Colours to dye for

I’ve been dying to dye for ages, several years in fact. There have always been reasons for not getting round to it; one of the biggest has been the moral dilemma going round and round my mind. My first instinct was to go down the natural dyeing route rather than use chemical dyes. I love the idea of taking basic plant materials and using them to create soft colours to reflect localities, landscapes and seasons.

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I am very inspired by the talents of Eva Lambert (http://www.shilasdair-yarns.com/about-us ) and Jenny Dean (http://www.jennydean.co.uk/ ) and I’ve read their books and studied their methods for some time. The problem is that most natural dyestuffs require the use of mordants which tend to be metal salts, some of them poisonous, whilst certain methods for extracting pigment call for other nasties to be used. Mmm. I definitely will try natural dyeing – I have madder powder and indigo crystals waiting in the wings – but for my first tentative steps into the world of colour creation, rightly or wrongly, I’ve opted to use acid wool dyes.

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For my first ‘experiment’, I wanted to create a set of colours to reflect the Norwegian landscape in summer – this is what I plan to use for the hiking socks I’m currently spinning. Having studied some beautiful  images, it was an explosion of blues, greens and yellows that came to mind. For the fibre, I decided to use 100g of Perendale wool top. The wool came with the dye set (pictured above) and is not a breed I’m familiar with. Apparently it was developed in New Zealand by crossing Romney and Cheviot breeds; it has a long staple, a low lustre and a very unusual ‘fuzzy’ characteristic. It was my sacrificial wool – well, at the very worst I could always use it for a gardening hat if the whole dye thing went badly wrong. I set up my work station outside using the old gas stove that was left here by the previous owner and gathered my hi-tech equipment.

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Having pre-soaked the wool and added vinegar to set the dye, I put my pot on the heat and prepared to add the dye powders. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I felt very excited and a bit nervous at this point!

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I sprinkled in small amounts of blue,turquoise, soft yellow and bright yellow dye powders – they spread out very quickly – then put the lid on and left it to simmer for a while.

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Roger says the photos look like a pot of intestines being boiled up . . . but I found watching the colours mingle and change totally magical.

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Cooled, rinsed and hung out to dry, I was a bit concerned that, despite my best intentions, I had felted the wool – it hung on the line in ratty dreadlocks. . . 

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. . . but once dried, it fluffed up again, softish and with that odd fuzz still there. As for the colours? I’m thrilled, they are exactly what I’d hoped for and more: the question is, can I do it again, but on spun yarn next time?

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Not wanting to ruin the sock wool I’m spinning, I felt I needed to explore further in the name of research. (Well, okay – I’d had so much fun, I wanted another go!) I dug a skein of wool out of my ‘treasure’ box: 150g of Shetland I spun last winter into thin and thick yarn veering towards chunky.

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My colour inspiration this time (sticking with Norway) was ‘Northern Lights.’

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Wow, the colours are so rich and vibrant and the exciting part is tipping the cooled yarn out of the pot and seeing what has gone on underneath. It seemed to have worked: no undyed bits, lots of different colours and shades but maybe a couple of solid blocks of purple which spoilt it a bit? Obviously the proof I needed to answer my question – will this method create a colourful random self-patterning sock yarn? – would only be in the knitting.

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So . . . how about a hat for Annie? The pattern I have chosen has a repeat cable running through it but having seen how crazy the colours are just on the rib brim, I think plain old stocking stitch will be more than enough for this creation!

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This is great fun, I love it . . . I can’t wait to finish that sock yarn now and set my dye kettle bubbling again. 🙂

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