I’m exhibiting at Unravel at the weekend and I’m very excited about it. I made my debute as a natural dyer at Unravel last year so it will be lovely to see and chat to everyone again. I thought I’d give you a preview of all the gorgeous naturally dyed yarn I’ll be bringing with me.
Of course, I’ll have my wonderful Bluefaced Leicester sock wool, Impudent, in myriad colours, including some gorgeous new saxon indigo blues, cochineal pinks, and a very regal purple. Plus there will be old favourites like Rhubarb and Custard, for those who missed out last year.
And there will be 4 ply mini skeins galore dyed in all the colours of the rainbow; in fact, I’ve dyed some special rainbow mini packs just for the show. These are a very limited edition run (and have taken so long to pull together, it’s probable that they will never be repeated!) so if you would like one, you’ll need to be quick.
Also available for the first time are mini skeins in a gorgeous “Blue Tit” colourway.
I’ll also be introducing my lovely new yarn, Gloh. Gloh is a gorgeous soft, bouncy corridale double knit(250m/100g), which I adore knitting with. It has fabulous stitch definition and makes the most beautiful cables I’ve ever seen and, of course, it meets my British milled requirements. I adored knitting my Tsubaki Pullover and Gloh was a big part of that enjoyment. I’ll have my Tsubaki Pullover on display on the stand and sweater quantities available in some of the Gloh colours in case you feel inspired to create your own. And, if there is a colour you fall in love, which I don’t have a sweater quantity available for, I’ll be taking orders. And the best news is that if you buy or order a sweater quantity at the show, you’ll be able to take advantage of a special show offer – each skein will only be £12 rather than the £15 regular price.
Gloh also forms the colour in my Winter Suns yarn packs. Each pack contains 300 grams of my Venturous 4ply, a gentle undyed grey made by mixing together Bluefaced Leicester and Masham at the mill, and 50 grams each of the 3 colours of Gloh I made my own shawl with. Again, these yarn packs are a limited edition so, if you would like one, you’ll need to be focused!
My other new yarn is Whirl, another bouncy corridale, expertly spun in Britain in a handspun style. Each skein is a whopping 250g of squishy squooshy-ness. It knits up as a chunky weight, so each skein goes a long way. I’ve been knitting a cowl from a single skein this week, which will be on the stand, and it’s been super fun. It’s a very forgiving yarn so is great for beginners or those whose tension may be less than consistent. And it produces a fresh modern looking fabric making it ideal for all the teenagers in your life.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this preview and look forward to seeing you at the show x
You’d be surprised how often I hear this sort of statement. I always really, really want to ask the person making the statement what manner of material they think merino is. But I am usually too polite to do this and just say something like “Oh that’s a shame”.
I do understand. I really do. I totally get it that if you live in a centrally heated house, and are going to wear your sweater, like the magazine and pattern models do, next to your bare torso, you’ll need it to be knitted with something that doesn’t constantly prickle you. I get that. I was a child in the 1970s so I know the torment of 100% wool polo neck sweaters from those days.
But the reason why I think “oh that’s a shame” when someone tells me they can only wear merino, is that I believe they are missing out. We have such a rich heritage of wool in Britain, bourn out of a temperate climate and varied landscape (72 different breeds of sheep!), that it’s a pity they can only wear a product almost entirely imported from the Southern Hemisphere.
Whilst there are a very small number of Merino sheep in the UK, the odds are, any merino you currently have in your wardrobe, comes from Australia (circa 80% of global production comes from this country), South Africa (c10%), South America (c7% of which the majority is from Argentina) and New Zealand (c3%). British merino doesn’t even feature in global merino production statistics. In short, British Merino is a very rare thing indeed.
So, what of our rich wool producing heritage? Why does it matter that we have a temperate climate and varied landscape? Simply put, sheep breeds are specially adapted to survive in the varied climatic conditions found throughout the UK; the hardy hill sheep is a very different animal to the pampered lowland sheep. I’m intending to write a blog post explaining the stratified system of sheep farming and how efficient it is in terms of land management and when I do you’ll find it here. Those climate and landscape adaptations are reflected in the wool the animal produces, with some wools being much warmer than others; Ryeland, for example, is particularly toasty. Some wool, like Dorset Horn, has springiness so is good for hats and socks where a degree of natural elasticity is a boon. Some, like Blue Faced Leicester and Wensleydale have a beautiful lustrous, almost silk like, quality to their wool and drape beautifully. Some, like Shetland, have a natural toothiness (where the fibres cling together), which makes it excellent for colour work. Some, like Jacob, are incredibly hard wearing, without being rough, meaning you’ll get years of use from any garment knitted in such a fibre. Jacob is excellent for things that are not going to be treated kindly, like Dad and Brother hats (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m referring to my relatives here. Your male relative may well be much more concerned for their apparel than mine).
Wool craft, at its most elemental, is about taking a natural resource, and turning it into a useful garment. Choosing a wool with appropriate qualities for the garment in question is as essential an element to its success as picking the correct weight of yarn and achieving the correct tension, but this aspect is so often overlooked. If, for example, you choose Merino for your socks, without the addition of nylon, you are going to find them fairly short lived. But Blue Faced Leicester is still smooth enough to be worn by most people against the skin and when it is spun with a high twist, it will cope with wear very well, without needing nylon. And for tougher socks, like walking boot socks, or welly boot socks, why not consider a Dorset Horn or Jacob.
Once you understand this, the idea that you would only ever consider using one type of wool for all garments seems nonsensical.
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So, if you’ve only ever knitted with merino, but want to explore further and enhance your knitting experience, what do you do?
My advice is always to first try Blue Faced Leicester. This is the softest of our British breed wools and isn’t a huge challenge if you’re used to Merino. If you are ok with that, then next, maybe try a Cheviot, or a Ryeland wool.
When you are at a wool show, don’t be overly guided by how the wool feels in the skein. How the wool feels when it’s in the skein is almost irrelevant (unless your thing is just to adorn yourself with the skeins, and then who am I to judge?). The important thing is how it feels when it’s been worked, so ask to feel a sample of the knitted or crocheted fabric. Hold the sample against your skin to warm it up. Even if there is an initial sensation, it usually passes after a minute or two once the fibre has warmed. And believe me, yarn dyers would much rather you rubbed your make up all over the sample than all over a skein, if you are wanting to test irritability!
Don’t get too fixated on knitting a garment with a new to you breed or dyer. Maybe just buy a single skein and knit a swatch. Then wash, block and wear the swatch (under your bra strap or in the waist band of your skirt, on your hip, or under your jumper on your wrist), then wash block and wear again. It’s only after repeated washing and wearing that you’ll know how your skin reacts to the wool. Louise Scollay at Knit British has an excellent regular Wool Exploration section on her podcast and this is an abbreviated version of the method she suggests. Check out the Wool Exploration episode from 30th December 2018 for a detailed explanation.
Once you know how the wool works for you and how it feels texture wise after washing and wearing, you’ll know what sort of garment it is suited to, and can then invest in a suitable pattern and quantity of yarn.
Finally, you might also like to check out The Woolist for more information of all the different breed woods. Zoe’s story really is rather wonderful and her online database of sheep and fleece is an amazing resource. You also really need one of her sheep breed tea towels in your kitchen.
I know that many of you are sad that the fabulous gals behind Wovember aren’t running it as an organised campaign any longer. However, knitters and crocheters are still celebrating all the woolly goodness this month and, in recognition of that, I have a coupon running for 25% off all my non naturally dyed British wool. If you click here the coupon should be automatically applied when you checkout.
Coupon runs until I decide to stop it, or the stock runs out. Naturally dyed yarn is NOT included in the coupon offer.
Kingfishers have arrived on the river by my little mill house. You hear them first, with their noisy chatter, then, if you are lucky, there is a flash of wonderful blue green wings. I keep trying to get a photograph but they are really speedy and I’ve not been lucky yet. But they are such a treat, and their gorgeous colouring has inspired me to dye this sock kit.
The kit contains a main colour and a contrast colour for heels, toes and cuffs. The wool is Blue Faced Leicester and is soft but strong and the high twist on this skein makes them excellent for socks.
Then I realised that sock kits are a joy in themselves, so I dyed up another in gorgeous yellow and grey, to reflect the weather I’m currently experiencing (and if you have visions of me dashing back and forth to the washing line to get my drying yarn in, every time it comes over dark and stormy, then you aren’t too far off the mark ⛈)
And the last colourway is inspired by the metals in Megan and Harry’s wedding rings, gold and platinum. I often look at my own wedding ring and am reminded of the promises I made to my husband, and those he made to me, and as we watched Megan and Harry exchanging their vows on the TV last Saturday, he reached over and gave my hand a little squeeze, and I knew he remembered our promises too.
So, if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook (and if not, why not?) you’ll have seen that I’ve been trying out natural plant dyes. And it’s been really good fun. There is something amazing about watching the dye seep out of plant matter and then see it transfer onto your wool.
I’ve tried to do this before – without much success but following a chat with Rita from Hedgeknits at Flockfest, I decided to give it another go. Rita recommended I buy some litmus papers so I could test the pH of my tap water. We live in a hardish water area and have a water softener and it hadn’t occurred to me this would have an impact on my dyeing result, but, low and behold, it did.
What’s your pH?
So, for most plant based dyes, a gentle alkaline medium is best. If I’ve totally thrown you by that statement, panic not! Your water can be made acidic, neutral or alkaline, depending on what is added to it. So first up, fill a pan with water and test it with litmus paper. Litmus paper comes in little strips and you simply dip a strip in your water and it changes colour to tell you the pH. You compare the colour to the chart that comes with the papers. My litmus paper was yellow (it comes in other colours) and so, yellow is neutral, orange through to red is acidic, and green through to blue is alkaline. You are aiming for mid green.
Now it’s time to raid the larder. If your water is acidic or neutral, you’ll need to add bicarbonate of soda to make it more alkaline. If its much too alkaline, then you need to add white vinegar or citric acid, to bring it back more towards neutral. My water is only very slightly alkaline and this probably accounted for my previous natural dyeing failures, so I added some bicarbonate of soda, a spoonful at a time, testing after each spoonful, until I got a good green on the litmus paper.
Making the dye solution
Once you have a gentle alkaline ph, pop in your plant material. In my case, I used avocado pits and skins. I’d been saving these up for a while – each time we ate an avocado, I’d wash the stone and skins in cold water to get any remaining flesh off , leave them to dry, split the stone with a heavy sharp knife (keeping fingers and thumbs well out of way) and then pop it all in the freezer. Once I had the stones and skins of 6 or 7 avocados, and was ready to dye, I took the box out of the freezer to defrost. Once defrosted, I added the stones and skins to my water and gently heated it on the hob. Pretty quickly the stones began to exude the most gorgeous pink colouring. I simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes, then left it for a couple of hours to cool. Then I strained the dye solution, discarded the stone and pits and put the dye solution back in the pan.
Soaking the wool
Meanwhile I soaked my wool in some more water until it was thoroughly saturated. I also soaked some wool in some water with added bicarbonate of soda (remember my tap water isn’t very alkaline) and this did result in a slightly stronger uptake of colour.
The very great advantage with dyeing with avocados is that you don’t need to mordant your fibre before you dye. This is because are high in tannin. A mordant is just a chemical agent that helps the dye stick to the fibre.
To dye, I simply placed the wool into the pan containing the dye solution (making sure there was enough liquid to cover the wool), gently heated again to simmering point, turn off the heat and leave to cool (leave over night for a deeper colour, if you have the patience), rinse the wool and Voilà!
After my avocado success, I repeated the process with dock leaves. These produce the most wonderful bright yellows through to golden browns depending on heat, pH and whether or not I’d mordanted the wool with alum or just soaked it in water.
I’d say a willingness to experiment and allowing in some serendipity – not having a shade or tone fixed in your mind – are key to successful natural dyeing. It’s better to love what you produce rather than feel dissatisfied when your results don’t match your expectations.
There is also a beautiful subtle quality to the colour of naturally dyed yarn. Because the tone is generally more muted than those produced from acid dyeing with synthetic dye (see my blog post here about starting to acid dye) they seem to naturally co-ordinate with each other. I can see that there will be lots more natural dyeing in my future.
I think I’ll try nettles next (but I need rubber gloves and some copper sulphate first), then coffee, rose, and onion skins, and lots, lots more!
My first purchase was a gorgeous giant skein of Corriedale chunky from Hedgeknits. My stand was next to Rita’s stand and I’d spotted this giant heap of woolly gorgeousness pretty early on, but was trying to restrain myself. But it’s naturally dyed, and I kept seeing other people pick it up and I couldn’t bear the thought of it going home with someone else AND it goes really well with the purple skein I bought when I last visited Flock on the Plain, so I caved and it has come home with me.
I also bought some funky vintage purple buttons from the lovely display by Hailstone Heritage which will go brilliantly as decoration on the garment I intend to make from the Hedgeknits yarn.
My next purchase was from Mahoodly and I just love the depth of Becca’s colours. I bought a gorgeous deep dark blue 4 ply and a brighter blue mini Skein which will become rib socks with contrasting heel and toe.
I spent a long time mesmerised by Girl’s Own Store’s sock knitting machine. It was a wonder to beyond and I would really love one. But alas, the budget won’t stretch that far and so, instead, I bought a pair of her super cosy socks dyed with onion skins.
From Woolaroo, I bought some lovely balls of Shetland wool which are from a flock near her home and hand spun by a lady living in the village. Such precious wool. I don’t have a project in mind but I think Knit British is going to have a Natural Shades KAL later this year so I’ll save these balls up for that.
I also swopped a skein of my Radical 4ply for this lovely Bonnie Prince Charlie yarn from Somerset Soda. Just look at those colours! I don’t have a project for this yet. I might pair it up with other skeins in my stash and make one of Boyland Knitworks gorgeous sweaters.
So, quite a modest haul by my standards. Did you make any purchases on Yarn Shop Day?
So, it’s Yarn Shop Day tomorrow (Saturday 12th May) and I’m exhibiting, along with lots of other dyers and purveyors of buttons etc, at Flockfest at Flock on the Plain in Woodbury in Wiltshire. To say I’m excited, is to significantly understate how I’m feeling.
I thought I’d give you all a preview of some of the hand dye British wool I’m taking with me.
I have totally fallen I love with these Blue Faced Leicester sock weight mini skeins. They are such a lovely pop of colour. They are 80 meters/20g each and are sold in sets of five. They are spun with a high twist so are perfect for socks.
I’m also taking a Blue Faced Leicester/Nylon Sock weight mix with me. Basically this is for the Nervous Nellies who don’t believe a yarn is strong enough for socks without nylon (although I do love it too and am making socks from it at the moment). This is also spun with a high twist and is sold in 100g hanks.
I’m also taking my Audacious base in DK and 4ply weights. This Wensleydale yarn has such a lovely lustre and I particularly love the ply on the 4ply weight. It will be lovely made into shawls. Both the DK and the 4ply are sold in 100g hanks.
Lastly, this is my Saucy DK base. This yarn come from Dorset Horn sheep, a breed listed as threatened on the Livestock Conservancy watchlist, so I’m particularly excited to be showing this. I just can’t describe how well this yarn takes a dye. Look at the pics to see what I mean. I’ve just dyed up a few skeins of this yarn currently but I plan to dye up a some sweater quantities as I think it will make lovely garments.
So, if you are local to Woodborough in Wiltshire do come and squish the yarn. It will be lovely to see you.