Hand Spinning & Natural Dyeing - Sarah Matthess

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...