Dyeing is now a vital part of my life and I am wallowing in the sheer pleasure of it, experimenting with different techniques and colourways, and constantly learning. One of the reasons for giving up mail order (ex farm) is that I need more time for my colour work.
NATURAL V. ARTIFICIAL
For many years I have spun, knitted and loved using natural coloured wool. I still do, and always will. Our growing flock of coloured sheep is evidence of this passion. But more and more I am also creating and using brighter yarns. (The coloured machine-knit swatches seen elsewhere in this site are mostly dyed yarns purchased on cone from the Falkland Mill (which has long since closed down.) Over-dyeing natural grey wool or tops produces rich shades that are very special, and I also like to combine naturals with my dyed shades. It's fun blending colours on a carder too for interesting batts to spin.
Though my main work involves dyeing and spinning my Island Dreams yarns for Falkland Folk I am also enjoying dyeing and handpainting our own millspun simple and slub yarns - for sale in town as well as stocks to use myself.
MY DYE ROOM
Clive (aka the wonder husband <g> ) helped me to convert the old conservatory on the front of the house into a dye-room a few years ago. This dedicated space meant I could keep potentially dangerous substances away from food preparation areas and also meant I can leave everything ready - with a lock on the door should it be needed, say if we had small visitors! I have a respirator, masks and gloves of course, and know the safety rules - but also leave a window open when working (when weather permits!) and intend putting an extractor fan in soon.
I have an old double sink, nice and deep, complete with hot and cold running water - when our water supply hasn't frozen up or dried up, that is! - and I do have rainwater back-up if needed, in the garden outside. There's an old spin-dryer permanently plumbed in next to the sinks, ready to go, which saves hassle and heaving it around. These sinks empty into the main drain - which in turn empties into the sea - so I try not to put anything too nasty down them. If colours haven't exhausted, I use them to 'pickle' wool i.e. create a background colour onto which I can paint other shades. (More on this when I find time to write about it and take pictures.) Or I simply top up the colour with more dye solution.I use white vinegar to adjust the acidity levels.
For steaming large amounts or immersion dyeing, I have a gas hob let into the top of an old sturdy Formica-topped table) see picture above) and several large stainless steel pots to use on it.
Basic shelving holds the old microwave - now dedicated to dye work - plus dyeing books, reference tools, scales etc etc. Plastic trolleys hold other supplies, and the old stainless steel table has two shelves underneath to hold stock solutions, pots and so on.
In 2001) Clive built me a workroom which extends along the front of the house from the dye-room. Like the dye-room itself, it is small but useful (about 15 feet in length to the dyeroom's 12 feet, both nearly 8 feet wide) and I love it.
There's a sliding patio door to the garden and the original door to the dyeroom remains, to keep steam out of the workroom.
This room houses my new 16" motorised Duncan drumcarder (picture soon) plus boxes and bins of mill-dyed tops and white waiting for over-dyeing or painting, white yarns waiting for painting, etc etc... and a couple of wheels usually, out of my large collection! The other wheels live in the house and the old Portacabin.
My new room is a delight to work in, with plenty of natural light. We managed to buy some ex-military stainless steel benches and shelving, perfect for both workrooms, though the racking/shelving will move into the new storage shed in the garden when that has been built (to house stocks of dyed and natural tops.) That will give me space for the new needle felt machine that is on its way shortly... another new project which I will describe in detail once it happens! Life is never dull when you have plenty of wool, heaps of dyestuffs and lichen on hand, and only one television channel... <g>
The view to the sea from my new room's patio door is wonderful. Bamboo matchstick blinds on the big front windows cut the glare, and the clear roof gives me all the light I need plus warmth from the sun. The pictures were taken while the rooms were still tidy!! Needless to say they aren't now.
I have experimented with microwave dyeing and using a food steamer, for small amounts. I am also about to start crockpot dyeing of small amounts of silk, cashmere etc to blend into feltwork but that's another adventure and I will make a section for it eventually.
My main work is done by handpainting - tops or yarns - then steam-setting the colours in large stainless pots on the gas hob. I wrap the painted wool in Clingfilm, roll it into 'Swiss rolls' and steam them five at a time to set the colours. I also do a small amount of immersion acid dyeing for plain colours, so I can ply them with the rainbow singles, and do some lichen dyeing in my old boiler. I just love spinning handpainted tops - it is so much less boring than churning out plain colours. I do many hours of production spinning, and it is a bonus to have something interesting to spin. Good music helps too, or a talking book. But colours are the best mood-lifter.
Lichen grows on the rocks on our farm, and is easy to harvest. We do so carefully, making sure we leave plenty of young plants to grow on as they take years to mature. Lichen is very easy to use.
Our old Burco boiler (once used for nappies or diapers) has a stainless steel tub, and is perfect for the job.
First I make a giant 'teabag' with tubular stockinette cloth, the type used for washing cars. I cut off a length, knot one end, stuff the tube full of lichen and knot the other end. This is then brought to the boil in the tub. The water turns brown almost immediately. I reduce the heat and then throw in about a pound (half kilo) of washed fleece or top (haven't tried greasy yet), letting this simmer for a good hour or so. Then I add a further pound or so of fleece, pushing it gently to the bottom, and let the whole thing cook with the lid on for as long as it takes. Usually a couple more hours unless I am impatient (results depend on length of cooking time and ratio of plant to fibre). No mordant is needed but I add vinegar.
The wool takes up the colour immediately, then deepens gradually. When I think it is 'done', I drain the water out, move the soggy wool into the spindryer and get rid of the excess water, then rinse the whole mass in water the same temperature as the dyed wool has reached (so as not to shock and felt it). The rinse water is normally clear, the wool having absorbed the dye colour beautifully. It has a slightly strange but not unpleasant aroma, which gradually wears off. On wet days, dyed wool of any kind used to be heaped onto my 'drying rack' - actually an old camp-bed with holes punched in the thin covering - this sat on the kitchen table overnight, the wool being turned gently and 'flumphed' to help it dry. Nowadays I have an old electric drying cabinet (bought at auction in town) for yarns and tops on wet windy days, when I can use electricity and know there is plenty of power available from the wind!
Once dry, the lichen-dyed wool shows its lovely variety of shades... everything from pale gold to burnt orange. Deep browns, lion's mane... all kinds. I sort it into rough groups then store it, and use it on its own or combined with acid-dyed colours when making batts to spin. (see Spinning) I sometimes blend it with natural coloured wools too, putting it through the picker first to blend gently, or just adding it to the Duncan carder as I go.
I realise that not everyone has access to lichens and they must be preserved where scarce, but if you are able to harvest some carefully without damaging the environment they are well worth trying.
LEARNING, ALWAYS LEARNING.,,
I am guided by Deb Menz's videos and book, but I also have Julie Owen's reference book and other videos and tools.
Some years ago I attended Fibervisions in California, where I took a Dye Sample Book class with Sara Lamb, who is an excellent tutor. I came home with a 300 shade sample book and lots of enthusiasm... there are so many exciting possibilities!! She taught us how to make our own samples, and we worked together as a team to share the work which resulted in a complete record each. Deb Menz taught us colour choice and blending, and I later invested in her videos and book.
Last year I stayed with Sandy Sitzman in Oregon, at 'Dome Central' her amazing home, and learned a lot from her. I also took a workshop with Rowena Hart of Ashford, NZ, in Eugene as part of the Weavers Odyssey 2001, which was about handpainting yarns and used them in knitting. Wonderful stuff. (I often use Ashford dyes, as well as Lanaset.) Watch the Interweave site or Spin-Off magazine for news of a book which Lynne Vogel has written, featuring dyeing by Sandy. Our wool also features in this book! and you can of course buy our white tops through our distributors to dye yourself. The cheapest option is to buy a 10kg (22 pound) bump and share with friends.
I love the DyeHappy List on Yahoo Groups, and would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn and share with other enthusiasts.
DISASTERS I HAVE KNOWN
As previously mentioned, we have an old microwave kept just for dyeing, and I have had a few adventures with this - the most memorable being when my friend Carol was here for a visit and we tried dyeing a felt ball that we'd made. It exploded... and it took a while to rid the Portacabin (my then workplace) of the smell. We had to evacuate pronto... the pong reminded me of the time I over-cooked Magic Meringues in the kitchen microwave - it's the same Vesuvius effect.
When dyeing small amounts of wool I tend to use a salad spinner to remove excess water - and the very first time I used this method I forgot to hold the lid on tightly when I pulled the cord. Yes, you've guessed it. Blue liquid erupted all over the place... Sheesh. Engage brain before pulling cord...
I hope you have enjoyed this page. I will add more later on when our new WoolCraft centre is complete. It has a dedicated wet room for dyeing and feltmaking, and I will be running workshop classes in there... all very exciting. Pictures etc will folllow one of these days...
Happy dyeing all... :)
Updated 1st August 2006