Our plant-dyed (and other natural-dyed) wools use the Cheviot Aran 3-ply yarn as a base.
The process starts by re-winding 50g balls of Cheviot wool into skeins (or hanks), which after dyeing will be sold still as skeins/hanks, and still notionally 50g weight.
The dyeing is carried out in our dyeshed, which we built here at The Big Garden, behind the house, in 2014.
For most dyes, the wool is pre-conditioned with a natural ‘mordant’ which makes the dye-stuff stick to the wool, and thus makes the colour faster (that is, more resistant to light, washing etc). Each type of mordant has a slightly different effect on the finished colour: Alum is relatively neutral, but copper type mordants (which can be nothing more than an offcut of copper pipe in the dyebath!) might transform what would otherwise have been yellow into green. Some dyestuffs – for example those with a high tannin content – don’t need a mordant. Often we’ll mordant wool in bulk, and store it dry for dyeing later as and how needed.
The colouring or dyeing itself is done with a very wide range of natural materials, from sources that may be mundane or exotic. Nettles, ragwort and onion skins are certainly plentiful and readily available ; but others – such as lichens and plants native to the islands – are seasonal and hard to find, so require local knowledge, patience, time and effort – and storage space. Others, such as logwood, cochineal, madder, are from distant shores, and come in very small packets with proportionately large price tags!
Each colouring material, or dyestuff, requires a slightly different technique. In most cases the dyestuff is heated up in water to near boiling point to extract the colour. The liquor is strained off and the heat turned down to simmer, with the skeins of wool – usually pre-mordanted – immersed in the dyebath to take up the colour.
Sometimes, the wool will not absorb all of the colour that is in the dyebath: after the first batch of skeins is removed, the residual dye will produce a further batch with a less intense colour. In some cases this may again be repeated, the results being even paler than before.
The skeins added to the dyebath may have previously been dyed: the over-dyeing with a different colour can create colours not achievable with a single dystuff, such as when a wool dyed first with Ragwort (yellow) is over-dyed with Indigo (blue), resulting in a strong green. Modifications to colour can also be achieved by use of additives like spirit vinegar (acetic acid), lemon juice (citric acid), or rhubarb leaves (oxalic acid).
Hand dyeing of wools with natural colours is certainly not an exact science, and the results from what may seem to be an exact repetition of a previous recipe and method can produce surprsingly different results. For this reason every batch is small, unique, and and the colours are often complex and difficult to describe! The only attributes that they have in common and are consistent are : they are sold in skeins of 50 grammes all at the same price!
These natural dyed yarns are typically bought in relatively small quantities for use in weaving or tapestry work, or to provide colour in Fair Isle knitting; or for garments with coloured motifs. Visitors to the Hebridean Woolshed shop here in South Uist have the advantage of seeing exactly what is available at any one time. The alternative is to contact Denise (+44 1878 700828 ; firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss your requirements, and – as past experience has shown – a suitable yarn can usually be settled on. Once agreed, your provisional order will be held for seven days for you to complete your purchase – online or by other means, as agreed.
Online purchasing of these natural-dyed yarns, requires you to enter the provisional order reference code, without which it will not be possible to fulfill your order without getting in touch again to clarify your requirements.