The Yarn Office, The Post Office, and Fleece Washing

Over the last week or so, I’ve been super-busy. My knitting friends have been encouraging me for a long time (trust me: for at least a year) to start a shop, if not a brick-and-mortar yarn shop, then a shop on etsy, or really, someplace online. A brick-and-mortar yarn shop seems like a pretty high risk endeavor right now; several local-ish yarn shops have disappeared over the last few years: Capital Yarns and With Yarn in Front both in Chantilly I think, Eleganza in Frederick, MD, and at least 2 others (I’m too lazy to go dig up the thread on Ravelry). I can’t tell you how many people, not just in Loudoun Needleworkers, have longed for a local-er yarn shop. If FibreSpace in old town Alexandria ever decides to open a satellite store, my knitting group dearly hopes it will be all the way out here in Loudoun.

Not being such an entrepreneur type and being rather skittish about things like accounting, I have been procrastinating since June, when I vowed to make this yarn/fiber/artsy thing work. At Shenandoah Fiber Festival, Lisa, one of my LNW friends who’s been encouraging me for a while now, was as excited as I was about the fleeces I bought and told me she couldn’t wait to see what I did with them. Of course, a month passed before I even blogged about SVFF or did more with the fleece than move them out of my way. Last Wednesday, at our regular mid-week meet-up, Lisa told me about the project she had in mind for a batt from me. She had a project. She needed wool. She wanted to buy wool from me! What more could she do except come to my house, force money on me, and make off with wool? So, I started an etsy shop called The Yarn Office, what Ethan, my middle son, called the living room after I took it over with my spinning wheel, knitting books, etc.

So far, I don’t have much in the shop, just some batts that I made last spring, when another knitting friend, Jenni, let me borrow her drum carder to make a few batts. A week or two later, I made a few batts using my own carder, which Mr. Q surprised me with on Mother’s Day or my birthday (both in early May). I did finish the batts for Lisa, she’s purchased them, and I have those two initial sales to someone that I know & like and who will be able to give me feedback (or leeway) if something is wrong with the batts! And if something *is* wrong, I’ll be able to fix it super-quick without having to deal with the dreaded Post Office (of doom). I hate the PO, though of course I’ll be doing some desensitizing therapy in the form of shipping any orders I get by going to the actual building. (Yes, it’s silly that I have a Post Office thing, but there it is.)

I am cleaning fleece like a crazy lady. Well, really, just a lady with a purpose. I’ve used two methods so far on the cormo fleece, which is pretty greasy (but cormo! so worth it!). The first, the lock-by-lock method that Beth Smith of the Spinning Loft showed Jenni and I at the 2010 Spinning Loft Spring Retreat. It involves washing each lock individually using a bar of Fels Naptha (no, it doesn’t contain naptha – they should possibly consider renaming the product). This method was excellent for getting some of the super dirty locks clean, except the water I was using wasn’t hot enough to remove the lanolin and the batt I made from that wool was a little greasier than what I’d like.

The second method is the tulle roll technique also mentioned/shown/described during the Spinning Loft Retreat and detailed by Beth in Knitty’s Winter 2008 issue. Yesterday afternoon (Halloween!) I made rolls just like Beth’s but instead of using tulle, I used some more flexible white netting from some curtains I got a while ago (the curtain story is a post all by itself). Today, I washed the rolls. I filled up two buckets with really hot water, one with some non-enzyme-containing detergent (Ecos Liquid Laundry Detergent, which I bought at Costco while feeling guilty about my carbon footprint but not guilty enough to apply the elbow grease required to get it to work as well as Tide), the other with clean water. And away I washed. It went reasonably well, except that a few of the rectangles used to make the rolls were more like uneven parallelograms and some of the locks escaped. It could have been worse – most of them were still attached by a few fibers to their neighbors and I was able to keep everything together until it was time to dry them. I think for my next washing session, I’m going to use hot water, rubber gloves (with lotion on, killing 2 birds with one stone), and the Fels Naptha.

More soon (Thursday, if I’m with-it) on dying with mushrooms, pokeberries, bittersweet, and indigo. (I used indigo on the freshly-washed locks today, but indigo requires a post of its’ own.)


This is not a rant. Nor another exposition on going off the deep end and finding my way back (or up out of the depression hole). It’s also not about The Yellow Wallpaper, an incredible short story by Charlotte Perkins Gillman that you should read if you haven’t. This post is about my recent dye experiment with some madder root (Rubia tinctorum) that I got from Earth Guild‘s booth at Maryland Sheep and Wool (MDSW) all the way back in May.

The weekend before MDSW, I had finished taking a dye class at the Art League of Alexandria with Steph & Alana and while we had talked about madder, we hadn’t dyed with it. I didn’t even have a dye book and had just started keeping up with online natural dye groups. In the Earth Guild booth, I picked up things I knew I’d need: their Natural Dyes starter kit, which includes basic mordants and Rita Adrosko’s Natural Dyes and Home Dying, some dyes that sounded familiar (madder root and cutch extract) just in case my plans for using plant material in my yard didn’t work out.

After SVFF at the end of September, where I bought 4 fleeces, I decided I needed to process the fiber I already had from the previous spring, when Jenni talked me into splitting 4 fleeces from Willow Hawk Farm. Talking me into more fleece really didn’t take too much effort since I had already decided to buy a fleece and splitting 4 instead of having one meant more breeds to experiment with and learn about. Anyway – Steph and I had already mordanted some of that fleece, Elizabeth’s fleece (she’s a white merino), with alum, so I decided to use that for my madder experiment.

I checked a lot of places for directions and recipes before I got started. I do this with baking too in the hopes that I will have better results and less trial & error. Rita (Adrosko in Natural Dyes and Home Dying) lists several recipes, 2 close to the color I was hoping to get (laquer red), one with a 2:1 wool:dyestuffs ratio, the other at 1:1. Jenny Dean, in Wild Color, recommends a 1:1 ratio but cautions against raising the dye bath temperature too high since that will dull the reds toward a brown range. I turned to Ravelry next; several discussions in the two natural dye groups recommended keeping the temperature of the dye bath below 150° and adding calcium.

I started with 2oz of madder (I know, not that much at all). It looked like this right out of in the container:


I dropped it, along with 2 Ultra 1000 Tums (don’t judge: there’s a lot of acid tummy at my house), cooked it at 140°ish for 6 hours, and let it cool overnight. The next day, I put the madder in cheese cloth and got to see the peachy dye bath:


I had a feeling my results weren’t exactly going to be red, but I was hoping for a deep orange. I added 78g (2.75oz) of wool I prepped by teasing (cleaning, really) with the teasing board that came with my drum carder, so my ratio of wool:dye was 78:56, a little over 1:1. Forging ahead, I took this at some point during the 4 hours the wool was in the dye bath (again, kept at around 140°):

Madder Dye Bath 

While that was cooking, I prepped more fiber, this time fiber Steph and I pre-mordanted with alum. I’d gotten so much VM (vegetable matter – bits of grass and sticks and burrs) and second cuts (the sheerer goes back & cuts more off the sheep after already sheering some off) out of the wool I’d prepped the day before that I realized pre-prepping the wool was well-worth it so I wouldn’t waste any natural dye material on, well, natural material that was going to get tossed anyway. I also can’t just take clean fleece and pop it onto the drum carder and expect a lovely batt to come off of it; the fiber has to be teased out and layered onto the carder in conservatively thin layers or else you’ll end up with nupps/pills and patches of uneven, wonky fiber.

So. The next morning, when I pulled the wool out of the dye bath, the results were more peachy-orange than I had expected:


So much so, that I tried messing with the acidity of the bath by dipping samples in vinegar (top right), ammonia (bottom right), and the lichen vat (ammonia, basically, bottom left). Ammonia definitely made the color deeper, but more toward peachy-pink, so I decided to leave this batch as-is:


But I still had more prepped wool and a partially-used dye bath. What’s a girl to do but dump something else in? I had 60g of ground safflower (petals, I assume) that I got from that SVFF vendor who’s receipt I should’ve saved. I read Jenny Dean’s safflower instructions – the petals contain a yellow dye that should be extracted and strained before heating the dye material more to extract red & pink dyes. To do this right would take another dye bath and at least another day; having already spent how many days on this project? I just threw caution to the wind and dumped the entire 60g directly into the bath with the madder still in the cheesecloth. I cooked it for another hour or two, still keeping it below 140°, and added the wool (64g, so about 1:1 ration of wool:dye), cooked it longer (my note-taking lagged at this point), let it cool overnight and what I got was not what I expected or hoped for:
Left to right: unmordanted merino + madder, alum-mordanted merino + madder & safflower, cotton cheesecloth. When I added the safflower, the cheesecloth immediately began sucking up the pink colors. I had really high hopes that the wool would as well, but alas. I think these orange colors will blend well with the yellows that I got from the butterfly bush; I just need to do some carding and see what I come up with.
I still have the madder roots. On Monday I had the dye blender out (an extra regular blender that will now only be used for inedible stuff) to pulverize some bittersweet berries (a member of the nightshade family & poisonous, use with caution) and decided to blend up a madder smoothie (for dying, not drinking) also. There’s definitely more pigment in the roots; the water went from a murky peach to a deep reddish brown. I also still have the avocado peels from earlier in the summer and have been thinking about making a combined dye-bath.
I confess I’ve also been thinking about using Jacquard Acid Dyes. It would be nice to know, with a lot more certainty, what color I’m going to get. But that will come with time and practice, right? Using acid dyes won’t really be so much of a chemistry experiment either, just a color experiment. Making decisions is agonizing. I think I just need to focus on working with the supplies I’ve got; I didn’t really set out to become an indy dyer, just to see what I can do with what’s available to me. And though the madder & safflower (and the cutch) technically weren’t readily available to me, at least they were natural/close to their original form and not synthesized in a lab.

I’m Lichen Dying

I’m liking dying & puns and lichen dying. I tried dying with lichen this past spring but didn’t take any pictures of my results. Until now, that is:

lichen dying - May results

On the left is the iron-mordanted sample, on the right: alum. I know, the results aren’t that spectacular. It turns out that mid-May isn’t such a great time for collecting lichen in my backyard. Early August is better and I’ve started another lichen vat with more material with the hope that I will get better results this time around.

Lichen is a fungus that contains photosynthetic cells – it’s a combination plant-fungus (go ahead: read more about it on wikipedia or and the U.S. Forest Service knowing that I did too).

Okay. So here’s what I did in May and again a couple weeks ago: I collected lichen from trees in my back yard, mainly oaks and mainly this lichen (it’s the green not-leaf-or-grass thing in the following picture):


which also looks like this:


Or maybe they’re more than one type of lichen; I’m no lichenologist, but the pale green one in the second picture is obviously a different kind of lichen (I collected the darker green one, but not the deep green moss that’s also in the picture). I left as much of the lichen growing as I could – more than 50% – when I picked it off the bark because they’re so slow-growing. Also, if you’re going to collect lichen, make sure that you’re not picking a rare/endangered one.

Next, I took the lichen – maybe a tablespoon of it, if that – and put it in a canning jar (forever more only to be used for dye projects) with ammonia. Instead of ammonia from a bottle, you could use fermented urine, but I’m not that hard-core (yet):


I took the first picture yesterday, which was a cloudy day but you can still see the neon greenish yellow of my ammnoia (Parson’s Ammonia, I think). The second picture was taken less than a minute after combining the lichen and ammonia on August 6. I conclude from the fast color results that no matter what species of lichen, you should know within an hour or two – definitely within a day – if you’ve got a lichen that will give you color. By the way, the first time I did this, I had about 1/8 of the amount of lichen shown.

Next: twice a day for a week, open the container to air it out a bit & get some oxygen in, close it again, and shake it. After that, air & shake once a day, or when you remember that you’ve got a lichen vat going. I ended up transferring my vat to a larger glass jar, one that used to have black cherry juice in it. This is important because soon after I did that, Mr. Q asked me why I’d taken the label off of the cherry juice and why was I keeping the cherry juice on the windowsill over the kitchen sink. (I should have labeled it, I know.) After almost 3 weeks, the vat is so dark, it looks like prune juice or coffee that’s been neglected in a glass carafe on a burner for half a day; I had to hold it up to a light to get a decent picture of the color:


And shaken, not stirred:


I haven’t decided when I’m going to dye with this vat. In May, I was impatient and only let the vat ferment for 2 or 3 weeks. Tomorrow will mark the 3rd week for this one, which still seems like not-long-enough considering results that other people have gotten, some of which look as purple as cochineal. I have hopes that I’ll get something darker than my first test, but doubt that I’ll get results as vibrant as cochineal.

Dying with Black Beans

Dying with black beans? Really?

Yes. Really. I read it on the internet. And I have a friend who tried it (hookedferret/silverdragon). And I’ve seen pictures with a range of different results, from blah gray to brilliant blue to deep amethyst purple.

Here’s what I did: soaked 2lbs of dried Goya brand black beans in tap water in a covered stainless steel pan at room temperature for two days. I strained the beans out and saved the water, cooking the beans in the crock pot for some black bean cakes (never had them, can’t wait to try) and soup and chili (2lbs is a lot of beans). In the mean time, I popped my sample skeins (all Lion Brand Fisherman’s Wool), a hat I made last year of hand spun alpaca (it’s the oh-so-fun-to-knit Caera hat), and some roving (already dyed a pale green during the natural dye class) into a dye-only-pot with the bean water.

Being the impatient person I am, I heated up this bean-smelling mixture to the steam-but-not-bubble point and then left it for a day. The results:

Black Bean Dye: Skeins & Hat

I think the most striking results are in the cotton I used to tie the test skeins; all of them started out white, as they are in the un-dyed skein on the left. Next, unmordanted wool that’s the color of dirty dishwater, but the cotton ties are a bright sky blue. Next, alum-mordanted wool – a darker gray with hints of blue and denim-blue colored ties. Finally, an iron-mordanted skein that’s deep dark gray with navy blue ties. And the hat – once white, now a purpley gray.

Now the roving:

Black Bean Dye: Roving

The yellow is the original dye; I wish I could remember what it’s dyed with or that I had taken better notes or labeled them. The greenish gray are the still-damp overdyed samples.

My results aren’t that spectacular in comparison to others; a simple search for pictures on flickr shows some much deeper, more saturated results. So where did I go wrong?

I think heating the bean water was a mistake, based only on what I’ve read in the natural dye groups on Ravelry. I also think a longer soaking time (for the wool, not the beans) would result in more saturated colors. Also: pre-mordanting with alum clearly results in a deeper color.

I was hoping to have time to get into the science of why heating the beans results in grays (carotenoids, anthocyanins, and other natural pigments), but the phone has rung at least 6 times in the last hour, the doorbell 3. And I’m making dinner, chili because we’re out of eggs. Hoping to write about lichen dye tomorrow, time and interruptions permitting.


A long time ago, in a land not that far away, I got a Jaquard Indigo Dye Kit from Knit Picks. It’s been so long that the product packaging has been updated.

I finally used it by starting an indigo vat in mid-June with hookedferret/silverdragn, my dye buddy and enabler. The kit comes with enough pre-reduced indigo dye 5lbs of material. I think we dyed about 1-1.5lbs of yarn & roving that day. Then she hosted a dye day that I ended up not being able to go to and several of our friends dyed even more yarn and roving. How much? I have no idea. But I knew that I’d probably need to revive the vat when I got it home.

After reading lots of info about reviving a vat, I went to JoAnn’s and got some RIT Color Remover (for its sodium hydrosulfite). I also picked up some soda ash, though I can’t remember if it was to help revive the vat or to scour some yarn that I’ve come to hate so that I could pop it into the vat. On Wednesday, I added a packet of the Color Remover to a cup of water, dissolved it, and gently stirred it to the indigo vat (a white 5 gallon bucket with a black lid), which was a deep murky green and had a bit of mold growing on the surface. A little mold wasn’t going to stop me and it also didn’t smell awful, so I continued.

I also dissolved a packet of the soda ash in a bucket with about a gallon of water and put this in to scour:

Limely 1

This is Veronik Avery’s Cap Sleeve Henley in Debbie Bliss Prima (80% bamboo, 20% merino); details in my Ravelry project page. Mr. Q bought the yarn for me a few years ago and I should have returned it to the LYS but instead have let it sit in my stash. I don’t have anything against this shade of green (note the cover of the book on the table), but I don’t really like to wear it. Or, at least not so much of it all at once. Here’s what came out of the vat:


It’s still a little damp in this picture – the color is even and not blotchy at all. My artsy yarn pr0n shot, taken the next day:


I also soaked 3 skeins of handspun alpaca in water (standard procedure for dying yarn is to thoroughly wet it before putting it in the dye pot). I’d dyed these 3 skeins in the first time go around with the vat, but read that someone found the indigo vat to be even more effective after adding RIT Color Remover. I also thought I’d make the skeins a bit darker; I dipped them twice the first time around and the blue wasn’t as deep as I’d hoped. Here they are, modeled by my sweet helper-dog, the aforementioned Lily:


I’m not sure what else I have around the house that I want to dye with indigo. Anyone local is welcome to come over and use the vat; I even have an extra box of Color Remover & some left-over soda ash.

The best part of dying with indigo is watching things go from an unreal phosphorescent green (similar to my original sweater above but with more oomph) to the final indigo blue. Blue and green are my favorite colors and there were so many shades that green-blue and blue-green and teal that I wish I could make permanent. I have a feeling that I’ll only get those shades with acid dyes, but I’m having more fun being surprised with what I get with natural dyes.

Links to reliable info on indigo:

Info on indigo and woad from Maiwa


When I took the natural dye class this spring, taught by Sylvia De Mar through The Art League of Alexandria over the course of 3 Sundays, Sylvia asked us to gather dandelions and bring them in for our last class. She asked for the whole plant – flowers, leaves, stems, roots. I know that dandelions are actually useful in certain circumstances; my first landlords in NJ eagerly awaited spring so they could have dandelion greens. The grandmother of one of my best friends when I was growing up also eagerly awaited spring dandelions and made dandelion wine. Nota bene: it takes a whole heck of a lot of dandelion petals (petals only!) to make wine; here are more recipes than you can shake a stick at.

I diligently uprooted as many dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) as I could find, put them in a ziplock bag, and tossed them in the freezer. Of course, I forgot to take them to our last class. And of course, they’ve waited patiently for me along with other oddities in my freezer, like marigold petals that I’m collecting (copycatting off of hookedferret/silverdragn for another dye pot). I pulled them out today and after defrosting and rinsing them (note to self: rinse the dirt off before freezing them next time), separated the roots from everything else. I remember Sylvia telling us the roots give a different color.

Which brings me to the sturdiness of my methods so far. I should be using dye recipes. And I should be using raw materials in proportion to my wool (yarn or roving or fleece), which means weighing everything. If I were to get really technical, I would test the pH of my water and of my dye baths and manipulate them with vinegar or ammonia. At least I’m dying with several different pre-mordanted samples.

Dye Recipes

I could’ve used dandelion root tea! Or maybe I could taste-test some of the dye bath! Or maybe not. I’ll keep this option in mind for the winter and maybe try other herbal teas.

Other bloggers before me have been just as lax with their methods, except that many of them limit themselves to the flower heads or strictly the petals.

What I Did

I picked dandelion stems & roots (when I could get them out of the ground) in April and froze them until now, August. I should’ve cleaned them & separated all of the non-dandelion materials (crabgrass, oak leaves, stems, pine bark mulch) before freezing, but did get most of that stuff out. I put the stems, leaves, and flowers (308g) in one pot, and the roots only (68g) in another pot, both with enough tap water to let the materials swish around freely. I brought both to a boil and simmered for about an hour. My pre-mordanted samples soaked in rainwater (it was handy) during that cooking process. Here it is in pictures, with results:

dandelionPot2 dandelionPot1

Leaves and roots in the pot with water but no cooking time.

dandelionPot2.30m  dandelionPot1.30m
 After cooking the materials, with samples added & simmered gently for 30mins.

The dull, ho-hum results. But, with an ammonia after bath, I got this:


Yup – the yarn dyed with the leaves, flowers, and stems turned yellowish and got a little richer in color.

I’m tempted to try this again with fresh, mid-summer dandelions to see if there is any difference in the results.

Lily of the Valley

The house I grew up in had a big patch of lily of the valley (and lots of other perennials) next to the front door, which we never used. I don’t even remember if there were steps going to that door, though I may be confusing it with my mother’s current front door, which doesn’t have steps. I suppose porch doors that open into the kitchen get used the most in old farmhouses.

Lily of the valley is one of my favorite flowers, as are most of the other flowers that grew around that house. When Mr. Q and I moved into our current house (a bland, pseudo-reproduction in a suburban northern Virginia neighborhood), I set about planting all my childhood favorites. After several failed attempts (I blame the unamended clay topsoil for the failures), I now have two thriving patches of lily of the valley on either side of my doorstep. I like lily of the valley so much that I named one of our dogs (the only one who came to us without a name) Lily.

This time of year, the lily of the valley are in decline. They bloom here in late April, early May. Their leaves start to look a little tattered and worn out by mid-June. See what I mean? They’re the leaves in the foreground; japanese iris is in the background:


Usually, I leave the leaves alone so the plants can collect as much energy as possible and put it into getting larger or making seeds. But this year, I used some in a natural dye experiment.

The sources I’ve read all say that lily of the valley should produce a yellow-green color on wool, which I assume would veer more toward yellow or brown the closer we get to fall. I collected a bucketful of leaves, which turned out to be over a pound. Most of the leaves were still green but a few were brown. I made a dye liquor with them in my trusty enameled lobster pot and kept it just below a simmer until the leaves look wilted/cooked & the green parts looked more yellow/brown. In went my samples, which cooked at roughly the same temp for another hour and then I let them cool overnight. And the next day. And overnight again. These are the colors I got:

Lilly Of The Valley Yarn Samples

I’m trying to do a little better with the pictures; I used “the big camera” for these – the Nikon D90 – instead of my iPhone. And then I made some adjustments in PhotoShop to get closer to the actual color. (No, my monitor isn’t calibrated. No, I don’t know what all the settings are on the camera and yes, in that respect, I might as well be using the iPhone.)

So. I suppose these are a deep yellow – brown, almost beige in the alum- and copper-mordanted samples on the left. The iron-mordanted sample, on the far right, is the most interesting to me because it didn’t come out looking gray. It’s definitely more of a deep khaki color.

Today I revived the indigo vat that I shared with some of my Loudoun Needleworker buddies and am fooling around with it. The next post will probably be about that and my hands smelling like rubber gloves.