Friday, 9 March 2018

Spinning an Indigo Dyed Variegated Gradient

Here are eight 25g lengths of combed wool tops, after each piece had one five minute dip in a Japanese Indigo leaf dye vat. The wool is Captain Poldarles, a blend of white Polwarth and Merino D'Arles bought from John Arbon. The French Merino D'Arles is naturally coloured, so before dyeing, the tops were white streaked with soft shades of brown. Dyeing this gradient relied on the indigo leaf vat getting weaker each time a piece was dipped into it, so the depth of blue diminished with each successive piece. Further to that, you can see the indigo uptake from a single dip was uneven - it usually is, solid colour comes from repeated dips in the vat.  Doing several dips and rinses, in the past, I have managed to felt merino fibres beyond rescue.

A little gentle drafting returned these single dipped tops to a smooth alignment ready for spinning. Rather than bemoan a patchy dye result, I was of a mind to spin them into a yarn preserving the broad gradient and making a virtue of the added random colour variation. Commercial wool tops are often so processed the fibres lose all their crimp and become lifeless to spin. John Arbon produces tops with exceptional character which handle beautifully, retaining qualities typical of the sheep breeds. As I admired the tops and pondered on their destiny, I foolishly shared my thoughts with my companion, Elinor Gotland.

"This lush Polwarth and Merino blend is bound to lend itself to fine spinning."
"Fair play, Beaut, you've made more than enough chunky handspun."
"I think I will have a go at getting the yarn thickness down to light fingering weight."
Elinor grabbed my arm and marched me out to the hall.
"The finer the spinning, the higher the twist you'll need to put in. Time you took Sleeping Beauty for another ride."
I bought this Schacht Reeves spinning wheel from a friend about eighteen months ago, dreaming of spinning cashmere longdraw from the cloud with the huge wheel whizzing the flyer round at speeds that Roger, my Ashford Traveller could never reach, even if I pedalled his treadle like Laura Trott in the velodrome. In reality, since last summer's efforts produced an overspun, stringy yarn, the Schacht Reeves has remained an extravagantly ornamental fixture under the stairs. 

This time I spun on the lowest ratio, which was 14:1, aiming for two ply light fingering weight rather than three ply. I pulled each section of the tops in half and started with the palest, spinning that then the next palest onto the first bobbin, making a matching bobbin with the remaining halves and plying them together only just beyond the balance.

Though far from perfect, this yarn kept much more body than the last lot. Each of these four 50g skeins changes half way through from one shade of dyed tops to the next and within each shade there are darker and lighter stretches from the uneven dye and within each single, whatever the depth of blue, there is a greater or a lesser proportion of the overdyed natural brown merino fibres.

I sat glued to the computer screen for hours, scrolling through patterns and ignoring pointed remarks about when it might be time for tea and even the dog putting her head on my lap and drooling onto my jeans.
"I have to find just the right project. Light fingering weight yarn at last and I'm dying to see how this gradient knits up."
My companion looked over my shoulder while I was viewing a particularly lovely lace shawl.
"Find a pattern in stocking stitch.The colour of that wool is enough of a hodge podge, knit it into holes and frills and it'll look a right dog's dinner. Which one of us might appreciate, poor starving animal. Just look at those pleading eyes."
"But I like lace knitting and I've spun fine yarn specially."
"To be honest, Beaut, you've run out of people to give shawls to. Enough of the fancy work. Knit something plain that you actually need. And put the kettle on, do."

So I knitted a summer cardigan with three quarter length sleeves using this free pattern from DROPS. Elinor refused to allow me to do it with stripes, so I made each sleeve and the two front pieces staring with a different ball of yarn.

I did add in a little waist and shoulder shaping and a bit of extra width to stop the top button straining and will admit I am chuffed to bits with the fit. There wasn't quite enough indigo yarn left to finish the back, so I had to add in a few rows of off-white near the top. When I spun round to show the cardi off, Elinor was outraged to find I had also eked out the indigo at the bottom by including the off-white yarn in a Fair Isle wave pattern.
"Trust you to sacrifice purity for promiscuity. To add to your many style crimes, that outfit is practically double denim."


  1. I think this is gorgeous - such a good use of different shades of indigo.

    1. I am really pleased with how it turned out. The dye wasn't a steady gradient, more like eight unequal steps. In retrospect, I could have blended portions of the tops before spinning, but it didn't occur to me at the time.

  2. I think Elinor suffers from occasional taste lapses - that sweater looks very wearable and nice to me - and I esp. like the fair isle patterned part - something new to look at from every angle! of course you could have sneaked in a small piece of lace somewhere as well:)

  3. I want one! It is gorgeous just the way it is. The back reminds me of um shibori(?) resist dyeing in indigo.

  4. I absolutely love your sweater, Fran! It uses the graduated blues in a totally unique and fresh way and the results are still very wearable. The red buttons set it off perfectly. Thumbs up!

  5. The wool is gorgeous and I love how the cardigan turned out, especially the details on the back :D

    1. Thanks - I saw the wave pattern used on a hat, its a really effective shape.