Friday, 6 June 2014

Spinning Bond Wool Tops and Dyeing with Woad and Onion Skins

Having spent a century and more breeding their flocks for fleece quality rather than meat, Australia and New Zealand have some enviably smoochy sheep's wool.  Bond must surely be one of the best. In the Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook, it says the breed started as a cross between Lincoln rams and Saxon/Peppin Merino ewes, selected particularly for fineness of fibre. This Bond wool top was an enormous birthday present, brought all the way back from South Australia in my Mum's suitcase.  It is called grey, but descriptions of natural wool colours have baffled me before, like that intermediate brown on a Jacob being called 'lilac'.  This does have a grey halo to it, but to the untutored eye, the wool is even more of a soft brown than the photo suggests.  
Wool tops have been scoured, removing all dirt and grease, then combed, which takes out all the knots, short fibres and debris.  These Bond top fibres are between 12-14cm long with a fine crimp still discernable.  After all my struggles with raw fleece, I appreciate that the attributes of the final yarn depend as much on the method and care taken with preparation as the actual hand spinning.  Stroking my lovely, smooth Bond tops, I luxuriated in the expectation of sitting down to spin instant worsted laceweight.  Too cocky by half.  It is bloody difficult to draft an even stream of aligned fibres straight off the end of wool top.  While I was drafting out the fibre, hoping to feed a thin end through more smoothly, Elinor Gotland admired my birthday gift. 

"I met one of the Bonds on the Comedy Circuit.  Immaculate fleece, real smooth operator."
"Wasn't named James, was he?"
"We used to call him Dapper Jimmy. Haven't heard from him since he went inside last winter."
"Can't he take the cold?  Or was that to keep his fleece nice?"
"It wasn't by choice, Beaut. He was done for tax evasion."

Each metre of tops was parted into four longways, then drafted out til it was several metres long. With one of these looped over my arm, spinning on the 10/1 ratio with minimal tension, I managed to handspin a fine single.  Even so, my two plyed yarn veered between laceweight and double knitting.  One 40g skein had the first dip in my first woad dye bath of the year, another had the second dip.  Not a strong or particularly attractive blue overdye on the grey/brown wool.
Having used up the remainder of the woad vat on some equally unprepossessing beige felt, I was casting around for a way of jazzing that up towards a warmer green.  A conversation on Ravelry reminded me of a stash of red onion skins.

100g red onion skins gave a rich red dye bath after an overnight soak, even before the pot had a long simmer.  The felt came out just as I had hoped, so the two blue-ish Bond skeins went into the afterbath.  Though the dye still looked very strong, not much yellow was going on to the yarn.  An unmordanted washed lock of white wool I put in as a tester showed little change.  Though I had supposed things had to be mordanted again before overdyeing, going back to the books, I read that one mordanting is sufficient for multiple overdyes.The felt had been mordanted before its beige dye bath. This onion dye needed a mordant.
Once I had added 8g dissolved alum  to the simmering dye bath, the two 40g skeins of blue and faint blue yarn soon developed a distinct green with the yellow onion overdye locking to the fibres.  By this point, I was well on my way with knitting the easy bit of a small shawl called Oaklet and bracing myself to tackle the simple lace border.  After having to unpick and reknit the first and third row almost entirely, I was wondering why I ever dreamed I could get the hang of lace knitting. A nice easy stretch followed from row 4 onward and after that, the pattern grew clearly marked.  The remaining rows now made sense and errors were obvious within the repeats, well before I had finished a great long row.  Oaklet really is a good pattern for the beginner and better still, it is free to download.

"Shall I call my shawl 'Onionlet', Elinor?"
"How about 'Shallot'?"
"As in 'Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror crack'd from side to side; "The curse is come upon me," cried The Lady of Shallott.'"  I pressed the back of my hand to my forehead and struck a downcast pose.
"You look nothing like a girl about to go chasing off after bold Sir Lancelot."
"Tennyson's allegory goes deeper than that.  The Lady of Shallott embodies the artist abandoning her self imposed exile, sacrificing her creative distance to join in the normal run of life."
"My dags she does.  Shallott was a good girl doing her work at home til she got a glimpse of himself.  Then it was 'Look at the silver bugle on that!'  Silly bint had no idea he was already well in with Guinevere."
"In your version, who plays Lancelot?  Handsome Jimmy Bond, perhaps?"  
Elinor thought this was hilarious.  She dropped ash all over my shawl, rolling round laughing.
"Jimmy Bond!  He's a wether!  About as much machismo as a daytime telly presenter! Nothing more to him than chitchat and who's got the smartest fleece this year.  No, I'd be thinking Black Jack Wensleydale. Unpin this shawl blocking, open the window and I'll show you how it should be done."

The Gotland interpretation.
She made three paces thro' the room, She saw the water-flower bloom, She saw the helmet and the plume, She sprayed on plenty of perfume, 'Come up and see me, sometime soon!'
So long as Elinor does not fling my web too wide while looking down to Camelot, Shallott the Shawl will be a birthday present for Mum.


  1. Your pages would be very much easier to read without the distracting rocks, the background you have chosen. But I guess I am lucky they are not the Giant Red Grapes that jumped out at me on another site. Please put a plain blah background in a hex color that is darker than your center column. That way the center column will pop out and be visible instead of overwhelmed as it is now and mostly invisible. I have a large website myself and have gone through many changes with it.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment and offer specific advice, I don't have any website experience or training to draw on. This blog is not a commercial venture, it reflects my preferences. Since I particularly love all the stone walls we have locally, my photo of this one is going to stay here as my background. Each to their own, Beaut.

    2. They are beautiful and it is nice that you can see them every day. Congrats. We have a pile of stones in our yard since His Nibs is restructuring everything. And the tree cutter downers are coming Thurs. to cut the dead tree before it comes down and crushes the house in the next storm. Enjoy your stones, I wish you happiness. Sat Avtar Kaur