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Bleeding Natural Dyes!

Hey, it’s way past time for another post that’s actually about natural dyeing.  Many of you know that I’m not doing much dyeing right now, but I’m still knitting with plenty of natural dyed yarn.  I recently pulled a 50/50 cotton/wool blend out of my stash that had been languishing there for a while – it’s a nice wheat color that I always loved, but I guess didn’t have good skein appeal.  I pulled it after carrying it to too many shows, and last week got inspired to start knitting a loose summery sleeveless wrap.

img_1319.jpgI knit a panel and blocked it by soaking it in slightly warm water with a little Eucalan.  Here’s what the water looked like after soaking:


You might be thinking – hmmmm.  Or even – whoa!  That’s a _lot_ of color washing out.  And it’s true, that’s what it looks like, and it’s not surprising that you might jump to the conclusion that the yarn is bleeding like a stuck pig and it wasn’t dyed properly.  But let’s wait for a few hours and look at that rinse water again:



Can you see that there’s fine silt lining the sides of the bowl?  It looks like something has settled out of the water.  What’s going on here?  Because I’m the one who dyed the yarn, I can actually tell you.

This yarn was dyed with fustic, which is a wood.  I use raw dyestuffs, so I buy fustic chips and boil it several times to create a dyebath.


Fustic wood chips

You can see that the wood chips are mostly small flakes – thin so they wet out and extract nicely.  And there’s also a bit of fine sawdust in there too, check out the bottom of the bag:


Check out the fine sawdust

The sawdust also wets out and extracts nicely.  But what happens after you’re done with extracting the dye?  Now you have 5 gallons of hot water with wood chips floating around in it – if I stuck nice fluffy wool yarn straight into that, it would immediately be full of chips.  So I filter.  And then I filter again.  And then I filter even more.


Good filters are a dyer’s best friend

I’ll typically go through 3-4 stages of filtering before the dyebath is ready for yarn – one large strainer to get most of the large material out, then a 220 micron filter to remove sand-sized particles, then a 75 micron filter to remove fine coffee-ground-sized particles, then a 43 micron filter to remove as much of those fine silt-like particles as I can.  This is my least favorite part of dyeing with raw dyestuffs.  It’s physically demanding – hoisting and slowly pouring 5 gallons of liquid over and over – and it’s a little dangerous because the water has recently boiled and is still quite hot.  I do wait for it to cool after the first filtering stage, but I usually need to get something else going in that pot.   It’s also slow.  If I try to hurry and skip filtering steps, it takes even longer because the filters clog.

Even after all of those filtering steps, there’s still some degree of fine wood particles left in the dyebath, you’ll never get every one out.  Which means that some will get picked up in the yarn.  Some fall out when the yarn dries.  Some fall out during ball winding – this tends to leave a layer of fine particles on your table that isn’t usually apparent until you wipe it off with a damp paper towel.  Some fall out during knitting, which is usually only noticeable if you wear lotion.  You may see a streak of color on your fingers, where the yarn has run across them.  And some still remains in the yarn, and falls out when you wash it.  Let’s look at the wash water again – I scooped some water off the top of the bowl with the wine glass and you can see it’s almost clear.


When I slowly poured the water off, this is what’s left behind:


So, it’s totally normal for naturally dyed yarns to still have fine particles of the dyestuff in them, and to appear to bleed when you wash them.  Your yarn won’t lose color and it won’t lighten.  It also won’t contaminate another color, though I always recommend knitting and blocking a swatch first.  Especially if you’re thinking of doing a complicated colorwork project with high contrast, make sure it washes well before you have an orange sweater instead of a red & yellow striped one.


This is what a swatch looks like.

That covers wood-based dyes, and the same is true for flower and leaf-based dyes.  Weld especially has very fine pollen that creates a fair bit of silt.  Though indigo is a different beast entirely (which I’ve talked about in this silly video) the crocking mechanism is actually pretty similar to what I’ve been discussing in this post.  Solid particles get stuck in your yarn, then get loose.  With indigo, the main difference is that the particles are even smaller and are pretty much how the dye works in the first place.

Before going on to the last type of dye – animal dyes like cochineal – I’m going to digress and talk about extraction.  It’s very important for natural dyers to get the most out of each dyestuff.  They’re expensive!  Way more expensive than synthetic dyes, so in order to compete in a market that is dominated by synthetic hand-dyed yarn, and only price your yarns a few dollars higher, you have to be really thrifty with getting the most out of every dyestuff.  It is not uncommon for natural dyers to have $2-$5 of pure dye cost in each skein.  And of course, the cost varies according to the dye.  And it can vary by time of year – it’s like food.  Sometimes a particular fruit is bountiful and sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes there’s a drought that affects the entire supply.  Sometimes fashion and food trends impact demand and suddenly send dye costs skyrocketing.  This happened to cochineal around 2009 – the price increased by 600%.  Politics and war can also play a part – Afghanistan used to grow a good amount of high quality madder, and now much of that has been replaced by opium.

For cochineal in particular, I boil it several times, using the first extraction for reds and pinks, while the second extraction goes to lighter shades of pinks, or purples by saddening with iron or copper mordants.  I still have 6 containers of once and twice-boiled cochineal in my freezer, waiting for me to dye something else with it.  This may make me sound like a crazypants dye lady, and no, there are no more inedible dead animals in my freezer, but this is what cochineal retails for.   If you grind up 1 oz of high quality cochineal, it’ll dye about 4 skeins of yarn.  Maybe 2 skeins if you’re going for a really bright fuchsia.  And sometimes the quality isn’t as good and you need to use more.

OK, so now that you understand why extraction and getting the most out of dyes is so important, I’ll go back to cochineal preparation.  I buy whole dried cochineal bugs.  You can boil them whole, but they don’t extract as well as ground bugs do.  I grind cochineal in a burr-style coffee grinder on a coarse setting, put it in cheap pantyhose, and boil it.  The reason I contain it in pantyhose is that it takes forever to filter if I don’t.  I made the mistake just throwing the ground cochineal into water once, and it was a never-ending filter clog – I’d pour out a quart, the filter would clog completely, I’d pour it back into the unfiltered pot, rinse the filter, repeat.  I can’t tell you how frustrating that kind of problem is, or how much it actually costs a dyer.  If you spend an hour babysitting a filter like that, you’ve just lost money on that batch of yarn.  You can’t indiscriminately boost the price of a few skeins because it took you longer to dye them, and sometimes you wouldn’t be able to charge enough to actually cover your time on a troublesome batch.

So pantyhose does a reasonable job of containing the ground cochineal, but it’s not perfect.  There are still a couple of filtering stages, and there are still going to be some fine solid bits.  Cochineal also seems to be the one natural dye that does legitimately tend to run more than the rest.  It’s not considered as washfast as some of the other natural dyes, though it’s fine for the typical hand-washed life of a hand knit.  I’d recommend washing any cochineal-dyed yarn in cold water, go very very light on the soap, and don’t soak it for very long.  Set a timer for 5 minutes, just enough to fully wet the yarn and clean the garment.  In contrast, cochineal is one of the best dyes in terms of lightfastness, so go wear that hat in all the direct sunlight you want.

But what about dyers who use extracts?  Will their yarn still have fine particles in it?  Yes, it will.  Extracts are not perfectly 100% soluble, there’s almost always a tiny bit that remains solid.  It also depends on the dye, for example, I hear that madder tends to have more insoluble bits.

Well, I hope you’ve learned a bit about natural dyes and what to expect in terms of washing.  Good natural dyers will go through several wash steps before the yarn is dried, skeined, labeled, and sold to you.  But no matter what, you’ll probably see some color in the wash water (more so when the dyer uses raw dyestuffs!), and that’s OK.

But what if it’s not OK?  What if it’s really running a lot and you actually ARE losing color?  Contact the dyer.  No matter how careful we are, there are a ton of variables that influence natural dyeing, and despite our best efforts, it’s impossible to fully control them all.  Sometimes shit just happens.  No dyer wants you to be unhappy with their yarn, and they do want to know about problems.  Send them a calm and collected email, explain what’s happening, and find out what you or they can do about it.  If you’re not cool and collected because it took you 2 years and 5 million tears to knit this fucking sweater which is now NOT the color the yarn was in the skein…..well, that sucks, but maybe now you understand why swatching AND blocking your swatch is so important.  Still contact the dyer, but maybe have a drink and good night’s sleep first, especially if that dyer is me.  :)

xo, and happy knitting with natural dyes!







A Day in the Life of Big Fat Alpaca

Psst…want a behind the scenes look at how yarn is made at a mini-mill? Come on, follow me! Mette of Ranch of the Oaks was kind enough to take many of these pictures during several steps of the process.

First, the fiber is washed in a special non-agitating machine, then set on a mesh rack to dry. I don’t have any pictures of this because it would be rather like….watching fiber dry.

The first fun step is going through the picker. This machine picks apart the fibers, opens up the locks, and fluffs it up. Locks go in, fluff comes out!

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Conditioning oil is then sprayed on the fiber – I know, weird right? You just washed it and now you’re spraying oil on it? This helps keep the static down, and keeps the fiber from sticking to the machines during the rest of the process. Then chunks of fiber (see how much fluffier they are?) are sent to the fiber separator.

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This machine gets out more vegetable matter – oh how those alpacas love to roll and get dirty! – as well as shorts and second-cuts for shearing. It can also be used to dehair and separate downy undercoats from coarser outer coats of other fleeces such as pygora, but requires many passes. Typically, a run will go through the fiber separator twice. Unless you’ve bought fleece that is riddled with vm…ask me how I know! I’m much pickier about my alpaca fleece nowadays. It wasn’t easy, but I now have the willpower to refuse the softest fleece if it’s chock full of hay and stickers. :) Anyway, this is the waterfall of fiber that comes out of the fiber separator.

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The next step is the carder, these are pix I took from a different alpaca run. The carder brushes the fiber and funnels it into a strip of roving. Consistency is important at this step – the more consistent the roving produced, the more consistent the finished yarn will be. The carder operates at a constant rate, so the thickness of the roving at the output is completely dependent upon how much fiber you feed into it. You’ll notice the blue stripes on the conveyor – these are marked so the operator can spread out a consistent weight of fiber between each stripe. To make roving for a bulky yarn, 3 oz of fiber might be laid down at a time. For a lace yarn, 1 oz of fiber might be laid down.


The carder consists of one large central drum, surrounded by 6 pairs of carding rollers. The large central drum really just conveys the fiber from roller pair to roller pair – the pair do the actual carding. You might think that the carders align the fibers, but they don’t. They really just separate them and create a consistenty fluffy sheet. The fiber orientation is still pretty random in this sheet – meaning some are parallel, some are perpendicular, and many are at all sorts of angles and orientations in between. Here’s the roving coming out of the carder:


Do you see where I’m going with this? Because the fibers aren’t aligned, lots of air is trapped in the roving. This is considered a woolen preparation. Most yarn that is mass produced, that you buy in your local yarn store, is spun from a worsted preparation. It goes through a commercial combing process – different machines with different actions prepare the fiber so that each one is parallel to the next, any fibers of inconsistent length are removed, and the resultant top (not roving! Roving = carded prep!) also goes through a straightening and steaming process during which much of the crimp is flattened out. This type of prep is done so that the spinning is as consistent as possible, and it makes a very compact and durable yarn.

Are you starting to see some of the differences? Neither is right or wrong or good or bad, they’re just different! There are many different ways to make yarn, and it’s great to explore them all! If that’s even possible, but I’m working on it. :) Anyway, yarn made from a woolen prep (that’s the carding process that I’ve photographed above) is going to be lofty, airy, but is going to be a little more variable in texture and thickness. It’s also going to retain a lot of the characteristics of the original fiber – since the roving isn’t straightened or steamed before it’s spun, the resulting yarn is pretty lively. Yarn made on a large scale from a worsted prep (the combing & the steaming) is very consistent, and tends to be more compact.

Have your eyes glazed over yet? Or are you salivating and considering buying a spinning wheel so that you can experience all of this fiber wonderfulness for yourself? Enabler, me? Never. Anyway, MORE PICTURES!

A hand-spinner could take roving straight from the carder and spin it forever in eternal bliss. But unfortunately, machines aren’t as good as a hand-spinner. Your hands will automatically adjust if the roving is slightly thicker or thinner, and will create a pretty consistent yarn no matter what. A machine can’t tell the difference, so we have to feed it the most consistent roving we can. One way of making roving more consistent is combining it with another strand of roving – the thick and thin spots of one tend to even out the thin and thick spots of the other, and the result is more even. It’s combined at the draw frame – each roving is drafted a little separately, fed together, then drafted a little more together. Below you can see 2 sets of 2 strands of roving going into the drawframe.

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Here (different run) you can see the 2 sets coming out of the drawframe as single rovings.


Now, since we’re further aligning the fibers in this step, we start to leave the realm of a fully woolen preparation. The fiber orientation is still quite random, but not as random as it was before. I don’t think that it’s wrong to still call it a woolen prep, as it’s just a smidge off (and there’s endless debate over the precise definition of these words – some feel that the only true woolen prep is a hand-carded rolag). But you can call it a semi-woolen prep if you like. Clear as mud, right?

And finally, the spinner! These pics are from a day that Mette was spinning quite a large batch – all 8 spinning heads were going at once. From the back, roving goes in:


And at the front, yarn comes out!


For my Big Fat Alpaca run, she only had 2 spindles going at once:

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Now, to further blur lines between woolen and worsted, this yarn is essentially spun short-draw – there is no twist in the zone between the drafting rollers. So a woolen prep, spun with a worsted technique….semi-worsted yarn! No, semi-woolen! No, woolsted! No, worsten! I have an idea – LET’S JUST CALL IT AWESOME.

Now, we have bobbins of freshly spun singles. Let’s ply! The two singles are twisted together in the opposite direction at another machine, which only plies.

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A close-up of the actual business:

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The result:

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And steaming! Which I had to take a quick video of to show you the whole shebang.  This evens out and relaxes excess twist energy.

Leaving you with….ta-da! A cone of beautiful yarn.

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You might think we’re done there. Well, Mette is, but I’m not. I then take the cone of yarn, wind it into skeins, tie it up tidily, and wash it. Why wash it? The cone is wound under tension, so the yarn will be a little stretched out when first skeined. Washing it relieves that tension, and makes is sproing back up again. Plus, remember when we added conditioning oil in one of the first steps? That’s still in the yarn. The yarn is also a little dirty – even though the first step was washing the fleece, the fiber has been picked, separated, carded, and fluffed many times, all which helps loosen up dirt that was initially trapped in those locks.

So I wash, dry, hang in the sunshine, label, and presto!

Yarn, ready for whatever you have in mind.

Dyeing to get to Stitches!

Sorry, bad pun, I know. I couldn’t help it – I’m so excited because some of my best yarn yet just came out of the dyepots. There’s a magical quality to dyeing – certainly I have a good idea of what color the yarn is while I’m dyeing, but it’s not until it’s almost dry that the final shade and nuance is revealed. Sometimes it takes on an entirely new life when I pull it out of the washing machine, and today was one of those “Holy SHIT!” days when I surprised even myself.

This is my best, most interesting batch yet:
SMerF Moss (Medium)

This is one of my brightest colors, the neon quality was unexpected but completely welcome:
Lofty Corrie Fingering green (Medium)

More bright red, perhaps my favorite color to dye:
Corrie Sport Ephemar (Medium)

A great cotton/wool blend that takes the dye in a heathered kind of way. Very interesting to the eye.
Bollistic Tweed green (Medium)

Now that I’m pretty much done dyeing (there’s some slight tweaking going on the background, but not much), I’ve actually relaxed and destressed a bit. We have our booth figured out, got the fixtures and furniture, all that’s left is reskeining, labeling, and making signs. Which are all big tasks, but more chill than living my life in 30 minute increments, keeping track of 6 dyepots, loads of yarn in the wash, and boiling dyestuffs.

I just can’t wait to put everything out there, meet new people, and talk about yarn. It’s the best part of the whole business. Plus the party line-up for Stitches is going to be pretty awesome. Ravelry Happy Hour on Thursday night and LSG Hoariversary on Saturday. Woo!

Ta-Na-Na-Ah, Ta-Na-Na-Ah, Stitches, Stitches, He-e-llo

Lambie says: Stitches is in just a month! Get on it, yo!

Lamb Talking 2 (Medium)

I just got back from TNNA, so I’m full of energy and inspiration! It was great to visit with a few of my yarn suppliers, put more faces to names, and see good friends. I also spoke with several smaller US mills and hope to have a new American yarn base or two in the late spring. Good stuff!

So have I mentioned that I’ll be vending at Stitches West this year? It’s my first time, it’s both exciting and terrifying. Myself and Ranch of the Oaks are splitting a booth – 1048, be sure to drop by! Mette will have lots of natural colors of her own alpaca yarn, plus Icelandic wool, plus llama yarn, plus blends of everything. I’ll be bringing lots and lots of naturally-dyed yarn, about 1/3rd of it will be Corriedale from the Ranch and Central Coast alpaca. And we’ll both have lots of fiber for spinning! And have I mentioned the 15 micron merino that I brought back from Australia? Mmmmmmm…. And! If that wasn’t enough…I’ll also have some Little Red Bicycle yarns! Yay! Hopefully her laceweight order will come in and I’ll have some beautiful hand-dyed skinny stuff, but I’m certain to have sock yarn at the very least. Woot!

There are going to be several natural dyers at Stitches this year – I definitely encourage everyone to check us all out, as we all have different twists on colors and fibers. As far as I know, the following will be there: A Verb for Keeping Warm, Tactile, Pico Accuardi Dyeworks, and Carolina Homespun usually carries Nature’s Palette yarn.

What else is noteworthy? Two of my yarn suppliers will be there – Green Mountain Spinnery and NordicMart. Green Mountain Spinnery is located in Vermont, they make wonderful yarns out of American wool and US-made Tencel. Several of my American Yarns are theirs. And a few of my Global Yarns are from Garnstudio – NordicMart is based here in San Luis Obispo and carries their complete line. Ball and Skein and More in Cambria will also be at Stitches for the first time, and they’ll be highlighting O-Wool yarn, which I also use for dyeing. Michelle Miller of Fickleknitter Design will also have a booth – she creates great patterns, many of which are small yardage and perfect for hand-dyed yarns. I’ll also be a selling a few kits of: one of her patterns, yarn to go with it, and a handmade project bag!

I think that covers my shout-outs for now. Stitches can be pretty overwhelming, so it’s sometimes handy to have recommendations, especially for us new companies that no one has ever heard of. Oh, I have one more shout-out for very interesting stuff – don’t miss John Marshall’s booth. Last year he had very interesting gold yarn (yes, real gold over silk), he sells really cool fabrics, and also very good and user-friendly instant indigo (though I don’t know if he’ll be bringing that to Stitches).

And don’t forget my booth, okay? :) 1048!

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