September 2009 Archives

Dyeing Naturally

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Cue your dye/die puns. Over the last three weekends, I took a class on natural dyeing at A Verb for Keeping Warm.

The first class was about mordanting. Kristine uses aluminum sulfate, which is a garden additive and thus relatively safe as a mordant. Many mordants are made from heavy metals like chromium, and they can be difficult to handle and dispose of.

We did our mordant bath in this large aluminum pot. Usually aluminum is a bad choice for dyeing, because it is highly reactive -- even the aluminum in this pot has an effect on the mordant. But if the effect is what you want, then what the hey. This almost looks like one of those crazy turkey fryers, but it is actually for making fair food, which brings us right around to my theme for the summer, which is Stuff Yourself Silly With Fair Food.

The mordant pot

The mordant pot can be reused many times, adding more aluminum sulfate and water as you go. Eventually it gets really murky and needs dumping. If you happen to have hydrangeas, they love the stuff. So do most acid-loving plants.

Pot of mordant, awaiting fiber

After we'd weighed out our fiber and put it in the pot to stew for an hour, we sat around and talked about dyestuffs. You can buy concentrates of many natural dyestuffs if that's what suits you -- the benefits are a certain kind of predictability that is useful when you are dyeing on a commercial scale.

Several pots of dyestuffs

These are (dead) cochineal bugs. They live on prickly pears, and they make everything red. They are a foodsafe red dye -- any natural red colour in your food comes from these bugs. I'm thinking of giving some to a chicken as an experiment -- will the bugs turn the eggs red?

Cochineal bugs

The concentrated powders are interesting to handle. This is a pot of Lac, which is where lacquer comes from. Many people have a strong allergic reaction to this, plus it smells terrible. That's why there's so much in the pot.

Lac powder

We talked quite a bit about the properties of each kind of dye, how mixing different things in changes colour, and on and on. My interest in natural dyeing is pretty academic, at least on this scale. I'd like to plant some dyestuffs and dye with my own plants, but I'm less interested in dyeing from concentrated powders produced in a plant somewhere.

Dyestuffs arranged on the table

Our next class, we dyed. The fiber had been sitting, damp, soaking up mordant all week. Now we mixed up a concentrated dye solution, put the fiber in it, and then put the fiber into mason jars.


We put the fiber into a dye bath in a bucket first, to get it all soaked up with dye. Then we stuffed it into the mason jar.

Squooshing the fiber into the dye bath

We set the caps of the mason jars on top loosely, then put them in water baths on the stove to heat up for an hour.

Mason jars in water on the stove

When they cooled down, they were set aside in their jars to sit for a week. You can get different effects by soaking the fiber for more or less time.

This is what greeted us this last Sunday. Twelve shimmering, jewellike mason jars full of fiber. You can see the dyes we used: pomegranate, madder, madder with cream of tartar mixed in, quebracho red, logwood grey, and logwood purple.

Jars after soaking for a week

Our last class was all about washing. You can use a lot of water in washing that just gets wasted (if you don't have some kind of greywater system). So Kristine showed us how to waste less and get more out of the water we did use.

Buckets of rinse water

The key to not felting the fiber together is to handle the fiber as little as possible, but the key to saving water is pressing as much water out of the fiber as possible before each dunk. It's a balancing act.

Squeezing water out of the fiber

When we finished, everybody had about an ounce of each colour to take home and finish drying. I'm thinking of carding mine together to make some batts of a larger amount of fiber so I have enough to make a real project.

Drying fiber

I'm looking forward to taking more classes on natural dyeing, especially a dyer's garden class they're still working on developing.

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Fleece to the Finish


This month I'm taking part in a spinning race. It started after the Tour de Fleece, which is when spinners follow the Tour de France while spinning, and use it as a stretch of their own skills. I didn't do that because I had other commitments for July, but when a group of my online spinning friends decided to continue the fun with another themed race month, I joined in.

This month's theme is Fleece to the Finish, and the goal is to go from new fleece to finished yarn in one month. Now, I don't have much for new fleece hanging around the house, but I do have that black alpaca I've been very lazy about spinning. So I'm using this month to motivate myself to spin up as much of that alpaca as I can. It's destined to be 3-ply yarn, to be knitted into a warm (VERY VERY WARM) sweater for Noel to wear while biking across San Francisco every day. I'd like it to come out somewhere in the fingering range, which it might be; I'm not consistent enough to be sure of what my gauge is before the yarn is finished. When it's made into yarn, I'm thinking of overdyeing it with a purple to give it a more inky colour, and reduce the rusty look that naturally black animal hair always gets.

Here's my starting point: I had 19 batts of alpaca. Of those, I'd spun up one and a half onto two partial bobbins (I started one, took it off for a class, then misplaced it for a few days, during which I started another).

Here's bobbin #1 (which was really the second one I started while looking for the real first bobbin; sorry for being confusing, but I decided to number them by the order in which they are completed, not started):

Bobbin #1 starting point

And bobbin #2 waiting in the wings:

Bobbin #2 starting point

Hmm. I should count my remaining batts, because it kind of looks like there may be two and a half batts on these guys, not one and a half.

Anyway, last night I sat down to spin for at least an hour. We ended up watching a couple of movies (one documentary on TED, and Spies Like Us, both of which were disappointing in their own ways). But I did get a lot of spinning done, and ended up finishing the partial batt I had in the project bag. And here we are:

After Day One

Tonight I plan to spin at least half a batt. That'll fill this bobbin and get me onto bobbin #2. I'll try to be less sloppy about my bobbin, too; filling it this unevenly can lead to twists and knots in the singles, which is Not Fun.

The plan is to spin three bobbins full of singles, then ply them together until all bobbins are empty, repeat until done.

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