately viewing the colors of yarn.
In the sorting room, workers skein, label, and package bags of yarn for wholesale. Each skein is sorted by hand to go into bags with other like-colored skeins. There is inherent variability in the process of hand-dyeing, so even skeins coming from the same ‘dye lot’ may appear different. For example, a skein that is closer to the heat source at the bottom of the dye pot may absorb slightly more dye than one in a cooler patch of water. It’s important for knitters to buy skeins that match because many projects require more than a skein, bags are composed of hand-selected, matching skeins. Another labor-intensive part of the process!
The facility also features a laboratory where colors and dyes are mixed, and yarns are dyed in small quantities. To achieve replicability, very specific calculations and ‘recipes’ must be noted. A designer works to develop new colorways on a test skein. Once a test skein is dyed with the desired look, the process is repeated to develop the exact recipe. This formulization is necessary for consistency in dyeing large quantities.
Producing Yarn for Export
Almost all the yarn Malabrigo dyes is exported out of Uruguay, and by and large, out of South America. The yarn is typically too expensive for the local market because it is so labor-intensive to produce. The local market is dominated by acrylics and lower-cost yarns. Only two shops in Uruguay sell Malabrigo, and these are high-end shops that cater to tourists.
Although I didn’t have the chance to visit yarn stores in Uruguay, I visited the yarn district in Buenos Aires in neighboring Argentina. I could immediately notice the difference between the local offerings and Malabrigo’s selection. In your average Argentinian yarn store, a typical skein was acrylic and sold for about $1.00 – $3.00/skein. Contrasted with Malabrigo skeins nearly 10 times the price, it was clear that hand-dyed, sumptuously soft wool skeins were a niche market.
At the time of my visit, the company was preparing for two large shipments to go out: one to the American distributor and a second to Australia. Malabrigo also has a significant presence in Europe and a cult following in Japan. Knitters in these markets appreciate the amount of labor that goes into hand-dyed skeins so hand-dyed yarns fetch more per skein than commercially-dyed yarns, and they have disposable income and are familiar with the demands associated with using a luxury yarn. At Malabrigo, educating the consumer about why a merino yarn pills or why they need to hand-wash a yarn is part of the company’s work.
A Focus on Sustainability and the Local Environment
The company focuses on supporting Uruguayan farms and mills as well as hiring local workers. The facility employs 20-25 people, mostly Uruguayan women.
Malabrigo acquires its wool from free-range sheep, shepherded in the traditional way on Uruguay’s lush pastureland. Mulesing — the controversial practice in which a sheep’s skin is cut to prevent a fly infestation — is not practiced.
Additionally, the company is dedicated to being environmentally-friendly when it comes to energy use in the facility. On my visit, I saw stacks of undyed wool sitting next to stacks of wood pellets. Why pellets? It turns out that the wood pellets are used for heating and are an environmentally-friendly option. The pellets are composed of waste wood and contain no chemical binders. This is in addition to the solar panels that collect energy and reduce their overall environmental footprint.
Wood pellets are used for heating and are an environmentally-friendly option, containing no chemical binders.
Photo courtesy of Stacey Trock
Continuing to Evolve
Much known for its success, Malabrigo isn’t resting on its laurels. On my visit, I was introduced to TriBeCa, a new palette of pastel colors. While a new line of colors may seem insignificant, developing pastel shades requires a completely new dyeing process from the company’s existing saturated tones.
New pastel shade of TriBeCa Yarn.
Photo courtesy of Stacey Trock
The company is also introducing a new yarn called ‘Washted,’ a machine-washable yarn. Malabrigo’s new Superwash yarn meets Oeko-Tex standards, meaning that the yarn doesn’t contain harmful chemicals.
Anyone is welcome to visit Malabrigo simply by contacting the company to schedule a time. The facility hosts dozens of groups a year, including visitors from a variety of knitting-themed cruises. Groups of 15 or more people can arrange a group activity to dye their own skeins of yarn.
Montevideo, Uruguay, has an international airport, and is a convenient 2 ½-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Spanish is the language spoken in Uruguay, although the owners and managers at Malabrigo also speak English. The facility is located in Parque Tecnológico Industrial del Cerro, an industrial park on the outskirts of town. It was an approximately 15-minute taxi ride from Old Town Montevideo.
Stacey Trock has a sharp understanding of the motivations that underlie consumer purchases, and she specializes in connecting small businesses in the yarn industry with easy-to-implement and trendsetting marketing ideas. She travels across the country to provide live social media coverage for your company’s social media outlets. Stacey also provides marketing, social media and public relations consulting to select clients on a retainer basis and teaches knitting, crochet, and other fiber classes at shows in the US and internationally.