Introduction: DIY Wool: Forage, Spin and Dye Your Own Yarns
On a visit to Cumbria, where I grew up, my young son and I found a good quantity of wool from the sheep shearing season. As you would expect for this age, there were many questions about how Wool is turned into a Wooly Jumper, and how it's Dyed. After a certain point, it is almost easier to actually have a go doing it, than trying to explain it, and was good fun also!
My aim was originally just to spin the wool into Yarn. I was lucky enough to have a textiles class at school where we made felt from wool, using carding tools. These tools are actually not cheap, but I found that you can buy pound/dollar-store pet brushes, which are not only cheaper, but crucially - are smaller, so young hands can use them!
With this low-cost and child friendly 'hack', I naturally wondered how to give these yarns colour, and after some googling realised that they main thing is you need a chemical fixative, but this turned out to be a chemical which can be purchased in the spice isle of any 'world food' store for about £1/$1. So again, this looked a great way to keep kiddo occupied, and have some fun whilst learning a whole load about textiles, chemistry and nature.
For the record, I'm not raising my kid to shun all industrialisation, but I think just as growing vegetables usually is not a realistic substitute for industrial farming for most families, such fundamental exposure to the process nonetheless helps kids get a tacit appreciation for 'where stuff comes from'. Given that I work as a technologist - I am pro many modern advances, but I think having an appreciation for the provenance of things is valuable, regardless of what life choices my son will make when he grows up, he will understand many hours of labour, litres of water, and complex process go into every item we own. Even as an adult who 'knows this as a fact', it's still a humbling moment to pause and reflect on.
What I can say about this Instructable, is that regardless of your environmental perspective, I hope it is a great 'cookbook for wool' which is not only fun to produce something as vibrant and personal as your own yarns, but of course you can make these into garments, toys and even art.
I hope this is a good spectrum of colours here, and please vote for us in the Rainbow Contest, and do share any of your own recipes and creations...
Many of these items for this entire project you can get for less than £10/$10 all in, and will be enough to do multiple batches in future. Other items like sieves and pans you probably have, and although the dyestuffs here are not highly toxic, I think it sets a good example for kids not to conflate the two processes.
Wool / Carding:
Sheep's Wool is available in fields in summer, or indeed online, (link), and is called 'Rovings' in their un-spun state.
Pet Grooming Brushes can be found in dollar/pound stores. Or online (link).
Also Need: Soap, Bucket/Tub, and a warm place to dry wool, like an airing cupboard.
Cochineal Shells - available online. (link).
Turmeric (fresh/powder), Blackberries - available in shops.
Eucalyptus Leaves - available in Florists. Bark can be ordered online perhaps, but best found in parks late Summer.
Madder Root - available online. (link).
Blackberries - available in summer/autumn in many hedgerows. Only need a handful or two.
Tools & Equipment:
Thick Bottom Saucepan, Small Cups, Tongs, Spoon/Stick - Best to keep only for dye work. Do not use for food.
Thermometer, Scales - Clean Afterwards.
Scrap Wood, Nail/Wire, Pliers, Drill, Glue - for making your own Yarn Spinner.
Optional: Wire (1mm stainless steel) for winding wool onto. Or any other heavy stainless steel weight will do.
General: Ziplock Bag, Marker,
I used Milk Jugs, as these are cheap and can still be recycled afterwards.
If you intend to keep for longer, I would advise large pickle jars.
Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the ingredients used are relatively safe, and advice given to keep as safe as possible. However, this Instructable still shows use of hot stoves, boiling liquids, and assumes used of objects which are small and/or sharp. Please only attempt this at your own risk, and with confidence you know your child's capability and temperament. If you do, I can say it's a wonderful experience and the results are quite remarkable for the cost. If you are still unsure, but want to try, perhaps this may even make a good project to recommend to your kid's school / science weeks, etc. - who will have the appropriate equipment also.
Step 1: Here's Looking at Ewe
Sheep Shearing season is pretty much whenever the weather is getting too warm for the animals. For the UK this is around Easter/May, and you'll likely find offcuts from shearings, or clumps of wool on wire fences.
I have not got into wool types in great detail here, but you may well notice the difference between say a Herdwick and a Swaledale sheep (well known Cumbrian sheep, where I grew up)...so travel around and see which you like best.
Step 2: Finder's Keeper's
As is often the way, once you have your kid's attention on something new, then tend to 'zoom in' on it. Wood Hunting is no different, and after a few sightings, my son was seeing wool on pretty much any hillside we went to! It seems to collect on anything spiky - be it a thistle or barbed wire fence.
I can't lie, some of it can be a bit stinky, and if you didn't bring a bag, you might like to try my improvised 'skewering' of the wool on some Soft Rush, so it can be carried like Candy Floss, without ending up with sweaty (and oily) hands after a long walk! All part of the fun...
Step 4: Washing the Wool
In hindsight I should have used a more delicate textile/wool detergent, as it would cleanse - whilst still keeping some of the natural oils (lanolin) intact. As I was using washing up liquid (albeit sparingly), the results were perhaps a little harsh, but I was also keen to ensure the wool was thoroughly cleaned. The choice is yours. However, the key is NOT to use HOT WATER, as this will shrink it. Just use tepid water for now.
Try to remove any big debris from the wool first, but then give it a gentle swirl around. Take care not to wash too aggressively, as otherwise you will effectively begin the 'felting' process and the wool will bind to itself.
Leave overnight, rinse and repeat if needs be until water runs pretty clear, and any sand and dirt has been separated.
Step 5: Drying
If you have an airing cupboard, lay the rovings out as shown and allow to dry thoroughly.
You may have spotted some Black Wool - set this aside, as this is kind of a blessing, as dyeing jet black is hard, so just use natural black wool. You may even find some brown too. Keep an eye out...
Step 6: Carding
A fancy Wool Carding Brush can happily set you back £40 a pair, but as mentioned earlier, these are not only excessive for a kid's first project, but are also too difficult for them to handle (too hard to actually use). So using the small pound/dollar-store dog brushes work just fine.
What you are trying to do is to get the fibres in the same orientation, and remove any knots, as well as any debris, etc.
To begin, gently pull a clump of wool over the wire pins (they are not sharp like needles, so will not hurt), and allow it to be held by the pins. Fill it up like this a little at a time.
Then take your other brush, and pull it in the other direction, as shown. You may need to help you child at first as the resistive force is quite strong, but eases as the fibres align. The trick is to not press them together too much, and/or add less wool to reduce the effort required.
Once you've been doing this a few times, you'll start to see the wool 'stretch out' - with the fibres mostly in the same direction. A bit like combing human hair.
Step 7: Practice Makes Perfect
TIP: Ideally you want strands which are over 5cm in length, (the final picture is arguably too short, but later ones are better), the reason for this is that the longer the strands, the better it will twist into yarn. So perhaps 'grade' any 'short' batches and keep for later, (when you are more skilled), or keep for felting.
Step 8: 1 Bag Full
We managed to collect 38g of wool - which looks like this (a 'pillow' about 20x20x10cm). This produced all the wool in the first picture of this guide, and was from about 2 walks in the fells. There was probably about 5-10% 'waste'.
Step 10: Equipment
As is often the case, here at Instructables, you learn a lot from everyone - I got a great Primer in Spinning from Alicious https://www.instructables.com/spinning-yarn/ and have modified that guide into a more basic version, based on what I had lying around the home. What is great is that whatever you do, it is cheap and pretty simple to get started!
Step 11: Making a Simple Drop Spindle
Fundamentally you want to make a spinning top, which can hold yarn. a Drop Spindle is going to keep your yarn in gentle tension, whilst allowing you to wind the spun yarn onto it as you go. This is hard to visualise, but it'll make sense when you get into it, trust me...it really has a 'a-ha' moment! After all people have been doing this for centuries, so it is amazingly simple in principle, but of course takes some time to truly master. Rest assured, 'mastery' is not needed to make something fun - this was my first attempt and I'm amazed it worked so well for the lack of practice!
To do this I got a wooden dowel and two wooden wheels, and fit them together like so. Even a 'square' piece of wood works fine too. I then added a 'hook' from a Nail to the end of the dowel as shown, and bent it into shape. I added glue gun, and trimmed this smooth with a knife.
Step 12: Spinning the Yarn
Taking note of which direction you had carded the fibres, you now pull some strands together, whilst twisting. The reason for adding two wheels was firstly weight, but secondly I realised that this was a nice 'pinch trap' to hold the first yarn in place.
If the images of Alicious's Instructable are too tricky, try this video also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKAJTKvl0nE (It took me a couple goes, but it is quite satisfying when you get going). My son (5 at the time) did find this a bit tricky, so I did the lion's share - but after doing this to a couple Movies, over a couple nights - I'd spun the lot!
Step 13: Reeling On
Once you have a good length of yarn spun, you can then unhook it, and wind it onto the spindle shaft, as shown. Then re-hook the end of the yarn with about 5-10cm free...you will need this for the next bit...
Step 14: Extra Yarn
In case you'd been wondering how all these little bits turn into a single long length - this is how...In many ways, this is kinda amazing that humans figured this out. It seems so simple, but is quite a profound technical/conceptual thing to make many small things become one big thing. The same goes for rope and many other processes when you start looking for them - even making Nylon is essentially doing this, albeit with molecules!
Anyway, so you take one pieces of wool and let it rest beside the end on your spindle - rub them together a little, and they will 'bind'. This is because Wool actually has a coarse texture (image from https://ellaswool.com/blogs/news/soft-wool-vs-scratchy-wool-heres-the-difference) - which is why it binds (or 'felts') to itself, but smoother fibres like cotton do not.
Did You Know? Kinda gross, but if you've washed your hair, and collect a ball, add some soap, and then roll it firmly in your hands, and it'll 'felt' just like wool. You can literally make a dense felt hairball from your own body waste. Even for me this is too eco-warrior, so I didn't keep it!
Step 15: Transferring Your Yarn
Once you have filled up your spindle, you can transfer this to another reel. I used a tube from Aluminium Foil. As you can see the consistency / regularity is improving a little, but there are a few lumps and thinner parts, but overall it is certainly 'functional' and quite strong (it hold the spindle just fine).
Step 16: Preparing for Yarn Dyeing
Given that I'd done most of the spinning over a few evenings, the fun part begins...
I got some stainless steel wire (about 1mm thick) and bent it into a shape as shown. This was improvised on my part, and there may be better ways to do this, but it worked for me...my son then wound the yarn onto the metal holder, so it was ready for dyeing. Try not to pull it taught too much - keep it loose.
Step 18: Alum - a Simple Colour Fixer
Mordanting sounds a bit fancy word, and the chemical 'Alum' or 'hydrated double sulphate salt of aluminium' sounds intimidating. Yet this is a common kitchen ingredient, used in pickling and canning, and is pretty safe. Essentially what it is doing is making the Wool (and organic material) become receptive to dye colours (typically an inorganic compound).
I did a good deal of reading around, as there seem to be many different recipes to create Mordant. I found this one to be good: https://botanicalcolors.com/how-to-mordant-animal-fibers/ and was a good balance between not being too vague, but not too intimidating for beginners. The rest of the website is also very thorough.
If you wanted to be scientific about it, you can even try not mordanting a small batch of the wool and see what happens (some strong dyes will hold, though not as well as they might).
Step 19: Optional - Chalk for Warmer Colours
A side note, but worth me saying upfront, is that adding chalk makes some red colours 'warmer' and 'richer' like Madder Root - later on. Prepare this now so you have it to hand. I needed about 1g chalk to 25g of wool. Here show a way to weigh 1g (not easy on kitchen scales), but increasing by a factor of 10x, and then using approx one 10th.
Step 20: Label Your Pots
Good Chemistry practice to label everything clearly, so you can see it when working. Have you pan of water ready...
Step 21: Begin Mordanting
As per the guide (https://botanicalcolors.com/how-to-mordant-animal-fibers/) instructions, I used a ratio of about 20g Alum to 100g Wool (to be sure). Each 'reel' was about 25g Wool. Add enough water to cover. Bring to 180F / 82C, and hold for about 45mins. Allow to cool. You may leave overnight.
Optional: Just for the record, I didn't hold my son's hand over the water at 82C - as this is pretty hot! However, I did supervise him doing this from cool, and looking at the thermometer to gain an understanding of what each increment of 10C felt like, as temperature scales are quite hard to relate to if you've not felt at least some of it directly. It is quite surprising that 40C feels 'hot' even though our blood is 37.5C at core. Things like this I find are useful down the line when relating to more detailed experiments, and indeed, evaluating danger. The choice is yours, and do take care if you do explore this approach of teaching/discussion.
Step 22: Cool and Drip-Dry
Keep the Mordant liquid for future batches, and leave the wool reels to drip dry - assuming you're going to colour them within a few hours. If not, bag them - and it will keep in your fridge for about 5 days, but try to use before then otherwise they may go mouldy.
Step 24: Dye Making
This is where the fun really begins! As mentioned in 'Supplies', I've given a few different dyestuffs. I thought it was important to show that Dyes have a complex and detailed history, and from a google search on any of these you'll find some interesting facts.
Some of you may be Vegan, in which case avoid the Cochineal, (animal shells), but it seemed important to state that historically dyes involved animals, before synthetic alternatives were made cheaper, and more humane. Likewise, some of the most potent colours can be from things we don't usually associate with 'chemicals' - like Turmeric (unless from their countries of origins, in which case it's very widely known and used, and again is a great discussion point).
Foraging is also an exciting 'wild card' - as Blackberries you might imagine would yield a bright purple, but actually go more dull/steely blue. Eucalyptus Leaves and Bark gives Yellows and Tans. This seems just as valid to 'experiment' as it is to follow the recipe, (perhaps more so!). Hope you have fun! Do always wear Googles, and a Mask if you like also.
Tip: If you are really into this, check out Wild Colour: https://amzn.to/3B18QGS
Step 26: Cochineal Bugs
This is a fascinating dyestuff, made from bugs. It might sound gross, but it ends up in drinks like Campari, and all sorts of foods, though many now are probably synthetic, as it's a. cheaper and b. can be sold to more people.
The process here is more detailed, as this is probably the most involved dye process - but the good news is if you can do this, you can do the others here easily! (But if you want an easy win, just try Turmeric).
Take a small quantity of the dried bugs, and grind in a mortar and pestle. I would imagine that you will not need to grind to an ultrafine powder to release the colour, but if unsure, do wear a mask. Decant into a mesh bag or fine pieces of cloth or muslin. (You could even empty out an unused teabag and use this!)
Step 27: Infuse
Place 'dye bag' into cold water, and gently warm up. I didn't let it get to a boil, but held it at a gentle simmer, so steam was starting to rise, so it was likely about 70C. Warm enough for the colour to infuse is what you're going for. Too much heat will potentially change/dull your colours so start cooler and take your time.
Step 28: Optional: Add Chalk
This gives the colour a little more warmth and vibrancy.
Step 29: Incremental Concentrations
I used 3 old spice jars, cleaned out, and at 5 minute intervals poured off the liquid into approximately thirds. I was curious to see, if like say Olive Oil, there was much difference in clarity/quality as the colour was extracted. In all honesty, I didn't see a big difference, but I mention it as it's good practice as it can vary. The infusion was very fast (15mins) with this famously potent dyestuff. Some of course take longer.
Step 31: Deep Purple!
With the Wool added (pre-Mordanted), and at about 40C, we added the Cochineal Dye liquid. It was very potent stuff - and you can see the wool 'take' the colour rapidly!
Step 32: Temp Check
We kept this at temperature for about 15mins at about 70C. You could leave overnight, and some dyes do call for this, but in this case, it's rapid and done plenty in 15mins!
Step 33: Remove From Dye Vat
Removed the wool carefully, allowing to drip. Save off any remaining Dye in the jars.
Step 35: Quick Wash
It made sense to wash the wool in the pan also. You could possibly even use this remaining dye for much lighter colours/tones.
Step 36: Proper Wash
Wash the wool more thoroughly in the sink with cold water, to get out all the un-fixed dye. Leave to dry properly.
Now that you have the fundamental 'overview' the following other examples should make sense and be fun also!
Step 39: Preparation: Turmeric
A really easy one, as the root can be found in many supermarkets and street markets. Take care as it does stain your skin, and clothes!! I suggest only cutting off the chunks and shown, and not re-cutting into smaller chunks. Chopping on the bag was deliberate, so as not to stain the chopping board also.
Add chunks to 'bag', allow to infuse at a warm, not boiling temp. The bags were removed, and the wool reel added. Turmeric actually is slightly 'oily'/'sticky', and needs a through wash afterwards.
Foraged in hedges, these brambles worked nicely, and gave a purple at first, which became more like a steely blue-purple once washed out. It became quite a fun guessing game at this point as not everything behaved the way you might expect.
Step 43: Madder Root: Method 1: Hot
This was a more involved dye, where the root simmered for some hours gently.
After extracting the first lot of dye, you can soak them cold (shown in later pics), to get more dye out of it.
Madder can be purchased as a powder - which will give you more instant results if you're in a hurry, but I liked that this was a 'slow' process, and indeed, I looked at growing Matter Root, but it takes 2-3 years to mature such that the roots can be harvested for dye. So it depends how involved you want to be. Arguably this is good for schools to have a running cycle in their gardens: Plant/Harvest yearly.
Step 44: Madder Root: Method 2: Cool
We also tried using less heat, and simply soaking this for a week, and it worked well. It seemed to give a milder colour, but still very warm and vivid.
Step 46: Eucalyptus Leaves - Florist Vs Park
The long leaves are from a local park (fallen on the ground), and the rounded leaves are from a Florist. Apparently you should get a more vibrant orange, but we never did with either (hence my trying both options). Either way, it yielded a nice beige/tan colour, but most noticeably it was really strong smelling! This was a really fun aspect of the process, and was also a great justification to it being outside!
Step 48: Eucalyptus Bark From the Park
Please do not rip off bark from trees. However, Eucalyptus Trees do naturally 'shed' their bark mid/late summer, and it is often on the ground as mulch from previous years. It also smells wonderful, and we went about soaking it and processing it as you'd now expect based on the above examples, and seeing what worked best.
Do keep an eye out for hairy critters! (do not touch!).
Step 49: Gallery
I used some cardboard to wind-up the coloured yarns for storage. I'm looking forward to doing some weaving with my son, but right now, that is a bit tricky (for him and me!!), so for now I hope you've enjoyed this, and look forward to using your yarns either for knitting, crochet, felt-making - or something else! Please do share what you get up to!
Judges Prize in the
Colors of the Rainbow Contest