An Introduction to Handspun Wool and Natural Dyes

Learn how to spin wool and color it with natural dyes using native plant dyes and a Navaho spindle.

| January/February 1972

One of the things I like best of all—and which I'd like to share—is spinning wool and coloring it with natural dyes.

Aquiring Wool

If you live in the country and can keep sheep, it's really fine to raise your own wool. Ask neighbors—especially teenagers in 4-H clubs—which breed of sheep produces what kind of wool, what you'll have to pay for the animals and how or where to get them started.

If you're not into having your own sheep or if you live in the city, drive out back country roads through relatively open land until you locate the owners of small flocks ... who will often sell wool at reasonable prices. Here in Sonoma County, California—where we live—sheep ranchers and other farmers who keep the animals always seem to have many bags full of wool in their barns ... just waiting to be turned into yarn by some industrious soul.

Sheep are usually sheared when the weather starts to warm in the spring. Each good fleece weighs about 10-15 pounds (a big bagful) and the cost of raw wool can vary widely. Here, on the borderline between outer suburbia and the sheep and dairy country, I buy fleece from small farmers for up to 50¢ a pound. My neighbor, Kathy—on the other hand—has gone direct to the larger sheep ranchers and purchased wool for the cost of shearing ($2.00 per sheep), or only about 20¢ a pound.

As you examine your first raw fleece, you'll discover that it consists of both long fibers and some short scrunchy stuff. The short scrunchy stuff is great for quilts but won't spin up well, so separate it from the long spinnable fibers.

Preparing Wool for Spinning

Some people wash their wool at this point but I prefer to leave the natural grease (or lanolin, which sounds better) in the fleece. The oil helps the fibers cling together, which makes them a lot easier to spin. The lanolin also softens the skin and helps heal any cuts I might have on my hands.

A Armstrong
11/21/2012 4:05:45 PM

Please note the date of this article - prices have changed dramatically! If you are not going to wash your wool before spinning it, it can really gum up your (now) expensive cards. Remember to wash your yarn before you dye it or the dye won't take as well, if at all. I would not recommend boiling your wool as you dye. It is likely to felt together. Just simmer it. And have fun. There are many spinning and dyeing sites and videos online now for more info. It is a great hobby! I could write much more but you can find more instruction online Happy Thanksgiving.

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