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Dyeing Wool: It's All About Colour

Updated: Mar 29

I have been in the kitchen for days and I haven’t been cooking. Instead, I’ve been washing and dying wool to increase the colour variety in our Felter’s Boxes. Initially, our Felter’s Boxes were assembled from the huge backlog of dyed and carded wool that I have been creating over the last 10+ years. I had natural browns and blacks from my Freisen crosses. I had many more browns from my alpacas. I had (and still have) coloured locks that I made from my Border Leicester and Lincoln long wool sheep. I even had a bit of angora from rabbits. I made my husband drag all those boxes of wool and fibre up here from our previous farm down in Southern Ontario. Unimpressed, he did say at least the boxes were light.

Over the last few months, I have been steadily using up this backlog as I create batts for boxes, braids and rings to take to the Thunder Bay Country Market. I also had put together several Felter’s Boxes that were based on batts but we noticed that felters wanted even more variety in smaller quantities. I often had one offs from making the batts so we decided to create a new version of the Felter’s Box with the addition of dyed locks. This new Felter’s Box has been extremely popular and now to create more, I need to fill in the color gaps.

Hence, I’m digging into my newer bags of Polypay, which is the breed we now raise. Last summer, I suint washed the fleeces (after flick combing them) and rinsed them in clear water. They were then dried in the sun and packed away in vacuum bags. I added a stick of insect control in a container to the bag that allows for the air to circulate within it. Suint washes do not remove lanolin and moths love these fleeces so this is not a step I could skip! Now, I am using a handmade lanolin soap and heating the wool on the stove top to get to 170 degrees to remove the lanolin. I can then squeeze the water out of the wool and pop it into a dye bath of the same temperature.

All of this is for colour. I love to blend colours in my batts, so I have to create a lot more colours to create these unique blends. One way I do that is to start with a dye bath that is really saturated with dye and put the first washed 1-2 lbs. of fleece into it. I bring to boil (170 at least) and maintain that for about an hour. Minimal stirring! That part is hard. You can leave the wool to sit over night in the dye bath for max colour depth or remove it when the desired colour is reached (to check the colour run a small sample under the tap to test for colour fastness). I take the first wool out and strain the dye water back into the pot. I then put the next lot of washed fiber in- usually it’s a diluted colour but sometimes its pastel and either way it is totally different. Most of the time, I do this until the dye is exhausted. But sometimes I get bored of the colour and pick a new complementary colour and throw that in.

Once the wool has cooled off, I rinse and rinse and rinse in water that is lukewarm. I then run the locks through a spinner (about the size of a salad spinner but its electric). I then tease the locks back open and spread them out to dry. Then it’s into a carder. This is part where I blend all those colours together to make wool batts that are one of a kind.

I have never done a lot of pre-planning on the colours as I find that there is a lot of variability in the results. But recently I heard of a course being offered (that I personally know has been years in development) which would support me in more precisely dyeing yarn to accomplish a given colour palate. I immediately signed up but sadly had to withdraw as my family expressed dismay at the kitchen being out of service for 12 weeks straight. They pointed out that it would be better to wait until the mill building is set up so I can work there and stay out of the kitchen.

Which might bring you to the question – why are you still dyeing in the kitchen when the wool mill is so close to being ready for you? Well, I can’t wait. After all, you can’t keep a wool dyer down long.

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