Natural Dye Basics & Myth-Busting Part 1: Introduction & Scouring

I’ve been planning and dreaming about posting some natural dyeing instructions here for a while, and I’m happy that the time has come! Dyeing fabric and yarn with colors from nature has been an obsession of mine since 2015, when I started researching printing with natural dyes on fabric, and doing my own testing. I have learned an amazing amount since then, and yet still feel like I have only dipped my toes in the vast ocean of possibilities. When I started this adventure, devouring whatever I could find to read, it was before the newest wave of books on natural dyes came out, and so I read a lot of unillustrated books from the last time natural dyes were having a big moment in the 70’s, and whatever came up in internet searches. Most of those sources seemed a little questionable, they presented information without a lot of reasons behind the methods, and they often contradicted each other. I wanted to know what really worked and what were the best methods, so I started testing various dyes and techniques, and haven’t stopped since. I hope that by sharing some of what I know now, I can help build the kind of knowledge base I wished for—both solidly rooted in good, provable methods, and also empowering to those who still have a lot of questions. (Full disclosure: I still have a lot of questions too. It is impossible to know the answers to all of the questions about natural dyes, and that is one thing that keeps me going.) Buckle your safety belts, there’s a hefty dose of science coming (and a bit of philosophy too).

A small pile of wool yarn on a scale, on a bench with a heating element and some aloe vera plants.

This is my back porch “dye studio.” It’s just a bench where I can put an electric burner and whatever else I need … and it’s my absolute favorite place to be any time the weather is warm enough.

First things first: there are some basic facts and ideas that we are going to need for all the discussion about dyeing that follows, so I’ll put them up here.

Fibers

Animal-grown fibers like wool, silk, alpaca, etc. are made of proteins. These fibers are the easiest to dye, because they readily react with the compounds in mordants and dyes. In fact, as Elizabeth Wayland Barber points out in her (amazing and highly recommended) book Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, it was the domestication of sheep and silk worms and the development of wool and silk fabrics that led to color in fashion!

Plant-grown fibers like cotton, linen, and hemp are made of cellulose, and are chemically and structurally different from protein fibers. To bust our first myth right here: it is totally possible to get vibrant colors using natural dyes on plant fibers—it just took a humans a little bit longer to figure out how. The famously intense “Turkey red” color, and the original printed cottons from India that took Europe by storm in the 17th century, were all made with natural dyes on cellulose fibers! They do require a different process for scouring and mordanting than protein fibers to produce deep colors.

Rayon is a man-made fiber created by chemically breaking down wood pulp and extruding it. Since it is made of cellulose, it behaves similarly to plant fibers in dyeing. Bamboo is also a regenerated cellulose fiber (unless, and more rarely, it is processed more like linen). According to my natural dye and fiber mentor Catharine Ellis (see resources at the end of this post) “Tencel” and “Lyocell” are regenerated cellulose fibers produced with a method that recycles almost all of the chemicals and water used, while other methods of producing rayon and bamboo fibers create a lot of chemical waste.

Almost all other synthetic fibers don’t work with natural dyes, so I won’t cover them here. (In addition, synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, etc. are basically plastic, and create similar environmental issues as other plastics do when they are made, used, and discarded. Especially troubling: they introduce micro-plastics into waterways when they are washed.)

Weight of Fiber

The best way to figure out how much dye, mordant, detergent for scouring, or whatever else you need for your project is to base it on the weight of the fiber you are dyeing. Also sometimes called “weight of goods,” this is the dry weight of the thing you want to dye, whether it is wool yarn or a T-shirt. Weigh it, and write down the weight, preferably in your dye notebook, or somewhere you will be able to find it later. If you are scouring a few things that you plan to dye separately, do your future self a favor and write down the weights of the individual items, rather than just the total. I encourage you to weigh in grams if possible—not to convert ounces to grams (that’s difficult)—just leave all your weights in grams and find percentages that way (that’s easy: 10% of 487 grams is 48.7 grams, etc.).

Dye Pots and Utensils

It’s important to use separate pots, spoons, tongs, containers for weighing things, etc. for dyeing. Do not use the ones you cook with. My philosophy on this is that “non-toxic” is not the same as “good for you to eat.” A large stainless steel pot is a dyer’s best friend, and small ones are also useful. A pot or two and a spoon or tongs to stir with are enough to get you started.

The pot you use for scouring, mordanting, and dyeing should be big enough to give your fiber room to move. If it’s too bunched up, the solution won’t be able to get to all of it and it will dye unevenly. I will often split fabric yardage into a few pieces to make it easier to stir without becoming hopelessly wrapped around itself, and allow it to be divided into batches if needed.

Assuming you aren’t yet overwhelmed, let’s move on. Now we have some natural fiber yarn or fabric that we want to dye. Mordants (to be covered in a later post) and dyes form chemical bonds with the fiber at a molecular level, and they can’t do that if there are a lot of waxes, oils, or dirt in the way—in other words if the fiber is dirty. This is where scouring comes in, meaning intense washing, to make sure the fibers can absorb as much dye as possible.

Does Scouring Really Make a Difference?

Short answer: Yes.

Here below are some of the very first samples I made to test things out. The background is unbleached cotton muslin fabric, washed in the washing machine only (top), or scoured (bottom), before printing with (left to right) cochineal, black tea, Osage orange, and madder dye pastes.1 There is no mordant on these, which is why the colors are dull, particularly the cochineal (more about that later). Notice the differences between the two treatments, how three of the four colors are more saturated on the scoured fabric. (I’m honestly not sure what’s going on with the other color, Osage orange, maybe I will know the answer in another five years or so …)

Simple fig and wheat shapes printed with natural dyes.

Below are samples from the same batch (as close to identical as possible), after a couple of weeks in the sun. More dye can bond with the fibers in the scoured samples, which means not only are the colors deeper to begin with, but they last longer. I got similar results with samples that were washed multiple times. I can also see the same effect on wool and silk fabrics that were either hand washed, or scoured using the method below.

Simple fig and wheat shapes printed with natural dyes.

Do I Have to Scour Everything?

Short answer: It’s up to you.

If you can’t or don’t want to scour your fiber before dyeing, wash it as thoroughly as you can, and know that while you probably won’t get the best possible result, you will still get color to attach.

Fabrics and yarns that are already bleached (stark snow white instead of a softer “natural” color) have been intensely scoured at the factory where they were made, and usually don’t need scouring again. You should still wash them thoroughly (in a hot water, long cycle if cotton or linen, or by hand if wool or silk), to get rid of any starches, sizing, oils etc. that may have been added.

I can’t talk about all of this without encouraging us all to think more broadly about where the materials we are using come from, especially if we are buying them new rather than secondhand. Bleached fabric or yarn might be easier for us to work with at home, but where was it processed, what chemicals were used to scour and bleach it, and what precautions were taken to protect the workers and the local environment from overexposure to those chemicals? One of the big reasons I started working with natural dyes was to give myself creative options that I really felt good about. Being more involved in the process from fiber to garment means that I am responsible for a lot of decisions that it’s easy to not even think about in a consumer society—and that I am taking back the power and the freedom to decide for myself how the textiles that touch my body every day will be made.

To Scour Protein Fibers

I adapted this method (my current favorite) from Kristine Vejar’s book The Modern Natural Dyer.

1. Pour an inch or so of hot water in the bottom of your pot. Add pH neutral detergent* at a percentage of 0.5% of your weight of fiber—equivalent to about ½ teaspoon for 500 grams of fiber or just a few drops for 100 grams. Stir to dissolve the detergent. Add enough additional warm water so that the fiber will have some room to move.

2. Add your fiber, and more warm water to cover, if needed.

3. Slowly bring the water up to around 180° F (just below a simmer). Many sources say that boiling can damage silk, and it will felt wool. Hold at around 180° for about 30 minutes. Stir the fabric every 5 to 10 minutes throughout the process, bringing sections from the bottom to the top, and redistributing any clumps or tight areas that form, so the scouring water has a chance to get to every part of it.

4. Take the pot off the heat, and let it cool down until you can put your gloved hands in the water comfortably.

5. Gently rinse the fabric in a couple of changes of water at the same temperature as the cooled-off scouring bath.

Why This Way?

*Detergents: Protein fibers are slightly acidic (human hair is too), and can be damaged by alkaline solutions, which is why it’s important to use a pH neutral or slightly acidic detergent. (A lot of laundry detergents work in part by being alkaline, so they aren’t recommended.) Dish detergent works, and I have successfully scoured a fair amount of wool and silk fabric using Ecover brand Zero (unscented). But if your fiber is greasy and you need more than the small amount suggested here, it can take a ridiculous amount of rinsing to get rid of the dish soap suds. Lately I have been using a detergent designed for cleaning wool, like Unicorn Beyond Clean or Kookaburra Scour.2

Wool and other animal fibers are almost always thoroughly washed (also called scouring) before they are processed into roving, yarn, and fabric. A lot of that processing relies on the addition of small amounts of oil to make it go smoothly, and the carding/spinning oil is the primary thing we want to remove by scouring wool yarn or fabric again before dyeing, along with any leftover lanolin, etc.

Note: Most types of wool are naturally prone to felting, which occurs with moisture and agitation, and is accelerated by heat and temperature shocks. In other words, the conditions needed for scouring and dyeing are also conducive to felting, so treat your wool gently. Raise and lower the temperature of whatever bath the wool is in slowly, and stir it only as much as needed for the solution to get to all the fibers, turning the yarn or fabric around gently. You can also dye wool as it comes off the sheep, before it is spun or woven, but be aware that the fibers are especially prone to felting before they have the twist of yarn to organize and protect them, so be extra careful!

Silk, which is extruded by silkworms as they make their cocoons, includes a gummy substance called seracin as well as fiber. Both of these components are proteins, and both absorb dye. Most silk fabrics and yarns are sold either “de-gummed” with the seracin removed, or with it left in on purpose to make the fabric crisp. I am not a silk expert, but I have had good results using the same gentle scouring above with silk fabrics.

Pot of cotton fabric in slightly dirty water at the end of scouring.

To Scour Cellulose Fibers

This method is also adapted from The Modern Natural Dyer. I usually use a little less soda ash than the recipe in the book, and it seems to be enough for unbleached cotton fabric. I haven’t been able to see a difference adding detergent to this scour, the soda ash alone works really well, and rinses out easily.

1. Pour an inch or so of hot water in the bottom of your pot. Add soda ash at 4% of your weight of fiber—equivalent to about 1 teaspoon for 100 grams of fiber. Wearing gloves, stir the water to dissolve everything. Add enough hot water so that the fabric will have some room to move.

2. Add your fabric, and more hot water to cover, if needed.

3. Bring the water up to a simmer (this may take a while if the pot is large), and let it simmer gently for about 30 minutes (with the lid ajar so it doesn’t boil over). In my experience, having the pot at a rolling boil just pushes sections of your fiber out of the water, especially if you are scouring fabric. Stir the fiber every 5 to 10 minutes throughout the heating and simmering, bringing sections from the bottom to the top, and redistributing any clumps or tight areas that form, so the scouring water has a chance to get to every part of it.

4. Take the pot off the heat, and let it cool down until you can put your gloved hands in the water comfortably. Squeeze out the fiber and set it aside (the pot lid is a good place to put it). The water will probably look cloudy and slightly brownish. If it looks very dark and dirty, you may need to scour this fiber again with a fresh bath.

Be a good citizen, and add a little vinegar to the water in the pot to help neutralize the alkalinity before you pour the water down the drain, especially if your drain goes to a septic system.

5. Rinse the fabric in a few changes of warm to hot water.

Why This Way?

Cotton isn’t washed before spinning and weaving, because the natural waxes it contains don’t interfere with those processes. But they definitely interfere with dye reaching the fiber, which is why cotton needs a little more intense scouring than wool does before dyeing. Cellulose fibers respond well to alkaline conditions, but can be damaged by acids. They aren’t damaged by boiling or by quick changes between hot and cold conditions, which makes them easy to handle during scouring.

Soda ash is sodium carbonate, an alkaline salt. It occurs naturally where lakes evaporate, and is used for everything from water softening and adjusting the pH in swimming pools to making glass. The fact that it’s quite alkaline is what makes it work so well for scouring (recall that soap is traditionally made by combining a strong alkaline substance with fat). That also makes irritating to your skin and eyes, so wear gloves when handling the fiber in this bath, and don’t hold you head directly above the steaming pot.

Linen and hemp are bast fibers—this means they grow in the stalk of the plant. Pectins hold the whole stalk together, as well as the fiber bundles that make up linen threads. Some of the pectin needs to be dissolved in order for the fiber to be workable (this happens during processing), but if too much breaks down (as can happen in a harsh scouring) the fibers get weak and break easily. I asked Cassie Dickson3, a linen expert who grows and processes a lot of her own fiber, if she scours her linen before dyeing and she said that she does. Currently I’m recommending taking it a little gentler with linen than cotton, start with a little less soda ash and see how you like the results.

By the way, if you are wondering whether this kind of scouring is good for difficult household laundry, the answer is: if the difficulty is oily (like pillowcases that spent a few too many nights with someone’s greasy hair) it works amazingly well! If I have scoured some fabric and it still seems like the bath has cleaning power, I will sometimes add a pillowcase or a kitchen towel while the pot is still hot, or add and reheat it later once I remove the fabric I’m going to dye.

Notes

1 A lot of my experiments (and frankly obsession) with natural dyes has centered around using them to screen print designs on fabric. I’ll be using these samples as illustrations, but not explaining this process in detail here. It’s just too much for this format, and I’m still actively trying out various ideas and changing my mind frequently about what is the best practice and what is possible. (I am teaching everything I know about it though.)

2 For more about detergents and scouring wool, see “Scouring: Which Product is Which?” by Beth Smith, PLY Magazine issue 22, Autumn 2018 (The Power Issue).

3 See “Ready for Retting”by Cassie Dickson, PLY Magazine issue 20, Spring 2018 (The Flax Issue).

Resources

If you don’t want to wait for me to finish my explanations to go further, I certainly don’t blame you!

I was fortunate enough to take a workshop with Catharine Ellis last summer, and I have the greatest respect for her work. She has a new book with Joy Boutrup called The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: Principles, Experiments, and Results which is by far the most useful, practical, and comprehensive natural dye how-to book I’ve ever seen. If it’s out of your budget, may I suggest asking your local library to get a copy?

Catharine’s blog is full of fascinating and useful information too.

I also like the books The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar (mentioned above) and Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess.

I read the PDF Maiwa Guide to Natural Dyes dozens of times when I was first starting to figure all of this out. It’s condensed but well-researched.

The Star Blossom Hat, A Pattern for Solstice

A free pattern to knit and embroider.

 

embroidered-hat-1

 

I designed this hat for myself, and decided to share the pattern after a friend declared it her favorite thing I’ve ever made. It feels like a really good time to put a little bit of beauty out into the world right now. I’ve been collecting the pieces of this pattern—the photos, the drawings, the yarn specs—in spare slices of time over the past weeks, and now it’s ready to go!

The Star Blossom Hat is mainly seed stitch ribbing, shaped with short rows for a longer back to cover your ears, and designed to be long enough to turn up all around. It has a stockinette stitch top to serve as a background for some sweet and simple embroidery, reminiscent of a cherry blossom or a starburst.

Yarn

Lucky me, I had a big skein of my friend Lauren’s handspun just sitting in my stash. All I remember her telling me about it is, “It’s alpaca.” It was just waiting for this hat I think. Assuming that Lauren didn’t go into production on this and start selling it around the country without telling me, here are the characteristics you want to match in your yarn to get a similar look and feel:

•It’s worsted weight, about 9 WPI.
•It has bounce. 4” of yarn will stretch another ½”, and then easily spring back. It needs a little elasticity so the ribbing pulls in just enough to keep its shape on your head. My yarn has some drape too, like most all alpaca, which is not a drawback here, but also not necessary for this shape to work.
•It’s not too fuzzy. An alpaca yarn with a lot of “halo” effect would obscure the textured stitches and the embroidery, so opt for something fairly smooth.
•It’s a 2-ply yarn, and each ply is a slightly different (natural alpaca) color. It’s also a little bit thick-and-thin, being handspun. Neither of these characteristics is essential to the hat, but both give the texture of the stitches a little more dimension.
•It’s soft enough to comfortably touch my face.

This hat took just about exactly 130 yards of yarn. 150 yards would give you plenty for swatching and margin of error.

Spinning geek details on the original yarn for those interested:

•Angle of twist 27°
•3.5 – 5 twist bumps per inch in plied yarn
•587 yards/pound

Yarn scraps for embroidery:

These are also something I’m lucky enough to have; little bits and pieces from my grandmother’s stash which I’m pretty sure were dyed with natural materials by her or her fiber friends. You can use any scraps you have in colors you like! Or even ask your knitting friends to share and swap scraps. Embroidery is my ultimate use for tiny bits of yarn too beautiful to get rid of. These are singles (one ply) yarns, which gives the stitches a soft fuzzy look.

 

embroidered-hat-2

 

Gauge

Before blocking I got 5.5 to 6 sts/inch in seed stitch ribbing, and 5 sts/inch in stockinette.
After blocking I got 5 to 5.5 sts/inch in the ribbing (stretched slightly during blocking) and the same 5 sts/inch in stockinette.

Needles:

I think I used US size 4. I knit pretty loosely. Size 5 would probably be a more common recommendation … the point is it doesn’t matter, use the size you need to get the gauge you want!

Sizing

I have a fairly big head, and I hate hats that squish my hair (or worse, my head!). Straight around my forehead, with the measuring tape snug but not tight, measures 22.5 inches, and that’s the size I made the hat (using 5 sts/inch for math). This gives me my personal hat fit of dreams: snug enough to stay on my head, but never tight or uncomfortable. I highly recommend that you measure the hat recipient’s head and take her/his preferences into account. You may have to modify the decreases for the top a bit, but that’s a small price to pay for a hat that really fits!

Seed Stitch Ribbing

This is just so nubbly, I’ve been knitting it into everything lately. I wanted a combination of stitches that would look good on the right or wrong side, so the brim of the hat could be turned up, and this is what I came up with. The columns of ribbing are always purl knit purl, with two stitches of seed in between.

It does look a little confusing at first, so put as many markers as you need, until you can see where the ribbing columns are and which are the seed stitches that should always alternate.

embroidered-hat-seed-rib-chart

Pattern

Cast on 115 stitches (or the number you determined from your head size). You’ll need a multiple of 5 stitches for the seed stitch ribbing pattern. I used this cast on.

Bring the beginning and end of your cast on stitches together, and knit in the round, in the seed stitch ribbing pattern, until the hat measures 6 1/2 inches tall. (If you have extra yarn, you can knit further at this stage, which mean you can make a deeper turn-up in the brim of the hat when it’s done).

Short rows:

Reserve 40 stitches (or about 1/3 of your total stitches if different) which will be the center front of your hat, by placing a marker on both sides of them. Keep knitting around until you are 4 stitches away from reaching the first marker again, and then turn and knit back until you are 4 sts away from the second marker. (Remember to match the patterns to what you see on the wrong side as you work back.)
Continue to work back and forth, each time stopping 4 sts away from the last turning, until there are 5 groups of short rows or 6 “steps” on either side of center front, and about 40 sts in the middle that will be the center back. The back of the hat should measure 8 to 8 1/4 inches tall.
Work around on the right side, integrating the turning stitches. My favorite is Cat Bordhi’s “Thanks-Ma” method, which uses a clever pick up to make the “steps” basically disappear. Cat’s video explains it specifically for her sock heel, but I’ve used it on all kinds of things since learning it. Still, if you have another favorite short row method feel free to use that instead.
Then knit one more round on the right side, maintaining the patterns, to smooth everything out.

You shouldn’t need to change the numbers in this section, unless your stitch count is very different from mine. If short rows freak you out, you can also skip them altogether, and just keep knitting in the seed stitch ribbing pattern until the hat is 6 1/2 to 8 1/2 inches tall, depending on how much you want to turn up the brim.

 

embroidered-hat-6

 

Crown:

Switch to stockinette stitch and knit one round plain (knit every stitch). Place a marker at the beginning of your round.
Round 2: Work a K2tog (decrease 1) at every column of knit stitches from the ribbing pattern (23 times around). Or you can think of it as k2tog, knit 3, repeat around. I just think it looks nice to line up the decreases at the knit columns.
Round 3: Same as round 2 (decrease 23 sts again in the same places, or k2tog, knit 2, repeat).
Rounds 4-8: Knit these 5 rounds plain.
Round 9: Decrease at every column again (k2tog, knit 1, repeat).
Rounds 10-14: Knit these 4 rounds plain.
Round 15: knit every two stitches together all the way around (k2tog, repeat).
Rounds 16-18: Knit these 3 rounds plain.
Round 19 to finish: Continue k2tog until there are only 6 stitches left.
Break the yarn, leaving a tail, and thread the tail on a blunt needle, and through the remaining stitches, continuing in the order you would knit them. Thread the tail through the top of the hat to the inside, and pull the last stitches snugly together. Secure the yarn on the wrong side of the hat.

If your stitch count is different, I suggest trying the same number of decreases in each decrease round as you have knit columns from the ribbing, and using my spacing of plain rounds between. If that doesn’t work or you have questions feel free to get in touch, I’d be happy to help you figure it out! I unraveled my crown twice to come up with this formula. It should have a little curve (like your head), but not be too loose or floppy, to show off the embroidery.

Embroidery

I used just two stitches; the simplest running/satin stitches (in two different groupings), and Colonial knots, both which I explain in this post.

I used pins to visually mark the placement of the five knots nearest the center, and then based the other motifs on those, moving outward.

embroidered-hat-drawing-1

Tips for embroidery on knits:

Whatever stitching you add will also add some bulk and stiffness to the knitted fabric. You can minimize this by:
•Taking the shortest path on the wrong side between the end of one stitch and the beginning of the next.

embroidered-hat-drawing-2

•Stretching the fabric gently after every few stitches (minimizes puckering).
•For longer stitches between motifs on the wrong side, catching a little bit of the yarns in the fabric as you go along, so you don’t have long floats that can catch on things (I show this for yarn ends in this post).

 

embroidered-hat-5

 

That’s all, folks! I really hope you all enjoy this pattern, and if you decide to make it of course I’d love to see! It’s now up on Ravelry as well.
Take care everyone and enjoy your winter!

 

Making Jeny’s Stretchy Slip Knot Cast On with Lumpy Yarns

Or, how to make it easier in any yarn.

I love this cast on*; how easily it stretches and bounces back right along with the knitting, how invisible it is (it’s like whatever pattern you’re knitting just appears fully formed, without a visually different edge), and the bonus that since it only uses one end, you don’t have to worry about starting with a long enough tail.

But it’s notoriously difficult to do with uneven or thick-and-thin yarns, since the yarn has to be able to slide easily past itself to make the required shape.  Or does it …  My knitting students were having a hard time with this cast-on, even in a relatively smooth yarn, which got me wondering if I could figure out a trick that would help keep the yarn moving.  I decided to try it with my first handspun project (a thick and thin yarn if there ever was one).  And I did figure it out!  It may have helped that I was stuck on an airplane at the time without too much else to do …  It turns out that there’s one place that the yarn gets hung up on itself, and if you can get past that, you can do this cast on in a lumpy yarn too!  I’ll show you how below.

First, a quick review of what makes a slip knot, since that’s the structure this whole cast on is based on—you’ll essentially make one slip knot after another.  First of all, you need a loop.

 

slipknot cast on 1I’m going to show you using a bit smoother yarn—otherwise it would be hard to see what’s going on.  This is “Sheridan” from Mountain Meadow Wool—yummy!

 

Next you need another loop, and to put that second loop through the first one.  Remember that the ends must cross each other for the loops to stay in place.  So, you can either make a second loop in the bottom strand of the first loop and bring it through the top, or make a loop in the top strand and push it up through the bottom, which is what I’ve done below.

 

slipknot cast on 2

 

Tighten it up by pulling the second loop through until the first loop closes around it.  If you’ve made a successful slip knot, it will go away if you pull on both ends of the yarn.

 

slipknot cast on 3

 

Put this first knot on a needle, and you’re ready for the cast on.  I like to put the working end of the yarn (not the short tail) around my thumb, and hold the end with the last two fingers of my hand, as shown below.  (There are other hand positions and motions that work perfectly well to make this cast on, these are the ones I use.)

 

slipknot cast on 4

 

To make the first loop, I use the needle to scoop up the strand nearest me around the thumb, moving from the bottom up.

 

slipknot cast on 5

 

Leaving this first loop on the thumb, I use the rest of my hand to bring a second strand of yarn over the needle, making the second loop.

I used to think that looping this strand one direction vs. the other over the needle might make it easier to pull the yarn through in the last step.  That might be true, but it also (of course, silly me) determines which way your first round of stitches sit on the needle.  Chances are you want them as shown below, so wrap the yarn starting at the front and moving to the back.  If you’re a “combination” knitter or you learned in a tradition that knits through the back of the stitch, you’ll find your stitches ready to go if you wrap the yarn the other way, starting at the back and moving to the front.

 

slipknot cast on 6

 

In either case, now we have two loops on the needle.  We want to move the first loop over the second one, so that it makes a collar around the base of the second loop, just like in the first slip knot we made without the needle.  To do this, I use my thumb to lift the first loop up and over the tip of needle, and then let it go.

 

slipknot cast on 7

 

In the instructions I’ve seen before, the next step is to hold the new loop against the top of the needle, and pull on the end of the yarn so the collar around it tightens up.  Sometimes this works great, but if your yarn has any resistance to sliding along itself, it will probably get caught up, stop short, and cause you to curse, tug on all the ends available, and try again.

The reason the yarn gets caught easily is that there’s one place in its path where it has to loop quickly around itself, making almost like a little knot (indicated by the arrow below).

 

slipknot cast on 8

 

What I found was that if I pull the yarn through this tight place first, I can then pull on the end and the stitch will tighten up smoothly, even in my lumpy handspun!

I take hold of the outside of that little loop-de-loop, and pull it out, so that the collar starts to form around the bottom of the new loop on the needle.

 

slipknot cast on 9

 

I’ve found that it works best if I get the new loop pretty snug, right up against the stitch before it on the needle, and the collar almost snug as well.  Then with it set up, I hold the new loop against the needle and pull on the yarn end to finish the new stitch.

 

slipknot cast on 10

 

Although this undoubtedly adds a step, to me it’s totally worth it, since I can now use a whole lot more yarns with one of my favorite cast ons.  And I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a slightly more complex but smooth process, rather than cursing and tugging on the yarn every few stitches because it keeps getting stuck.

 

slipknot cast on 11

 

*One of the many bonuses of going to a workshop with Cat Bordhi in person, is that she tells you all kinds of cool little tricks, and that’s where I first learned about this cast on.  The original post about it on Jeny’s blog is here, she links both to her own video of the steps, and to another one which uses different motions.  If you’d prefer not to hold the yarn around your thumb, there’s also a variation using two needles demonstrated by Tillybuddy on YouTube here.

 

Happy knitting!

Simple Textures

Here’s what I made with that first batch of my handspun yarn.  And how to make something similar yourself, if you’re interested!

 

first handspun cowl 2

 

I really wanted something simple, that would let the (ahem, very thick-and-than-thin) nature of the yarn shine through.  But, I’m not a knitter who’s happy with endless rounds of stockinette.  No offense to those that are, but I just need a little something pattern-wise to keep my brain engaged, and let me see that I’m making progress.

My gut-instinct guess was that I’d have enough yarn to make a small but substantial cowl.  Of course, there’s no label on my handspun to let me know the yardage, but I was able to estimate how much knitting I could get from the yarn pretty successfully.  I knit a swatch in my pattern, measured the dimensions, and weighed it, so I knew about how many square inches of knitting I could get from a certain amount of yarn by weight.  Then I weighed all the yarn I had, and used that number to figure out about how many square inches of total knitting I could make from it in this pattern.  I tried on a cowl I had, and estimated how big it would need to be to comfortably fit over one’s head, and how tall I would ideally want it, and arrived at a compromise number to cast on.

 

first handspun cowl 4

 

The finished cowl is 25″ around, and 7″ tall, which turned out to be plenty big!  At my gauge of 2.5 stitches/inch, I cast on 64 stitches.  I used Jeny’s Stretchy Slipknot Cast On.  (In this yarn—yes really!  More about that here.)  I did two rows (or maybe three? Forgot to write that down …) of plain knitting to make a little roll at the bottom, then switched to my pattern; alternating blocks of four knit and four purls stitches, and switching them after 4 rounds.

Of course you could use another simple pattern for the body of the cowl.  Just make sure that the total of your pattern repeat (in my case 8 stitches) divides evenly into the number of stitches you cast on.

 

first handspun cowl 3

 

When I was getting near my estimated total height, and at the end of a pattern repeat, I knit a couple more plain rows, and then bound off, using Elizabeth Zimmerman’s sewn bind-off.  I ended up using almost every bit of the yarn, which was definitely my intent!

I almost never buy yarn this chunky, so it seemed like the whole thing took about 5 seconds to knit.  In reality, it took parts of two days of traveling, and it was done!  So far, it seems like spinning is actually speeding up my production of finished knitted items, if that’s possible.  I actually have another finished handspun thing that just needs photos … and this one is off to live with someone dear to me, hopefully it will keep her neck warm this winter!

 

first handspun cowl 1

 

In the meantime, I hope this is helpful if you’re looking for something to make with a special bit of
thicker yarn, whether made by you or not!

 

 

The End of the Yarn

 

end of the yarn 1

 

My knitting students inspired this post. I do explain in class what to do when your skein of yarn runs out and you need to add more, but it’s a little tricky to visualize without actually cutting the yarn, and easy to forget when you get home and you’re left alone with an internet full of confusing videos … so here you go! These are my favorite, simple, fairly foolproof methods. The first one works with practically any yarn, any project, any time, and the second one makes a totally seamless join in any feltable yarn.

Personally, if I can’t felt the ends together (see below), I almost always just leave the tails, and I don’t mind sewing them in later. There are lots of methods for weaving in the tails as you go, by wrapping the new yarn over/under/with the old yarn, and most of them work just fine. You may find one that you love. But, you don’t need to do any of them. Leaving the tails to work in later is perfectly good. And if you’re still thinking about how to knit, you don’t need anything more complicated going on when you get to the end of a skein.

So, just stop knitting when you have about 6 inches of yarn left unknitted. Pick up your new ball of yarn (mine is purple) and, leaving another tail of the same length, start knitting with it. The stitches on either side of the tails will probably be a little loose, but you can cinch them up later to match their neighbors when you weave in the tails, so don’t worry about it for now. If you like, you can tie the two ends together into a slipknot to keep things neat while you’re working on the rest. That’s it!

 

end of the yarn 2

 

end of the yarn 3

 

end of the yarn 4

 

As long as we’re talking about joining yarn ends, I wanted to include my very favorite method, which takes advantage of the felting properties of wool to join two lengths of yarn without any tails left at all.

Untwist and fluff out a couple of inches on both ends. The first key to this method is to get the fibers as separated as possible. Just like in any other felting, fuzzy, loose fibers will attach to whatever is next to them, and fibers that are already joined or clumped will attach mainly to each other.

 

end of the yarn 5

 

The second key to this method is to mix the fibers from the two ends together thoroughly before you start rubbing them. You want as many places for them to meld as possible, so move the strands around so that all the ones from one end are not on the same side.

Add just a little moisture (I usually use spit unless water happens to be handy). The fibers should be barely damp. Squeeze the join lightly between your hands, and start rolling it back and forth. You want to agitate the fibers together without disturbing their orientation.

 

end of the yarn 6

 

end of the yarn 7

 

end of the yarn 8

 

Small areas like this felt very quickly. The join is done when you can pull gently on it from both sides and the fibers don’t slip. It’s possible to go too far, so that your little felted area becomes noticeably stiffer than the rest of the yarn, so stop when it’s holding together.

 

end of the yarn 9

 

Other than with non-felting yarns (superwash, plant fibers, silk, synthetics etc.) the only time I wouldn’t use this method is if a slight difference in yarn texture will be noticeable in the knitting, like in a very smooth or shiny yarn. A felted join is basically invisible in fuzzy singles, and it also works well with textured and handspun yarns, as well as your more “standard” multi-ply wool yarns like Cascade 220 (shown here, you can see the felted join in the bind off near my thumb below). And, if for any reason the felted method doesn’t work or you don’t like how it looks, you can always cut it off and go back to the first method.

 

end of the yarn 10

 

Happy joining!

 

Our Relationship with the Tangible World, or How I Learned to Spin

 

first handspun yarn 1

You may be able to guess what this is … yeah baby, my first bobbin of handspun yarn!

 

So it’s like this: My beautiful, wonderful cousin came to visit me (with my beautiful wonderful auntie) and when she went back home, she left her spinning wheel here for me to borrow while she’s at college this spring. Amazing!

I’ve been thinking vaguely about learning to spin for, um, the past two decades give or take, ever since I first practiced weaving with my grandmother. But it just seemed to take so long, like it would add so much time to my whole knitting/weaving process, so I wasn’t ready to commit. Needless to say, that was before the infinite list.

In my new post-infinite-list world, starting to spin seems like the perfect choice; an expression of surrender and adventure all at the same time. Since there’s no way to ever finish all the knitting I’d like to (or weaving for that matter), I might as well make some frickin’ yarn!

 

first handspun yarn 3

 

Spinning is pretty amazing (I’ll talk more about that in a minute), but one of the best parts about it so far is an accidental discovery. In an effort to keep my immediate-onset spinning obsession from taking over my whole life (remember, I’m supposed to be focusing this year), I decided on some rules: I wouldn’t read about spinning except during times when I would normally read something else, and I wouldn’t sit down to spin at odd times during the day. Instead, I would wait until just before bed. So every night at 10 pm, I give myself permission to stop whatever I’m doing, shut off the computer, and spin for up to half an hour before getting ready to sleep.

Oh people, this has been life-altering. A lot of the work I’ve been doing lately has been very abstract: putting my ideas out there to various people and institutions, basically a whole lot of online research and laboring for hours composing messages, many of which are never answered at all. I do hope that good things will come of it, but it’s basically a frustrating process that leaves me floating in inconclusiveness, and for the most part, kind of grouchy.

Then at the end of the day, I put all that aside and sit down to learn, to make something real, to interact with the tangible universe. I’m reminded of this quote from Anaïs Nin about letterpress printing (which I found, like a lot of my deep-thought quotes these days, via Brain Pickings):

 

The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.
You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.

 

Although later this spring I will return this wheel to its rightful owner, I fully intend to keep this night practice going with knitting, or drawing, or something else. At 10 pm the computer shuts off, and I make something real for a little while before bed.

Some things you may be wondering: yes, the spinning wheel tempts me all day when I look at it, but in a sweet way of something to look forward to. And yes, if we’re going out at night or I think we’ll have guests staying late (I’m not really a late-night person and tend to crash hard if kept up past my bedtime) I find a half an hour earlier in the day to spin. Yes, this is in addition to the hour I still try my best to find every day for personal projects. I’m discovering that the more up-in-the-air my day’s work is, the more real-world-project time I need to stay happy.  I’m also a firm believer in taking the time your life will allow for the things that are really important to you. And yes, when I wake up at night lately I find myself thinking about twist in fiber, which I like much better than mulling over my worries!

 

first handspun yarn 2

 

Another thing that’s been beautiful about this process (although it sounds funny) is watching myself learn. I suppose I’ve absorbed the mantra I’ve told all my beginning knitting students: “You can do this! Anyone can do it if they just decide to practice it.” I do absolutely believe that this is true, that skill in handcraft is available to anyone who’s willing to start where they are (which a lot of times means training your hands from scratch) and keep practicing. It’s a gift we get just for being human, but it does take work.

Anyway, I’m cheating at learning spinning—the process is brand new to me but the feel of fibers and their qualities, the look and feel of yarn I’d like achieve, these things I already know. Not that I didn’t have lumps and bumps (you can see them!) and moments of beginner’s frustration which I had to push past, of course I did, and do still. But it’s been a long time since I learned something truly new to me, and maybe because of my teaching experience, but this time I’ve been able to let go of the outcome (a really healthy attitude for a first project in any material, I feel) and enjoy it. I’m a little surprised and pleased every time I sit at the wheel and notice that my technique is a little bit better, the yarn is coming out a little more even, or I just figured out some tiny thing that no one told me, it’s there in the materials and my hands to be discovered. When I first started I couldn’t spin from the imperfectly-carded batts of wool leftover from my early felting days, or treadle with one foot, but now I can do both.

 

first handspun yarn 4

 

If you’re not interested in being seduced into the wild world of spinning, stop reading now.

Three compelling reasons to spin:

Spinning is fast! For some reason I always assumed it was the slowest part of the fiber-to-garment process, but it’s clearly not, due to being a more-or-less continuous flow, rather than a stitch-by-stitch motion. It’s fairly shocking how quickly a newbie like me can make enough yarn to knit something out of.

You can make yarn that you can’t buy, and the other people doing so are interesting folks!  This, realized while reading Ply Magazine, was one of the final straws for me: I could see myself wanting just such a yarn for such a project, but it wouldn’t exist commercially … I started reading Ply because of an article about how twist protects the fibers in yarn from wear (by Deborah Robson), and ended up reading every. single. thing. in the Twist Issue, even though at that time I had no plan to become a spinner. The way the articles are presented; with differing opinions, and explorations by people digging around the fundamentals of their craft, captivated me. The intricacies of how yarn is made are interesting even if you’re working with the yarn and not making it … but as I read I also became more and more convinced that if this is how spinners think, they are my people, and I must become one.

Spinning is amazing! There’s something very fundamental about it, an immediate sense of how old and how intrinsic this process is, which draws me in. The rhythm is soothing, and at this point in my learning anyway, it works best if I can concentrate on what’s happening and be present without many words in my head—a lot like meditating, or dancing with someone. Plus you make real yarn from a pile of wool! If that doesn’t seem amazing, then you’re just not paying enough attention.

I have just two tips so far for other would-be beginning spinners:

Read the book The Intentional Spinner by Judith MacKenzie McCuin. Although it doesn’t have the variety of perspective you get from reading Ply, she lays out answers to a lot of the basic questions I had with clear photos, fascinating descriptions of fiber, and even ideas for making tools you need using a cardboard box and old knitting needles!

Try not looking for a second while you’re spinning. I know it sounds crazy, but I tried it after reading an article by Carson Demers in which he said (among other things) that looking up at least part of the time you’re spinning (or knitting!) is much better for your body. And it turns out that (also like dancing with someone) if you take your eyes off what you’re trying to do, even for a couple of seconds, you become instantly so much more aware of all the other information available to your body—in this case what your fingers can tell about the twist and diameter of the yarn you’re making by feel.

Ok three tips: just try it! Or try something else you’ve been meaning to do, and save it as a treat until the end of the day. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Make Your Own Tiny Hand-Knit Cover Buttons

tiny knit covered buttons finished front

 

These are the buttons I made for my Talamh sweater.  I found some factory-made buttons covered with knit fabric in my button stash as I was starting the sweater, and the idea stuck.  When I finished the sweater, I knew I wanted buttons covered in my yarn, so I made some.  Afterwards, it occurred to me that I might have been reinventing the wheel here, but searching Google and Ravelry turned up nothing like these, so here are the directions!  At the end of the post I’ll also include some links to other ideas I did find, in case these aren’t quite your style.  As always, click on any of the photos to enlarge for a closer look.

 

Knitting the Cover

Pick your buttons to go inside the knitted cover first.  They should be a little smaller than you want the finished button to be, and ideally a similar color to the yarn you’re using to cover them.

These buttons are knit in the round from the center out.  Since they are tiny, there are only a few rounds before you decrease, and secure the knitting to the button.

You want the button fabric to be tight, so that it will be sturdy and the button underneath won’t show through.  Use a much smaller needle than you usually would with the yarn (even if your yarn is thicker).  Here I used size 1 needles, after using size 4 with the same yarn for the sweater.  I’ve illustrated using double points, but of course you could use two circulars or a magic loop if you prefer.

Start by casting on four stitches, using Judy’s Magic Cast On, or another method that starts seamlessly from the middle (this one from Cat Bordhi is also good).

 

tiny knit covered buttons cast on

 

If you increase 4 stitches per round, it makes a flat circle of knitting.  I learned this from Daniel Yuhas’ book, Knitting from the Center Out.  Since a flat circle is my goal here, I knit into the front and back of each stitch, for 8 total stitches in the next round.  (If you aren’t sure how to knit front and back, otherwise known as kfb, just Google it—more tutorials than you’ll ever need will pop up.)

 

tiny knit covered buttons 8 sts

 

Increase 4 stitches again in the next round (ie: knit into the front and back of one stitch, knit one stitch, repeat those two actions around).  At this point I switched some stitches onto a third needle, to keep my little circle from getting too stretched out where the needles join.

 

tiny knit covered buttons 12 sts

 

Since my button is tiny, I only needed one more round of increasing 4 (knit front and back, knit 2, repeat around, for a total of 16 stitches) to reach the size of my button.  You can compare the amount of knitting you have to your buttons, but it can be hard to judge without finishing.  Luckily, these only take a few minutes to make, so it’s easy to try another one if the first one isn’t quite right.

 

tiny knit covered buttons 16 sts

 

When the button is the size you want, start decreasing, so that the knitted fabric will cup around the edges of the button smoothly.  If your button is bigger and/or thicker, you may want a plain round before you start to decrease, but for these little guys I found it made the cover too baggy for the button, so I went straight from an increase round to a decrease round.

I did one round of knit 2 together, knit 1, repeat.  You can see how the cover begins to puff up in the middle as the edges draw in.

 

tiny knit covered buttons decreasing

 

On the next round, I knit every 2 stitches together, until there were 5 stitches left.  If you have a lot more stitches, it may take a couple more rounds of decreasing.  You also want there to be enough fabric on the back of the button so that you can pull these few stitches together at the center back.

When you have just a few stitches left, cut the yarn, thread the end on a sewing needle, and pass it through the remaining stitches.

 

tiny knit covered buttons needle to yarn

 

Knitting Meets Button

At this point the actual knitting part is done.  There are a couple more tricks I want to show you as we sew it together, to make the button come out really nice.

First, before you start to cinch up the knitting around the button, take the sewing needle from the end you finished knitting with, and thread it on the end left from casting on.

 

tiny knit covered buttons yarn tail inside

 

Open out the little circle so the inside of it is clearly visible.  Use the center yarn tail to cinch up the first stitches from the cast on, if necessary.  Then sew around in a little spiral, starting near the center, piercing just the backs of the knitted stitches (use a sharp needle).  This secures the tail, and adds a little extra cohesion to the stitches that will be the button front.

 

tiny knit covered buttons inside spiral 2

 

When your spiral is done, trim the inside tail, and thread the outside/last knitted with tail back on the sewing needle.

 

tiny knit covered buttons ready for button

 

Place the button in the middle of the circle, and draw the edges up with the remaining tail.

 

tiny knit covered buttons gathering back

 

Pull the last stitches tight together in the center back, which hopefully will snug the whole cover nicely around the button.  If it’s too loose or too tight, just start again, make another one with modifications.

Once your cover fits your button, secure it by taking a stitch through one hole in the button, out to the front side.

 

tiny knit covered buttons stitching through button

 

Then take a stitch back, aiming to enter the knitted fabric in the same place you came out (so as not to leave a stitch on the surface) but angle the needle so it goes through a different hole in the button.  You’re putting a loop of yarn through the button itself, to secure the knitting in place.

 

tiny knit covered buttons stitching through button 2

 

I think this technique would also work with shank buttons, you would just want to take a few stitches around/through the shank instead.

Lastly, I stitched around the edges of the back side of the button, adding a little more yarn and securing the stitches there.

 

tiny knit covered buttons reinforcing back

 

Tada!  A tiny knitted covered button, ready to go.

 

tiny knit cover button back finished

 

I sewed these on using a variation of my usual technique (I updated the photos on that post just this week, and love how they came out): sewing through the yarn on the back of the button rather than through the button itself.

 

knit cover buttons sewing on 1

knit cover buttons sewing on 2

knit cover buttons sewing on 3

 

I’d love to try making some bigger buttons using this techinique, too.

 

More Ideas

As if that weren’t enough, when doing research for this post I stumbled on a few other fun things.  Actually, I fell down a bit of a rabbit-hole of cool ideas for DIY covered buttons, both for sewing and knitting, and another post is probably coming soon.  In the meantime …

Kate Davies has a lovely clear tutorial for yarn-wrapped buttons that come out looking sweet.

What about embroidering a design with your yarn on fabric, and then covering a button with that?  There’s a tutorial here on The Purl Bee.

There’s always traditional thread-button techniques, like these from Threads Magazine. Full disclosure: I long ago tried and failed to make sturdy buttons using similar techniques, but I’m pretty sure it was user error.

You could also knit a circle from the bottom up, rather than from the center out, increasing and decreasing at the sides, and then gather it over a button or use a commercial button form.  There’s an example on Knit Darling here. She uses a cover button kit, and rightly points out that those don’t work in small sizes with thick fabrics.  I think you could gather a smaller size over a regular button and secure it something like the second part of my technique (but I haven’t tried this yet to be sure).

 

Not that there aren’t beautiful buttons out there, but especially during this season when we’re surrounded by encouragement to over-consumption, I just love the idea of putting the final touches on a project myself, made with bits and pieces I have around the house. Here’s wishing you all a restful, creative December!