Blue and Black Yarn

Way back in 2020 I got some lovely, lustrous Romney fleece from the Richardsons in Phillipston, MA. Yes, that 2020.

I dyed a lot of it blue with woad.

When I post photos of my dyeing results, sometimes people ask me, “What are you going to do with it?” I’m tempted to say, “Do? What do you mean? It’s done!” Making color is fun and satisfying all by itself. But, yes, I do aspire to spin yarn and ultimately weave cloth with it. This blog post is about some yarn that I have spun!

Over the years I have posted many images of woad vats on this blog. So I will skip the dyeing process in this post, and stick to the yarn production process. Here’s how it happened:

In 2021 I got a picture in my mind of a yarn that combined various shades of woad blue and black alpaca. I was inspired by some lovely silvery gray yarn from New York Textile Lab which is 50% Romney 50% alpaca. It’s a luxurious yarn that embodies the best of both fibers. I, too, was hoping to combine the sheen and lustre of Romney with the softness and silkiness of alpaca.

The black alpaca roving is from Snowfield Alpacas in New Hampshire, purchased at the Fiber Festival of New England. When?  A long time ago. We don’t know how long.

I spun a teensy sample with a drop spindle to see what it might look like, and I loved it:

I wanted to make a significant amount of yarn so I could weave enough yardage to sew into “something.” That’s as far as I’ve gotten with my vision of the finished product. I know a lot of people spin with a specific project in mind, but welcome to my process.

I weighed out one pound of woad-blue locks, thinking at first that my blend would be 50/50 and I would end up with 2lbs. prepared fiber.

I flick carded the locks to remove any remaining vegetable matter (though the fleeces were really clean to begin with) and to combine various shades of blue. Here are a few locks lined up and ready to flick:

Here’s the little bundle all fluffed up:

And here’s one with lighter shades of blue:

What are those white areas? When I dye locks in a woad vat, sometimes the dye doesn’t penetrate all the way through the lock. This is especially true near the cut-end of the locks where it’s denser. It’s even more true when I’m exhausting the vat and the locks are slurping up the last bits of color.

Then I ran the locks through a drum carder to further blend the different shades of blue. Here’s the set up one fine day in July of 2021. Our cat Sammy has inspected everything. Having detected no danger, she’s relaxing and grooming.

I gradually carded all the fleece into little batts.

Here’s a basketful of batts. The blue in this image is a little more Smurfy than real life, but you get the idea:

This image shows the sheen much better. You can also see that there’s a lot of color variation still, despite all the blending:

And here’s a view from the cute, curly end of a rolled up mini-batt:

I split the wool batts and carded them again with the black alpaca roving. I have a mini-carder, and each blended batt was about one ounce.

The first 50/50 blue-and-black batt was deep, dark, and dramatic, but I wanted more sparkle from the blue. So, I sampled some more and settled on a ratio of 70% wool and 30% alpaca. Which meant that I needed to card more wool get 2lbs blended fiber. Here’s the 70/30 blend:

I really love the contrast of the black and bright blue in the spun yarn, as well as the more uniformly blended dark-blue areas:

Because the alpaca and the wool are not consistently blended, I got worried about leaving the yarn as singles for weaving. The areas that are all-alpaca are fluffier and the staple length is much shorter. I worried about how the different textures would behave. So I plied it. My future self may or may not thank me, but what’s done is done. Here are the two skeins I’ve spun and plied thus far:

My present-day self is very happy. I absolutely love how it looks and feels. These two skeins together weigh about 8 oz. so I am about halfway through the fiber I prepared. Which is totally fine because it’s really fun to spin!

Making Brown with Black Walnuts Part Two

To re-cap, I had managed to transform linen yarns, grown and hand spun at Aker Fiber Farm in New Hampshire, from lovely shades of silvery- and golden-tan into more drab versions of same colors. This was deeply dissatisfying. But, if at first you don’t succeed… try, try again.

I thought about the factors that might have led to such disappointing color, and decided to change a few things the second time around. I was in a hurry at this point, because I was planning to deliver the yarns in just a couple days. So, I moved through some steps quicker than I normally do.

First, I made a fresh dyebath using only the very greenest of the walnut hulls that had been soaking outside. This involved finding the bucket that contained the hulls I had collected earliest in the fall, which was tucked under a table and very well protected from squirrels. It was a little bit of an excavation project. Again, I used 3 gallons of hulls to make the dyebath, but I only used the brightest green ones:

Second, I used fresh tap water to make the dyebath, not the liquid that the hulls had been soaking in. I heated the bath to about 180°F, maintained that temperature for two hours, then allowed it to cool and steep for a couple hours. I strained out the hulls while the liquid was still very warm, instead of giving it time to cool completely. I did not add any vinegar this time. The pH was 6.

Third, I re-mordanted the fibers with aluminum acetate at 5% WOG at 100° and let the yarns soak in the mordant solution for two hours. I rinsed the yarns before putting them into the dyebath. After about ten minutes in the dyebath, I decided that this situation really called for iron sulfate.

I’ve used tannin with iron on cellulose before. I have even written some blog posts about it. So I knew it would darken the color significantly. I had been hoping that with black walnut I could get a dark color without iron. But at this point in my story it was Thursday and I was planning to deliver the yarns on Saturday, so I figured I’d better go with something that I was certain would do the trick.

I dissolved 1 Tbsp. of iron sulfate in a tub containing 2 gallons of hot water. I pulled the skeins out of the dyebath and “worked” them briefly (meaning swishing them around in the solution to try to prevent blotches), wearing gloves all the while. The color shift to a dark brown was basically instantaneous. I returned the skeins to the dyebath without rinsing.

Then I continued to heat the skeins for an hour, and they cooled overnight in the dyebath.

Once again, I let the the skeins drip and dry a little before rinsing. And, here they are all washed and dried:

You can see the yarns wound into balls by Locally Dressed here.

The color of the linen shirt actually grew on me as it dried, so I left it alone. Obtaining an unbleached-linen look on linen is a lot more satisfying when that wasn’t the original color!

I do believe that the greener and more resinous the hulls are, the richer the color you will get. However, I’m positive that it was the iron sulfate that ultimately created the dark color I was able to achieve on the linen yarns. I am currently taking the Maiwa class Natural Dyes: Alchemy Chemistry Craft, so in a few weeks I will be much better informed about the chemistry of the tannin-iron reaction!

I am a lot more cautious about using iron on wool. A fresh dyebath, with no tannin or mordant at all, yielded this medium brown on Western Massachusetts Fibershed white wool singles spun at Green Mountain Spinnery:

Making Brown with Black Walnuts Part One

Fall 2023 was a bumper year for black walnuts around here. I started collecting them in October, and with very little effort filled up three 5-gallon buckets.

To prevent them from getting black and oozy, I filled the buckets with water. Being submerged under water kept them pretty fresh. I covered the buckets and stacked weights on top to discourage squirrels until I could remove the nuts from the hulls.

As noted in my last blog post, there’s always more to learn about everything in life, black walnuts included. This fall I was struck by the variation in size, shape, density of hull, color of hull, and fragrance from one tree to the next. I don’t think the differences had to do with altitude (down in the valleys versus up in the hilltowns) because sometimes two trees right across the street from each other were carrying fruits with noticeably different hulls. I don’t have any photos of those observations, but documenting these variations would be an interesting project for another year. I did not separate them by “type” or keep track of which hulls went into which dyepots.

My first dyeing effort with this fall’s abundance was a collaboration with Locally Dressed, who is participating in the Northern New England Fibershed design challenge. You can find out more about what Locally Dressed is all about on her social media and her blog and website.

Without giving too much away, I will just share that I dyed handspun linen yarns from Aker Fiber Farm. The yarns are destined to part of a garment and/or accessory woven by @marionceres. The finished pieces will be showcased on August 17th, 2024 at Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire.

Here are the yarns. Lovely, right? Why mess with perfection? Rest assured, I understand that most of the fabric lets the natural colors of this linen speak for themselves. But sometimes you want a little bit of contrast. Hence my mission to make brown.

I was consulting two different sources in this process, Jim Liles’ book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing and the how-to pages on Botanical Colors’ website. Their directions differ somewhat, plus daily life imposes its own limits. What I describe here is what I ended up doing, but I’m not saying it’s the best way to go about things!

To start with, I scoured the skeins. Well, actually, first I weighed them and recorded the weights on waterproof labels. For scouring cellulose fibers I often use a liquid scour, but I didn’t have any on hand. So, first I just hand washed them with my regular laundry detergent, then simmered them with soda ash at 2% weight of goods (WOG in dyer’s shorthand). I heated the skeins in the soda ash solution until it reached 180°F, then held at that temperature for 30 minutes, then removed promptly and rinsed.

The next step was a tannin treatment. I had a few options for tannin, and decided to use chestnut tannin at 10% WOG. I dissolved the tannin (which comes as a powder) and soaked the fiber overnight at room temperature in the tannin solution.

Next up, mordanting. Even though I did have aluminum acetate on hand, I decided to go with the aluminum sulfate/soda ash combo described on the Botanical Color website here. Yes, the mixture does “bubble vigorously,” just as they describe! The fibers soaked in this mordanting solution overnight, with no heat applied.

Then, back into the tannin solution for another night. Then, because of pot re-arranging, they went back in the mordant bath. This was just a storage issue for the various liquids in their various stages, not a purposeful decision.

As I mentioned, the black walnuts had been soaking submerged in buckets of water since October, and this linen-dyeing project got underway on November 16th. I didn’t mention that I was also dyeing a linen shirt in this process (the one with the weird pink-stained arms, if you saw that post on Instagram back in August 2022). The total weight of the fibers was a little over 15 ounces, basically 1lb.

For my first try, I used about 3 gallons of hulls (removed from the nuts, which I just tossed out for the squirrels), and filled up the dyepot with the water they’d been soaking in. I heated the hulls until they reached about 180°F and maintained that for 2 hours. Jim Liles says to add vinegar or other acid, which I did, but he doesn’t specify a pH. My pH was 5. The hulls steeped about 24 hours, then I strained out the hulls and topped up the liquid in the dyepot. I think it’s cool how you can see the texture of the walnut shells inside the hulls:

I rinsed the fiber after the tannin-mordant-tannin process, which perhaps I should not have done. Ah, well. Here are the prepared fibers before dyeing:

Then I added the damp fibers to the dyebath. As before, I heated the pot up to about 180°F then maintained that for one hour. Then I let it steep overnight. I like to do a delayed rinse, so I let the fibers drip-dry for a day or so before rinsing.

Then I rinsed them. And…. Come on, now. Would you call this brown? I would not. I would not say that it’s any darker than the original color.

The date by which I had agreed to deliver the yarn was drawing closer. Not much time left to try again, but try I did!