Hand Spinning & Natural Dyeing - Sarah Matthess

Friday, 2 October 2015

Never Say Dye

Autumn is here, Summer is over, Winter is coming...so whilst there are dye plants to be gathered in the lanes, I am into 'squirrel syndrome'. Gathering up as much of the fading Summer plant-colour as I possibly can before it's all gone. 

There's really no point in me trying to grow dye plants for a yellow dye because horsetail just grows everywhere around here. It's even poking up through my tarmac drive. I have no special recipe for this, and I've written about it before, but here we are again, a good old stand by at the end of the Summer.
No recipe as I said.  Just get a big pot of water on the boil, and stuff in as much as you can. When it starts to go limp and boil down a bit, I add more, and carry on adding more until the pot just won't take any more. Its free, so why not have a good deep yellow whilst you're at it?

I was pretty pleased with the yellow on this commercially spun sport-weight super wash merino.

Beech leaves were my next thought.  Last week the woods near my house looked like this. The colours are fading and changing quite quickly now, so there are probably only a few more days/week of gathering. 

Here's a bag full I gathered. I try to gather only a few from each tree. 

In for an over-night soak before boiling them.

This picture below is really interesting.  The 'locks' on the left are BFL lamb-locks (see on Etsy, )grown here in NI, and so soft you could make baby clothes with it. I love the subtle colour, but I love the butterscotch colour on the 4ply merino next to it too! (also on Etsy)  The difference? The 4ply was dyed with leaves from the woods above which are really damp as a river runs right by them. I gathered them 2 weeks ago.  The locks were dyed with leaves I gathered this week from much more mature trees and from a drier spot.  The dye bath for both looked equally deep, but I have slightly different hues from each. Interesting!

Here are some batts that I carded up this morning, onion skin at the top, beech leaves bottom left, and madder root waste, bottom right.

The weaving loom makes a great place to hang them all out

Ok, so you're saying to yourself 'I thought she knew how to spin'. I know this looks a bit of a mess as it is at present, but just you wait.  This is going to be a new super-soft, all natural dye, locks and coils and you name it, art-yarn. So ...watch this space.

Aren't the locks below just amazing? I'm not sure I want to spin these as they are so gorgeous on their own just to look at in a pile.  Onion skins and alum on BFL Lamb-locks (see the Etsy listing), Northern Ireland grown of course.  I'll be adding to this post later on when the above art-yarn is finished.

Tuesday: As promised, I'm adding to this post, and here's what I did with those yummy locks shown above... (and a lot of other stuff)....
This is around 3-5wpi, depending where it's wrapped. Lots of locks, all very soft, from the Blue Faced Leicester, grown here in N Ireland.  I have incorporated my onion skin dye, madder root and beech leaves to creat this yarn.

Spinning this was made all the easier by the acquisition of a new bulky flier for my Kromski Symphony from Ann at Spinwise  Thanks Ann! It works great, well packaged and arrived promptly.

I'm adding to the above post today, October 17th, 2015, the art yarn below is spun entirely from naturally dyed fibre, mainly the horsetail dye bath above, also logwood, and naturally coloured BFL. Teeswater locks, silk and merino as well.  A really soft yarn, bulky, and mixed super coil, spiral ply and lock spinning.
Picture below shows the olive green I got from the horsetail, pictured next to naturally coloured merino so you can see the contrast. I also obtained 2 other shades of yellow in the yarn above. These yarns are in my shop.


Monday, 14 September 2015


'Blue Bubbles' is the name of my latest yarn. It's a core spun single with an auto-wrap of white lurex.  If you have never tried this technique then look it up on youtube, where it is demonstrated by a number of different spinners.

I have found that this yarn needs to be spun on the largest whorl setting that the wheel has so that the speed of spinning is as slow as possible.  I first carded up a big pile of drum carded art-batts full of every available shade of blue and purple wool, merino and soya fibre that I had in my stash, incorporating a very small amount of hot pink merino, and pale pink soya silk.  I then divided the batts up into long thin strips.

I spun the strips onto the core, which was a thin commercially spun woollen thread.  Just a word about the core, it needs first to be run through the spinning wheel to give it over-twist, because the next stage of spinning the batt onto it is going in the opposite direction, which 'unspins' the core.  If you don't want your core to fall apart on you, try over spinning it first so that when you start treadling in the opposite direction, it doesn't 'undo'.

At the same time I had a spool of fine soft lurex yarn on the floor directly under the orifice of the wheel. I attached that and it wrapped itself into the yarn as I spun. It wraps randomly, and you don't hold on to it, it just wraps away on it's own, giving this lovely random wild look.

A tip on auto wrapping is as follows; if you are spinning the yarn below the orifice the auto wrap will always head down hill towards where you are spinning.  If you spin above the orifice, the auto wrap will head back towards the spinning wheel.  Experiment with this because you will get a different look each way.  I chose to alternate up and down continually, so that the lurex was more random.  When it heads down towards your spinning hands it will tend to get caught up in the batt that is spinning onto the core thread.  That is good because it sometimes just disappears! Then it reappears again later on and that's just adding to the random look. 

A further word on auto wrap thread.  You can experiment with colours, but I like the spun fibres to show.  If I auto wrap with a dark thread, the eye goes to that dark colour and it overpowers the fibres underneath. 

This yarn is up on etsy in 45gram skeins. It's really soft, being about 50% merino and perhaps 20% soya silk. All hand-dyed, and some of it from local sheep. In my opinion, I see this in a woven scarf. If no one grabs it, that's where it will end up!!

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Regular Irregularity

'Clover Fields' Art Yarn

I came up with 'Clover Fields' as a name because this yarn reminds me of Autumn colours, with those lingering pink flowers that are still blooming around me in County Armagh. Subtle shades at this time of year, the 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'. What an amazing morning it is here. There' s the hint of morning mist in the air as the sun is rising.  I can see a number of Conker trees on the horizon that are just beginning to turn colour. They are always the first to change to autumn shades here.

If you want to really know what is going to happen to your fibre when you dye it, then reach for your bottle of Kemtex.

But I was after the natural soft colours.  Having read about getting pink from woad seed, I decided to have a go. The seed 'crop' on my woad plants was nothing short of amazing. I harvested them a wee bit early because I didn't want millions of woad seedlings popping up everywhere.  So I hung the plants in the barn for a few weeks to thoroughly dry out the seed as I planned to save some of it for later.

The seeds with the dye value are the black ones. I'm holding a few unripe 'white' seeds above the bowl of black seeds in the picture below so you can see the difference.  Drying out the seeds does not change the colour. They need to be black when you harvest them.

I harvested 4 plants for this purpose, and there were far more seeds on those 4 plants than I could use, so the surplus went into a half-gallon jar for next time.

I had plans for a new art-yarn and I had it in my head what I wanted it to look like! A medley of earth tones with pastel pink highlights.  Merino really isn't a terribly strong fibre for a garment, it just felts so quickly.  But we can't get away from the softness it brings to a yarn, and this is the wool that everyone wants to wear. My answer to the problem is to mix it with soft lambs wool fleece. I find this makes a good soft blend and a stronger wearing yarn.
Pictures below are the actual sheep I got the wool from that is used in this project.  This is a mixed breed, but surprisingly it had a really soft fleece!

I selected the softest bits and adding about 50/50 merino....
I soaked it for about an hour in warm water with a 'glug' of vinegar, I then pre-mordanted the wool in Alum and cream of tartar.
Now back to my other pot on the stove....After an hour of simmering the seeds, the dye value in the water was quite deep.  Not even remotely 'pink' but it looked promising! I strained off the seeds, adding them to the compost heap. Usually I save dye-matter for a further experiment, but I felt I had extracted as much from the seeds as I was going to get.
Not a great picture below, but it gives the idea. This is what it looked like after an hour of simmering the wool in the woad-seed dye that had been pre-mordanted with Alum (as above) .

I have to report that even after a modifier dip, this yarn remained in the earth hues, and did not turn pink. What a disappointment. I left it to cool over night in the dye bath.  All is not lost though as I really like the earth tone! It was a shade I didn't have, so I decided to introduce the pink I was after by dyeing some soya silk with chemical dye. I do that in the microwave as it's super easy.

I decided for this 2-ply bulky art-yarn to spin both threads.  Sometimes I ply an art-yarn with a commercial cotton but I was after a particular look so my first spun thread was going to be a mixture of everything: this yarn dyed with woad seed, another mixture of onion skin dye and madder root dye on Romney fleece, some carded bamboo, the pink soya silk, novelty yarn and embroidery floss.

In the short clip below, you can see 3 filled spools in the fore-ground.  They are the thicker thread made from the things I just mentioned.  In this clip, I'm blending and carding the woad seed dyed wool with soya silk for the other finer thread that I plan to ply the textured one with. I'm using an old Barnett drum carder and a soft bristled hair brush to burnish.  It works well enough.

After spinning the finer thread, here's another clip of me plying them.  I'm working as much texture into this yarn as I can. It takes more time, but I love the random results.  Some spinners call these bits of texture 'cocoons'.  You might call them that.  I prefer my yarn to be a little more random, I like to call it a Saori Spin!!

A few pictures below of the finished yarn.  It's up on Etsy, and there are 4 skeins available, each one weighs just over 90 grams. It would knit up well on 6-8mm needles, or would be a great textured addition to a weaving project.

It was not until I reviewed this blog article that I realised how much went into the production of a skein of yarn.  How much sunshine on the plants, tilling the soil, adding manure to improve the soil, the selection of seedling plants, harvesting roots, and gathering of dye material. Feeding the sheep, pasturing them, and protecting the wee lambs from the fox. What about the sheering tools? And I know nothing about the soya and bamboo fibre production, nor how I have a bottle of alum on my shelf! The Barnett drum carder and Kromski spinning wheel are made by craftsmen, as were my Clemes and Clemes hand-carders. An awful lot of labour..all to produce skeins of yarn for us to do yet more creating with. Watch this space...

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Summer Weaving

Willow is in it's full glory in mid-August, and especially so this Summer due to the amount of rain- fall we have had in Northern Ireland this year. In fact, it's doing really well indeed.  The wonderful thing about willow is its versatility.  I grow a few different species including a bio-mass willow that puts on 10ft in one year. That willow is usually destined for fencing projects and for making wig-wham style pea-stands and

The willow is all cut in January when the leaves have fallen.  I grade and bundle it, and stand in an airy shed for a slow drying out process.  The willow has to then be soaked for a week before using it. However, on fencing projects like this one, I do not soak it because the amount of bend that I put in each willow is not enough to break it.  It's only on smaller projects like baskets, obelisks and wreaths that the willow would have to be pre-soaked before using.

I decided to make a wind break this week.  I staked out my fence line by driving posts into the ground about every 18 to 20" from each other.  This was all very unscientific, I 'eyeballed' the whole thing, and went round the corner at the end, so the weaving would follow it in a curve.

It doesn't look like anything to start with, but as the weaving builds, and is packed down, it starts to take shape.
Back to the barn for a few more bundles...this type of project takes an awful lot of willow!
The first few layers of weaving were using the bio-mass willow which is really hefty stuff putting on an amazing amount of growth each year. It takes really good secateurs to cut through it.
After completing the wind-break to the height I wanted, I simply sawed off the tops of the posts...
And you can just see from this picture my 'round the corner' weaving, to make it easier to mow on the other side.
The asparagus bed has been severely hit by the prevailing westerly wind this Summer, so this should help.

 In constructing a woven fence, I start at one end and weave back and forth until I have worked my way to the other end, and then working from that end, I come back again. That way the weaving builds up more evenly.  A really good pair of secateurs is essential for this, and for the heavy willow ratchet secateurs are even better.  I never have enough of the really heavy willow for the fences that I would love to build, so I finished the top of this wind-break with a slightly lighter willow, doubled up, weaving 2 at a time.

Christmas wreaths were my next willow project this week.  It's lovely to work outdoors in the Summer. I had the willow soaked up for a week in my home-made willow soaking vat, so it was ready to go and nice and supple. 

These are now up on Etsy, and I've posted more about how they were made up there!
If you want to check out some really lovely Co. Armagh basket making, see Greenwood Baskets website. Alison Fitzgerald is a perfectionist and her baskets are second to none.