Adventures in Natural Dyeing

Last year, in the summer of 2017, I took my first foray into natural dyeing. I like the idea of natural dyeing – scrounging for stuff in my environment and using that to transform my wool and yarn into something different and unique is especially appealing, although the idea of using plant (or bug!) based dyes that I can’t necessarily find in my back yard is also an attractive thought. There’s something about natural colours that I find particularly beautiful – even the brightest reds or darkest greys have an earthiness to them that shines through.

I’m going to be using this series of blog posts to detail my adventures in natural dyeing – successes and failures. I hope to share in detail with you what I’ve done, my thoughts, outcomes, and what I learned and what I could do better to achieve the intended colour. So I hope you’ll follow along, and rejoice in the successes, but more importantly learn with me from the failures, because that’s the only way we really get to success.

This series will be an absolute primer as I learn just what the heck I’m doing. I’ll be explaining terms, discussing resources I’ve found particularly helpful, and sharing my recipes and pictures of skeins I’ve dyed.

My first experiment in natural dyeing last year happened in early summer. I raided a friend’s lilac tree and grabbed flowers, leaves and stems. I had pre-mondanted my skeins using alum, and used about a 1:2 ratio of plant material to fibre. Honestly, I didn’t keep great notes (something I’ve started doing in earnest this year), but the result was a light khaki on some 2-ply hand spun Cheviot I had worked on earlier in the year. I was thrilled, really, that anything happened at all, and it certainly ignited my interest to further explore natural dyeing.

Despite my lacklustre notes, I do remember what I did, mostly because it was my only experiment until this week.


    15% WOF (weight of fibre) of alum
    1:2 ratio of dyestuff to wool
    282 g of handspun Cheviot 2-ply yarn

I had pre-mordanted the skeins about a week prior. I had 282 grams of fibre, so using the 15% WOF ratio I used 42g of alum. 15% WOF for the alum left a “sticky” feeling on the yarn, meaning that the yarn did not take up all the alum I added to the water, and instead had left some desposited on the yarn rather than be taken up into it. It’s an unpleasant feeling, so for subsequent dyeing I reduced the amount to 10% WOF.

The formula is:

    WOF x 0.10 = amount of alum to use

So, using this formula, if I was pre-mordanting these yarns again, the calculation would be: 282 x 0.10 = 28.2 g of alum. I round up or down to the closest whole gram, so I would have ended up using 28g of alum.


Mordanting is important when it comes to natural dyeing – in a nutshell, it improves light- and washfastness of the colours you’re about add to your yarn. I use alum, as it’s readily available at natural dye suppliers, is relatively safe for home use, and has little documented impact on water systems and the environment.

The alum binds to the yarn, which then in turns helps bind the dye to the yarn in the dye pot. Without that binding agent, plant dyes especially will loose colour over time (some at an increased speed than others). You can use iron, copper, along with tannins as a mordant as well. Some of these can be harmful to you and the environment, so proper handling is extremely important.

You can mordant and dye at the same time, however for practical reasons (not using the kitchen stove for hours at a time) I chose to pre-mordant. All that means is you do this step prior to dyeing. Pre-mordanting can be done weeks in advance of dyeing. I like doing a big round of mordanting, then I put the yarn aside and have some skeins ready to go for dyeing as the mood strikes.

I’ve also read anecdotal evidence that suggests dyes will bind better if the dyeing is done after the mordanting process. I have absolutely no idea how true this is, but since it went with my work flow better that’s the way I decided to do it.


I took my dyestuff and put it in a big enamel pot on the stove. I set it to simmer at about 75-80C for an hour. After that was completed I removed the plant materials and popped my skeins in, letting them simmer at the same temperature for about 90 mins. I removed the skeins and rinsed, and let dry in the shade outside.

What I got was the colour you see in the picture above – a light yellowish khaki.


What I’d do differently

I just kind of did whatever for that first run, and I got a result! I had been aiming for a khaki-ish colour. I had read that the blooms only will give you something greener and the stems and leaves of lilac would give you something in the yellower/brownish range.

  • Dyestuff and WOF – I’d definitely add more plant material to yarn next go around to get something not quite as pale. Most of what I’ve read recommends a 1:1 ration of fibre to dyestuff, if not a 2:1 ratio (so double the weight of dyestuff to yarn).

  • Less alum – I referenced that a bit earlier, but 15% is just too much. A little of it did come off in the dye bath and in subsequent rinses but the yarn, even a year later, still has a bit of that feel to it. I’ve been debating using some Orvus paste and just giving it a very, very gentle wash, it might go further to get the extra alum off the yarn. All subsequent pre-mordanting will be done with 10%-12% alum to WOF.

  • Extracting the dye – Now that I’ve worked more with extracting dye from plant material (more on that in another post) I’d extract the colour differently. I wouldn’t rush the process of simmering for an hour then dyeing, I’d cover the plant material in boiling water and let it sit all night, and come back for the actual dyeing the next day.
    Crossposted from Dominion Fleece & Fibre

    Dominion Fleece & Fibre

    I’m excited to introduce Dominion Fleece & Fibre!

    Dominion F&F was something that began with my own wool breed studies. I think it’s a natural progression for a spinner to start with whatever you can get your hands on, then as your experience grows, your desire to learn more grows with it. You start to learn about worsted vs. woollen preps, or how one breed of sheep might be better for socks than a shawl.

    You start to get a feel of what your favourites are, and you move past the often-advertised merinos and start really delving into the Shetlands and the Finns and the Gotlands.

    And not only that, because a whole world of crossbreeds presents itself, too; a Merino/Romney with a crimpy soft hand, but harder wearing capabilities. A Jacob/Shetland cross that gives you the softness of Shetland down but the staple length you can get from a Jacob.

    Over my years with hand spinning, I learned that I have a serious soft spot for Jacob, Finn, and Cheviot. I learned that I really do love a complete worsted prep and spin. And when I started my own breed studies, I realized the possibilities were vast, and a whole world, literally, opened up at my fingertips.

    I started connecting with farmers. At first glance, it appeared that in my area, farms were raising Suffolk and Dorset and Arcotts. But with a bit more digging, I found farmers with dozens of breeds, all across the fibre landscape. On top of that there’s alpaca and llama and bison and goat… the list seemed almost endless.

    In early 2017 I made a few farm visits and fell in love with the process I had begun. I learned that Alberta has a rich wealth of fibre livestock. I learned that processing my own fleeces gave me a connection with that fibre, the animal, and the land it came from. I gained a new perspective and a new appreciation for these fibre animals, and the people who raise them.

    I know not everybody is as lucky as me – to be able to drive a relatively short distance from home and hit several farms isn’t in the cards for everybody. I heard from other Canadians that they just didn’t have the opportunity to visit farms, or the space in their homes for huge amounts of fleece.

    Out of that, Dominion F&F was born. It’s a way to help support our fibresheds by purchasing directly from the farmers, and to raise awareness about this amazing resource we have in our own back yards. I want to help share this diversity across the country with other fibre artists and crafters.

    Last week, Dominion F&F officially opened. In the shop, you’ll see what I have available right now. With at least half a dozen more farm visits in the next two months as farmers shear their flocks, you can expect several more breeds to be making their appearance. There will be supplies and tools available to help you wash your fleece and organize your stashes – if you head on over to Spinning Accessories you’ll find the beginnings of this.

    And, I have more plans. I hope to use the blog to highlight tips and tricks on washing, preparing and using your raw fleeces. More importantly, I hope to use that space to highlight some of our fibre farmers, so you can get to know them as well as I have.

    Be sure to check out the the Dominion F&F Instagram and Facebook pages too to follow along with shop updates, and farm visits.

    Learning New Things

    Burton Vestigan – just finishing the collar.

    I took a bit of a break over the last six or eight weeks of 2017 from spinning, because there was knitting to be done. I like to specifically take time at the end of the year to knit patterns from other designers, and I was really pleased with my Burton Vestigan that I had decided to work on.

    I also had decided that I wanted to spin for and knit the Ghosthunter’s Cloche, with some moorit Shetland fibre I had picked up earlier in the year. That was… not entirely successful. And not for any fault of the pattern (in fact, I’m going to re-knit it in a commercial yarn), entirely through my own fault.

    The problem was, the Shetland I have is roving, but I spun it short forward anyway. I’ve done this before, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it most definitely was for this fibre. The resulting yarn, which was nice enough to look at, was so insanely dense and uneven, it was actually uncomfortable to work with.

    Traditional 3-ply, roving but spun short forward. Looks just fine in hank form, but it’s wildly uneven.

    I did knit a gauge swatch before starting, but when your gauge is all over the place, what’s the use? Needless to say the hat doesn’t fit, much to my chagrin because it’s a super awesome pattern. All may not be lost – I’m going to try felting it in the wash to get it down to size.

    But that whole experience really got me thinking about my spinning.

    I’m very comfortable with short forward draw, and I’m okay with short backward, but when it comes to things like spinning from the fold or long backward, I’m the proverbial babe. This is compounded by the fact that I like spinning worsted and really love worsted yarns, but as I so painfully learned in December, that’s not always appropriate.

    So the past few weeks, I’ve been digging through my stash – I have a selection of rovings I got from Custom Woolen Mills in Carstairs last year that I’ve been woefully neglecting, and I decided finally to learn long draw.

    Like most handspinners I fear the dreaded “wasting of the fibre”. I know whatever new technique I’m learning will not produce the awesomest of yarn, so I just avoid it. So here’s me, with literally pounds of fibre all prepped and ready to go, but languishing unused.

    Well screw that, I say. It’s not all necessarily about the finished yarn, it’s about learning something new, and you’re never going to be great at something you’re just learning for the first time. But practice it enough and you will be great.

    So, I pulled out my Ile de France roving and got to work.

    My first skein was bumpy. And had underspun bits. And overspun bits. I felt like I was a first time spinner all over again. But, I also learned that long backward is fast. Really fast. That is something I definitely like.

    I decided that that first skein was going to be all about learning the new movement – not worrying so much about consistency. I use my left hand to pull the yarn forward in short forward, so learning to pull back with my right was the complete opposite, and my muscle memory fought me pretty hard for that first bobbin.

    With the initial jump, I feel a lot more confident though, and quickly decided to move on to a spinning project. I’m being a lot more purposeful with my movements, and a lot more careful about keeping it even. I’m pulling out more slubs, and when a section comes through that doesn’t match, I’m fixing it. The skeins will still be uneven, but I’m hoping not quite as much.

    I’m on my final bobbin now, and after plying I’ve decided to finish by thwacking and fulling slightly – the thought process being any under spun bits will hopefully gain some needed strength.

    So far I feel pretty good about the whole process, and I’ve gotten enough confidence in it to starting thinking of uses for my other rovings that have been sitting untouched. The last of the moorit Shetland will be next, and I’ll spin pretty much the same weight as the Ile de France. Who knows, maybe a hap is in my future with my first woollen spun yarns?

    Tomatoes & Spinning, Oh My!

    Harvested Tomato ‘Dubrava’ fruit

    It is finally the beginning of tomato harvesting season here in Alberta. I’ve been waiting for what feels like forever! In reality it’s only been three months, we don’t plant out tender plants until May long weekend here in Edmonton because of the risk of frost, but watching these guys grow for three months and having to wait to eat them is a serious tease.

    To say I love tomatoes is an understatement. I grow around 30 plants every year, all of varying varieties, and have converted a not inconsiderable amount of my yard to tomato patches. I grow them, I save as much seed as I can, and I share them around the world with other gardeners (The Populuxe Seed bank has been my pet project for the past 10 years, and I have hundreds of varieties preserved).

    I know, I know, this is a knitting/spinning blog right? Well, that’s a bit of a explanation for you why it’s been so long since I posted! We’ve been enjoying the summer here (when I’m not hiding from the 30C temperatures that is), and the garden does take up a lot of time and care through the summer.

    Not to say I haven’t been knitting and spinning of course!

    1221 yds of Merino/Romney 2-ply.

    I’ve finished up my Merino/Romney spin, which I started for Tour de Fleece, and continued on after that. I wanted to get around 1200 yards so I could have enough to knit two 600 yard shawls, and I accomplished my goal. There’s 5 skeins, all totalled after finishing, at 1221 yards.

    The Stats

    Grist: 1039 ypp
    Twist: 40°
    WPI: 15/16
    Weight: Light fingering
    Draft: Short forward draw
    Ratios: Spun 14:1, Plied 14:1

    I plan on dyeing this yarn, but I haven’t decided how much and what exactly. I purchased some natural dyes from Maiwa in Vancouver that I’m very excited to start experimenting with.

    I bought logwood, osage, and chestnut, along with some iron. I think out of these three colours plus what I can scrounge around me I should be able to make a few different colours that I’ll be happy with. It’ll be an interesting experiment anyway.

    I’m leaning towards dyeing these skeins (or at least a few of them) with logwood, and giving them an after-bath of iron. But first I’ll be experimenting on some mini-skeins I spun up exactly for this purpose. Part of me is really scared of screwing them all up and I’ll just despise the colours I dye them, so taking that leap is a bit of a scary prospect.

    I’ve been knitting too – but I’ve been mostly keeping that under wraps for now. These are a few designs that I feel like I’ve been working on forever. It’s mostly been starting to knit, ripping out, rejiggering the pattern (technical term), and then re-starting them. But now, I’m almost done the first pattern, and the second will be started imminently. I’m really excited about these designs, and if you liked Inis Oirr, I think you will too.

    Inis Oirr is available for free on Knotions, so head on over to the pattern page here to find that link to tide you over until the new knits are ready to be released.

    Experiments in Raw Fleece – The Finished Yarn

    Merino/Romney 2 ply spun for Tour de Fleece

    What a weird few weeks it’s been.

    So since my last post, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few farms, meeting a few sheep (along with some donkeys and llamas), skirting a bunch of fleece, and then… I sprained my ankles. Both of them. Long story, and let’s just say I’m really good at injuring myself in new and interesting ways. They’re on the mend now, but they’ve taken about a month to heal.

    So that has actually put quite a damper on a bunch of plans, and I’ve spent more time than I care to think about sitting on the couch, elevating and icing said ankles. Which really put the kibosh on all my Tour de Fleece plans.

    I haven’t been totally immobile (because seriously that would have driven me crazy), but I haven’t gotten anywhere near as much done for TdF as I had planned. As I write to you, on the very last day of the tour, I’ll be plying up my third skein. The two above I spun in the first two weeks, one is 250 yards and the other is 230. I’m really, really pleased with the final product. I feel like it’s been a long road, but it hasn’t been, really. I only got my Merino/Romney fleece in March, started washing, waited for my combs to come, spent a lot of time prepping, and now I’ve finally looking at my finished (or almost finished work). Four months from start to finish isn’t bad.

    I’ve said this frequently over the course of the past few months, but processing my whole fleece and being with it every step of the way as filled me with a satisfaction I’m not sure how to articulate fully.

    Meeting your fibre source, and really experiencing the life behind home-prepped fleece has is miles different than going with commercially prepared fibre. And there is a life in self-prepped fleece that you don’t get with something done commercially.

    Not to say there isn’t joy in a commercially prepped top (I just got some Manx Loaghtan that I’m super excited to spin), but it certainly is different, and experiencing that and really getting to know my fibre through its life after it’s been shorn is an experience I think any spinner would benefit from.

    So is this the end of my Experiments in Raw Fleece series?

    No way! I have a ton more fleece in the garage from a variety of different breeds that I’m just itching to get started on. The process of learning with spinning is always on-going, and I imagine these fleeces have much more to teach me. I look forward to listening to what they have to say.