Friday, 11 October 2013

Hand Spinning and Dyeing Polwarth Sheep Fleece

Polwarth sheep are few and far between in the UK.  I am a very lucky bunny to have been given some fleece by a person who keeps this breed herself.  She still has some she is prepared to sell.  If you are on Ravelry, you can contact her as WidowTwanky.  
My good fortune came at the end of a Spinning Rally Weekend, camping in the New Forest.  The company was excellent, the weather was - well, varied.  I arrived home damp, aching, but exhilarated. 

With the car only half unloaded, I put the Polwarth in a net bag and got it soaking in the hottest tap water with lots of Fairy Liquid. Before my clothes went in the washing machine, the fleece had a couple of hot rinses.  Long before I rinsed off my own accumulated filth, my treasure was laid out to dry.  

How about that for a sparkling box of locks?

No question of cutting corners with the preparation. All of this was hand carded into the best rolags I can manage, neps picked out.  Although the raw fleece looked fabulously white to me, I'm told this sheep, Mavis, was a particularly grubby customer. Tips with the heaviest tar on them were snipped off individually. Polwarth must be very waterproof sheep.  This fleece has much more lanolin in it than a Welsh Mountain sheep or a Jacob.  I am not sure exactly where the difference lies, but while Gotland is heavy in grease, Polwarth seems more oily to me.  The fine fibres had higher drag.  In my hurry, I had not washed the whole bag equally well.  Most was no problem to card and smoothly flowing to draft. A little more tug on the rolag was repaid with a fine yarn, less liable to come apart than commercially cleaned roving.  Then I hit a sticky patch. Literally.  The fibres were tacky, trying to stick to my fingers instead of each other.  In future - wash hotter in smaller batches.  I simmered a few samples of spun yarn with Fairy Liquid, giving them a bit of a stir and squeezing out the rinse water in a brisk fashion. Although my last fleece barely felted despite such rough treatment, I found the Polwarth needed much gentler handling. The fluffy strands of my first sample had to be teased apart in places .

The softness of washed Polwarth yarn is quite delicious.  I started by spinning as finely as I could.  Even with the clinging fibres, to stop the single breaking, I had to put high twist in it.  Overdid the navajo plying and ended up with a highly 'energetic' skein that wanted to knot itself.  Despite all this, even in a bit of lace pattern on thin needles, the fabric felt smooth and silky.  A thicker spun, two ply sample was lush.  Finally, Navajo plying a thicker single with less twist, particularly during plying, gave me a balanced, squashy, shiny, round yarn. Decision made.  Lace weight spinning will be a challenge for another fleece, another time. Trying out the samples on different sized needles, I noticed that the bigger the needle, the softer the fabric.

By the end of the box, I had made two 50g skeins of Polwarth, navajo three plied at 8-9wpi, which is about aran weight.  

Very gently, I scoured them, then mordanted with Alum and Cream of Tartar.

While spinning, I saw part of the October challenge on the Ravelry UK Spinners' forum is an autumn leaf colourway.  Very seasonal. Better still, we've had no frost yet.  Given such a mild October, I reckoned I could obtain orange, yellow, green and brown using the last flush of the dye plants still growing in the garden.   
The coreopsis plants had about 90g of flowers ready to pick.  Though they gave more of a bronze than the burnt orange I got from them at the height of summer, I was well pleased.

I have been drying Dyer's Chamomile flowers, but the blackfly loved the plants last June/July, so there never were very many at one time.  This is the first fresh dye bath I have made. Only 60g flowers to do the other 50g of yarn.  Twice the weight of flowers to wool is recommended. Nice buttery yellow even so.  Still on song for the autumn theme. 

I picked the last of the woad leaves from the veg patch on Sunday morning.  A mere 300g while still damp with dew, but that seemed about right since I only wanted to overdye 50g wool.  Using my usual method, I spent a sunny morning getting to the point of making the first dip.  I expected to get brown from overdying on coreopsis and green from overdying the chamomile.

I got turquoise.  Not at all what I had planned.  Too much blue in that dye bath.  Never thought I would complain about too much woad, but oh, ruination!  This is so NOT autumnal.  Good job I had a visitor, or the very air would have been blue.  I stomped off to walk the dog and ponder my downfall.  As usual with plant dyeing, the confounding factors are probably multiple. Yes, more woad in the autumn plants than I bargained for, but also, less orange in the autumn coreopsis and not enough chamomile for a strong enough yellow. Result - unbalanced - me and the dye.

Modifying the turquoise with copper might green things up.  An iron afterbath could sadden the zing out of it, but also make make my soft yarn weaker and harsher. 

The sunny weekend had brought more coreopsis buds into bloom. What a star that plant is.  The new flowers weighed 35g.  I mordanted the turquoise end of the wool all over again.  Loads of yellow dye came back out in the process. Hounds of hell, too late for regrets. 

After a second coreopsis dye bath, the final green is not strong as autumn leaves, but it is much less blue.  It does have tones of brown in it where the yarn took up a little more orange in some places.  I am not going to try for a full brown section, best quit while I am ahead.  Fair play, the Polwarth has tolerated simmer after simmer. Not felted, still soft and lush and shiny.  Lovely, lovely fleece.  I must have more ...  


  1. This is some good dye work! I've never seen woad, as the plant is considered "noxious" in my part of the US, and we're not supposed to grow it. I like that turquoise, though, its transformation, and the resultant mix of colors -- very beautiful!

  2. WOW, I love the turquoise too! I've never got that shade from woad, and it looks really good alongside the yellow and bronzy orange. I think you did pretty good with your autumn leaf dye.

  3. Thanks everyone - it seems I am the only one who got upset about the turquoise. A willingness to go with the flow would have saved me a fair bit of angst. Should just have been grateful it didn't turn out beige :)

  4. Great colours! I just love spinning polwarth but I'm blessed with plenty of it.

    1. I have heard that Australian Bond fleece is fabulous - do you spin with it, would you agree and if so, where would you buy it? Ulterior motive here, my Mum lives in West Lakes Shore.

  5. Hmmm, lovely and unusual bunch of colours, but they do go ever so well together; part of the magic of natural dyes? (Never done any myself... So much fun awaits me in weaving and in spinning that I daren't get I to dyeing as well - I'd never finish anything at all!) Can't wait to see what you make with it - and I don't have to wait, just press a button!