Monday, September 15, 2014

Dyeing and spinning hand painted wool top - my first attempt.



For a little while now, I've been looking longingly at the handpainted wool tops on Etsy and researching how to spin a self striping yarn from hand dyed wool top.  

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It was this beautiful image of a linen stitch scarf, knitted in different shades of self striping yarn, that made me want to try spinning my own stripy yarn. I just love how the colour changes make it look like a sort of exotic tweed woven fabric.

At the same time, I've been tentatively reading about how to dye your own wool tops using either commercial acid dyes or food colouring.

I wasn't really at the point of feeling confident enough to dye my own wool tops, but it was the school holidays and I really wanted to get my daughter involved in a craft activity that we could enjoy together. I've been unsuccessful in teaching her to knit or spin, so I thought that dyeing her own yarn might be the next best thing. I want her to feel the pride of wearing something that she's had a part in making... that's my plan anyway.


Here's how we did it :-

I had 200g of Merino top amongst my wool stash that I thought was perfect for the project. I looped it around 5 times into a sort of hank and then knotted it loosely with yarn, at regular intervals.

I soaked it in warm water and liquid hand soap to remove any dirt and grease, (the water was surprisingly brown after an hour's soaking). I then rinsed it gently and then soaked it again in warm water and a good 'glug' of vinegar. Protein fibres like wool and silk need acid dyes, so the vinegar helps to fix the dyes.


I imagined, as kid's crafts go, this had the potential to get pretty messy and so I set up a dyeing area in the garden. I put down an old waterproof floor mat, weighed down with bricks and then laid down 4 lengths of cling film, 2 horizontally and 2 vertically.


After my wool had soaked in the water and vinegar for an hour, I removed it. I only gave it a very gentle squeeze as I wanted it to be fairly wet. My theory was that the wetter it was, the more vinegar would remain in the wool and the more the dye would wick and spread.

I laid the wool down on the cling film so that I would be able to wrap it up as soon as all the dye had been applied.


Of course, as my daughter is only 6 years old, I needed to give her food colouring to dye with. I had a set of Wilton icing colouring gels already, which were perfect for this project. (Alternative child friendly wool dyes are Koolaid or egg dyes.)

The Wilton gel colours are very intense and concentrated, so we really didn't need a lot. I dissolved about a quarter of a teaspoon in boiling water and then filled the rest of the bowl with warm water. (For reference, we really didn't need this much dye mix!)


My daughter did the next part of applying the dye all on her own. She decided what colour she wanted to apply and where.

Now, if you're looking for a craft activity that will keep your child's attention for a significant amount of time, this is definitely an option.  It doesn't have to be wool top or roving, a hank of undyed wool yarn would work too - you would just get much shorter colour changes.

She had a lovely time sucking up the dye into the medicine syringes and then injecting it into the wool or letting it drop gently on top.


My only instructions to her was to squirt the colour across all 5 sections of wool, to try to keep the colours as spread out and as seperate as possible, but to squeeze in as many different colours as she wanted. I didn't want her to dye 'mud', so I thought it was safer for her to leave a little bit of undyed wool between the different colours and then allow the different dyes to wick and blend together gently.


Once she'd finished adding as much dye as she wanted, I wrapped the wool top in the cling film it was sitting on and gave it a gentle squeeze to spread the colours through the wool a bit more.


Now, it's somewhere here that I made my first mistake. I followed instructions that I'd read elsewhere that said to microwave the wool on full for 2 minutes, let it cool down for a little while and then microwave on full for a further 2 minutes. I have a pretty powerful microwave and after 4 minutes on full, my dyed wool was incredibly hot and looked more like funky coloured dreadlocks. My wool had started to felt and mat together.  Another mistake I made was that I rinsed the tops under cool water while they were still quite hot - another rooky mistake which probably aided the felting process further.


As you can see, it's not totally felted, but it's on its way. It needed an awful lot of pulling apart and separating of the fibres to just get the wool top to dry.


Still, I was really pleased with how the colours turned out. I think my daughter did a pretty good job... 

I've always wondered how dyers make those beautiful braids and so I found this article which showed the technique in more detail. Yes, I know it was a fairly pointless exercise, but it's really pretty and gives me a better idea of how the colours will work together.


At this stage I wasn't sure whether I was going to make a fractal spun yarn or a Navajo plied yarn, however I made yet another mistake here. I'd misunderstood the instruction for spinning a fractal spun yarn and so I broke my dyed length of top in half horizontally, instead of splitting it vertically all the way down the centre. I then split one of my halves into three narrow sections to give me shorter colour changes.

The intention was to spin the three narrower tops, by which time I would have made the decision between Navajo or fractal spun yarn.


I had originally hoped that I would be able to spin it straight from the top, or from the fold, but as it was very matted I ended up having to tug wisps of fibres out and card it on hand carders. I was very careful to maintain the colour graduation by arranging it on the carder in the order that it came off the top.


After a bit of a rocky start, I managed to get into a bit of a carding rhythm, so I had a lovely neat row of rolags all ready for spinning, arranged in order. It's an obsessive handspinner's dream!


Here are the singles, spun on my Ashford Traveller. Once it had been hand carded, it actually spun up very well and I was able to spin a fairly fine yarn, albeit with a few felted slubs to give it that handspun charm.


Now, that I could see how long the colour sections were going to be, I decided that I would Navajo ply it as I wanted shorter colour changes. My intention is to knit a child's linen stitch scarf and I want to ensure that the yarn changes colour on every row at the very least.


This image above illustrates what can happen when you make the mistake of dividing the top in half horizontally and then spinning it independently of the second half.  The first two are spun from the first half of the hank and the second two are spun from the second half.  The two on the right have slightly richer, darker tones than the two on the left.  If I'd divided my tops into narrow sections lengthwise, all the way down the full length of the top, then these richer tones would be distributed throughout all of my yarn.


Despite the many mistakes I made in preparing my top, I'm still really pleased with how my yarn turned out and I can definitely understand why spinners love spinning from handpainted tops - there's something incredibly motivating and rewarding about spinning a yarn that constantly changes colours while you work it.  I will definitely be making another attempt at hand painting some more wool tops, especially now that I've got a much better idea of what I should have done.


There are of course many things that I would change -
  • Next time I think I'll try steaming the top to fix the dyes as I think that this will be much gentler on the wool and hopefully prevent it from felting - I could of course use superwash wool which would remove the risk of felting altogether.
  • I would turn the top half way through the steaming process to hopefully prevent some of the colours being richer than others.
  • I would leave my wool to cool down completely before I rinsed out any unabsorbed dye.
  • I would split my top all the way down the middle into narrow strips to get a more even distribution of colour in my finished yarn.
What do you think?  Is there anything else I should have done?  I'd love to know!



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1 comment:

Ley Holloway said...

What a beautiful result, I'm very jealous of your wheel!