Ali Ford of Explorer Knits + Fibers takes inspo from nature back to her yarn-dyeing studio (aka her kitchen). Curl up with a knitting project and read about her craft.

By Sydney Price
Ali Ford

Muddy feet. Dusty clothes. Frizzy hair. Forest hikes aren't glamorous affairs (and make us ever so excited to hop in the shower ASAP after we get home), but the experience can sure be beautiful. And inspiring.

As she hikes through the forest, Ali Ford takes note of the vibrant colors of the evergreens around her. Later she will draw from memory to capture the essence of the wilderness she’s seen and transfer these rich, earthy tones into her hand-dyed yarn. Aptly named Explorer Knits + Fibers, her work has attracted a large following among the maker community. The swirling tendrils of freshly dyed yarn make frequent appearances on her Instagram page, looking like works of art in and of themselves. And the colorful lineups of finished skeins look so cozy, we want to snuggle in a giant pile of them!

Find out how Ali got into yarn-dyeing, her tips for tackling a new art form, and what she’s currently knitting.

How would you describe your design style?

My design style is fairly eclectic with a touch of global influence. Most of the colorways that I have dreamed up have been derived from many different facets of my life, whether from my love for the wilderness and various adventures that I have been on, or that interesting graphic on a craft beer can that caught my eye. I have learned to love infusing my personality into everything I create. I like to venture off and use a variety of colors when designing new colorways, keeping a few neutrals around to connect the elements together and create a cohesive piece that will make a fellow fiber-lover swoon.

What is the yarn-dyeing process like?

I usually start each dye day by making a schedule including which colorways I will use and how many skeins of yarn I plan to dye that day. I have found that if I don’t do this, my productivity goes out the window. Now, to be fair, on some of those disorganized hodge-podge days I have created some of my favorite colorways, but I usually do best with some element of organization to my dye process.

I like to keep all of my dye recipes in a notebook beside my dye pots. Once I get all of my dye pots going—when I say "all" I mean four pots; I’m a one-woman business—I grab my coffee and start thinking up new colorway ideas for my future shop updates. I have found that dyeing is a fairly relaxing and meditative process for me. Even though there is some unpredictability to this craft, having just a little bit of control over the outcome puts my mind at ease.

Who or what inspires you?

If we are talking about who I am inspired by: all of the other indie dyers in the maker community (yes, really—all). The whole reason dyeing piqued my interest initially was because of the incredibly beautiful colors fellow dyers were creating that left my jaw dropped to the floor. I never knew that it was possible to create such beautiful yarn in the comfort (and convenience) of your own home. Granted, my house now sort of looks like one giant, ongoing science project with yarn, dyes, and giant steel pots scattered around the kitchen, but you get the point.

I like to tell a story with my colorways, so much so that if someone knew nothing about the place or item that I named my yarn after they could still picture something that made them relate to my inspiration. I am constantly inspired by the outdoors, specifically the beautiful scenes I experience when backpacking through our national parks. Many of my colorways have been influenced by my hiking trips and travels around the world, usually based off of a particular experience or moment that was special to me. Many times I don’t use photo references to create my colorways, but a mental image or feeling that comes to mind when recalling that memory. This has helped me create something I am truly proud of and that holds a certain admiration in my heart.

What are your go-to colors (yarn or otherwise)?

Dark green, olive green, forest green—did I mention green? I have always been infatuated by earthy tones, especially those that remind me of the many hikes I have taken. The colors of spruce, pine, and evergreen trees blended together in nature always left me in awe of my surroundings. Those rich, earthy colors always find their way into my wardrobe (and my yarn stash)!

What is your favorite piece of yarn-dyeing or knitting advice?

“Trust and enjoy the process” has by far been my favorite piece of advice when it comes to both yarn-dyeing and knitting. Many points of frustration can arise while learning a new craft, and it can be tempting to give up. It is important to remember that we don’t become an expert overnight. I was a beginner knitter for at least a few years after learning, and venturing into intermediate and advanced techniques always seemed daunting to me. Once I learned to enjoy the process instead of being afraid of learning new things, knitting and dyeing became a sort of safe haven for me. Letting out the creative maker inside me has been something that brings me comfort at the end of a long day and makes me feel fulfilled as an individual.

What is your biggest knitting challenge?

To me, venturing outside of a knitwear pattern is equivalent to running into a bear when backpacking: terrifying. As I continue to grow as a maker, I have become more confident in my ability to take on more challenging knitwear patterns to create unique pieces for myself. Just as I found myself happy with this phase in my knitting adventure, I see other makers adjusting the pattern to their liking—in my mind, these knitters are bigger risk-takers than those people who jump out of planes and skydive for fun! Then I learned that this is what knitting is all about: having the ability to take a pattern or design and make it uniquely your own. That truly is the beauty of making. Maybe someday I’ll have the confidence to knit 2 inches of ribbing instead of 3, if I’m feeling crazy!

What has been your proudest DIY moment?

I would definitely have to say that my proudest DIY moment was finishing the Fukuro Pullover—designed by Whitney Hayward—that I knit with my own yarn and having it fit! After 5-plus years of knitting, you would think I have this knitting thing down. However, I tend to follow some bad maker habits, aka not checking my gauge before starting a project. I feel like this is maker rule No. 1, but I am just always too impatient to do it!

Last winter, tragedy struck when I finished a beautiful cable knit sweater and, lo and behold, I tried it on to find the sleeves several inches too long and the body of the sweater falling way past my waist. Biggest. Letdown. Ever. So when it came time to knit up my very first garment with my own yarn, I made sure to be a good knitter and follow all of the rules. I wear my pullover all the time, and it feels so good to be proud of something that you made and love how it looks.

Do you have any design rules?

Not necessarily a rule, but more a mantra, one that I set for myself the same time I started dyeing: Trust yourself and move forward with intention. As serious as that may sound, it really has worked well for me in structuring my dye process over the last several months. As you can imagine, playing with and mixing colors can result in many one-pot wonders and many duds that get hidden away in a secret stash to revisit at a later date. It’s all about experimenting when it comes to dyeing, and there is a lot of learning that comes with that along the way. Practice doesn’t make perfect in this case, but rather practice makes progress. Keeping those little tips in my head as I continue to grow as a dyer have been very helpful and encouraging to me.

What are your favorite sources for finding supplies?

My go-to for finding all of the supplies I need, especially for dyeing, has to be Amazon (thank goodness for Prime, right?). Having the ability to quickly order all of my supplies online in one place has been a godsend for the growth of my small business.

However, when it comes to knitting supplies, you will always find me at a local yarn shop or buying from a small business online. Whether it is custom-made sock blockers or a cute enamel pin to go on one of many project bags, I believe that every time you support a small business, you are supporting a dream. This has always been extremely important to me, as I am familiar with the impact that one sale can make on the success of one’s business.

How has your style evolved over time?

The best way to describe the evolution of my style is from sporadic to intentional (with a little bit a spontaneity speckled in). When I first got started, I didn’t hesitate to think about the outcome of each dye session, but rather tossed in colors that I thought would look good and crossed my fingers hoping it would turn out. As a novel dyer, I truly think that was the best way for me to get acclimated to playing with color.

Now, as I mentioned, I am more intentional with my eclectic style and keeping a coherent theme across my yarn. I think that this transition has a lot to do with initially wanting to create yarn that I thought other people would love, not really keeping myself in mind. Now, when searching for inspiration, I choose and create colorways that I enjoy and am truly passionate about, and hope that others will follow me along the way. This adventure continues to surprise me in big and little ways, and I enjoy seeing my style evolve and establish itself as a unique collection.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about?

I am currently working on the Lofoten Sweater designed by Emily Nugen with my very own yarn! Emily was kind enough to design her yoke sweater with my yarn, and now we have a knit-a-long (KAL, as the maker community likes to call it) going on where a bunch of makers are knitting up her sweater using kits with my yarn. It is a surreal feeling knowing that knitters all over the world are working on something together at the same time using something that I created. I have to pinch myself every once in a while to remind myself that my maker dreams are really coming true and that I need to embrace every minute of it!


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