Fiber Preparation for Dyeing Yarn

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Make beautiful natural dyes from plants with the help of “Harvesting Color.”
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Fiber preparation is important, because yarns coming from unknown sources can be treated with softeners or finishing agents — these substances can have color-altering properties.

Harvesting Color (Artisan Books, 2011) is the essential guide to natural dyeing and creating gorgeous color from plants. Author and master dyer Rebecca Burgess presents over thirty plants which yield stunning natural shades and illustrates just how easy the dyes are to make. In this excerpt taken from part one, “Getting Started,” learn the suggested fiber preparation process before dyeing yarn.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Harvesting Color.

Fiber Preparation

When I buy yarn from a yarn shop, I generally prewash the skeins. Yarns coming from unknown sources can be treated with softeners or finishing agents—these substances can have color-altering properties. So, if you decide not to wash your yarns, your dye results may vary. When using yarns or roving from the farms in my area, I generally forgo the step of washing because I’m familiar with the fiber preparation process before I purchased them. If washing a raw fleece, a rather in-depth cleaning process is required, depending on the quantity of grease and plant matter residing in the wool.

Washing Wool

A stainless steel or enamel vessel is best.
Enough water to completely submerge your wool with plenty of extra to account for evaporation
pH-neutral soap (1 tbsp. for each ½ lb. of wool)

Heat the water until it reaches a temperature of 140 to 180°F. Add the soap and stir to distribute throughout the pot. Gently place the wool yarns into the wash water without agitating or stirring. Delicately prod the yarns to help submerge them, and then allow them to sit in the water for approximately 1 hour. Rinse the yarns in similar temperature water to release the residual soap, and then hang dry, or place them immediately into a similar temperature mordant bath.

Washing Fleece

This recipe makes use of a top-loading washing machine for washing fleece. This streamlines the process of washing and spinning the water out of your yarns. If you don’t have access to a top loader, see the basin procedure later in this article.

pH-neutral soap (1 tbsp. for each ½ lb. of wool)

1. Remove debris and plant remnants from your fleece.

2. Fill the washing machine with warm water (140–180°F). Add the soap.

3. Place fleece gently in the water and submerge it. Let wool sit for 1 hour (adding hot water as necessary to keep the temperature within the 140 to 160°F range). Make sure to turn your machine off, to ensure no agitation occurs.

4. Move the washer dial to the spin setting to drain water from the machine and the wool.

5. Repeat this process until the lanolin and dirt have been removed. On your final cycle, fill the machine with water only, to rinse any remaining soap (making sure that as the water pours into the machine, it is not directly penetrating the fleece).

Basin Fiber Cleaning Technique

If you don’t have a top-loading washing machine, you can use a washbasin, plastic bucket, or any large container for washing wool.

1. Fill your basin with hot water (160–180°F) and add the soap.

2. Gently submerge the fibers and let them sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove them and refill the basin.

3. Repeat the process until the water in the basin remains clear, even after the fibers are reinserted. Use an old door or window screen propped up above the ground and rest fibers upon it to drain and dry them. Avoid squeezing or overhandling the fibers during fiber cleaning.

Read more from Harvesting Color:

How to Make Natural Dyes
How to Make Mordants for Natural Dyes
Master Dye Bath Recipe
Enhance Dye Colors With Afterbaths

Excerpted from Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes by Rebecca Burgess (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2011. Photographs by Paige Green. Buy this book from our store:Harvesting Color.

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