Spin all the breeds!

Yummy yummy yarns.

I have been busy with some crochet projects over the last month (photos coming soon), but I have been managing to get some spinning done too. I spun some of the merino and silk blend lap waste that I bought at World of Wool, and they look amazing. I’ll definitely be getting some more lap waste next time I pop across to Huddersfield. The two purple yarns are going to become a shawl and the brown/green is going to be a hat, both to give to the couple who bought me my spinning wheel. The pink and purple ties are not part of the yarn – that’s just some acrylic I used to tie the skeins to stop them tangling.

Lap waste yarn.

I also did some experimenting with wools from different sheep breeds and the acid dyes my husband bought for me for Christmas. I tried to find a large saucepan in the local charity shops, but had no luck, so in the end I purchased a cheap stockpot from Wilko, along with some plastic tongs and a few wooden spatulas. I got a few big bottles of distilled white vinegar, put on some protective clothing and a dust mask, and set to work dyeing some combed top. First I dyed some grey Cheviot. It was supposed to be variegated in shades of green, but it came out a solid, muted shade. I realised that I’d need more dye for saturated shades. Next I tried some white Southdown wool, and dropped violet dye in one side of the pan, blue dye in the middle and turquoise at the opposite side. My attempt at a ombre effect looked promising to start off with, but as the dye bath heated up, the colours merged and spread far more than I’d hoped. By the time the dye bath was exhausted, there was only a very subtle variegation in colour. As I was rinsing the wool, it also became apparent that the texture of the Southdown had changed much more during the process than the Cheviot had. Had I got it too hot? Had I made the solution too acidic? I wasn’t too sure, but whatever I’d done had definitely made the wool become much denser.

The Cheviot spun smoothly, much as it had done when I sample spun it undyed. It was an effortless spin, and the finished yarn has a silky handle and subtle lustre, along with an appealing hairiness. I wouldn’t want to wear it around my neck, but I bet it would make a hardwearing pair of socks. The Southdown was much more stubborn about being spun. It was very crisp and springy and much harder to draw out than it had been before I dyed it. I did manage to make a fairly consistent yarn in the end, with a very different character to the Cheviot. It is matte and has a very bouncy texture.

Southdown (blue) and Cheviot (green).

I found it very interesting how the texture of the Southdown had changed after dyeing, so I decided to try an experiment. I took some dark grey Masham top, and divided it in two. Half of it I spun undyed, taking notes of how it spun and how the finished yarn handled. It spun easily and finely using short forward draw and the resulting yarn was quite lustrous and very hairy. The other half I put into the same dyebath as some Texel wool I was dying, then spun it and compared. The dyed wool was much ‘stickier’ to spin. The fibres didn’t slide past each other as easily, making it harder to draw the wool out into a fine yarn. The finished yarn has the same lustre and hairiness as the undyed yarn, but feels denser and slightly coarser to the touch, despite being spun and plied at the same ratio.

I think that the difficulty in drawing the wool out is partly because the dyeing process removes the traces of lanolin left in the undyed wool so there is nothing to lubricate the fibres. I think that this is why the Southdown felt almost crispy once it had been dyed, in the same way that human hair feels brittle and crunchy if it has been over shampooed and not conditioned afterwards. Maybe adding a little spinning oil or neatsfoot oil to the wool before spinning would help with this. I think the other cause of the difference in wool character is due to a small amount of shrinkage that occurs during the process. Dyeing with acid dyes requires the dye bath to be heated close to boiling point, and even though I take care not to agitate the wool in the dye bath, a small amount of shrinkage seems to occur. This causes the wool top to contract and become more dense, and therefore more difficult to draw out, and this seems to make the resulting yarn heavier and denser too.

Masham yarns spun from undyed and dyed top.

The next wool I decided to dye was some Cotswold. I’d got the hand of spinning longish wool with the Masham, but Cotswold really is a LOOOOOOONG wool and I fancied a challenge.

I’d finally worked out what I was doing wrong in my previous attempts at kettle-dyeing variegated yarn. Too much water! It’s no good putting two different coloured dyes in the pot if there is a big gap underneath the floating wool for the dyes to intermix in. I also decided to try adding the dyes to the pan once the water was hot, instead of adding the dye to the cold water. After I’d soaked the wool in Eurolana Wool Wash (to remove any grease) and rinsed it, I poured a few inches of cold vinegary water into the stock pot then I arranged the wool in a snug figure of eight at the bottom of the pan. I added a little more water (pouring it down the side of the pan, not onto the wool) so that the wool was just covered, then put the lid on and heated it very gently on the hob for half an hour, until it was steaming. I had pre-mixed the dyes with a little water in some jam jars, one yellow, one red and one sienna, and I poured one colour into each ‘eye’ of the woolly figure of eight, and one into the two gaps at the side of the pan where the wool crossed over. I put the lid back onto the pan, turned the heat down as low as it would go, and left it for about forty minutes until the water had become clear. Once the dyebath had cooled and I’d rinsed the wool, I realised that I’d got exactly the result I wanted. I’d finally cracked it!

The Cotswold wool top looked glorious, like shining flames, and it only got better when I came to spin it. It took me a little while to get used to spinning wool with such a long staple, but once I got the technique right it spun like a dream. The resulting yarn is drapey and so lustrous that it seems to glow from within. It is quite a coarse wool, and I wouldn’t want to wear it next to my skin, but it is beautiful. I am in love. I can’t wait to spin some more longwool breeds.

Cotswold yarn spun from kettle-dyed top. It glows.

I am really enjoying exploring different breeds. It is amazing how wools can have such different characters, and I find it fascinating how that affects the spinning process and the yarn that the wool ‘wants to be’. Some wools want to be chunky, bouncy yarns, and others want to be fine, delicate yarns. I’ve got plenty more wool tops from different breeds waiting to be spun, and for Valentine’s Day my husband bought me a secondhand electric steamer from a charity shop, so now I’ll be able to experiment with hand painting wool and see what effects I can get.


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