Home Archive Wool Spinning and Dying :: Inspiring Creativity

Wool Spinning and Dying :: Inspiring Creativity

by Folksy Support

Written by AmyOrangejuice

Sheila Dixon - Spinning Wheel

In contrast to my last post on the modern art of photography; this week I am exploring an ancient human activity. Since humans worked out how to get wool from sheep we have been spinning the wool into yarn and dying it, ready to be knitted or woven into clothing. Folksy has a wealth of talent in this area so lets find out more about how its done and the Folksy sellers who keep this tradition alive.

Yarn shops are thriving on Folksy and the best selling Folksy Shop on the whole site is Baby Long Legs yarn shop! Here I have asked some of the slightly less well known makers the same four questions I ask everyone………
Spinning Wheel Image – Shiela Dixon

So, what do you need to get started and how do you go about it?

To begin with you need the raw material, animal or natural fibres washed and carded (brushed between 2 bats until the fibres are all straight and aligned). The principle behind spinning is that the natural crimp in the fibre and the roughness of the fibre lock the individual fibres together into a strong thread when twisted together.

Spinning a Yarn
Image – Spinning a Yarn

The two main types of spinning are either using a wheel or by drop spinning, using small weights to twist the fibres together into a yarn. Rebekka Leigh explains, “I make my work through twisting fibers together to form a yarn, known as spinning. Using either a wheel or drop spindle, and experience, I put a twist into the fiber to create a continuous length of yarn. The art of spinning takes a lot of practice, patience and good co-ordination, especially when spinning on a wheel, as your hands and feet are used at the same time. I use quite a number of different materials and fibers when I create my yarns, as I feel that different texture can add an extra dimension to the final piece”

LeafGreenHandSpun uses her spinning wheel at home and but for 2 ply, tightly spun fine yarn she uses the drop spindle method, which is also much more portable and easier to take around with you. Here, instead of letting the wheel take up the fibres and create the friction to bind them together you use the weight of the spindles hanging down from your hands to twist the yarn together. The care and attention that goes into a hand spun yarn results in an extremely good quality product, with few imperfections which will knit or weave beautifully for a fabulous finish.

Dying is the other important aspect of making a beautiful yarn. WharfdaleWoolWorks gave me a run down of what you need to dye yarn, “Basic ingedients for dyeing are plant or animal fibres or ready spun yarn, dyes, salt, fixers and water.

For animal fibres I use either acid dyes or fibre reactive dyes depending on the colour or effect desired and for plant fibres fibre reactive dyes are used. Animal fibres are soaked in water with added citric acid and salt, plant fibres are soaked with soda ash and salt. The dyes I use come in powder form and need to be mixed with hot water prior to use. A safety mask should be worn whilst doing this.”

AbstractCat goes on to explain how to use these dyes, “…dyeing involves several stages. To dye animal fibres (wool, alpaca, silk) the undyed skeins of yarn are soaked in a mixture of water, citric acid and salt, which ensures good dye take-up. While the yarn is soaking I make up the dye solutions. After soaking the yarn is removed from the solution I usually dye the skeins of yarn in one of two ways: random dyeing, where the yarn is put in a pan on the cooker and different colours of dye solution poured over different sections. The pan is kept hot until the dye is exhausted (i.e. the dye has bound to the yarn and the leftover fluid is clear). Depending on yarn type and the concentration of the dye solution this can take anything from 20 minutes to 2 hours. Occasional stirring is allowed to minimise naked spots but vigorous stirring can cause a murky brown mess or worse, felted yarn.

Knit Cave - YarnImage – Knitcave

Secondly, I use the hand-painting itechnique, in which the yarn is spread out on cling film and dye dripped over it. Once all the yarn is coloured, it is wrapped in the cling film, put in a pyrex dish (strictly not used for food) and zapped in short bursts in the microwave until it is hot and steamy but not boiling. In both cases the yarn is left to cool before being rinsed until the water runs clear, and then hung up to dry. After drying I re-wind it primarily to check for problems such as tangles or knots, but also to make it look pretty (in my opinion, anyway)”. Animal fibres need to be heat set, however, natural fibres are set by the ingredients you use in the dye not by heat and can be left to dry without being heated.

A spinning wheel is a reasonable financial investment, there are several beautiful models for sale here on Folksy; drop spinning spindles are considerably cheaper and but both are beautifully crafted wooden items which will last a lifetime. Fibres, yarn and dyes come in a wide range of prices, so dying can be an inexpensive outlet for creativity, where as spinning is more of an investment!

Where do our spinners and dyers get their inspiration from and how do they translate that to wool?

Knitcave’s inspiration comes from many sources; “I am inspired by the natural colours seen as I go for walks, by a painting or photograph. This weekend I stayed with friends in Devon and my mind is buzzing with sunrises, the colours from a cliff-top walk and the beautiful reddish browns found in the feathers of hens. I also love being given suggestions by my customers and from many of my fellow dyers who are also nothing but supportive. I can still remember the first time I came across the dyeing of Amanda Perkins (The Natural Dye Studios) and Jeni Hewlett (Fyberspates); I was blown away and I still have a reasonable amount of their yarns in my personal stash”

Abstract Cat Crafts - YarnImage – Abstract Cat Crafts

WharfdaleWoolWorks enthused about the inspiration for her summer yarn collection, “…this summer I’ve done a series of sock yarns inspired by some photos I took of Monet’s Garden at Giverny. Everybody associates Giverny with the soft muted pastels of the Lily Pond paintings, but actually in the garden there are bright full on reds, oranges, pinks, greens, yellows and blues and I wanted to capture that in my yarns.”

Rebekka Leigh waits for inspiration to come to her from within! “Sometimes I will sit with all my fibre around me and wait to see which colours and textures start to stand out. I have always had a soft spot for bright, fun and happy colours, and its the reason I got into spinning yarn in the first place, I was unable to find yarns in the colours or textures that I desired.”

With a craft with such a practical application what are the chief challenges and rewards to yarn making?

Leaf Green Hand Spun - Blue YarnImage – Leaf Green Handspun

LeafGreenHandSpun enjoys the process and “the yarn is my reward” and finding the time to do it around her family is the challenge. Lots of us know that feeling!

Knitcave “…loves seeing what people do with my yarns and fibres, they are so skilled and it is humbling but affirming that they want to use and spend so much time with my work. Some days it can be difficult to know where to start – so many colours and possibilities trying to express themselves at the same time but by the time I start laying on the first colour ideas just flow and it can become difficult to keep up. “

Rebekka Leigh explains about the continuous learning of spinning, “The most challenging part can sometimes be actually mastering the technique to create a specific yarn, it can sometimes arch back to learning to spin. Its because of this spinning does not always go to plan and I can end up with something completely different to what I had imagined. Its at these times when I learn to appreciate and embrace these mistakes, so that I can improve or push the mistakes further for future yarns. I guess spinning is like learning to drive a car: you never really learn everything in one go, It is a continous learning curve, which involves trial and error, patience and experimentation.”

These women’s experiences have really made me think about yarn in a new way. I knew there are different grades and types of wool, but I had never considered how they are created, or the time, energy and skill involved in something we take for granted; the materials that make our clothes!

Where did our sellers learn their skills?

Wharfdale WoolworksImage – Wharfdale Woolworks

Well it turns out they are all self taught, spinning learned informally from others, or on short courses, from books, the internet and demonstrations. They all started dying with Kool Aid (a USA soft drink), Super Cook food dyes or natural dyes, before moving onto the hard stuff – professional powder and acid dyes…..it would appear that food colourings are a gateway dye and may lead to a serious dying habit – you have been warned! I found Rebekka Leigh’s road to spinning enlightenment especially inspiring, “I first learned to spin in Autumn 2009, before then I had tried to use a drop spindle along with some written instructions, which were both purchased at a craft fair back in 2005. I tried, and failed and the spindle was put aside for nearly a year. Occasionally I would look at it and try again with the help of online tutorials, only to fail and give up once more. Then later on in 2006 my husband bought me a second-hand spinning wheel from ebay, which involved a road trip from wales to Somerset to collect it. Armed with a spinning wheel and basic book on spinning, I sat down and tried the wheel…only to again fail and give up in anger. The wheel lay dormant in the spare room, keeping the spindle company from 2006 until 2009, where by fate I was to meet a new spinner in the college cafeteria. It was through this person I was introduced to her teacher who in turn taught me. I dusted off my wheel and armed with a bag of fiber I finally spun my first ball of yarn.”

Fancy a go? Well here are some suggestions of where to go to learn…..

Rebekka Leigh - YarnImage – Rebekka Leigh

Look on the internet for tutorials, the local Weavers and Dyers Guild are usually a mine of information, as are local colleges and craft centres, on top of these places here are some especially useful tips from some of the sellers:

Abstractcat, “…several independent dyers run beginner’s dyeing workshops that seem to be pretty popular. Alternative, Kool Aid dyeing (or Supercook dyeing in my case) is an easy, safe, fun and cheap way to try out yarn dyeing and there are lots of free tutorials available on the internet.”

WharfdaleWoolWorks, ” Courses are usually available through good local yarn stores such as baa ram ewe in Leeds organise sessions.”

Knitcave recommends, ” …DT Crafts, Fyberspates run courses. Knitty did a good article on hand painting yarn (http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEspring07/FEATdyeyourown.html) and Ravelry has several forums for dyers which are supportive and full of helpful advice. For natural dyeing I would really recommend books by Jenny Dean”

Studio thrity8 YarnImage – Studio Thirty8

So there you have it, you can take this area of craft as far as you like, go collecting fleece from barb wire fences and hills and go through the whole process from cleaning, carding and spinning the yarn all by yourself. Or buy some nice pre-prepared fibre bats from one of our sellers and have a go at spinning, or just buy some lovely natural undyed yarn and get busy with the American soft drinks! This is a craft with something for all levels from emmersing yourself entirely in learning a highly skilled craft to an afternoon having fun with dyes and your kids……..which ever you choose, enjoy!

Oh and if it all seems like a bit too much like hard work, you can get a delicious range of yarns from our Folksy sellers, or get one of them to custom make you some to in the exact shade you have always dreamed of!

Amy McCarthy is a glass artist and recycled mixed media artist working from a small studio in Devon. Amy’s Folksy shop sells beautiful traditionally made leaded gift panels, funky mobiles and suncatchers. Her work often includes recycled glass, found objects and acid etching. There is more than a whiff of the seaside to her work and much is inspired by the Devon coast and moors around where she lives. Amy makes bespoke windows for commission and is exhibits her recycled sculptures and mixed media art across the South West. You can find out more about her on her website, facebook or her blog.

If you would like to write an article or series for the Folksy blog then please get in touch – hilary@folksy.co.uk

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Helen My Heart Exposed Yarns August 20, 2010 - 9:38 am

Brilliant article, I am a little miffed however that you have used a photograph of one of my naturally dyed fibres and not even mentioned me anywhere on this page. Can you please explain this ?
Thank you
A puzzled Helen

Josie August 20, 2010 - 11:41 am

I think my Heart Exposed Yarn is being misrepresented in this article. You’ve used her photo, without permission, without mentioning her, and without even mentioning that, in contrast to the people interviewed, she dyes fibre and yarn using natural dyes not acid dyes.

amyorangejuice August 20, 2010 - 5:13 pm

Helen, I have emailed you.

Anne August 20, 2010 - 5:31 pm

Hi Helen. Sorry if this has caused you any upset. The image of your hand-dyed yarn which Amy used included a link to your shop, to encourage people to look around and hopefully buy something.

Not all the sellers whose work is shown get a mention in the text. If you look through the other blog posts this is quite normal. The images are used to brighten up the articles and show a variety of the great items on Folksy.

If you’re not happy with that for whatever reason we can remove the image, but we usually assume sellers are happy to get the publicity!

Josie – just to explain, the image isn’t used without permission. Permission to use images from Folksy shops for publicity purposes is in Folksy’s terms and conditions and it does link to Helen’s shop.

Hope this helps to explain it!

Jammam August 20, 2010 - 6:07 pm

It would have been polite to credit the spindle photograph too although I do appreciate that it links to my shop. It’s just good manners – like referencing a quote in any written piece elsewhere.


PS when items are used on etsy the writer messages the seller to let them know their products are being used in a showcase – or in this case on a blog. I have just found out you used a photo of an Ashford spindle from my shop on the 17th and I didn’t know about it until today 20th through Helen’s link on Facebook. Whilst you may be covered by your terms and conditions to do this I am sure sellers would like to know you are using their images so that they can be sure to list similar items at the appropriate time and can publicise your blog through their own contacts. TY :)

Anne August 20, 2010 - 6:57 pm

Hi Jacqui,

I understand what you are saying but until now we’ve felt that a link to the item worked in the same way as a credit.

We have a very small team I’m afraid – Amy has volunteered her time to write this post and we really appreciate it. Our writers generally do let sellers know that they are being featured but with lots of posts and lots of sellers sometimes they get missed!

We hope that sellers can appreciate we are trying to feature as many different shops as we can (with limited resources) and working to get their products out there. And we hope they read the blog regularly so they can see if they get a mention ;)

Helen My Heart Exposed Yarns August 20, 2010 - 7:48 pm

I agree 100% with what Jacqui jammam has put in response to this, it takes moments to be sent a message with a link, as opposed to several hours spent on online forums as is evident in your Talk section of the website.

This article has quotes from sellers and would indeed appear to have been thoroughly put together before submission therefore in this case there should have been plenty of time to send messages to the three of us who’s items were featured as photographs but not mentioned anywhere in the article.

As someone who uses a screen reader to navigate my way around the internet (I am legally blind) I didnt even know you could click on the photographs until someone told me this afternoon. It is usually universal on websites that a little java script appears showing the name of the image and a screen reader picks up if it is linked. Neither of these happened in this case for any of the images. The size of the image of my work (now removed) was large so one would assume it is an embeded image not a link. It is usually smaller jpegs that link to a larger image on websites.


Gelert Design August 22, 2010 - 11:16 am

How sad that people would take umbridge at a fellow seller taking time out of running her own business to help promote theirs, and to do it so publicly.

Jammam August 27, 2010 - 9:38 pm

Please don’t get me wrong here, I have not taken umbridge and I am delighted for my images to have been used and for a link to have been provided by the click through image used :) I would just have liked to have known about it (so that I could have enjoyed it) and I do think it is genuinely accepted as good netiquette (sp?) to credit photographs used.

paula September 3, 2010 - 9:26 pm

I agree with Jacqui, it’s good manners to credit, a link just isn’t the same because it implies (by omission) that the photo was taken by you. if someone has time to write something then they have time to credit (even if it is along the lines of a disclaimer saying the featured photos are taken from the artists’ websites – but that is the bare minimum imo)

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