Spinning a cat hair comforter …

Two funny little cats, Eggy and Ilsa, came to live with us some 18 months ago …Unlike any other kits I have had (and I’ve had quite a few in my time) they need constant grooming. This isn’t surprising really as they are half Persian and half Exotic Shorthair, inheriting from their Persian father a gloriously luscious outer coat and a dense, soft undercoat. Left unchecked, this undercoat matts badly – so they need the regular grooming to keep their coats shiny and silky.

It occurred to me last summer that I might well be able to spin this undercoat. Why I had quantities of it available! The very cream tones are from Ilsa (on the right above) and the darker colours are from Eggy (on the left).But it’s not exactly a long staple, being just a couple of inches at most.  Sometimes there are guard hairs too, but mostly what I was getting from grooming sessions was the soft grey you can see by my fingertips below.I decided the best thing was to blend it with some of the Cornish alpaca I still had spare. This is a beautiful creamy lustrous fibre (once washed – it was almost grey with dirt and dust when I first acquired it), but similar in texture to the cat hair, so I expected the fibres to blend well. On with the alpaca to the carders then …Followed by the rather grubby cat hair (this I didn’t wash – full explanation to follow) …It carded very well together …Giving a beautiful silver grey rolag …Actually there were lots of tones in the rolags, reflecting the different colours of the cat hair.  I rather like this variation, being true to the original cats …What did the kits think of my work?  Were they at all interested in this processing of their hair?  After all it must smell of them … And they were about much of the time as I was busy carding and spinning …Ah yes! Look at Ilsa in seventh heaven padding away at my rolags!  Can you see the little bits of alpaca fluff floating up and catching in her whiskers? And Eggy keeping a sharp eye behind?!Eggy had her heavenly moments with the rolags too.  This looks like pure cat bliss to me too …Happy summer days …Why I was even tempted to card straight from source (as it were) …!Time to start spinning my rolags …With my not-so-helpful kitty companions … I spun the mixed cat hair and alpaca fiber very fine with lots of twist to hold the cat hair and fluffy alpaca in place.  Any relaxation of the twist and the yarn easily broke …Then the cat hair/alpaca strand was plyed with pure alpaca …Giving me a yarn that was 25% cat and 75% alpaca … (pure white alpaca in picture here to show the colour difference) …Time to get knitting! I wanted a very simple pattern, so adapted my knit from this Viewfinder cowl in Alexa Ludeman and Emily Wessel’s Road Trip. I’ve knit it before as a cowl, but this time wanted to knit a comforter ….. Are you familiar with the term?!  Well, it is the best word – in my opinion – for a shawl or scarf.  Time to consult our wonderful 1891 Webster’s! A knit woolen tippet, long and narrow. Just so – thank you, Mr Webster.  Only I would add: something to offer the physical warmth of succour … a woolly hug, perhaps … You see this comforter was planned as a gift for my daughter whose cats these really are.  They no longer live with her, but with the unwashed (now you see why the cat hair wasn’t washed!) comforter, she could wrap herself in comforting almost pure cat … So effective was it (and so pleasant to knit), that – having plenty of yarn still – I knit another comforter …You can see the catty variations in the spin quite clearly …And laid out you can see how the lacey stitchwork has distorted the rectangular comforter into something quite shaped with pointy ends …I decided to dye the second comforter, mixing up a vibrant fuchsia colour from my Easyfix AllinOne Dye powders …Such a pleasing result!Was I influenced at all by the colours of the season ….?You can see quite clearly the distorting effect of the lacey stitches as the comforter dries …The resulting knit matted a little bit in the process – but that’s not a bad thing as it stops the comforter shedding cat hair so much …And boy, is it cosy and comforting to wear!(Not mine for long as it’s off to give comfort with its predecessor …)

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Walnut dyepots

When my cousin Polly came to visit earlier this summer, she brought with her an exciting gift.  She had been walking the fields and byways of her Cambridge home, and discovered a walnut tree, dropping its fruit onto the public path.  Patiently, and over several walks, she collected as many walnuts as she could, and brought this small collection for me to use for dyeing.

I’d used walnuts to dye fleece many years before – and with considerable success – which is why I was excited by her gift.  A cursory search didn’t produce any of my notes about my previous walnut dyepots, but I still had a good collection of books on natural dyeing to turn to for advice.Books of dyeingThe large book in the photograph is Seonaid Robertson’s Dyes from Plants, and I found her recipe clear and relevant so I followed that most closely.  Polly had brought me 27 walnuts (weighing 175g).  Most of them had their outer hulls still in place and these were nicely black and rotten.  Looked very promising!Walnuts in dyepotI brought them to boil in 6 pts of water, and simmered them and then left them to steep for several days.  A wonderful witchy black and oily brew – looking even more promising!Oily black walnut dyeI added 100g of wet white fleece (BFL x Portland), brought it to a gentle boil and simmered and steeped for a couple of days.  Wow – it looks promising!Dyed fleece in dyepotI finally decided I could put off the final dénouement no longer … time to see what sort of result I had got.Washing dyed fleeceOh, crestfallen.  That is all I can bring myself to say.  Just so disappointing.  The murky black liquid dripped away to reveal coffee-coloured fleece.  It does smell lovely …. but worth it? … hmmm …Dyed fleece on washing lineAs I said above, I had dyed fleece with walnuts many, many years ago – and got a great result. This was the reason my expectations were so high before this recent experiment.  I did a serious search for my old notes – and finally found them.

My very brief notes were in a scrappy old knitting/spinning notebook, dated 1986.  I was quite a new spinner.  I was staying with my parents in Kent during the summer holidays with my two small children.  A near neighbour of theirs had sheep – Cotswold sheep – and most generously offered me a fleece.  I was too new to spinning to know much about different sheep breeds, but I readily accepted, and got straight to spinning – and dyeing.  It was a beautiful, beautiful fleece, with long, lustrous, silky locks.

As it  happened my parents had a walnut tree in their garden.  Every summer my mother would pick the walnuts when they were green and pickle them.  However, this year, she generously gave them to me.  According to my notes, I had 4 ¾ lbs of green walnuts.  They were cut in half and covered in water.  That’s the end of my notes!!  No record of how much fleece dyed, how long cooking took place…..perhaps my small children distracted me?!  I just have memories of fantasticly rich dark brown fleece, fading to softer golds in later dyebaths.

However, there are further records in my notebook of what I did with the dyed fleece.  I made my father a jersey – and I have the jersey now (my mother handed it back to me when he died).  I also have the first swatch I knitted as I worked out my designs for his jersey.  (The swatch – along with other swatches – is now part of a knitted patchwork blanket I made.)  My notes record that this swatch was knitted in three-coloured tweed stitch, using white fleece (from a Shetland sheep called Charity), dark brown fleece (from a sheep called Ada – think it may have been a Welsh Mountain fleece) – and brown fleece (walnut-dyed Cotswold fleece).  Trinity stitch swatchI wasn’t happy with this pattern – I don’t know why, – but in July 1987 my notes record that I started another attempt to make a Christmas jersey for my father.  Here it is.  Quite different, isn’t it?  It looks to me as though I used the same yarns (but omitting the white)  as those I used in the swatch above, and probably added a few more russet colours as well.  My father's jerseyThe yarns in both the jersey and the pattern sample above have faded.  They’ve also faded in this old hank of handspun yarn which I am pretty sure includes some strands of walnut-dyed silky Cotswold yarn.Old walnut-dyed yarnRe-reading and re-thinking these walnut dye experiments, I realise the problem with my recent attempt was that the walnuts were too ripe.  After all, I recorded that I’d cut the walnuts in half in my initial attempt – that is far from ripe.  And look: this is what I was left with after my recent dyepot.  I think there are well-formed walnuts inside all that prune-like fruit.Walnuts after dyeingPerhaps I’ll presume on Polly’s kindness and try again next year.  For now, I’m happy to remember this jersey I made my father – it was a great success and he wore it all the time.  Here he is, still wearing it, Christmas 1993.  RHE & HMN 1993********************************************************

Addendum (for those natural dye techies)

I realised it might be helpful to see the dye recipes I consulted.  This is from Seonaid Robertson: Dyes from Plants (1973)Walnut dyeing (Seonaid Robertson)This is from Dye Plants and Dyeing.  A Handbook.  published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record (1964)Walnut dyeing (Brooklyn Botanic Garden)This is from Anne Dyer: Dyes from Natural Sources (1976)Walnut dyeing (Anne Dyer)Here is Violetta Thurstan: The Use of Vegetable Dyes (1975)Violetta Thurstan - walnut dyingAnd – should you wish to pickle your walnuts, this is from Mrs. M Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (repub. 1976)Pickled Walnuts (Mrs Grieves)

Fleece

Most spinners will recognise that uncomfortable moment when their partner remarks “And is that all the fleece you have? Really? Promise?”  Crossing every digit, you mutter “yes, of course“, knowing full well there’s another stash buried deep in a little-visited cupboard upstairs.

Well, here is my coloured fleece stash – and yes, I promise: this is all of it!  Honest.Baskets of coloured fleece in gardenA full coloured fleece assessment was called for yesterday as I checked over my spinning projects.

Earlier this year I’d decided the time had come to dye some more fleece.  It was spring, and my  palette was strongly influenced by the colours of nature.greeny fleece on washing lineUp close and personal, as the wet fleece begins to dry you can see what gorgeous colours these are.closeup of green fleece on washing lineA little bit of acid lime to pep it all up.closeup of greeny yellow fleece on washing lineI couldn’t help letting a little bit of fuchsia creep into the dye pot.pink fleece on washing lineI had it in mind to knit a cardigan for myself.  I was very taken with Julia Farwell-Clay’s Tambourine (which appeared on the front of the Spring Issue of Pom Pom Quarterly). I love the rondels on front.Pom pom map coverWithstanding all the temptations of amazing indie yarn producers, I was determined to spin the yarn for this cardigan myself.  After all, I had all this fleece, and I loved spinning.  What I found I was doing was spinning odd little hanks that weren’t really enough for anything much.  Yes, they would work for the odd scarf, but I really had enough of those.

So, I assessed my fleece …pile of dry greeny fleece did some carding …Carding green fleece and got spinning.  Here’s the product: some lovely variegated green yarn.Spun green fleece hanksI wasn’t satisfied.

Let me explain.  It looks lovely as hanks, incorporating all the flecks and variegated colourings that I like.  But when knitted, it was rather dull and muted.test knitting samplesIf you go back to my fleece “puddle”, you’ll see why I was disappointed.  Look at that glorious top note green on the top of the pile.  It’s being swamped by the darker greens lying below.pile of dry greeny fleeceBack to the drawing board…err, dye pot. And a completely different colour palette.stainless steel bowl of dyeing fleeceAll these yarns (and they encompass wool from Shetland, Jacob, BFL and other sheep, mohair, silk) are rainbow-dyed using acid dyes.  You can now purchase excellent small dye kits which are complete in themselves (in the old days you used to have to add vinegar, washing up liquid, levellers etc).  And modern acid dyes are very safe – I wear a face mask, rubber gloves – and I clear all food stuffs from the kitchen before I start.  In recognition of the possibly undesirable effects of the exhaust, I pour as much of it as possible into the ground.  It’s not a small undertaking, so I set aside a day for dyeing and will dye at least half a fleece at any one time (making successive dyepots, reusing the exhaust from the previous dyepot).

My first dye pot and I got berry colours – nice, but a bit darker than I wanted.winey red fleece dyeingNext lighter redder, orangier colours – very pleased with this, but a bit taken aback when folk greeted my instagram pic with the statement that it looked like body parts!  Wonder what you think?body part fleece dyeingFinally some blues as well.blue and red fleece dyeingNow, lets go back to where I was at the beginning of this blogpost.  A fleecy assessment.Baskets of coloured fleece in gardenWhen you pull the fleece out of the baskets and boxes and bags, you realise just how much coloured fleece I’ve got here (this is a very honest post).  This fleece has come from a lot of sheep!centre basket and piles of coloured fleece on grassIt looks even more abundant when I start to make plans and move this gorgeous stuff around.

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I have several projects in mind.

First, I’ve decided to try spinning some blue yarn for the Tambourine cardigan. blue fleece on grassSecondly, I’m putting together some nice brightly coloured fleece to take to spin when I’m demonstrating with the Tweed Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers at the Border Union Show near Kelso at the end of this month.  Last year I took some fuchsia fleece and it was a great success with the young beginner spinners.  This is what I’ve come up with for this year.red orange pink fleece on grassI’m very taken with the orangey/scarlet/red tones that I’ve dyed so I’ve allowed myself to put a little bit aside for some comfort knitting this winter – I’ll probably end up with just a few skeins that will make a nice scarf.  Doesn’t it look cosy in it’s basket?red orange fleece in basketI’m also very excited to start spinning the basket of blue fleece.  Hmm – I’ll have to think this through – shall I card, or just spin?  Perhaps a bit of both.  The difference is that carded fleece will give me gently variegated colours.  If I just pluck the yarn from the basket to spin as is, I’ll get much more sharply contrasted colours – and you’ll see I’ve added some red and green mohair for sparky little contrast.blue fleece in basketI’ve already started to spin the fleece for the Border Union Show.  It looks great!spun pinky fleeceThe rest of the fleece gets packed away in the baskets for other projects other days.  There are colours in my bags and boxes that are leftovers from ancient projects that I worked on a long time ago.  I’m always careful to make the fleece unappetising to moth before it gets packed away.fleece and moth ball But I’ve left some fleece out for the cat to enjoy for a bit.

Happy cat, Poe!Poe on fleece