Each year we shear our sheep, skirt (pick out hay and manure covered ends) our wool and send it to our processor. She takes the dirty wool, washes it, cards it (aligns the fibers up in one direction) on a large carding machine and then either returns it as roving (clean, aligned fiber ready for spinning) or as spun yarn. Our finn fiber comes back as roving or a nice weight, 2 ply yarn. The shetland and shetland/finn cross fiber comes back in roving or a lopi, single ply yarn. I dye a good portion of our 2 ply finn yarn for sale. This yarn is dyed with commercial dyes, made here in Maine. The lopi is left natural. I always leave several skeins of both types of yarn natural for a special dye project. I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely lady, Jane, several years ago who is extremely knowledgeable about dyeing wool with natural plant dyes. I had the pleasure of taking part in one of her Natural Dye Classes and was amazed with whats available on my own farmland that produces wonderful dyes for my wool.
For some time now Jane and I have been raising different plants in my garden, lovingly tending them until they are big enough to harvest the appropriate parts needed to produce the dye and dyeing our wool. She has also taught me different native plants that I can harvest to produce lovely dyes and how to use them. You can achieve different colors from one plant simply by using a different mordant. A mordant is a compound that causes the fiber to absorb the dye. Most often we use vinegar, alum (aluminium) copper, tin and vinegar. The basket in the top photo is our "harvest" from our 2008 garden along with a few native plants.
This color is from a plant called Madder. This is a perennial plant that grows quickly and needs room to spread out. It's usually a year or two before you can harvest from this plant. The roots are what is used to produce the dye. You can achieve many variations of this beautiful red/orange color by using a different mordants as well as different fibers.
This color was achieved by using leaves from the woad plant. Woad is a biennial, hardy to zone 3. It is a spreading type plant with flowers stalks that grow 2 t0 3 feet. Woad IS the source of blue dyers in cold climates. In mild climates, woad is evergreen. Otherwise, it freezes down to the ground. In the spring, woad flowers are as early as daffodils in the same beautiful yellow color.
This color was achieved by using the tops of Goldenrod. It grows prolifically in the northeast. The tops of four plants can dye 4 ounces of wool. One plant blooms 3 to 4 weeks and you can see fields of goldenrod blossoms from July to October.
This lovely yellow is produced by using the shoots of the Dyer's Broom shrub. This terrific shrub is hardy to zone 4. One plants needs about 4 square feet of space. It blooms early in the spring with tons of little yellow blossoms and continues to bloom throughout the summer. I love to give this shrub a "haircut" in the fall. No matter how much you cut it back, it thrives the following spring. It starts throwing out new shoots as early as the woad flowers start popping out.
Last year we also planted calendula and harvested the blossoms and put them in the freezer for a later dye project. We have several other dye plants that will need a few years to mature before we can begin to harvest them. It is such an adventure from beginning to end - never knowing exactly what colors you are going to get :) I've been looking through the herb catalog lately, getting ready to order a few more dye plants to add to our "dye garden". It's hard to image green growth looking at 6 feet of snow out my window but it will happen eventually :)
If the natural dyeing interests you, the book, " A Dyer's Garden by Rita Buchanan is one of my personal favorites.
I'm not sure what creation(s) this lovely "harvest" will be. I would like to find a project where I could use all these colors. I'll keep searching - a great idea may come along!