The Flame is in Canada
As the Olympic torch gets handed to Canada today, it is making me look ahead to the upcoming Olympic games. I’m getting antsy, trying to choose an epic project for the Knitting Olympics. I missed the boat in 2006, but have been in training since then. I have already competed for Team Canada in the Ravelympics (for summer sports) in the events of “Fleece-to-Finished Fencing”, “Handspun Heptathalon”, “Mitten Medley” and “Hat Dash”.
It was the first time I’d taken a project from the dirty sheep fleece to the finished product, and when I told people about my Olympic challenge they responded with comments like “That’s pretty cool” or “I’ve never thought of doing that” or more commonly “You know…you can buy wool in a store these days”. There is something special about making a project from scratch–taking fleece that was going to be thrown out, and with my own hands, transforming it into something useful, and quite beautiful.
It all started out like this:
Raw Fleece in the Grease
I chose to use the white fleece (in the garbage bag) because it would give me a chance to experiment with natual dying. I’m not sure what breed of sheep this is from, but I do know that this fleece was complete with vegetable matter (grass) and waste (sheep excrement) and grease (lanolin).
I put the fleece in my bathtub full of warm water. I added cleanser (with a slightly acidic pH) to the water and let the dirt/waste settle out. I drained the water several times until it stayed clear. If you try this at home, be sure you have a filter screen on your bathtub drain–washing fleece can lead to drain clogging hairballs.
fleece drying on my balcony
hanging to dry
It took a day in the sunshine to dry the fleece. I learned quickly that as fleece dries, small pieces are sometimes carried off in the breeze. I wonder what my downstairs neighbours thought when they saw floating fleece from their balconies!
warm dry fluffy fleece
I put the dry fleece in a box, ready to start carding and spinning when the Olympics started. I got up ridiculously early to catch the ceremonies live in Beijing. I was kept company by my new drum carder and my spinning wheel.
and it begins
I purchased this drum carder on E-Bay, and it works pretty well. Some of the pieces need small repairs, but it still works much better than hand cards. I injured my wrists carding wool with hand cards when I took up spinning, and it took 6 months before I could bear weight on them. Good excuse not to do push-ups! The drum carder has made fleece processing much more enjoyable. It allows for blending of fibers or colours to create very fun variagated batts.
drum carder in action
I carded through the opening ceremonies with a BIG cup of tea to keep me going. I then started to spin a bobbin of singles, and then Navajo plied them to make a bobbin of 3 ply yarn.
I wound and tied the yarn into a skein on my niddy-noddy and then washed it to allow the yarn to bloom. It is amazing how a good soak will even out the tension of the plied yarn. The additional soaking helps to eliminate more dirt and vegetable matter. If warm water and cleanser are used, more lanolin will be removed, and the wool will stop feeling greasy. I’ve washed yarn in cool water before to preserve the lanolin for effect. Wearing lanolin-laden mittens is a sure way to soften and smooth hands. Processing the fleece and knitting with it is nice on the hands as well.
skein 1 drying
Skein 1 was put out to dry. Some neighbours were out on balconies at this point, and started yelling out questions at me….Most were genuinely curious, asking what I was up to. Others yelled to me that they learned to knit when they were young, or that they knew someone who used to spin. Of course there were others with the smart comment about how it would be easier to go buy wool at the store.
dyed with onions
The prospect of spinning white fleece for the duration of the Olympics, and then knitting mittens and a hat out of white fleece was starting to sound boring. I had heard that it is possible to dye fleece with different plants, so I took on an extra challenge to experiment with local vegetation and see what colours I could produce. Dying with onions gave me the best result. I carded the fleece and divided up the batt into pieces. I had been collecting the outer skins of onions for a while, waiting for this experiment. I boiled a big pot of water, and added the onion skins to it. I put the fleece into a mesh bag, suitable for washing delicates in the machine. This keeps the onion skins and the fleece separate. You do NOT want to add any extra vegetable matter into your fleece! The water should be kept warm/hot, but not boiling as you do not want to agitate the wool and cause it to felt.
The onion skins left the wool a warm golden colour.
So…..that made me wonder….what else could I dye with?
naturally dyed wool
I got to spinning, and over the next days I spun many small skeins of white wool, and dyed them on the stove with a variety of plants. The orange was a result of using beets. You’d expect beets to produce a lovely red colour, but it is a very fugitive dye, and this colour weakened over time. The yellows came mostly from golden rod flowers, the greens were experiments with red onion skins, and red cabbage, dyed in an alkaline dye bath with a copper scrubbie in the pot. I tried using tea and coffee as well as sumac. I’m not sure if it is worth all the effort, but it’s nice to know that it is possible to do, and I was intrigued by the range of colours that I could achieve from locally sourced plants.
Note: For the chemistry fans out there, different cations will cause the dye to “take” in different ways. Alum (aluminum) tends to brighten colours, Copper (from the pot, or the addition of a copper scrubbie) tends to make the greens come out well, Iron (from the pot, or natually existing in the water) tends to “sadden” the colour to make it duller. Also, the pH of the dye bath will affect the colour with acidic dye baths producing warmer more orange colours, and the alkaline dye bath produces a more green colour. So, not only are you dealing with the variable of the dye plant, the local tap water, the pot you are using, the mordant (ions added to help the dye “take” in different ways), you are also dealing with additives of vinegar or ammonia. I kept a detailed notebook with samples, but I am not sure that my experiment could ever be reliable.
Back to the project…
I knit the cuff from the 3 ply white yarn, and knit the rest of the mitten out of a 3 ply yarn (1 ply onion dyed, 2 ply white). It is my basic mitten pattern, made to fit a man’s hand.
finished mitts and hat
I knit the hat to match with the white fold up brim, and a cabled rib pattern toward the crown. I was impressed with how smooth the finish product ended up. The mittens feel silky, and not scratchy. The hat feels more scratchy, but I think that’s just because the back of the neck is more sensitive to that kind of thing. I was impressed with myself getting the hat and mitts made from that big pile of stinky fleece. I finished in time too! Gold medal for me!