Dyeing Day

I started spinning yarn in September and after a while I thought is would be great to try dyeing some of the yarn I spin, especially when I have a great supply of raw alpaca from friends who own a couple of these adorable animals. I got a dye kit for Christmas and this week I finally got around to using it. I’ve been collecting suitable containers for dye stock and to use as dye baths. I also acquired a second hand microwave. You really need to keep these separate and not use them for food once they’ve been used with the dyes.

These are acid dyes, which are used specifically for protein fibres, including wool, alpaca and silk. The kit from DT Crafts includes 10 pots of different coloured dyes, citric acid, a measuring spoon, protective apron and gloves and a detailed instruction booklet.

I began by retying the skeins of yarn. Usually I secure the skein ends by tying a couple of half hitches but this would be too tight and stop the dye getting to some of the yarn. I undid these and used some strips of plastic bag very loosely tied in a figure of eight so the dye could circulate freely. I then thoroughly soaked the yarn in water.

Meanwhile I mixed up the dye solutions using 3 colours of dye powder adding citric acid powder to fix the dye.

I used three different methods. The dye needs heat to fix it as well as the acid. With the turquoise dye I placed the soaked yarn in an old pan with water and dye solution and brought to simmering point on the hob , keeping at this temperature for 30 minutes,

I used the green dye (more of a teal shade) in a shallower vessel in the microwave, heating this for 20 minutes in five minute bursts, stirring in between.

At the end of cooking the liquid should turn clear as the the dye molecules leave the solution and chemically bond to the fibre.

for the final batch I laid the soaked skeins on clingfilm and painted stripes of violet,turquise and green dye onto the yarn,, massaging it into the fibre and allowing the colours to bleed into each other. The skein was then wrapped in clingfilm and microwaved for 20 minutes.

All three were allowed to cool in situ before rinsing, and hanging up to dry

Here are the finished skeins

The turquoise yarn (left), which was simmered on the hob,gave a lovely solid colour. The teal/green which was microwaved (2nd from left) was a little patchy – I’m not sure if the dye bath was too shallow or I hadn’t got the temperature quite right, but I quite like the effect. The painted yarn (right and 2nd from right) worked well, though the turquoise and teal are quite close in colour. I love how vibrant the colours are and it was such good fun to do. I’m frantically spinning enough yarn to make a jumper for myself and am mulling over which colours to usefor that. I also want to try dyeing fibre before spinning and experiment with mixing colours. The possibilities are endless!

Skirting Day

A while ago I was given a huge bag of raw alpaca fleece. So far I’d only processed a very small amount of it, which I spun and knitted to make baby socks and hat as a gift. Today I did the first stage of processing the rest. This is known as skirting. The fleece (known as a blanket when it comes to alpacas) is spread out on a mesh table and agitated to remove dust. Any stained fibre and pieces of vegetable matter (hay, pieces of grass, seeds etc) are removed as well as very short second cuts, (where the shearer has gone over a second time), which are too short to spin. The fibres are then sorted into the various grades, from the finest longest fibres on the animal’s back through to the shorter pieces on the neck and sides – well that’s what the professionals do. I can’t say I did such a thorough job!

I think the alpacas like to have a good roll about because the fibre is very dusty – everywhere in the conservatory where I do all my crafting was covered just from processing a tiny amount. Lesson learnt, I needed to sort through the rest outside! K has made me this little skirting table. It’s basically a wooden frame with chicken wire stretched over it – he’s added tape and some pipe insulation to stop the edges of the wire catching. This just rests on a couple of garden chairs.

It’s not quite big enough to spread a whole blanket out but it’s perfect for my purposes.

I’d been waiting for a sunny dry day without much wind. Alpaca is light as a feather and if I’d tried doing this in the gales we’ve had recently most of it would have ended up in the next county! As I tipped the fibre out on to the skirting table there were clouds of dust. I kept agitating the blanket to release as much of the dust as possible.

I picked out the larger pieces of vegetation – there wasn’t a great deal of it and some of the tinier fragments will come out of the fleece during the later stages of processing. You can see a couple of small pieces of leaf towards the bottom of the next photo.

I separated out the best long fibres, which are around 5 inches long, from the rest This is mostly around 2-3 inches long so still perfectly good to spin. Now most of the dust is out I can sort this more fully indoors and not need to rely on the weather. You can see the layer of dust left where I ran my finger across the green tape.

I’ve now got all the fibre in labelled plastic bags.

Buddy took great interest in what I was doing.

As you can see there was quite a lot of spillage, mostly the very short second cuts. He did offer to sweep the patio though!

I’ve been promised more fibre from Aero and Wispa, our friends’ alpacas (how lucky am I?). I think I’ll definitely wait until the Spring for my next skirting session. By then the birds visiting our garden during the nesting season could really make use of the bits of fibre that I drop!

Amazing Alpaca!

We have a saying here in the North East: “Shy bairns get nowt”, which basically means that sometimes you have to be a bit cheeky and ask for something. When I realised that some dear friends of my brother and his wife have alpacas, I asked if they could perhaps bring me some alpaca fleece next time they visited. Since spinning became my new obsession I’ve been itching to get my hands on some alpaca fibre. It’s so gloriously soft and warm and I love knitting with it so really wanted to have a go at spinning some.

I also thought it would be really interesting to get hold of raw fleece from a known source, prepare it, spin it and knit into a garment, embracing the entire process.

When my brother dropped this large plastic sack full last week I was absolutely over the moon. He said he’d bring some, but I hasn’t imagined it would be so much

When I started to tip the contents out the fibres immediately fluffed up – there must be at least 2 complete blankets or fleeces compressed into that bag – over 6kg of fibre!. He also sent me some photos of the animals that provided the fleece: a pair of alpacas called Wispa and Aero. Aren’t they adorable?

I’ve been reading up how to process the fibre and I’ve partially skirted the first fleece. This involves separating out the soiled fibres and the shorter and coarser parts from the edges and removing second cuts (the shorter tufts where the shearer has gone over the animal a second time). Some of this is perfectly usable – but what is left is the best quality long fine fleece from the back of the animal.

The fleece holds a lot of dust, some of which falls out during the skirting process. The next stage is to wash the fibre. To do this I put the fibre into mesh bags (the sort you use for laundering underwear) . I added some wool wash liquid to hand-hot water and gently immersed the bags. The wet fleece must be handled very carefully or it felts together, so I just left it to soak for 20 minutes, then drained the water and lightly pressed on the bags to remove some of the water. I then added clean water of the same temperature (sudden temperature changes damage the fibres) to rinse the soap away. In some respects alpaca fibre is easier to wash than sheep’s wool ,which is rich in lanolin and takes repeated washing to remove). The water was now clear so I drained it, pressing gently on the bags remove water, then placing the bags between towels and pressing gently again. I then allowed the fleece to dry. It has cleaned up to a beautiful pure white, which offers so many possibilities for experimenting with dyes…..that’s a whole new craft in itself.

I’ve been using pet brushes to comb the fibres (have asked for proper carding combs for Christmas) and have gradually picked through it to remove all the fragments of vegetable matter. The prepared alpaca is the softest fluffiest stuff ever. It’s like a cloud!

Next job – to spin it! I spun a couple of singles and plyed them together to make this 2 ply yarn – 99 yards/49g

There was some left which I plyed with some blue merino to make this little skein (41 yards /15g.

It has been lovely to spin with and I’ve only used part of the fibre I processed there’s still a load more to skirt, wash and card). The project possibilities are endless!

I’m so lucky to have such generous people in my life…..and some of them have alpacas!