Lean Green Dyeing Machine

Forest Green Roving

Having recently finished my FIRST EVER sweater than I knit from yarn I spun for the project, I can’t wait to start the next. I wanted to make John an Aran pullover with a cowl neck, but apparently, he’s not enough of either an old man or a fisherman to like that sort of thing. Sigh. The pattern he picked out is Ranger by Jared Flood, and while I personally find it a touch unexciting, I do like the clean lines and sharp design.

John also likes things cheap and functional, so I’m working with the domestic top from Halcyon (I paid just over $25 for 2 lbs.). I haven’t spun it before, but I’m guessing it will be best suited for outerwear, which is suitable for this project.

Forest Green Roving
My more or less evenly dyed sweater lot for John.

Fortunately, John is happy with a solid color, so I didn’t have to mess about with trying to make two pounds of wool come out in reasonably similar ombres or handpaints or some such. Still, I’ve never tried to make yarn come out consistently from one dye lot to another, so getting two pounds of the same color out of 2 different crockpots that can’t managed much more than 4 ounces at a time was a new challenge for me.

Time to start measuring shit and timing things and writing process down. *Dramatic sigh*

My little half-exhausted jars of Wilton were obviously not up to this job, so I ordered a massive amount of Americolor Forest Green and weighed my roving out into 4 oz. increments while I waited for it to arrive. Connie at DaisyHead Creations has a nice tutorial on dyeing wool, but here’s the specific, measured process I used.

Presoak the Wool

  • Fill sink halfway with hot tap water (just barely comfortable to the touch).
  • Add 1/2 cup white vinegar.
  • Gently spool in 8 oz. wool, pre-split into 4 oz. segments.
  • Press down VERY GENTLY – just enough to submerge the wool fully.
  • Let sit for 1 1/2 hours. (Connie recommends 30-45 min., but I let the first batch sit too long and don’t dare deviate from the timing now.)

Prep the Dye Bath

In each slow cooker (I have two large-ish ones), place:

  • 1 T. Americolor Forest Green gel
  • 1/4 c. white vinegar
  • Water to within an inch or so of the top
  • Cover and set to HIGH while wool is soaking.

My cookers are of slightly different sizes, but to the best of my knowledge, the exact amount of water is not that important as long as you have (a) enough to color the wool and (b) enough room that the wool isn’t crowded.

Dye the Wool

  • Turn the cookers to LOW.
  • Gently press most of the water out of the wool.
  • Spool the wool gently into the hot dye bath, 4 oz. per cooker.
  • Press with a rubber spatula just enough to submerge the wool, only if needed.
  • Cover and let cook on low for 5 hours.
  • Turn cookers off after 5 hours and let sit to cool for 8 hours.

Rinse and Dry

My wool was still fairly warm after sitting overnight, so I stepped down the temperature of my rinses from warm to cool to avoid shocking the wool. When I was down to cool water, I added a little Eucalan to the rinse and let it soak for about half an hour before gently pressing out the water and hanging the roving to dry.

Note that when rinsing anything that isn’t superwash, it’s important to not move the wool more than is absolutely necessary. Just pour the water, gently press the wool in, wait a few minutes, gently press out the water, change the rinse bath, repeat. Do NOT swirl the wool or pour running water into the rinse bath.

My rinse water was mostly, but not completely, clear when I called it good. More dye will come out on my hands when I’m spinning, and again when I’m finishing the yarn, but I’m nervous about felting the roving into unspinability while I’m rinsing, so I kept the movement light.

John and I are both pretty pleased with the color. There are a few uneven spots, but I think they’ll even out a bit with the spinning, and if not? Well, that’s the charm of handmade. 🙂

Troubleshooting: Spindle Hooks

Can any of you lovely spinners share some advice with me? I love spindle spinning–so easy to take with me–but I have yet to figure out a good way to remove the yarn from the shaft. My current method is to loosely hold the end of the shaft while I wind it off with a ball winder, but that has problems. How do you all do it?

One of the primary problems with that method drew my attention for a frequent flaw in good spindles: wimp-ass hooks. You know what I mean–the tiny thread of wire poked in there and bent into shape as if it’s not going to have to be reshaped every three days. So annoying. But here’s how you fix that problem: stick a better hook in it.

Step 1: Remove the old wire.

You can probably do this with no hands. Maybe get some pliers if it’s giving you trouble, but I have yet to meet the wire that wouldn’t just pop out. Most of those thin wire hooks that are so prone to bending do not have screw bases, but if it’s really giving you a fight, try lefty-loosey to get it moving.

Step 2: Buy a cup hook.

These 1/2″ brass cup hooks from Home Depot work pretty well. They have bigger sizes if you’re working with a large spindle, but for smaller, you’ll need to check out McMaster-Carr. They go down to 1/4″ and also have some interesting stainless steel options for 1/2″ hooks. The downside there is that you have to buy in high quantities, but they’re much cheaper per unit than Home Depot, and if you’re a big spinner, you might just go through them. Besides, I find cup hooks to be more broadly useful for house projects, so it probably doesn’t hurt to have too many lying around.

Step 3: Pre-drill the hole.

Seriously. Don’t just try to screw the hook into the wire’s hole. It’s not big enough and you’ll crack the shaft and then you’ll have to do Step Whoops-a-daisy, which adds time and work and materials. Use a drill bit that is slightly smaller than the screw post of your cup hook. You can wiggle it around if you need to make the hole bigger, but fixing a hole that’s too big is more of an issue, so stick with small. Most sets don’t have a bit small enough for the 1/2″ hook mentioned above, so take your hooks to Home Depot and compare the specialty bits to find the right one for your drill. As you drill, stop and test the hook carefully until you get the right size and depth.

Centering the hole is not the world’s easiest task, which is probably the reason for the super-light wires on so many spindles, but so far I have found using the center of an + drawn across the top of the shaft as the center point of the drill bit to keep my spin true enough, and doing that once has been, for me, easier and more accurate than futzing around with heating and bending those stupid wires into place every other day.

Step Whoops-a-Daisy: Fix that cracked shaft.

Didn’t read step 3 very carefully, did you? It’s okay. I did the same thing the first time I replaced a wire hook. The fix is simple enough. Grab your wood glue and dab it generously into the cracks. Clamp the shaft back together and wait 24 hours for the glue to set. Sand off any bumps of dried glue if necessary, then go back and do step 3 properly.

Step 4: Screw in the hook.

Do I really need to explain this more? Righty-tighty. If you hit resistance, back up and drill a bit more. Because spindle shifts are so small, they are very easy to accidentally crack, so don’t force the screw to keep turning.

Ta-da! That wasn’t so difficult, right? And now you don’t have to worry about bending the hook back into shape every time you (ahem) drop the spindle. Or bang it about trying to get the yarn off. Speaking of which, don’t forget to comment and save me from my own ineptness in getting the yarn off my spindles!

Woolly Balls

Wool dryer balls are my new fun thing. They reduce the drying time for clothes and help soften them–a nice natural, cheaper alternative to dryer sheets. I’ve seen these sell for $10-$12 a piece in little touristy shops on the coast, but you can make them yourself for so much cheaper.

Wool Laundry Balls

I found cheap, non-spinning grade wool at a farmer’s market for about a dollar per pound and managed to get about 12 balls out of the pound. I used the yard sale roving I dyed for the outside color, but you could also use 100% wool yarn (as long as it’s not superwash).

For the core, wash the wool, brush out the vegetable matter, and form a dense ball about the size of your fist. Wrap it in the roving or yarn. Try to completely cover the core as the roving or yarn will give the ball a firmer structure. If you like, loosely needle felt shapes and designs on the outside of the ball.

Place the ball carefully into the toe of a nylon stocking and tie it shut (with a loop knot that’s easy to undo or using waste yarn you don’t mind cutting). If you’re using a long stocking, you can place the balls in the same sock, tying off between them.

Wash the balls in the hottest water your machine can offer with detergent. Use the longest soak and spin cycles for good measure. If your water doesn’t get that hot, you can add kettles of boiling water during the soak cycle. Dry in the dryer on high heat. Check for bare spots after the first cycle. I loosely used needle felting to fill in the gaps and then repeated the washing/drying process to firm the felting up.

Coming next: sacks for your woolly balls!

Crochet Off!

As promised in my last post about my in-progress Eternity Sweater, here’s the quick how-to for the crochet-off technique I found in Marianne Kinzel’s First Book of Modern Lace Knitting.

Step 1: Crochet 3 together through the back loop.

Crochet 3 together.
Crochet 3 together.

Step 2: Chain 7.

Chain 7, or however many you need to get the loop length you'd like.
Chain 7, or however many you need to get the loop length you’d like.

Step 3: Crochet 3 together through the back loop.

Crochet 3 together as before. You now have 2 stitches on the hook.
Crochet 3 together as before. You now have 2 stitches on the hook.

Step 4: Pass final chain over the stitch made by the crochet 3 together.

Pass the final chain stitch over the 3 crocheted together.
Pass the final chain stitch over the 3 crocheted together.

And there you have it! More notes on the design and construction process to come.

Keldan’s Dice Bag

Free pattern! Whee! I promised you a few holdover freebie while I’m getting through a sweater design that’s slowing down the dragons, and here’s the first of the bunch!

Keldan's Dice Bag
Druid’s Dice Bag of Tippy Toes +1 (Click image to download pattern PDF.)

This dice bags houses the luck-wielding devices of a level 4 half-elf druid named Keldan. His finest moment in battle was an inspired transmutation in which he turned into an enormous tree, holding a door shut against a boss and her outsider minions for three full rounds while our barbarian tank gathered her wits. He is very good with brambles and his hawk companion, Fara, has been known to save the party from doom with a well-aimed swipe of her talons.

View Pattern in My Ravelry Store

You can sell stuff made from this pattern!

I know not many of you are likely to do a booming trade in handmade dicebags for Pathfinder geeks, but if you do, feel free to use this pattern. I’m licensing it under CC BY-SA. In short, that means you can use this pattern to make items you want to sell or use it as the basis to do something new under two easy conditions. (1) Anywhere you sell items made from this pattern, please include the following attribution: Designed by Melissa Walshe, Variations on a String. (2) If you make a new pattern that build substantially off of this one, please make it available to other folks under the same terms.

This license will not apply to all of my patterns, so pretty please do read the copyright line carefully before you use my patterns for for-sale items. 🙂

Techniques you might need for this pattern!

Adjustable Loop Cast-On


Yes, this is a crochet technique. Just pop the crocheted stitches onto your needles as you make them. It works, I promise, and when you finish, you’ll be able to cinch that bad boy nice and tight.



Nothing too fancy about this i-cord, but if you haven’t worked it before, learning from a video if much easier than learning from written instructions.

Dyeing Roving in the Microwave

John and I drove and hour and a half to a yard sale this weekend to buy canning jars. That may sound crazy, but including the cost of gas, we got nearly 30 glass-top, wire-closure antique jars for less than a buck a piece. We’ve been looking for them for a specific project, so it was a good find. Even better: I found about eight ounces of wool roving for two dollars. How often do you find roving so cheap that you feel comfortable trying new things that might utterly trash it?!?

I had three burning questions in mind when I pulled out my dyes yesterday:

  1. Was the roving actually wool? It smelled and felt like it, but it was stored in a box with a bunch of acrylic “mock top,” so I wasn’t entirely sure.
  2. Can I dye roving without killing its spinability? The answer is yes. You get a lot of loose fibers all over your hands in the process, but it’s probably with it because you can blend the splotchy bits as you spin to even out the color.
  3. How well does microwave dyeing work? Not too badly.

To make sure I was working with wool that would take dye and felt, I did a test run on a tiny sample using my least favorite color.  Aside from an impressive explosion of colored water in my microwave, it worked. And now my cats have a tiny orange flower to bat around the floor.

In golden yellow, with teal center
In golden yellow, with teal center

I didn’t answer the spinability question with the little test run, but that was more out of curiosity than anything. This roving is destined for a felting project, so if the answer was “no, it’s more difficult than my skill level to keep it spinable,” nothing would be lost.

The microwave dye process is pretty simple.

  1. Presoak your fiber in warm water and vinegar.
  2. Mix your dye with water and vinegar in a microwave-safe container.
  3. Add the wet wool to the dye bath and nuke for 2 minutes.
  4. Allow to cool to room temp, then check to see if the dye has been exhausted (i.e., the water runs clear because the wool has soaked up all the color).
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 until you get the look you want.
Wilton colors, from left to right: no-taste red, pink, kelly green, sunshine yellow, teal, violet, burgundy, and copper
Wilton colors, from left to right: no-taste red, pink, kelly green, sunshine yellow, teal, violet, burgundy, and copper

What I like about microwave dyeing:

  • It’s faster than slow cooker dyeing by HOURS.
  • It’s easier to mess around with multiple colors at the same time.
  • It left the roving spinable.

What I would change:

  • I’d try a casserole dish instead of jars to give the roving more breathing room so they could take the color more evenly, esp. complex colors like purple.
  • I would dissolve the coloring all the way in boiling water and let it cool down.
From left to right: burgundy, no-taste red, pink, copper, sunshine yellow, kelly green, teal, violet. Only the yellow did not require a second run of dye.
From left to right: burgundy, no-taste red, pink, copper, sunshine yellow, kelly green, teal, violet. Only the yellow did not require a second run of dye. The red probably could have used more.

All in all, I’d call the experiment a resounding success. Bonus? I discovered I’m married to a rainbow whisperer. John rearranged the roving into rainbow order (I had them on the rack in the order I pulled them out of the post-dye rinse) and two minutes later, this happened:

Double rainbow across the sky!
Double rainbow across the sky!

Dye Another Day

Can I get a drumroll, please? (Ba da Ba da Ba da Ba da Ba da…Shiing!) I have finally finished spinning all of the roving John gave me with my first spindle! Which means…it’s time to dye again.

I was so excited to start dying that I forgot to take a picture of the skeins before starting the process.
I was so excited to start dying that I forgot to take a picture of the skeins before starting the process.

It’s been a while since I did my first dye job, and I’m finding the online tutorials to be a bit murky for my purposes. I’m going to try to break the process down for you according to what seems to be the common threads between them all.

N.B. This process is for animal fibers only and is aimed towards using food-safe dyes like Kool-Aid and icing tints.

Step 1: Skein Up!

Wrap your yarn  into a skein using a niddy noddy (or the backs of a chair). Tie your skein. I’d recommend a cotton thread that won’t take the dye so you can see the ties easily later. More ties = fewer tangles.

Step 2: Pre-Soak

Soak your yarn in water overnight. White vinegar in the water will make the yarn take up the color more quickly, which might be not so helpful in dip-dyeing but can lead to some seriously vibrant color.

Step 3: Heat

Swapping your yarn too quickly between temperatures can cause it to felt, so find a method to apply heat to your yarn and water gradually, such as a slow cooker or microwave.

Using the slow cooker to set the dye.
Using the slow cooker to set the dye.

Step 4: Acid

White vinegar is a cheap, food-safe acid that will open the yarn up to accept the color without ruining your cookware. It also softens the yarn quite a bit, which might not be a great thing if your yarn is fragile. Use your best judgment.

Step 5: Dye

I’ve used Kool-Aid once, McCormick’s food colorings get mentioned a lot, and this time I’m going to play with Wilton’s icing colorings (for which this color chart might be useful). Mix the color in water the same temp as your dye bath in a separate container and test the color on a paper towel before adding it to the yarn!

The counter is covered in plastic to protect the tiles from the dye as I pull it out in batches to get varied colors.
The counter is covered in plastic to protect the tiles from the dye as I pull it out in batches to get varied colors.

Step 6: Time

The longer the yarn sits, the more concentrated the color. If the water runs clear before the yarn has reached the color you want, add more dye. Take notes on your dye proportions if you’re doing a mixed color.

Step 7: Cool Down

Letting the yarn cool its heels until it gets close to room temp will make it easier to handle and easier to not shock the yarn when you wash it. “Shocking” yarn is apparently somewhere in between “fulling” and “felting” and is probably best avoided.

After the yarn cooled, I soaked it gentle in a water and vinegar bath to set the color.
After the yarn cooled, I soaked it gentle in a water and vinegar bath to set the color.

Step 8: Hang & Dry

Wash the yarn with wool wash in water that is not colder than the yarn. Wring it out very gently. Hang it to dry. If it’s curling back on itself, you might want to weight it down lightly by hanging a towel over the bottom loop of the skein. Be careful not to overstretch the yarn if you do this, though, or it will lose its spring.

My clothes drying rack works nicely for hanging the yarn.
My clothes drying rack works nicely for hanging the yarn.

Step 9: Hank & Store

Wind your skein into a hank and store in a place where the moths can’t get to your lovely work. I like to store my yarns in freezer bags in a big plastic bin, but you can repel moths with cedar as well.

Raspberry Sorbet Yarn, ready to be knitted up into a shawl.
Raspberry Sorbet Yarn, ready to be knitted up into a shawl.

Beginning Spinning

If you missed the lead-up to my becoming a wheel spinner, you can catch up on the backstory here. If you just want to know how to troubleshoot what seem to me, as a new spinner, the two most fundamental issues of working with a spinning wheel, read on.

Failure to Twist

I watched Start Spinning from beginning to end. You can’t watch Maggie Casey working and listen to her voice without feeling like you can do what she’s doing. And yet, when I sat down at my wheel and followed all the instructions, my roving kept breaking.

Having picked up spindle spinning about a year ago, I saw that my problem was that the bobbin was stealing my roving before the twist has time to travel up the yarn. Yarn = wool + twist. No twist, no yarn. It took me a lot of time and hunting to figure out that I needed to loosen my brake tension.

Tension knob on my Ashford Joy
On my Ashford Joy, you turn the knob on the front to loosen the brake tension for the bobbin.

One tip video recommended loosening the brake almost completely just to get started, and that finally got the twist moving.

Failure to Wind

I won’t even tell you how long it took me to realize that I was blithely putting twist into the fiber without the fiber actually getting wound onto the bobbin, but I will say it was too damn long. My fiber was kinking back on itself terribly. I kept running into the issue throughout the evening, and I found two sources for the problem.

1. Brake tension was too loose.

Just undo what you did to get the twist in the fiber initially and tighten the tension on the bobbin. Apparently this knob is all about how quickly the wheel steals your yarn.

2. Check for kinks in the flyer hooks.

This is bad.

Evil yarn snag on flyer hook.

As is this.

Another evil yarn snag.

The yarn should run smoothly through the hooks, but if you’ve got too much twist running into the yarn, it will kink back on itself, which creates opportunities for the fiber to snag on its way to the bobbin.

Bonus Tip: You’re smarter than I am, so you all either understood this or found the magical hidden instructions (seriously, Ashford, how hard would it be to add one sentence to the set-up manual?), but on the Ashford Joy with the Sliding Flyer Hook…you pinch the two sides of the hook together to make it slide. And that’s another thing you don’t need to know how long I took to work out.

DIY Washer Whorl: Finishing Details

Bifrost Beret Update: My photo shoot was postponed on account of merciless, cold rain. Hopefully I’ll get the finished pattern to you by early next week.

In happier news, here’s my finished whorl! Isn’s she sweet? She’s not quite true, but overall, I’m pleased with my first attempt. I tried spinning a bit with her, and the verdict is that she’ll definitely need to be a supported spindle. The weight gives her great spin for laceweight, but it’s too heavy for the yarn. The half-hitch anchor on the knitting needle actually grips better than on my varnished wood spindles, which surprised me.

DIY Steampunk Whorl
Steampunk-Inspired Spindle Whorl made from washers and polymer clay.

Finishing Details How-To

1. Paint clay with a coat of black gouache or acrylic paint and allow to dry.

2. Paint over dry black with copper acrylic paint and dab some off with cotton swabs or paper towels for a patina-like look and allow to dry.

3. Paint over dry copper coat with Modge Podge and allow to dry.

I’m not a real crafter outside of the fiber arts, so these might not be the best materials, but the Modge Podge (or maybe even just a coat of school glue) is essential for sealing the paint if you go this way–the gouache and acrylic mix will otherwise rub off on your yarn easily.

Happy Whorling!

DIY Washer Whorl

Fair season is drawing to a close in New England, and I have been defeated. I have scoured the booths and the vendors for a new spindle and walked away with only more unspun fiber. Whoops.

The trouble is that I don’t want to spend a lot of money for a spindle I might buy online because I want to be able to feel that sucker in my hand before I invest in it. Everything at the fairs was very pretty, very expensive wood that didn’t feel different enough in my hand from the ones I already own to merit the expense.

I was looking for a small, metal spindle similar to one I had seen who knows where. I just have this image of a delicate little spindle being spun in a bowl. don’t remember where I saw it or what it’s called, but I loved the looks of it and wanted the chance to play with something similar.

DIY-ers…get out your epoxy, washers, and polymer clay. Today, we’re making a spindle.

Washer Whorl, Take 1

Alright, so there’s not much to it.

Step 1:

Buy a bunch of washers from Home Depot or some such. They’re about $0.25 each, so be adventurous. Look for ones with the smallest possible hole relative to the outer diameter. I’d have written down the sizes I bought if I thought of it, but I didn’t, so you’ll have to be creative.

Step 2:

Stack up a few and feel the weight in your hand. Once you have it just a bit lighter than you want the final whorl to be, stack them largest to smallest and glue them together with an epoxy suitable for metal. If you’re a perfectionist and know how to center them exactly to make the spindle spin true, send me your secrets. I just eyeballed it. Let the glue set according to the package directions.

Step 3:

Once the glue is dry, work a piece of polymer clay in your hand until it’s malleable.  Push it into the underside of the whorl and up into the opening. Lay the whorl on a flat surface, smallest washer on bottom, and roll the clay evenly onto the largest washer. Flip it over and trim the clay to fit.

Step 4:

Decorate! Find something with an interesting texture–watch gears, buttons carved with interesting patterns, whatever you can find lying about. Press your items gently into the clay to get a pattern you like. Push the knitting needle you’d like to spin with through the center of the washers and pull it back out again, wiggling it just a bit to make the center hole ever so slightly large than the needle. Bake the whorl according  to the instructions on the clay.

Step 5:

When your whorl is partially cool, reinsert the knitting needle and allow the clay to set with the needle in the whorl. The needle should be able to slide in and out with minimal resistance–you may need to secure it with a very small rubber band, like the ones used to secure the ends of cornrows. Tie on your leader and use a half-hitch to secure the leader to the top of the spindle.

Step 6:


Washer Whorl with Polymer Clay, Steampunk Style

Alright, moment of truth. I haven’t actually spun with this sucker yet. I suspect I designed this particular whorl to be too heavy for the application I’m thinking of, but I’ll report back once I’ve put it to the test. I’ll also include picture of the finished whorl itself–hopefully a coat  of paint will help the gearwork designs pop a touch more.

Happing Spinning! Send me pictures if you make your own versions–I’d love to see them.