Wild Colours - Exciting colours from Natural Dyes
Failure to clean wool properly is one of the main reasons for not getting good colours from your dyes. Wool needs to be well scoured before it is dipped in the dye pot even if it has just been bought and looks clean. Scouring is much more than washing; when you scour you remove grease and oils from the fibre as well as dirt. To scour wool, fill a bowl with warm water (between 50 and 60 C), add some soap or washing up liquid and leave the wool to soak for two hours or overnight. Rinse carefully because agitating the wool or changes in temperature can cause the wool to mat together and to felt. Be even more careful if you are washing wool tops. Read the section below if you are washing fleece. If you are going to mordant your wool straight after washing, you may wish to weigh the wool whilst it is still dry.
It can be very exciting to deal with a fleece, especially one that you have received for free. Free fleeces can also be useful when you are learning to wash them, as you do not need to worry about mistakes. Mediocre fleeces, however, are not worth the time spent spinning them as they make very poor yarn.
Use rubber washing up gloves when handling a dirty fleece, and use separate utensils reserved just for this kind of work. First open your fleece out to sort it. Be very ruthless and put all the bad bits in your compost. Large amounts of wet wool are heavy and difficult to handle, so do not try to wash the whole fleece in one go. I wash a small amount of wool at a time, as I do not have much space to spread the fleece out to dry.
You will find several different ways of washing fleece; I will describe the one that works best for me.
When you are mordanting fibre, it is best to use no more than 10g of wool per litre of water. I usually use 100g of wool in a ten litre stock pot. Different authors suggest slightly different proportions of alum and cream of tartar. I use 8% of alum and 7% of cream of tartar in relation to the dry of weight of the wool. Too much alum, for example, more than 20%, can make the wool feel sticky.
Cream of Tartar is an ‘Assistant’ that increases the amount of alum absorbed by the wool. It can modify the final colour, especially with cochineal and madder. Proper Cream of Tartar (Potassium Bitartrate) should be used rather than the substitute (Sodium Pyrophosphate) commonly sold for cooking (buy Cream of Tartar here).
It is easier to dye wool as yarns wound in skeins. If you buy the wool as a skein or hank, untwist it if necessary and check that the ties are secure. If you spin the wool yourself, wind it in a skein using a niddy noddy, a skein winder or the back of a chair. To prevent tangling, tie the skein securely (with tight knots) using loose ties in a figure of eight in at least 4 places. Do not make the ties too tight, as the wool expands when wet and you might end up with a tie dye effect.
Note: In the past, I used to tie my handspun wool with garden string and throw the bits of string in the compost afterwards. Now I use more handspun wool or even silk thread for the ties. When I remove the ties, I use them for embroidery or card them with some fleece.
I find this is the best way to get a good colour as the open fibres facilitate mordant and dye penetration. I also find it more enjoyable to spin dyed wool rather than plain white. However, it is safer to dye fine and very fine wools after they have been spun into a yarn, to reduce the risk of felting and matting.
Note: If you spin wool, you might want to dye singles. In my experience singles tend to twist and turn and get a bit tangled up. I find it best to dye fleece in different colours, spin the different colours separately and then ply two or three colours together.
Knitted items can be difficult to dye. Bearing in mind that you need about 10 litres of dye liquid for 100g of fibre, a 500g knitted jumper would need a very large container indeed. On the other hand, a pair of socks weighing 100g or less is quite feasible to dye.
One reason people might want to dye a whole jumper is to cover a stain. I do not recommend doing that, as the stained area will still look a different colour after the jumper has been dyed. The stain may also act as a mordant or modifier, affecting the final colour.
It is difficult to dye fabric evenly, fabric is also very bulky and difficult to handle. It is easier to dye the yarn, and weave the fabric afterwards.
There is no reason to dye only white wool. I have obtained very good results dyeing grey Jacobs’ wool and brown Blue-faced Leicester. The colours are darker and more muted, but very beautiful.
If you become addicted to dyeing wool, you will quickly accumulate bags and bags of the stuff. I store my wool in pillow protectors kept inside cardboard boxes. I do not like storing wool in plastic bags.
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Updated on 28 November 2020
Website & photos by Mike Roberts ©2006-20 Wild Colours natural dyes