Johanna Miller, Pendleton Heights resident, has spent the last few years expertly weaving her hobby, skill, and creativity into one colorful package.
The owner and dyer of Potion Yarns, Miller brews up batches of vibrant hand-dyed yarn over bubbling cauldrons of color.
A professional hairstylist for 14 years, Miller said her current work was born out of a request from her husband.
“I had been knitting as a hobby for many years and loving it,” she said. “One day, my husband asked for a specific project and had very specific tastes on how he wanted the colors to be. I couldn’t find anything that fit his exact request so, he asked if I could just dye the yarn myself, like I had been dyeing hair for years.”
At first, Miller said she thought it would be impossible, but after some Google searches and YouTube videos, she was off on her first hand-dyeing project.
“I just wanted to see if I could do it,” she smirked. “Just for fun.”
To her surprise, Miller said the project turned out perfect and she had so much fun doing it that she instantly began concocting new ideas on how to improve her technique and include various colors.
Within six months of her husband’s initial request, she opened her online shop, Potion Yarns, for business.
The name of her business, she said, came from a discussion with her sister, an English major.
“When I first started, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to call myself and other dyers and myself feel kind of like witches brewing potions in a cauldron,” she said. “A lot of times you’re working with really big pans full of hot water and dyes and you’re dipping yarns into it.”
Wanting to incorporate the word “cauldron” into her name, she said she realized it had already been used.
On the phone with her sister, Miller said she was asking for other words that could be used to encompass the feel of her work.
“Everything she suggested, I didn’t like,” she said. “Finally, in frustration, she threw out Love Potion Number 9 and the word ‘potion’ stuck out to me.”
The process of hand-dyeing yarn, she very patiently and graciously explained, is not easy.
Miller creates individual batches of unique color combinations on different types of fiber—all by hand.
She begins with the base yarn, which is yarn that has been spun, but not yet dyed. This, she gets from various mills.
The base yarn can be made up of different materials, such as wool, cotton, linen, hemp, or silk.
The mill takes in the fiber, processes it, and uses commercial machines to spin it into skeins, which are bundles of yarn.
This is the point where Miller takes the undyed yarn and adds her colorway, the combination of colors used in a skein.
Currently, Miller said she only does hand-spun yarn as a hobby as it is extremely labor-intensive.
Producing three to five batches, which include four to six skeins in each batch, can take her about two hours to complete.
“If I am trying to produce multiple skeins of the same colorway, I’ll have multiple pots out, put color in each pot, and put the yarn in like a production line.”
Not surprisingly, at the end of the day, Miller said she is completely mentally and physically exhausted.
The inspiration for her colorways, she said, comes in different forms.
Sometimes, she matches a newly-created colorway to a name, and other times, she tries to find a colorway to fit a name.
Some of her skeins include “Blood on the Staircase,” “Whiskey Hangover,” “90s Tracksuit,” “Opera Glasses,” and a crowd favorite, “Rabid Soccer Mom.”
Miller said she carries around a notebook to jot down ideas, phrases, or words that come to her.
As she starts mixing colors, she dyes the yarn and searches her notebook to see if a name will match her new creation.
But other times, Miller said she is looking for the color, not the name.
“A colorway I just came up with this fall is called ‘Sorceress,’” she said. “I have had that name since day one of the company, but nothing fit it. I would create a color, twist it up, and start taking pictures and none of them looked mysterious enough to fit ‘Sorceress.’ I keep that notebook and any ideas I have, I’ll dye a bunch of yarn and when I’m twisting it up and photographing, I will look at it and try to determine what kind of mood it evokes and ask myself what do I think of when I look at it.”
Although it’s a difficult one-person operation, Miller said her love for her work is two-fold: creating color and creating connection.
“I really do enjoy creating the colors. Working in the dye kitchen is my driving force because it allows me to be creative. That was my favorite part of doing hair also, actually putting the color on someone’s hair because I got to be creative in my positioning and formulating.”
Miller said the social interaction with her customers is another one of her favorite parts.
“I love to be able to put faces with the people who are purchasing my yarns and talk to them. That’s where some of my best connections come in because people really enjoy being able to connect with smaller brands when they know you and they see your face, so I’ve enjoyed getting to meet with customers that I’ve sold online to and having them show me what they’ve made with my yarn.”
While she loves her work, Miller said it doesn’t come without its challenges.
“I tend to be more challenged by the technical kinds of things like running the website,” she said. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve learned how to do it because I knew nothing about it when I started and I’m definitely more of the artsy, creative type, not the logical, technical, computer type. So that has been a really big struggle for me, but I’m glad I was able to do it.”
Another challenge for Miller, now completely self-employed and a new mother, is creating a work schedule.
“I like to have some structure, but I like it to be extremely loose and flexible because I’m creative and artsy. If I wake up and it’s not a creative day, I don’t want to be forced into that. Scheduling is always rough, especially now with the new baby, it’s been a big challenge because things don’t go the way I plan them.”
One thing Miller said she wants people to understand about her work is the level of quality compared to store-bought yarn.
“The difference is, my yarn is more of a luxury product,” she said. “I tell people you can buy a hamburger from McDonald’s, Applebees, and The American Restaurant. You’re going to have price points at each one, but at the end of the day, it’s a piece of meat, a bun, and condiments, but there is a difference between McDonald’s and The American. There is a reason that one of them costs so much more and is a whole dining experience. There is room for each one and there are reasons you would pick each one. It doesn’t mean any of them are bad or not appropriate, but what’s the experience are you trying to create? That’s why my yarns are really special. They’re a luxury product. I get that you’re not going to use them for every single thing, but they are special and unique and they help you create a really unique, special, high-end item.”