Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Tale of the Walnut-Dyed Fleece (with photos!)

A year and a half ago, I bought a scrumptious Romney fleece at the Woolgathering in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I should have been organized enough to save the sales slip and maybe a business card, but I wasn't, so I have no idea who I got it from. But it was nearly perfect, with almost no VM (vegetable matter--in other words, straw and thistles.) After I washed it, it was a soft light gray. Unfortunately, I can't lay hands on a lock that I was sure I'd saved, so I can't show how it looked. (I have learned from that mistake, and have been saving paperwork and fiber so I can keep track of what I have and where I got it. As mentioned before, I can be taught.)

Anyway, I did wash it, and thought about spinning it in its natural color. But just at that time, our black walnut trees were showering us with hundreds of mushy green/black spheres that were serving no purpose but to stain our shoes. I got the brilliant idea to dye the fleece with the black walnut hulls.

Now, I don't really like dyeing anything. It's too much like cooking, and my family will attest to the fact that, even after almost 27 years of marriage, I can't cook worth a hoot. Oh, occasionally I can whip out the giant artery-clogging breakfast of eggs, bacon, gravy, hash browns, etc. But I wouldn't have the faintest idea of what to do with a pot roast, and I've never successfully fried chicken. So anything that involves measuring, mixing, and timing is not on my Must-Do List.

BUT. Walnut dyeing is stupid simple. You break the green hulls off the walnuts (then crack open the walnuts to use for baking if you're a masochist and happen to like the flavor. "No" to both for me, thankyouverymuch.) Break the hulls up into a big pot of water and let them soak for, ohhh, like, however long you want, but before it starts turning moldy. Then you strain out the hulls, throw in the fleece and let it soak for, ohhh, however long you want. You can even warm the water first, or you can just set it in the hot sun and let Nature do its thing. Push the fleece around a bit so it dyes more or less evenly. Drain, rinse, repeat, let dry. Tadaaa! A gorgeous brown-with-gold-highlights fleece!

Wait, did I mention that you should wear rubber gloves during this entire procedure? Did I also mention that black walnut stain is pretty much permanent? Did I tell you how I know this? Could it be because my hands looked gangrenous for weeks afterward because I didn't use the aforementioned rubber gloves? Even when the worst of the dark stain wore off my skin, the crevices around my nails were still almost black. I looked like I'd been digging in the dirt and didn't bother to wash up afterward. 'Twas a bit embarrassing.

The fleece, however, was stunning. I wasn't up to carding it, so I sent it off to Kent and Jenny Ferguson at Ohio Valley Natural Fibers where they carded it for a terrifically reasonable price. I now have a giant box of six pounds of fleece (minus the little bit I've drafted and the tinier bit I've spun.)

It doesn't look too remarkable in the box, but I could hardly wait to start spinning this wool. I wanted it to be thicker that the yarn I usually spin, and I had to retrain my hands to pull out more fiber from the roving so I would get an even yarn at the thickness I wanted. I finally had a sample I liked, so I filled a couple of bobbins and plyed them.

Then I couldn't wait to see it knitted up, so I did a couple of swatches, and was thrilled with the soft scrunchy feel of the swatches. I haven't washed them yet, and I'll probably do a couple more on different needle sizes, but I just love how this wool is turning out. Note the tags on each swatch, showing needle size and wraps per inch. I told you I can be taught!

I wish the photos could show the slight gold sheen on the yarn and the swatches. I don't quite know where that comes from. Is it something about the color of the fleece, or is it a quality of the walnut stain? Whatever it is, it's beautiful.

So now I have about 5 pounds, 15 1/2 ounces left to spin. I'd better get cracking for a couple of reasons. One is that the incredibly-patient-with-the-spinning/knitting/quilting-rubble husband is getting sick of the giant cardboard box in our bedroom. The other reason, well, I'll save that for a later post. But here are a couple of clues: Ravelry and the badges at the upper right of the page. You can probably figure it out.

BTW, if anyone wants walnuts this fall, you know where you can get some. I don't have any plans for them this year!

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