In 2013, I embarked upon a project called The Great White Bale. Over the course of 12 months I, and an intrepid group of 700+ subscribers, used a 676-pound bale of superfine Saxon Merino to learn, in essence, what it takes to make yarn in the United States.
We traveled to the New York farm where the sheep came from to watch the next year’s flock be shorn. We ventured to Texas to see where and how the fibers had been scoured and compacted into a bale. And we worked with four mills to create four distinctly different yarns, each experience teaching us lessons that helped inform our decisions about the next yarn.
The adventure didn’t stop at twist. While the first yarn was delivered to subscribers au naturel, in the second lot I wanted to explore the oldest methods of applying color to fiber: natural dyeing. I reached out to Kristine Vejar of A Verb for Keeping Warm, and she eagerly agreed to join the project.
Kristine has just written her opus on natural dyeing called The Modern Natural Dyer. If you have any interest in the subject, this is the book you need.
To help you understand who Kristine is and why this book is so important, I wanted to share the story of my Great White Bale visit to Kristine’s magical studio in Oakland, California. I observed her process as she transformed our blank yarn canvas into something quite extraordinary.
A California Visit
A single drop of paint can transform a blank wall. Yarn, too, changes dramatically when you add color. What looked like a raw ingredient is now not so raw. The ocean of possibility, that completely blank slate? Not so blank anymore. The yarn’s reflective qualities change when pigment is applied. Its ability to perform optical illusions, its texture, even, change when color enters the picture.
Many techniques exist for applying color to yarn. (My personal favorite involves sloshing cranberry juice or blueberry sauce on a favorite sweater and muttering, “Damn.”) Fundamentally, dyeing is really quite easy. Dunk a skein of wool in a Mason jar with some water and a few teabags, leave it in the sun for a month, and you’ll see what I mean. Better yet, drop it in that glass of Kool Aid you were about to drink.
I thought it fitting to begin our color adventure where we, as humans, began. Long before the invention of powdered drinks or RIT dye, we had plants. Lots and lots of plants, whose branches, leaves, berries, blossoms, and roots can provide a rainbow of color when properly coaxed. It’s called natural dyeing, and we still do it today.
Perhaps the most notable natural dyer of the last 40 years was the late Luisa Gelenter of La Lana Wools, but there are others, too, including Michel Garcia and Rebecca Burgess. Some countries don’t have luminaries, though. They simply have people, who’ve been competently and un-self-consciously carrying on a tradition for centuries, for whom natural dyeing isn’t as much a textbook process as an ongoing part of life. Nothing is written down, it is simply known.
Those are the people Kristine Vejar met when she traveled to India’s Kutch region for a semester. She returned after college on a Fulbright grant and absorbed all the knowledge she could about their textile and natural dyeing tradition. Back in the United States, the lack of suitable graduate programs in textiles led her finally to the somewhat easier business path. For many years she worked with a company that made high-end mattresses out of ecologically responsible materials. She settled down and started saving to buy a house.
That is, until she took a three-day dyeing workshop with Bay Area fiber-artist Claudia Hoberg. Suddenly all the things Kristine had observed in India made sense. Things that she’d only learned in her halting Gujarati or in English as a very second language. “Claudia really helped me around that bend,” Kristine told me.
“Once I had that nugget, I couldn’t wait to get going.”
She began dyeing in her kitchen. Soon, that vision of buying a house shifted into something bigger: using that savings to start a natural dyed yarn business. She quit her job and leapt in head-first, renting space with a business incubator. One space turned into two, which turned into three, and soon she realized it was time to take the next leap. She signed the lease on a huge space in Oakland, and on November 10, 2010, A Verb for Keeping Warm was open.
It’s really one of the prettiest shops I’ve ever seen. Imagine vaulted ceilings and abundant light, open space for workshops, a wall of colorful fabric, a dye studio to one side, a dye garden in the patio out back, and one of the most thoughtfully curated collections of yarn you’ll find anywhere. Some of it is Kristine’s, but much comes from other peopleâ€“the likes of Quince & Co and Habu Textiles, to name just a few.
Kristine dyes mostly for her own business, but sometimes, if you entice her with a compelling enough project, she’ll dye on commission. We were lucky. She’d signed up for the Bale long before I even approached her. Of course she’d love to dye the Bale!
And so Blackberry Ridge kindly sent half the yarn directly to Kristine, the other half back to Biddeford where it’ll be washed and twisted and labeled and sent, along with the dyed yarn, to all the Explorers. I wanted our color introduction to be gentle, so you’re getting one skein au naturel, the other dyed.
Timing was tight. The yarn reached Kristine on a Monday, and they immediately began soaking and mordanting skeins. On Tuesday I boarded a plane for San Francisco, hopped into a rental car, and headed across the Bay Bridge to Oakland where, on Wednesday (still with me?), I showed up bright and early for a day of playing.
Kristine walked me around the shop and showed me some new and notables, including her new yarn Pioneer, featuring organic Merino wool sourced from cotton legend Sally Fox, spun at Green Mountain Spinnery, and then dyed by Kristine.
Then we got down to business. We had yarn to dye. It was time to talk color.
I asked Kristine to choose a color whose natural dye process was, for her, the most interesting and rewarding. One that she could easily demonstrate in a day, and one that she’d be willing to replicate across hundreds of skeins for the group. She chose madder, then pulled out several skeins to show me just how many ways the color can go. It all depends on the percentage of dyestuff you use, and also somewhat on the amount of time you let the yarn rest in the dye.
Madder is extracted from the root of the madder plant, a vigorous grower with sticky leaves that spreads like crazy via underground rhizomes.
That’s it in the wooden planter. Most natural dyes involve a pound-for-pound exchange of materials, meaning you need at least a pound of material to dye a pound of yarn. Needless to say, that planter didn’t hold nearly enough for our run. Instead, we’d use madder extract, which looks rather like cinnamon.
Out came the calculators as Kristine weighed each skein, determined how many she could fit in one dyepot (seven), and then determined how much madder she’d need to dye that collective quantity of yarn.
A formula was determined, a number reached, notes taken so we wouldn’t forget. Then, we moved over to the scale.
The dye powder was dissolved into hot water and set aside. Then a bigger dyepot was filled with warm water.
To which the dissolved madder powder was added.
And then, at last, our mordanted yarn was slowly dropped into the dye. Hard to believe that the dishwater brown was going to become anything pretty.
But then we put that pot on a stove.
Natural dyes require heat to do their thing, which is one reason why weighing and measuring are so important. You can’t go by eye alone, because what you initially see is not what you’re going to get.
Sure enough, as the water heated and Kristine began moving the yarn around with a pair of long-handled tongs, this appeared.
Again, disbelief. It looked so splotchy, as if someone spilled sauce on half a plate of spaghetti. But the longer the pot sat on the stove, and the more Kristine tended it, the more colors emerged.
All in all, the yarn would sit on the stove, vaguely simmering in 145-150-degree water, for an hour and a half. At top, partly done; below that, just getting started.
Kristine thought it’d be fun if the yarn had a faint variegation to it, and I agreed, so we left a small amount of each skein out of the pot for a minute or two before dunking it in. A simple trick with lovely results.
Each pot holds 7 skeins, she was dyeing 250 skeins, which meant she just had 35 more pots to go. Gulp.
At this point I figured we’d just rinse the yarn and presto, I’d have a dyed skein to take home with me. (It’s embarrassing how accustomed we are to instant gratification, no?) But this would not be the case. Natural dyeing requires more time than that.
I’ll let Kristine describe what would happen to the yarn next:
“I let it cool so as not to disturb the yarn with too many temperature changes and agitation (felting). And then I pour it into a recycled gelato bucket. We like to let the yarn sit with the dye for a day or so. This could be an old wives’ tale, but have heard that it helps with fastness. The yarn used in Persian rugs, the ones you see in museums, made hundreds of years ago, and still have the red color, those yarns used often sat in madder for a month at a time. In a dry, shady spot. This fact influences how we treat our madder-dyed yarns.”
She’s not kidding about the gelato buckets, either.
The yarn we’d used had already been washed, rinsed, and mordanted earlier in the week, but they’d saved some skeins to mordant that day so I could see what was involved. For this part of the process, Kristine’s partner Adrienne Rodriguez took over.
Mordanting is what makes it possible for natural dye to fix to fiber in a permanent way. It enables that chemical reaction to take place. At A Verb for Keeping Warm (and most other natural dye houses), they use aluminum potassium sulfate, or Alum. They again weighed the yarn, calculated how many would fit in each pot (these were bigger pots), and then weighed out 12% of the yarn weight in Alum. Gloves were donned, the alum dissolved.
Then we took the alum outside and added it to enormous waiting pots.
A close eye was kept on these pots as they were allowed to get warm, but never simmer. Temperature is always a big deal when working with wool.
The mordant attaches to the wool fibers through the ionic process (“that’s ionic!” came the puns, and that was after one too many “madder” jokes). The mixture would sit for 90 minutes at a low temperature gradually increased to 145 degrees. Every 20 minutes, Adrienne returned with a wooden stick and rotated the yarn (which was in large lingerie bags to keep the skeins from tangling). Exhausted mordant is disposed, its pH having been tested and approved by the city, by being poured down the drain.
While we waited, I was given a tour of the garden. They don’t have nearly enough space to grow production quantities of dye plants, but they do have enough room to grow plants for teaching and demonstration purposes.
This is Marcel. He lives out on the patio in a custom-built cage that’s bigger and more luxurious than my first apartment. And yes, he is an Angora rabbit. Note: Since our visit, we were saddened to hear that Marcel passed away.
He comes out every day for a hop around the patio, and is perfectly good friends with Cleo. (That’s Cleopatra to you.) They even play “chase” once in a while.
The dye garden is Adrienne’s territory, and she showed me all her different ongoing experiments.
We paused by a raised planter. “Hey!” Kristine perked up. “Wanna play with real madder?”
It was the ultimate farm-to-table experience, only instead of food it was a root, harvested moments before being chopped up, slipped in a nylon stocking, dunked in a pot of water with yarn, and kept at a vague simmer for an hour and a half until the most glorious color had settled on the fibers.
All that from a gnarly bunch of roots. Who knew?
As I was pondering the miracle of it all, Kristine had another idea. “How’d you like to play with some indigo?”
That wasn’t even on our agenda. But if there were one law of natural dyeing, it would be this: If you are ever offered a chance to play with indigo, drop everything and do it.
Indigo is magic. Simplified to embarrassing proportions, indigo dyeing involves creating a liquid dyebath in which all the oxygen has been removed. A copper-colored scum on the surface is a good sign.
You drop fabric or yarn into that liquid and swirl it around until you’re satisfied. The yarn will look green. Absolutely green. Yet once you pull the yarn out of the vat and give it a squeeze, the oxygen in the air reacts with the dye and transforms that green, slowly, magically, into blue.
Indigo from Clara Parkes on Vimeo.
I made the executive decision to sacrifice a skein of our Bale yarn for the indigo experiment.
“If it doesn’t dry all the way before I leave, could I maybe pop it in a plastic bag and take it with me?” I asked sheepishly.
Kristine did her best not to laugh. I soon learned that indigo requires several more steps yet to ensure the color fixes to the fiber. I’d have to wait quite a while for Kristine to finish her careful work.
In the end, the madder-dyed skeins were even more beautiful, more richly nuanced and striking, than anything I could’ve imagined when peeking into those murky early dyepots. Kristine is, indeed, a master of her craft.
The above piece was excerpted from The Great White Bale.
You can learn much more about madder, indigo, and the magic of natural dyeing in Kristine’s new book, The Modern Natural Dyer.