A few years ago, soon after I had developed the chronic pain I still cope with today, my physiotherapist told me I had to take a break from knitting. I found it really difficult to think about putting my knitting down and giving up (at least for a little while) the sensation of wool running through my fingers. I still wanted to find a way to work with wool, so that February, at the first LandMADE event (run by the Upper Canada Fibreshed), I carefully chose a sweater quantity of locally grown lambswool yarn to dye at home.
I found the yarn at Lickety Spit Fibre Farm’s booth, and I was surprised by its softness. I was used to “farm yarns” being more stiff and itchy, and unpleasant to wear – but this was smooth and bouncy and soft (though still not as soft as a merino yarn, of course). The labels on the skeins had pictures and names of the sheep who had grown the fleeces that eventually became the yarn, and I found that incredibly special. The yarn I was drawn to came from “Miney and ‘the boys'” (I do believe there also exists two sheep named “Eenie” and “Meenie” – though I don’t think they were “the boys” referred to).
I thought it would be even more special if I not only dyed the yarn myself, but used natural dyes to do it. I had learned natural dyeing in school (it was probably my favourite course) and I really wanted to do more of it. There was a sweater I had in mind that (called “Grow” from Slow Knitting by Hannah Thiessen), in the photo, was a beautiful green, and I wanted to dye a yarn just like it. It uses a structured and woolly Brooklyn Tweed yarn and I thought the yarn from LandMADE would be a great substitute. As far as I know, the best way to get a vibrant green in natural dyes is to dye the fibres yellow and then indigo (apparently dyeing in the reverse order wears away the indigo, as indigo doesn’t penetrate the fibres and only colours the surface). I ordered indigo and weld (a yellow-dyeing flower) from Maiwa in BC, which is an amazing Canadian source for natural dyes. Then I made a trip to Home Depot to stock up on large buckets and containers, dowels, and rope.
This little project was done at my parents’ house, where there is a larger kitchen, a laundry room with a sink, and a backyard, so it would hopefully be easier to maneuver everything. I started by simmering the yarn in the weld, but my large dyeing stockpot had a lot of trouble fitting the water, dyestuff, and seven skeins of yarn, and the dye stock frequently spilled over when I tried to stir it. I also didn’t realize that much more weld was needed to get a very saturated yellow, so with the amount I had I could only really get a buttery light yellow. Rinsing the weld-dyed yarn was also quite difficult as I hadn’t realized how hard it is to carry seven wet skeins of yarn from the kitchen to the laundry room (wool absorbs a lot of water and can be very heavy when saturated with water). It was a bit of a mess, but the yarn still had to be dipped in indigo.
I had already prepared the indigo “stock” at my apartment, so getting it going in a bucket wasn’t too difficult to do, other than the fact that it was well below 0 degrees outside. I tied the still-wet and rinsed skeins to a large dowel and dipped the skeins in the indigo bucket all at once. When I pulled them out they were the green I was aiming for, but of course once indigo oxidizes it turns into that famous indigo blue.
Unfortunately, the indigo overpowered what was already a pretty weak yellow, and the yarn came out much more blue than green. Still, I did love the little hints of green where the indigo didn’t reach the fibres quite as well, and the yarn turned out quite variegated.
Time passed and I got back to knitting, and, as most knitters do, I got distracted by newer and shinier yarns and new and exciting patterns. My dyed yarn sat untouched, and I figured I would get around to it eventually, but I no longer wanted to make the original green sweater I had planned, seeing as the yarn had not come out that luscious green.
I went through a phase of feeling guilty for holding onto it, with little intention of knitting it up. I attempted to sell it but turns out people aren’t really interested in yarn with no labels and dyed by a person you’ve never heard of (or at least, that’s my theory). I honestly didn’t know what to do with it – I considered donating it but I had spent so much time and money on it that it seemed a shame to give it away.
More time passed, and lo and behold, a global pandemic began, and yarn companies and knitwear designers started generously giving away their knitting patterns for free, as a form of paying it forward during a difficult time. I came upon the Sassy Cardigan from Peace Fleece, which seemed to use a yarn very similar in weight and texture to my hand-dyed yarn. I downloaded the pattern and decided it would be good for when I did eventually get around to knitting up that neglected yarn.
As social isolation continued, though, I found myself longing to cast on something weighty and cozy, and I couldn’t resist getting started on my cardigan. Knitting it was a new and different experience – indigo tends to rub off (as I mentioned earlier, the dye sits on the surface of the fibre) and left my fingers blue after every knitting session. Since the yarn was so “sheepy”, every few minutes I had to stop and pick out bits of twigs and grass (“vegetable matter” is the technical term) from the strands (this was a bit annoying to do but I loved that it reminded me how little processing it had gone through). I loved watching the colours of the stitches change as I went through different variegations in the yarn. And I loved feeling the itchy, woolly fabric turn soft and smooth after the knitted fabric was washed.
I’ll admit, it’s not my typical garment. I’m not sure how much that shade of indigo-blue-with-green-speckles in it goes with other things in my wardrobe. I find the sleeves a bit bulky. And I don’t typically wear cardigans. Or things with buttons. It’s thinking of the journey of the fibre that makes this sweater special – from Miney and the boys, to being twisted into yarn, to arriving in my hands, to my hands dunking the yarn in dye, to my fingers knitting it into fabric, and finally to the pieces of the garment being sewn into something wearable. Like all the garments I have, it’s special because I know no one else will have anything like it, but it’s also special because it has a story that is linked beyond me and to the local farm and sheep that produced the materials.