Our lovely Corriedale sheep has decided to share his wool with us! We are thrilled–we LOVE wool! After shearing, processing, and carding, the lovely wool was formed into the roving that Arabella shared with me on my birthday.
I took the dyed roving with me to my very first fiber retreat, Wildflower 2011, and happily spun it between workshops, which were all about color this year. I have discovered that dyeing wool is a creative process within a creative process, because the spun wool can look so different than the dyed roving–it is it’s own creativity!
Arabella suggested that I ply this yarn with a thread, choosing one of the colors I wanted to bring out. Plying the yarn with thread gives me more final yardage of the wool, because otherwise I would ply the wool upon itself, and get half as much to knit with. So I choose a lovely teal thread from the fabric store.
On a gorgeous Texas day in February (yes, we have those!), Arabella invited me over to learn some color dyeing techniques. She has a very high-tech operation going on in her kitchen:
Sometimes it’s nice to know that the practices from 10,000 years ago still work! Get a pot, get some water, get it hot, you can dye wool! Yes, that is a large aluminum mixing bowl set directly upon her electric stove burner, filled with water and roving. Do NOT boil the water, or you will end up doing something else that is 10,000 years old — Fulling. (You’ll have to click to get the rest of that story…)
The water should be hot, but not at all boiling or simmering. Add some vinegar. When I asked Arabella how much vinegar, she moved her hand as if she were pouring out vinegar from a bottle, and she said, “I put glug, glug, glug.” Classic instructions! (Good news: you can’t really go wrong. So glug, glug, glug, and you’ll be fine!)
So far we have roving
we have the dye pot, some water, and some vinegar…..which makes delicious hot roving soup!
Now we mix the dyes. We used Jacquard acid dyes. Mix the powder with water in a jar according to package directions.
Remember your color wheel from high school art class? It still works! We used our primary colors yellow, red and blue.
With more high-tech tools such as a chopstick and syringe, add the dye and work it into the layers of roving by poking at them with the chopstick. You can also create additional colors by blending where the colors meet each other. Simply use the chopstick to move the roving a bit, adding more of whatever primary color you want to that area with the syringe. Stir a bit, and voila! new colors.
Let the roving soup sit on the stove until all the dye is absorbed into the roving. Like all things good, it takes a little doing before you’re going to feel like you’ve got it! Take the dyepot off the heat and let it cool down naturally. Once you can put your hands into the water, then rinse the roving a few times with the same temperature of water. You are rinsing out any unabsorbed dye, and the vinegar.
Cooling and rinsing the roving is a S L O W process, and you should not be eager to hurry it up, or you can end up “shocking” the wool into felt! Once the roving is very cool, you can put it in the spin cycle of your washer (on cold!) to remove excess water. Then air dry.
Ahhh! I get it! Dyeing the wool before it is spun (i.e., dyed-in-the-wool) is the best way to ensure the color doesn’t fade once the wool is spun into yarn or thread, and then fashioned into a garment worn around town. The literal meaning of the phrase is simply a description of when the dye is added.
The phrase has evolved over time to mean something metaphorical as well. We use this expression “dyed-in-the-wool” to indicate a person who is committed to an ideal so deeply that it has become a permanent part of their being, as if they had been “dyed” that way prior to being “formed.” For example, I would say, “My dear Arabella is a dyed-in-the-wool romantic.”
Here, Arabella is rinsing some Corriedale roving that she dyed while it was “in the wool.”
I have been anxious to get my hands into the dye pot, and finally had opportunity at Arabella’s. She had received a 3-lb bump of lovely Corriedale, and shared a generous portion with me as a birthday present.
A “bump” is simply a bunch of roving, usually 1 to 3 pounds in weight.
Here is what our lovely and generous sheep might have looked like when the wool was still a part of him!
Gorgeous and generous sheep! They have been supplying us with fiber for our clothes, blankets, coverlets, coats and carpets for centuries!
Ta da! The process still works! Take some beautiful, soft white wool from a merino sheep and some shiny, slick gorgeous white mohair from a goat, spin singles of each, and then ply them together for a lovely length of textured and interesting yarn.
Using US 10 (or larger) needles, knit with a pattern from f.pea for a baby heirloom blanket with a lovely scalloped edge. Add some color–in this case, a skein dyed aqua and salmon from Arabella, handspun thick and thin for extra texture and interest. Keep knitting–in airports, in the car, on lovely evenings at home, to avoid housework, when you should be working, etc.
Archeologists seemed surprised to find intricate beauty when they uncover textiles (or art) from thousands upon thousands of years ago. Their surprise is odd to me–because as long as we have been human, we have infused our material objects with artistic beauty and creativity. This is what it means to BE human.
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“Good,” Arabella told me, “you understand the basics. Now what you need is time at the wheel. Nothing else can teach you what you need.”
As I come to the end of the marvelous green bump that MonChere brought me on Mother’s Day, I have tangible evidence of the truth of Arabella’s statement. The green bump (that’s what a large roll of roving is called) spun into about 9 skeins. Oh, the difference between the first skein and the last!
As beginning spinners, we are inconsistent in the size of yarn we are spinning, and also in the amount of twist we are adding to the yarn in the spinning process. The result is a finished yarn that is really too curly and twirly to be usefully knitted. (Which is one reason why you shouldn’t spend a lot of money on the wool you are learning upon!)
In this first skein, notice the uneven strands–some are “skinny” and some are “fat.” This occurs when the spinning of the singles is uneven–of course, the hallmark of a beginner! This is one of the skills that can only be gained by “time at the wheel.” Spinning such a large bump of wool gave me enough time at the wheel to really improve on my consistency.
Another issue for beginners is “overspinning,” which is also a consistency issue. It happens when too much twist is added to the single during spinning. When plying two singles, spinning in the opposite direction from which the singles were originally spun “balances” the finished yarn as they are twined together–except when both singles are inconsistently overspun. Then you just get what’s pictured here–evidence that this spinner needs more time at the wheel!
It does happen, though. The improvement does happen. Compare this last skein (hooray!) with the first above. Notice the evenness of the strands compared to each other, and the evenness of the whole skein compared to the first. This last skein even felt completely different in my hands as I wound it–lighter, fluffier, balanced.
As for the improvement, I can’t tell you what to do specifically, except keep spinning. It’s very strange, really. A spinner begins as an uncoordinated, goofy, stumbling upon oneself, uncertain being, but sticking with it, somehow she manages to bring it all together by not thinking about it, but simply doing it. Time at the wheel, says wise Arabella.
We are definitely making progress, backward though it is, to find out more about the first fabric techniques. We’ve already found woven flax to be exceedingly ancient, and new finds keep pushing the date back (I’ve seen the date now at 6500 BC, and 32,000 BC!).
So where does that leave knitting? The oldest techniques using needle and yarn are not what we know as knitting today on two needles; however, the variety, beauty, and usefulness of the objects made with the ancient technique of Naalebinding, make it no less a stunning hand craft. Watch this:
The Naalebinding stitches are quite simple, as the knit and purl stitch are in the knitting you might have just put down. And with the same astounding flexibility, the Naalebinding stitches can be endlessly turned into hundreds and hundreds of different patterns, edgings, and embellishments, due to our bottomless capacity for creative expression.
This picture is of a commonly used stitch. The top photo shows the stitches in white cotton, so that the shape stands out:
The bottom photo shows the beginning of an actual garment in bulky weight wool. Garments made from Naalebinding can be extremely dense and warm. When made from wool, the garments can then be felted for additional warmth. Compare the above stitch to this more “complicated” stitch:
You can begin to see that the variety in looping, crossing, and otherwise stitching with the flat needle and yarn can produce beautiful work in the hands of a skilled naalebinder! (Look here on Flickr at the Naalebinder Group! I knew the first garments probably included a purse!)
When I had finally spun some yarn I was proud of and discovered I was only halfway through the process, I was a bit alarmed. Darn it! Watching the spinners in my Wednesday class left me feeling that plying might be harder than spinning. More twist to control, more yarn to feed, and all while treadling in the opposite direction (that is, if I could remember to!) But, like spinning itself, we seem to know what to do with this action called plying. In time, the brain and hands coordinate, and we are plying away.
A single is just what the name implies–a single strand of spun yarn. Yarn is spun either with a Z-twist (your wheel spins clockwise) or an S-twist (your wheel spins counterclockwise). Both “twists” perform the action of locking
the wool fibers together into a stronger, now usable, strand. Singles are most often used in weaving, but rarely in knitting. Once you’ve spun two bobbins of singles, you can ply them from a lazy kate onto a third bobbin.
The important thing about all this is that you must ply in the opposite direction from which you have spun the singles. This is because the act of plying the singles in the opposite direction from which they’ve been spun “balances” the twist between the two singles. Plying in the same direction will just “undo” the twist and give you less stable yarn.
Lastly, you must ply singles that have been spun in the same twist direction! Plying a Z-twist strand with an S-twist strand will just give you a big mess!
Arabella advised me to spin all my singles with my wheel spinning clockwise (Z-twist). With this as the only standard for my singles, I can ply away without undoing the twist, or creating a mess!
MonChere came over for a visit the other night, and began knitting up the reddish yarn I had spun recently.
I am so glad! This yarn needed to be made into something. It made me feel obligated, like I was somehow failing the yarn by not giving it an identity as a finished project. MonChere solved the problem.
I think we’re onto something here. I spin and spin, and then feel obligated to the yarn I’ve spun, having no clue what to turn it into. She has no interest in spinning, and sees finished items in the yarn, like Michelangelo and his stone.
Here’s a picture of the front of the bag–as far as she got during our visit.
You simply must meet Talia Sommer of International Fleeces, and read how she began her business because of a mosquito, and her love of spinning. Her website is beautiful and informative, and she sells everything the spinner or fiber artist needs to dive into the wool and never come out!
I am interested in natural dyeing techniques, and plan to do some of this over the summer. How providential that I received her newsletter today, promoting the joy of dyeing with natural dyes!
Her pricing is extremely reasonable, and she has a wide range of fibers (I cannot wait to get my hands on this baby camel and silk tussah blend at only $4 per oz.) Go visit her and sign up for her newsletter!
Talia also writes a very informative and well-researched blog. As a new spinner, I am learning the differences between the fibers–wool, plant fibers, blends, and what sheep was that? Talia has a series in her blog of “Focus on Fiber” in which she gives great information on breeds, their history, and the characteristics of their wool. Interested in Merino, Jacob, Romney, or White Faced Woodland?