Do or Dye

‘Round about this time every winter my wandering creative eye starts to fixate on my spinning stash, as the cold and unpleasant weather of the Midwest drives me toward indoor activities that will relieve my mounting cabin fever. Besides spinning wool into crazy art yarns, I also hand dye wool rovings myself using professional acid dyes or experimenting with natural & botanical eco dyeing.

This year, my dye cabinet really needed to be worked through – I had POUNDS of wools stuffed in there waiting to be painted, and jars of dye I hadn’t even cracked open yet. On top of that whole situation, another imminent move (I’m a roving artist, myself – har har) meant that I really needed to downsize.

So in I dove, resolved to color all of the wool that I had laying around and produce a stash of things I could spin for years to come. 10-12 hours of labor and days of setting and drying time later, I had an extremely pretty and earthy toned woolen rainbow to cuddle.

My acid dye batch included some dyeable prespun merino yarn and a fistful of silky-soft baby Suri alpaca locks – lush!

But after that massive batch of acid dyeing, I decided I wasn’t done yet. I saved back about a half pound of wool because I had last summer’s reject elderberries sitting in my freezer, preserved with the intent to commit eco-dye.

In the past I’ve created my own botanical & food based natural dyes out of tea, coffee, turmeric, pokeberry, black walnut, and avocado – as well as trying out some commercial botanical dyes – and had mixed results. Usually it’s quite hard to get the homemade natural dyes strong enough to get good color and to mordant the fiber properly to get the color to stick. Still I get tempted because I’m a mad fiber scientist at heart!

The lightly toned roving in the picture above comes from commercially derived botanical dye liquids and represent the strongest colors I’ve ever gotten out of a natural dye.

In the late summer when we harvested 15-20 pounds of wild elderberries to make syrup and jelly, I discovered that while rinsing our little treasures the overripe and underripe berries tended to float to the top of the rinse water, making them easy to scoop out leaving the plump, juicy berries sunken at the bottom. I saved back all these rejects knowing at some point I’d try to dye with them, the perfect solution to not wasting pounds of harvest.

The dye process was quick, and I used this excellent post from Woollenflower to guide me. After a mordanting soak during which I boiled down my frozen berries, I drained the wool and put the dye berries through a cheesecloth sieve to separate off the liquid. The wool roving went into quart canning jars, each portioned with citric acid and elderberry juice, and I popped them into the canner to steam for about an hour. After the heat was applied, I let them cool overnight.

While most of the dye rinsed out, I’m still very happy with the gorgeous muted purples and pinks that appeared! Elderberry is particularly sensitive to pH levels, and I aimed to created a mottled effect with some alkaline color and some acidic color on the rovings – it’s hard to tell because none of my picture taking equipment captures these subtle tones in natural light, but I’m pleased with the result 🙂

I don’t expect a ton of colorfastness from this batch, so I’ll probably reserve this wool for creating a wall hanging, as I did with some of my Avocado dyed wool – an indoor decoration is the perfect solution to delicately dyed natural fibers which tend to fade in sunlight or with multiple washings.

A dreamcatcher I made using peachy-pink natural avocado-dyed alpaca fiber, handspun by me. I also crocheted the happy li’l cado in the middle 🙂

I can’t stop looking at this gorgeous woolen rainbow, which I’ve had strung along my photo backdrop curtain string for weeks at this point just because it’s too dang pretty all displayed together like that 😉 But today I’ll pack it all away, now that my last stash of undyed wool is colored. I successfully cleaned out my to-dye-for wool stash, but now where do I put all the dyed wool??? Ha!

Almost all of my dyes, mordants, and dyeable wools come from Dharma Trading Co., a USA based tie-dye and fiber art supply company, and I highly recommend them for their products, free resources, and customer service!


Alpaca Handspun Wrap

Forgive me, fiber darlings, as the golden falling walnut leaves and the true approach of autumn sends me into paroxysms of nostalgia – you see, I’ve completed a very long personal fiber art project, and will not hesitate to use it as an excuse to wax sentimental 😉

Translation: This is a long personal reflection post and a project with no patterns. 😉

It was almost 4 years ago exactly that I decided to give my still new (to me) Ashford Traveler Double Drive spinning wheel a good workout by ordering several pounds (!!) of Alpaca fiber that I got on sale.

I had already been working with drop spindles at this point, but I was excited to take advantage of the larger, faster batches one could produce with the wheel. I dug into the first pound with vigor, producing a tight and even dark brown set of yarns… but like lots of large projects, the initial momentum got lost and it took me several years to finish spinning the rest of the fiber.

In the mean time I learned and experimented with lots of other things, and even added more alpaca fiber to the hoard, including a raw fleece gifted to me by a friend (not much of that one went into the final product – hand carding is a workout!!)

The fleeces followed me, like a little herd of alpacas themselves, though many phases of life in the past four years. I spun and played with them, dreamed with them. They reminded me all the time of the farms and ranches I worked at when I was younger and traveling the United States, work-trading as a farm hand at communes and eco-villages. Every fiber of them passed through my hands eventually, to twist together on the wheel or spindle – how many thoughts are in these fibers? How many dreams?

At once point I got exuberantly experimental about natural dyeing again (my first forays consisted of tea, coffee, turmeric, and a failed pokeberry batch way back in 2009-10 or so), so I started collecting the vegetable waste from my day job in the produce department and brewing up a big batch of avocado dye from the pits and skins. Raw material, collected and transmuted again. How many hands picked the fruit? How many dreams did they dream?

When I dive, I deep dive. I want to know the parts of a process like I know the breathing of my lungs, intrinsically, so that my fingers can read the dreams. To me, that is the way to respect – respect what, I don’t know. The energies it took to create everything around me? Maybe. It is gratitude, definitely.

When the fibers were carded and dyed and spun and plied and washed and dried, I took them to my fatter knitting needles: the 9.00 mm circulars from my interchangeable set. (I remember the super long knitted scarf from a decade ago, and how I tried to cram so many stitches of recycled cotton onto a cheap plastic yard sale needle and snapped it into oblivion, losing hundreds of tiny knit stitches to my cold-sweating terror…)

Good thing my tools have evolved with me.
I knit and knit and knit, practicing my speed-purling, practicing my yarn overs, dropping stitches and switching to garter occasionally. I never got the bug for delicate knit patterns, I like my knits huge and stupid and chunky and easy.

I knew it was going to be a big folded rectangle essentially, with two arm holes. Simple. A large serape-like shell could be worn over other winter layers, since not all of the yarn I used is next-to-skin soft – but holy heck is it warm! Alpaca fiber is also naturally water-resistant, enhancing this wrap’s qualities as outerwear.

I played up the textural aspects of this piece, letting my big dumb rectangle be the blank canvas for every nuanced lump in the fiber. It was handspun; it was messy, chunky, uneven, perfectly imperfect. I did not want it to look sleek, cosmopolitan, curated. It was my glorious mess. So I did what I learned to do best in the grueling hours of the windowless rooms in studio art at Indiana University – turn imperfections into advantages.

(Mostly) planned dropped stitches provided visual breaks vertically, and lines of garter stitches complemented and accented the color changes horizontally, creating a weathered and distressed texture that plays up the lumpy, bumpy, mismatched yarnscape. The large needles allowed plenty of looseness in the stitches to give the otherwise square shell garment a flattering bit of drape. The rough visual style belies the incredibly squishy loft of the bulky alpaca yarns.

I can’t believe I spun 100% of this garment – it is my first large project to be entirely handspun. Some parts are a little scratchy, I’ll admit, and it certainly needs a second wash (it’s fragrant in a strongly camelid sort of way at the moment) – but this piece will warm me now in a special way, because so much of my story is now shared with it.

I get really excited when I finish a piece that’s taken me years, to me they feel like a victory! Previously, the Stump had been my longest-held project (3 years), but now the Alpaca Wrap (4 years) is the record holder 😉

And here’s my advice to every artist who may have had the tough moments, like me, that make dreams feel like impossibilities: Patience, patience, patience.


Roving Adventures: Steam Setting

As I walked in the door triumphantly with my 33 quart enamel ware canner I got super cheap at Goodwill, I had prepared my explanation about how useful it would be when I had my future garden or got a good deal at the farmer’s market to preserve the theoretical fresh produce. The justification for buying a pot too large to even fit through our cabinet doors, if we even had the cabinet space in the first place (we don’t) was loaded and ready.

My very intelligent boyfriend was not fooled.

“You’re just going to use that to dye stuff, aren’t you?”

Yes. Yes I am.


This was my first true venture into steam setting – I tried to do it in the dye crockpot once but it was a pain in the ass. The resulting roving from the crockpot steam was pretty, but not as dark as I intended.

“Mermaid Hair”

MermaidHair MermaidHair4


I’m thrilled with how my two latest batches came out…



Ardor1 Ardor2

“Witching Hour”


WitchingHour3 WitchingHour2

I can’t wait to spin these. Unfortunately they are pretty far back in the “to spin” pile. I guess I need a wheel!


Drop Spinning: Advice From a Non-Expert

There’s quite a lot of technical language that you encounter when delving into the world of spinning instructions, and you’ll find yourself in an especially confusing place if you’re specifically looking for advice related to drop spindle spinning. What the f#$! is a drafting triangle and where do I put it? Do short draw and long draw even apply to me?  Why did this all suddenly become a tangled mess? It’s possible to walk AND spin AT THE SAME TIME?!

At least, these are all questions that I had when I began to learn this skill. There’s a reason for all the vocab, because spinning is a pretty technical sport, but it CAN be daunting.

The red yarn on the right is around my 3rd spinning attempt, while the green on the left is my 8th.

The red yarn on the right is around my 3rd spinning attempt, while the green on the left is my 8th.

My post Spin Cycle drew enough comments and curiosity that I felt that I should weigh in with some tips from my personal experience for those of you considering trying it out. Yes, it does start with a short vocab lesson, but I promise not to say things like “short forward draw”  or “grist” at you. This isn’t a tutorial on how to spin your first yarn – just some pointers that have helped me learn to spin better.

Pssst… a good video for absolute beginners can be found here.

A Down to Earth Vocab Lesson

Drop Spindle:  The thing what makes your yarn go. A spindle can be anything that is capable of putting a spin into a length of wool. You could used a danged rock to do it… but that wouldn’t be very efficient. There are lots of different “official” types, but let’s just start with whorl spindles: Top-Whorl and Bottom-Whorl. The “whorl” is the circular weight at, you guessed it, either the bottom or the top of the wooden dowel part. The other really important bit is the little hook which grabs your leading yarn, allowing the twirling of your device to spin the wool into yarn.

Roving Vs. Top: Roving and top are both types of wool that have been processed for spinning. The difference is that top has been prepared so that the fibers all run in the same direction. Roving fibers only go generally in the same direction. The direction of the fibers influence the feel and texture of the yarn spun from them. A more detailed rundown of fiber preparation types can be perused at this post of Craftsy’s Spinning Blog. There’s also batts, pencil roving, rolags, etc… but don’t worry about those for now.

Twist: People refer to twist like it’s some sort of barely tamed animal – and you might begin to agree. It travels, it gets stronger or weaker depending on how you feed it, and occasionally tries to escape or even throw your spindle. Basically the twist is what gives the wool strength and turns it into yarn. You add twist to your yarn by spinning your spindle – it’s the force that runs from the already-spun yarn to the drafted wool and creates the connection between the two.  Imagine the hair on your head. One hair by itself can’t hold up to much pulling.  Now imagine twirling a clump of hair together… and then tugging at it. Ouch! Physics!

Cop: It’s the bundle of already spun yarn that you wind around the straight part of your spindle. I don’t know why we can’t just call it the “yarn bundle” but that’s hobbyists for you. Sometimes you see it wound in a cone, sometimes in a beehive type shape – this is merely a matter of preference. After several times winding into a cone for my cop and having my yarn slide downward and get tangled, I switched to a beehive shape.

Drafting: Thinning out the fiber to an acceptable density to produce the thickness of yarn you desire.Because if you didn’t draft your roving you would have one thick-ass yarn. Remember that higher density = thicker yarn and lower density = thinner yarn.

Park & Draft: The method taught to beginner drop spindlers. Because it’s hard at first to draft your wool out while the spindle is dangling there twirling away, you “park” the spindle by stopping its spinning and holding it still while you draft the fiber out, releasing the already-loaded twist into the newly drafted wool bit by bit. If you didn’t park & draft then you would have to draft out the fiber fast enough to keep up with the twist that is constantly being sent upward toward your wool by the continuously spinning spindle. You can probably see how that might be frustrating.

Drop Spindle spinning

Advice from a Non-Expert: 6 Tips to help you get comfortable with spinning

1. Watch other people do it. Multiple other people –

My first foray into drop spinning was led by a girl in a Youtube video. Youtube is a great resource, especially considering most people don’t live in a neighborhood with a bunch of people who sit around spinning. Unfortunately I had chosen a video of someone who really didn’t explain well what they were doing. Scour around, watch videos and read literature from reputable sources, see how different people approach it. That way when you are learning, you know you have options.

2. Spin in several different positions –

The video I linked to at the start of the article is a really good one – except that doesn’t look anything like how I have been doing it! That’s okay though, because the best way to do it is the one that gives YOU the most satisfying results. Just like with everything else.  I started spinning by using my left hand to lead the twist, and  then switched after I had an in-person lesson and discovered I liked using my right hand to lead much better. Stand up, sit down, hold the yarn horizontal or vertical, park, don’t park… have fun.

3. Go easy –

It really doesn’t take much spin or a really dense chunk of wool to make a yarn. When I first started I was whirling the spindle like a maniac trying to twist thick hunks of fiber into thin and even yarn… it did not work out for me. My chosen video led me to believe that I should roll the spindle vigorously against my thigh and send it out into space like a flying saucer… please don’t do this when you are first learning! Waaaay too much twist led to me having terminally coily yarn that would curl so violently that it would throw the spindle from the leader yarn and across the room. Hilarious, but inefficient. A small flick of your fingers is all it takes to add enough twist to be getting on with. Hyperactive whirling can come later if you like.

4. Spin against the light-

Shine a light behind the fibers you are working with and you may discover a whole secret world of fiber relationships you were not previously aware of – giving you a much better idea about how the twist enters and gathers the drafted wool. This can lead to many good things, like altering your angles to get a smoother yarn, or deciding that you can pull from a larger or smaller section of fiber to reduce overdrafting and breakage or difficult drafting.

5. Spin something multi-colored-

Again, this can completely change your view of how the fibers gather and pull at each other. I recently spun a ball of roving with short, distinct color changes and something surprising (to me) happened… I was seeing the appearence of the next color change before I had moved past the color of the drafted section I had been holding. I was drafting green fiber but orange was appearing on the yarn! Woah. It was because the twist was entering from the middle of the drafted section and was therefore twisting & gathering the middle of the roving faster, drawing down the fibers from further on through the core of the roving. Science is neat.

6. Spin something that isn’t top-

Combed top is smooth and easygoing, all the fibers just lined up neatly and primly. That’s why it’s so good for beginners. But once you’ve tried your hand at a few pretty tops, try something more primitive. I bought 4 oz of a locally produced Tunis wool roving when I was in northern Indiana and spun it recently, vegetable matter and all. The fibers were every-which-way, fluffy, all different thicknesses, and all in all just hard to control… which is why it was such good experience.  I really like a wild’n’wooly look, actually, which is why I’m working on another local wool at the moment.

Icelandic Wool roving - you can see how the yarn I'm spinning here is fuzzier than the green and red handspuns pictured earlier. This is a good example of roving (the Icelandic) versus top (the green and red yarns)

Icelandic Wool roving – you can see how the yarn I’m spinning here is fuzzier than the green and red handspun yarns pictured earlier. 

Where once upon a time a yarn that was thick-and-thin or messy would just be considered a bad spinning job, that kind of yarn is now in high demand as “art yarn” or “novelty yarn.”  So you really can’t lose! Hold your head high and conquer that wool.

My very first handspun ended up being doll hair :)

My very first handspun ended up being doll hair 🙂 Meet Java Gypsy, my amigurumi doll beauty from 2011. Her body is made from recycled cotton/poly sweater yarn dyed with coffee and her clothes are old upholstery samples!

Have drop spinning questions? Leave a comment!