Low-tech wool (and other fibres) prep

Words and Photos by Joanne Seiff

When was the last time you took a lock of raw or washed wool, teased it out into a cloud, and immediately spun it up? When I was taught to spin, back in the dark ages – the mid-1980s – we called this teasing the wool. This low-tech approach was part of how we explored spinning. In retrospect, perhaps this was called teasing as a product of its time. Beehives and teased hairstyles were old-fashioned then but not ancient history. People knew how to tease hair, too.

I was taught this as a kid, volunteering in a living history context. Offered a pile of dirty or minimally washed wool, I sat at the feet of an adult who was spinning. One or two of us teased each lock of wool into a cloud, allowing much of the vegetable matter to fall out onto the ground. An older kid might then take the teased wool and card it, making it into tidy rolags for the spinner. We were all busy, feeding the orifice and producing a higher quality, cleaner yarn.

I still explore basic fiber prep with my hands whenever possible. Whether you choose to spin raw or washed wool, worsted or woolen style, there are ways to prepare your wool without the use of any tools, just your hands. This allows a chance to really experiment and learn about a particular breed and fleece choice up close, giving a chance to sample and study what will work best. It also connects us to the many generations of spinners who lacked fancy tools. In the end, you might choose cards or combs to complete your processing – but you’ll know why you did it!  

Part of the allure of teasing your wool out, one lock at a time, is that you can ensure an entirely woollen preparation, with locks in every direction like a cloud. If you hold it up to the light, you can see the jumble clearly.

Shetland lock and teased cloud
Finnlamb teasing vs locks

Or you can do a semi-worsted approach, by gently spreading and teasing out the lock but keeping the fibers neatly aligned in parallel to the wheel or spindle.

Romney-Texel semi-worsted teasing
Romney-Texel semi-worsted vs woollen

Teasing a fleece dyed in the lock can allow for color experimentation and close-up examination before undertaking a faster prep method, such as with a drum carder.

Sometimes you’ll find your fiber really doesn’t need anything more than teasing to make it ready for spinning. If you’re seeking a textured single or an art yarn, teasing may provide you with the process you need. A bonus is that if you set yourself up with unprocessed fiber and a basket for the teased fiber beside it, you may be able to get yourself through a marathon TV or audiobook binge – complete with something mindless to do with your hands!

On a more philosophical level, starting with raw fleece and a spindle – and no other tools – allows you to examine how things can be done entirely by hand. We are products of our time. Many of us love all the available gadgets that come with spinning. There are odes online to flick carders, hackles, blending boards, cards, combs, drum carders, and commercial processing. Although sometimes expensive, these tools are available to many spinners. We can try every kind of technique. However, people have been spinning all over the world for thousands of years, often with very little equipment. Did it keep them from spinning?

Absolutely not.

The next time you take a hike, look at the hedgerows. Do you see a wisp of wool caught on a bush? Do you collect downy fibers from plants, wondering if they can be spun? There’s also something magical about helping out at a sheep shearing, returning home with a fleece, digging into the bag on the porch, teasing a lock at a time, and spinning the yarn up before it ever comes indoors.

Teasing allows you a nearly instant way to find out the potential – a chance to immediately imagine what your newest acquisition might be. Separate out a lock of wool, a bag of alpaca seconds, a cloud of cashmere, or a cotton boll. Find out what you can do – solely with your hands. Practice getting in touch with fibers with your fingers. You may be surprised at what you learn.

Joanne Seiff has written 3 fiber-related books: Three Ply,Fiber Gathering, and Knit Green. She writes, edits, spins, knits, designs, and teaches in Winnipeg, Manitoba. See Joanne Seiff’s designs on Ravelry and on Lovecrafts.com – her designs might sing in your handspun. Read Yarnspinner, her blog, at joanneseiff.blogspot.com, to learn more!

Dyeing Cloth with Mud

Words and Photos by Suzanne Correira

I’ve been experimenting with using mud for coloring cloth ever since I took a class from Judy Dominic in the early 2000s. She studied African mud dyeing extensively. Then I started reading about the Japanese technique of Dorozomo – also mud dyeing. I fell in love with the fun and experimental aspect of it. And the historical bits of course. Plus, how can you resist playing in the mud?

Colors

I’ve worked mostly with clay-ey type soil – most easily obtainable for me – and these tend to have the best colors. Think Georgia red clay, Oklahoma red dirt, Texas red dirt, and Montana red mud. There is a whole business built around the Montana red: Montana Dirt Shirts. And they’re rather nice T-shirts. For the record, my students have all declared the Georgia red clay as the out and out winner in the red department.

Red seems to be the most available color in nature. Green is also something you can find in heavily naturally mulched soils and in desert areas – New Mexico and far West Texas have several spots for a good deep green. And black is something you can get from a good deep natural mulch – or a peat bog. These are going to be your basic colors, but you can also find some others including some good yellows. And if you don’t want to drive around with a bucket and shovel, think facial clays, yes, clay masks – certainly for the green clay and a black clay mask. The red may be harder to find, but there is a rose facial clay out there.

Plain old mud from the garden or a potting soil also works, especially if it is full of composted leaf material – think tannin here – and this works extremely well if you are dyeing or painting on cotton. The tannin acts as a mordant, intensifying and fixing the colors.

Mordant

You are not actually dyeing with these clays, as they are a pigment and do not absorb into the fibers and fabrics, but are rather staining with them. Think of what happens when the kids play in the mud and grass and what happens when you kneel down to work in your garden. This time, we are doing it deliberately. And for that, we need something to “mordant” the colors if you don’t have a swamp or peat bog handy. While it is a tradition to bury the decorated cloth in the ground, in peat bogs, or in other areas for weeks, evens months at a time, I’ve been using mostly soy milk as I learned in Judy’s class. Canned or fresh, it doesn’t matter. In fact, the last time I taught this technique in New Mexico in 2016, I used 2-year-expired soy milk. Quite honestly, I think the colors were the best I’ve ever seen a class of mine come up with! The photos included are from that class.

A Collection from the Class

Our real star here as far as fixing the colors is the soy milk. Soak whatever you are dyeing in it, use it to emulsify the clay, or do both. I like to do both. The enzymes in the soy milk serve as a binder for the clays. Leave it on as long as you can – even months to bind the clay to the piece.

Types of Dyeing

You can use immersion dyeing techniques – the Montana Dirt Shirts are done this way – and you can design tie dye effects. Soak the fabric in a solution of soy milk and clay, where the solution has taken on the color of the clay (think of the color of the water of the Red River or any clay pond), and leave it as long as you can to soak – overnight is good. Dipping more than once helps build up color. Hang it to dry and “cure” as long as you can – about a week. Rinse and let it dry and cure again. Hand wash in a gentle soap and dry carefully. I experimented with wool yarn and achieved a soft color this way, but it required a lot of rinsing. If you plan on wearing your clay-dyed pieces, handwashing is definitely recommended.

Mud Immersion Tie Dye

Clay painting is what you most commonly see, both using clay as the actual color and as a resist to other natural colors. Again, mix the clay and soy milk, and even dip your cloth in soy milk first, then paint on the surface using cheap disposable brushes or even Q-tips. Leave the clay paint on the piece as long as possible to cure as above. Layer gradually to build up the colors. Please note: You may get some really deep colors, but you will be washing out a great deal of that color. Still, the longer you let it sit, the deeper it gets!

Mud Painting
More Mud Painting
Resources

Mud/clay dyeing shows up in many cultures and has become quite popular with surface design artists and hobbyists, so there are tons of articles and tutorials. There is a wonderful tutorial online. It is suitable for grade schoolers but interesting to all.

Kimberly Baxter Packwood: Clay Dyeing Info

Judy Dominic – I took one of her first classes on the subject in Berea, Kentucky, after she’d been to Africa to study the method. Turkey Red Journal, Vol 17, no.1, Fall 2011, Bogolan Fini Mud Cloth from Mali Africa (U.S. adaptation). This is decorating a cloth with clays painted onto the cloth, using the clays both as color and/or as a resist. The cloth may be buried in mud for months.

John Marshall: Also Turkey Red Journal, same issue – Dorozomi Japanese Mud Dyeing (he is quite insistent on using fresh made soy milk, not the prepared stuff, but then, he is a stickler for traditional methods). Here he writes about 2 distinct Japanese methods: Bingata, in which various muds, as pigments, are glued to the cloth using soymilk as a binder, and Dorozome, where the mud is serving as a mordant to the vegetal juice color that the cloth is saturated with first. Both articles can be found at Turkey Red Journal, along with more recent articles on all sorts of dyeing.

Suzanne Correira has been a professional fiber artist since the 1980s and has been Fire Ant Ranch since 1992. She has published with Knitter’s, Knitting Digest, Threads, Lion Brand, and Ravelry. She has exhibited/taught in many places, including PLYAway, Estes Park, Taos, Big Sky, Kid ‘n Ewe, DFW, Interweave Yarn Fest, and Georgia Fiber.

Chasing Cloth

Words and Photos by Melanie Duarte

As spinners we are always chasing cloth. The yarn we create may be beautiful on its own and it might hang out longer in our stash than we intended it to, but there probably was a goal when we set out to spin it. More often than not, that goal is to produce some kind of cloth, be it woven, knit, or crocheted. Over time, we become more comfortable in our ability to make cloth and we can begin to make choices based on how we want the cloth to look, feel, and drape before we even start spinning. We can decide what breed of sheep, fiber, or blend we will use and how we will spin it to produce something close to the cloth we want. From there, it can be a few short sampling exercises to pin down the exact details of the perfect yarn for our project. Sometimes the yarn comes before there is an idea of the final cloth, but from our experience we know what will work best for that yarn or how to make the yarn sing.

As a confident wool spinner and knitter, I decided to shake things up by learning to spin and weave cotton. For me, learning to spin cotton was like learning to write with the opposite hand. Not only was it a challenge physically but also mentally. It has been incredibly fun and also incredibly frustrating. At times I felt like spinning cotton was truly magical, the way all those tiny fibers seemed to reach for each other. Then, other times, I felt like banging my head against the wall. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of it, I ruined it somewhere in the process. Cotton was making me start over and create a new relationship with cloth.

My first skeins of cotton were spun on my Schacht Flatiron. The fastest whorl I had was 17.4:1, and I had 2 different fiber preps: natural green in sliver and white ginned cotton. My father had given me the natural green sliver at our Christmas swap. I was so excited to try it, but I failed at every attempt. Green cotton has such a short staple, so I used a long draw draft. The wheel needs to have a balance between twist and take up; the fibers need a lot of twist to stay together, and if your wheel tries to take the fiber away from you before there’s enough twist, the singles will just keep drifting apart. After watching all of Joan Ruane’s videos on YouTube, I was finally successful.

Next up was the white ginned cotton. I tried my hand at making a puni, but that didn’t work. The fibers wouldn’t draft freely, so it felt a bit like tug of war. After that, I tried Norman Kennedy’s method of carding a rolag, and spinning was much smoother. I still had a bit of trial and error with how much twist versus take up, but in the end I had a finished skein of yarn. The ginned cotton had a lot of VM and debris in it, but thankfully after I washed it, most of it came out.

Even though I ended up with 2 skeins of yarn, I wasn’t happy with the results. My yarn was lumpy and uneven. It was nothing like the fine cotton yarns I had used to weave tea towels in the past. My experience spinning fine wool yarns had me expecting the same or similar results with cotton. I put these yarns aside and started researching cotton spinning tools.

The first tool I decided to try was a Schacht pear tahkli spindle, an inexpensive but very effective tool. Suddenly I was able to spin very fine singles. However, the issue I was having was how much twist? When spinning wool, I want just enough twist to hold the fibers together. With cotton I was afraid of adding too much twist. I spun and plied 2 singles. The first ply held together but was severely underspun. Stephenie Gaustad says in her book, when checking the twist, you want the plies to sit like beads on a string.[1] That was key for me. The second ply had much more twist. This difference in twist gave my 2-ply yarn a lot of texture. The skein of singles I have are leftovers from the second ply, but I was so pleased with the smooth and consistent thread I was able to create.

Very soon after my experience with a tahkli, I received a book charkha for my birthday. I started spinning my green cotton sliver on it right away. For this tool, I had to get used to how fast the charkha, which has a ratio of around 100:1, can spin. For someone who spins wool, that is unheard of! I quickly got into a rhythm of cranking the wheel and drawing out the fiber. What I didn’t know was just how much twist cotton really needed. I spun about 7 spindles of the green sliver and then plied them up. My yarn broke a few times during plying, but it fuzzed up a lot during the scouring process. Looking closely at my yarn and examples shown in Stephenie Gaustad’s book and videos, it was clear my yarn still didn’t have enough twist. There was enough twist to hold the fibers together but not enough to protect it from abrasion.

After the green sliver, I started spinning Egyptian cotton on my book charkha. Once I got the hang of spinning a longer fiber cotton (it was surprisingly difficult after getting used to the really short fibers of green and brown cotton), I really enjoyed it. I could see so much potential in Egyptian cotton. I was imagining all the different cloths I wanted to make. I had finally started to spin the type of cotton I had dreamed of: thin threads that I could weave into soft cloth with incredible drape. So on that note, it was time to work up my samples into woven swatches on my Zoom Loom.

The first swatches I made were from the 2 original wheelspun yarns. As yarns, I was disappointed in them. They were not at all what I wanted, but I love them as woven swatches. They have drape and texture. They feel soft and durable. I think they would make wonderful kitchen towels or face cloths.

The next swatch was the 2-ply natural brown cotton spun on the tahkli. This swatch had texture from the twist difference in the 2 plies. This yarn was finer than the wheelspun yarn, making the gauge looser and more open, thus attributing to a soft cloth with great drape.

The swatch made from the tahkli spun singles did not work at all. The skein of leftover singles had a lot more twist in them than the first ply, but they do not have enough twist to hold up even as weft in my swatch.

The last set of swatches were spun on my book charkha. The green 2-ply yarn held together wonderfully and had great depth and a really nice texture. It was very soft and smooth. The white singles yarn held up a little better than the tahkli spun singles but did break a few times towards the end of the swatching process. With a pin loom, I used a needle to pull the weft over and under the warp, and this excessive drag caused the breaks in the singles. The process is different on a harness loom, but it definitely makes me question the yarn’s durability. I do not think any of my singles yarns would hold up as a warp, but I think the collective strength of the 2-ply yarns would work.

Some amazing things have happened for me through this process. My skills as a spinner have grown leaps and bounds. Not only have I progressively gotten better as a cotton spinner, but it has definitely increased my skills as a wool spinner, too. Learning to weave and creating simple samples has shown me how gauge and sett can change fabric. It has also taught me not to discount some of my handspun yarn. What doesn’t speak to me as yarn will probably speak to me as cloth. So if you are ever in a creative rut, try something new. It will strengthen your skills and renew your relationship with making cloth.

Resources

Joan Ruane – cottonspinning.com and her YouTube channel

Stephenie Gaustad – Book: The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, Hemp (Interweave) – Video: Spinning Cotton (Interweave)

Norman Kennedy – Video: Spin Flax and Cotton: Traditional Techniques with Norman Kennedy (Interweave)

Melanie Duarte is a spinner, knitter, and weaver from Portland, ME. She homeschools her 2 daughters and is learning to play the piano. Check her out on Instagram @porchpegasus.


[1] Stephenie Gaustad. The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, Hemp. Loveland, CO: Interweave, 2014.

Spinning for Lace: A Test

Words and Photos by Barbara Bundick

My favorite default yarn is, to put it mildly, frog hair. I spin fine. Lucky for me, I also love to knit lace. The 2 go together quite handily.

I’ve heard a number of old wives’ tales about the best yarn for lace knitting. First, 2-ply yarn is supposedly better than 3-ply yarn. The 2 strands in a 2-ply yarn push against each other. The yarn, by its own wont, keeps lace holes open and, dare I say it, lacy. A 3-ply yarn, on the other hand, is rounder than a 2-ply yarn, providing for better stitch definition. The old wives will tell you, “Knit lace with a 2-ply yarn. Knit cables or stockinette with a 3-ply yarn.”

The make-up of the yarn also matters, even when everything is wool, such as which of the 2 major methods of prepping wool is used. Combing aligns all the fibers so they’re neatly parallel, while carding mixes all the fibers up higgledy-piggledy. Combed fiber is sleek. Carded fiber will keep you warm in winter.

Then there’s the wool. To grossly oversimplify, wool comes in at least 3 varieties: fine, medium, and long. Fine wools, such as Merino, are naturally short stapled, with very tight crimp, and average around 20 microns in diameter. Longwools average closer to 33 microns, with a staple length that can be as long as a foot. A classic longwool staple is lustrous and wavy. Medium wools fall neatly in between.

Setting up the Experiment

So what makes the best yarn for lace knitting? I put the old wives’ tales to the test by preparing 12 samples. I started with 3 wools: Merino, the classic fine wool; Montadale, a medium wool developed in the U.S.; and Cotswold, a traditional longwool and the basis for the British wool trade. I combed some of each and carded some of each and spun 4 yarns from each: a 2-ply combed, a 3-ply combed, a 2-ply carded, and a 3-ply carded. I knit each yarn into a lace swatch – and voilà! I could figure out if the old wives were right.

I immediately encountered a problem. I used Merino and Montadale from fleeces I’d purchased. I knew the fiber was sound and would spin well. However, I was not happy with the Cotswold I received. Perhaps because it was lambswool, it did not have the luster and curl I had fantasized. The fiber was matte white with a light yellowish tinge. Fortunately, the Cotswold spun better than I expected, so I suspect my ultimate results are reasonably reliable. However, the next time I encounter the kind of longwool locks that I first envisioned, I may repeat the longwool part of the test.

Prepping and Spinning

Combing and carding went about as expected. The Merino, a greasy fleece to begin with, did not wash fully clean. The trace of residual lanolin made no difference in the combing. In carding, though, it did tend to hold the rolag together tightly, almost as though I’d made a puni. All residual grease washed out when I washed the yarn. The Montadale, ever obliging, and the Cotswold, with a little grumbling, all combed and carded without difficulty.

Yes, I handcarded Cotswold, even though the staples were over 3 inches long. Longwools can be carded, albeit carefully. They sometimes even benefit from the extra air. I once tried spinning some combed Gotland locks, but the fiber kept trying to felt in my hands. I carded the Gotland, adding air, and the fiber became spinnable. While combing remains the preferred method of preparing longwools, carding is worth a try.

I spun all my yarn on a top whorl drop spindle because, heck, I love spindles. My spindle spinning is neither pure worsted nor pure woolen, but a mix of each. My finished combed yarns, therefore, did not have all the sleekness of a pure worsted draft – just most of it. The carded yarns didn’t inhale as much air as they would have if I had spun standard woolen. The difference between the preparations still showed in the yarns and the final swatches.

The combed Cotswold taught me a valuable lesson. It wanted, insisted really, on being drafted from the butt end. Wool has scales that point towards the tip. When you spin from the tip, you’re pulling against the scales. When you spin from the butt, the scales remain closed. The Cotswold drafted sleek as silk when I spun it from the butt end. When I spun it from the tip, it balked. The Merino and the Montadale were also happier spun from the butt end. Lesson learned. (Hint: If you’re not sure which end is which, rub the combed fiber between your thumb and your first finger. Your fingers will naturally move towards the tip end. Start drafting at the other end.)

Knitting

Yarns plied, it was time to knit. The yarns were close enough in wraps per inch that I decided to knit them all on the same pair of US size 3 needles. I chose a traditional lace pattern called the Spider Stitch, which is based on a 6-stitch repeat over 4 rows:

Row 1: K1, k2tog, *yo, k1, yo, ssk, k1, k2tog*; repeat between asterisks, then finish with ssk, k1.

Rows 2 and 4: Purl.

Row 3: K2tog, yo, *k3, yo, slip2-k1-psso, yo*; repeat between asterisks, then finish with k3, yo, ssk.

Results

The results both proved and disproved the old wives’ tales. Some differences were obvious and to be expected. The 3-ply yarns were thicker than the 2-ply yarns. The carded yarns were fuzzier than the combed ones.

I will happily challenge the old wives, however, about the superiority of a 2-ply yarn for lace. I could see no evidence that the lace holes in any of the 2-ply swatches were larger or rounder than the holes in the corresponding 3-ply swatch. The 3-ply yarns, however, did have slightly better stitch definition. Thus, the key benefit of knitting lace with a 2-ply yarn is the fineness of the yarn. If your goal is to pull your shawl through a wedding ring, why crowd the ring with an extra ply? The carded yarns were also slightly thicker than the combed yarns. Because carding adds air, carded yarns puff when they’re washed. The puffing, especially with the carded Montadale, somewhat obscured the laciness of the lace.

3-Ply Carded Montadale

If your goal is elegance, use a combed yarn. If your goal is warmth, however, a 3-ply carded medium wool is well worth considering. Of the 3 wools, the Merino, in its combed, 2-ply form, produced the finest, softest lace. I could knit a wedding ring shawl with that stuff.

2-Ply Combed Merino

The Montadale, even combed, has a natural fuzziness and bounce that keeps it out of wedding ring territory. But a soft warm wrap? Pull out the Montadale. While I was disappointed with the Cotswold in general, the 2-ply combed yarn did knit into a showy lace.

2-Ply Combed Cotswold

The fiber was a bit scratchy, with no elasticity. It would not work for next-to-the-skin wear. A 2-ply combed longwool scarf, however, would be just the thing for dressing up a winter coat.

All wools and all prep methods and all yarns have their uses, even for lace. If there’s any lesson I learned from this experiment, it’s don’t spin and knit to please the old wives. Experiment, and then do as you please.

Barbara Bundick has been knitting for 50 years and spinning for 20. She is a graduate of the Olds College Master Spinner Program. She lives in northern Illinois with her husband, one daughter, her daughter’s two cats, and more wheels, spindles, knitting needles, and stash than are worth mentioning.

Travel with a Suspended Spindle – On Foot, By Car, or By Airplane

Power Cover - strand of yarn hanging over a rusted piece of metal

Trying harder to support BIPOC

Many of you are aware of the talks happening on racism in the fiber community. If you’re not aware, please make yourself aware now. It’s important stuff, some of the most important stuff, in fact. And it does impact you, even if you think it doesn’t. Especially if you think it doesn’t. I know it’s hard to be called out. I know we’re all fragile beings that, I hope, go through life trying to do our best to be good people. And if that’s true about you, like it’s true about me, this is gonna be hard. Yes, it’s hard, but realize it’s the right thing and the company you’re in is huge. HUGE. If we all try, we can make a difference.

I know that some of you might say “but I just want to knit and be happy” or “I just came for the fiber/knitting/spinning” but that’s just not how life is. I’m sorry. I wish it could be that easy for everyone but it’s not. And until it is that easy for everyone, it can’t be that easy for anyone. Believe me, BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People/Person(s) of Color) just want to knit and be happy too, they just came for the fiber/spinning/knitting too but the color of their skin combined with a history fraught with injustice and a present rife with hate and fear, makes that an impossibility. Can you imagine? Really, can you imagine? We think we can, but the truth is, we can’t. We can’t imagine what it’s like to be different than we are, not really. We have to listen and believe when others tell us how it is for them.

It’s up to us to help make the fiber community safe and welcoming for BIPOC. Not being actively racist is not enough. You’ve got to actively be inclusive. You’ve got to actively be anti-racist. You’ve got to actively seek out BIPOC as designers, as spinners, as dyers, as companions. And I hear you again, “But why? Isn’t it more fair if I just purchase their wares when and if they appeal to me? That seems less racist, just taking race out of it.” Except that’s not actually feasible in the world we live in. It’s not. You are far less likely to see their work, their designs, their dyed fiber, their spun yarn because of our current paradigms. For now, we’ve gotta do a little work to make the world a better and safer place.

And don’t just make a change real quick because it’s being talked about in this moment. Make a change, yes, but keep doing it. We’ve gotta change ourselves, train ourselves. The world has trained us for far too long to think other and different means negative and/or invisible, we need retraining. It’s hard work and it’s ongoing work. It’s easier to settle into our comfortable lives and “just knit” or “just spin” but don’t. Work to make the world better. That’s what we’re here for, my friends. That discomfort you’re feeling about this subject, dig into that. Examine your feelings of defensiveness, your impulse to silence this conversation, your desire to have this conversation on your own terms, your need to say “you’re just here for the fiber”. LISTEN to the voices of BIPOC in our community before you brush this conversation aside.

PLY will be doing just that. The work. PLY welcomes and encourages BIPOC to write, to design, to model, but we need to do more. We don’t do enough. We made a decision on day one to actively seek and feature BIPOC models. But we are going to do more. We are going to actively seek BIPOC as writers, spinners, designers, dyers, and teachers.

I hope you’ll take this in with the love and peace with which it’s written. I’m white and I’m at fault. I try and will continue to try to be a better ally. I hope you’ll join in listening and fighting for what’s right.

jacey

The Power of Colour!

Colour and Power

Words and Graphics by Katie Weston

As handcrafters and spinners, colour is vitally important. The colour you choose to dye, spin, knit, or weave impacts your final work, your feelings about it, and others’ interpretations of it. This has long been true of colour, which has often been associated with power, as humans have used certain colours to signify position and status. Roman Emperors limited access to Murex Purple so only those in a position of power could wear that shade. In Medieval Europe, the Sumptuary Laws limited what people could wear according to their position in society. Peasants wore a dull earthy colour, whereas only nobles could wear a bright saturated colour such as scarlet.

Most modern colour rules would dictate that Elizabeth I, famously a redhead, really shouldn’t have worn a bright orange-red such as scarlet. However, the power of the colour was far more important to Elizabeth. During her time as a princess, she regularly wore scarlet, amplifying her message that she was the heir to her sister Mary I. Once she became Queen, however, she changed her message; scarlet was still a colour associated with promiscuity, and that was not the message the Virgin Queen wished to send. Instead, she dressed her ladies and retainers in scarlet to act as a symbolic backdrop to the paler colours she adopted in her own clothing.

Language of Colour

In addition to the colours themselves, the language we use to describe colour reveals a lot about the way a culture thinks about the world. Homer famously described the sea as being wine-dark. He uses the expression many times throughout his epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, to describe the colour of the Aegean sea. This sea is very much the same blue colour as all the other bodies of water across the planet. So why doesn’t Homer describe it as being blue?

Well, for starters, the Ancient Greeks didn’t have a single word to signify blue.

Homer gives the sky the non-blue descriptive treatment as well: big, starry, or of iron or bronze. The sea is also described as whitish (polios), blue-grey (glaukos), almost black (kuaneos), and on occasion it’s even described as being purple (porphureos). So given the dominance of blue in the Greek landscape, why is there no word for blue?

Describing the June sky above the Aegean as the same colour as that Aegean sea in December during a storm does seem a little limiting. Instead, the Greeks used far more descriptive language; when the sea is described as wine-dark, it doesn’t mean the sea was the colour of red wine. Wine-dark is used in Greek literature to describe darkened blood, a cloud, a tree, and the glint of metal. It’s not actually a colour description as we would recognise today. Wine-dark doesn’t mean red; it has more to do with the lustre or superficial effect than anything related to a spectrum of shades. It’s a very different way of thinking about colour than the one we presently use.

How the Greeks perceived colour as a continuum from light to dark.

The Colour Spectrum

The Greeks created their spectrum on a different basis than ours, where light or dark were far more important than the actual hue[1] of a colour. Colours were arranged on a spectrum from white to black. Yellow was considered to be so light as to merge into white, with red and green being mid-tones and with blue being seen as a shade of black at the darkest end. This way of perceiving and describing colours is by no means unique to the Ancient Greeks, and blue is not the only colour missing from their vocabulary. Yellow is also absent, as it is in some Slavic languages, Ainu from Northern Japan, Daza from Nigeria, and the language used by the Mechopdo, in what is now California. Each uses the same word within their language to describe what Western languages call blue and yellow. The use of the same word for blue and green is even more common. The Celtic languages use the word glas to describe a shade the colour of a mountain lake; it covers every colour from a brown-ish green to blue. In Japanese, awo can mean blue, green, or even dark depending on the context.

This way of looking at colour is not something unique to the Greeks. In nearly all cultures, the linguistic distinction between light and dark happens first. After that, the word for red tends to be used, then yellow, then green, then blue. There are of course many exceptions to this, but broadly speaking, the distinction between light and dark is something most cultures develop long before any need to give specific hues a single name.

The modern colour wheel in which opposite colours are said to be complementary. However, when viewed in greyscale, some of the colours are revealed as lacking contrast, so they do not tend to stand out from one another.

Colour Value

In Western culture, our modern spectrum is a comparatively recent development. For example, a Medieval painter was unconcerned about portraying a colour accurately; the significance of the colours were far more important, especially when used to portray awe and respect. Pigments were costly, so the use of certain colours displayed the wealth of a patron. Vast expanses of ultramarine, vermillion, and gold were not important for colour accuracy – they were important for prestige and power. But those Medieval artists also understood colour theory and how to further enhance the brilliance of a particular shade. The Italian Leon Battista Alberti wrote De Pictura, a technical painting guide, in 1435 for any would-be artist. He offered this advice on the placement of colours: “If red stands between blue and green, it somehow enhances their beauty as well as its own. White lends gaiety, not only when placed between green and yellow, but almost to any colour. But dark colours acquire a certain dignity when between light colours, similarly light colours may be placed to good effect among dark.”

What’s amazing is how this nearly 600 year-old advice could actually come out of any book you might read today. When thinking about colourwork knitting, the interactions of colours in a warp and weft, or whether to ply 2 different hand-dyed colourways together, the impact of light next to dark is just as important as the hue of the chosen yarns.

Light and dark are crucial for colour combinations, and we are often advised to take a photograph and switch the colours to greyscale. To enhance one another, the colours should be different shades of grey. In a way, this idea reverts back to the Ancient Greek way of thinking about colour. Colours of a similar value[2] will blend together, even if they are quite different hues. Colours that are different in value will stand out from one another.

Colour can often leave people running scared. They’ve been told long-ago, often in childhood, that 2 shades don’t go together or that a certain colour doesn’t suit them and they should never wear it. Our modern Newtonian method of describing colours and how they relate can lead to a very narrow way of looking at the materials we work with. The modern colour wheel theory says opposite shades will contrast with one another but fails to take into account the advice given by Alberti – sometimes it’s about more than opposites; you need to add some light or dark to give real power to your colours. Equally, don’t let colours have too much power over you. Channel your inner Elizabeth I, and go ahead and dye, spin, knit, weave, and wear the colour you love.

Colours are affected by the shades that surround them. The yellow box in the centre of all these colour swatches is the same shade.

[1] Hue describes the actual colour of any given shade. So in our modern lexicon, red, green, orange, purple, etc.

[2] Value describes how light or dark a colour is.

Katie Weston lives in the hills of Snowdonia, Wales. She spends her day dyeing spinning fibre in every colour of the rainbow, so it’s perhaps a little understandable that she’s obsessed with describing it, and the history of colour. She’s the author of the book A Guide to Spinning Hand Dyed Fibre.

The Power of Creation!

Words and photos by Cat Ellen

 


The power of creation. The very phrase could conjure up poetic descriptions of galaxies swirling into being or an intimate up-close look at new generations born and raised, whether children or small animals. For others, the word creation evokes the craftroom and the workbench, raw materials, stash, tools, and supplies. It can mean warm kitchens and bubbling hearths, comfort foods, and innovative new ideas.

Those of us who create handmade textiles have a strong sense of what it takes to process a fleece; spin a thread; weave a cloth; create a reliable dye bath from natural materials; hand-stitch, design, and knit a garment; or otherwise keep our families and loved ones in blankets and clothing or protected against the elements. We can recognize a handknit scarf at 20 paces and have probably held long discussions explaining the differences between crochet, knitting, and woven techniques.

If we focus on the word power, for some this means electricity, new gadgets, and space-age technology, manufacturing, and automation. How can I rev up this engine faster? More efficiently? How fast can I cook this meal? How soon can I get this delivered? Or more broadly, can I have power over my bills, my email, my social media, my laundry, my education, my retirement?

Sometimes, I find myself pondering whether every advancement is really worth it. My social media feed is filled with memes asking, “Are you old enough to remember?” featuring pictures of tools for home repair, home production, or manual handiwork. And I have friends dedicated to home sufficiency in gardening, canning, woodworking, and sewing. They joke about the zombie apocalypse and disaster recovery planning, including who needs to be part of any recovery team. The crafty, textiles friends are tagged to help clothe us when we need to rebuild civilization.

Simply creating things with my hands is power. It’s power over the capitalistic, consumer world I live in. Rather than be a passive victim and slave to the current fashion world, instead I make design decisions based on my own artistic preferences. I choose what color is in this season, possibly based on how my friend’s crop of dyestuffs grew in her garden. Or maybe I’m supporting a local dyer I only know over the internet, but we’ve commiserated over bouts with the flu or celebrating who just finished and defended their PhD thesis. All the while, we’re knitting for the holiday season or we’re spinning for a wedding shawl or we’re fermenting an indigo pot out back.

If you’ve been raised in a western textiles tradition, you may have only been taught about tool-based solutions. Which wheel should I buy to spin bulky? Do I need a new flyer to spin for this lace project? Which vendor has the best dyes for my protein fibers? Which loom should I buy, and how many various dents do I need? Can I use this loom for my tablet weaving project, or do I need a different-sized, different-shaped loom? Should I buy a warping board and a niddy noddy and a spinning weasel?

But what if my solutions were process based rather than tool based? Could I learn to spin with simpler tools? Could I weave with nothing much more than a few sticks, dexterity, and quite a bit of practice and memorization?[1]

When you think about weaving at its core, it is simply a matter of wrapping strings around a collection of sticks and then manipulating strings among other strings. If you describe your loom, you’re telling me what shape your sticks have been arranged in: backstrap loom, inkle loom, rigid heddle loom, warp-weighted loom, four-harness – all are just descriptions of the shape of the sticks where you’ll manipulate the strings. I needed to demonstrate this description in a park one time, so I gathered a handful of sticks. I made some string on my drop spindle and proceeded to warp a small sampler. Need some heddles? Make more string. I didn’t need money or a large piece of equipment. I can make fabric with sticks and string.

I am still learning how to manipulate strings – whether described as backstrap weaving or card weaving, the weaving complexity is not defined by how many thousands of dollars I spent on tools nor how large a workshop I need to dedicate to my craft. The power of my creation is limited only by the hours I put into my skill development, the research put into learning from those who have come before me, and the creativity of my own innovation.

Recently, a musician friend passed away. In lieu of a memorial service, we held a Life Celebration event. Dozens of friends showed up to sing, play music, and celebrate our friend’s life. I’d left the house without any spinning, but another friend was destashing art supplies from her home. I arrived at the event, and she handed me 4 ounces of wool. All I needed was a stick, which we found on the grounds of this industrial park. I spent a happy 5 hours twirling a stick and some fluff and making yarn.

Go ahead. Take all my worldly spinning goods. I will bounce back immediately. There’s always another stick somewhere. The power of my creation, of my creativity, is not limited by my possessions. Instead, I find an exciting challenge in taking scraps and creating something new. The problem fleece someone thought was only good for mulch? I can soak it in cold water, pick it clean, spin it by hand, and dye it with cochineal, and you would never know the wool wasn’t originally the best in the stash.

Rather than allowing ourselves to be disappointed at the limit of our budgets or our current collection of tools, we have the power to do more than just be a consumer. We are makers.

That’s the power of creation: making something greater than the sum of its parts.

Cat Ellen has been spinning for about 20 years and prefers a drop spindle over anything else. When not teaching people to make string from sticks and fluff, she can be found teaching American Tribal Style bellydance or copyediting performance material for the Santa community.

[1] I credit Abby Franquemont for teaching me to distinguish between tool-based and process-based solutions at PlyAway 2 in 2017.