Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dyeing Wool for Flowering Trees

This time of year in Pennsylvania is an inspiring time of trees and flowers bursting with color.  Each season has its own beauty but spring in my neighborhood is a plethora of flowering trees.




It inspired me to want to create them with wool.  I have found in my work with felted wool landscapes that the lovely merino wools that are commercially available in many colors just don't work well for trees and foliage.  They are too smooth, too thin and too stringy for the texture needed.  What does work well is chunky, short-staple fibers that some would overlook as being too coarse.  But these make the best trees.  I have been on the lookout for this type of wool for dyeing but it is rare.  I did, however, document one dye session with what I had in stock and recorded it below.


The first necessary ingredient for dyeing wool is to collect several shower scrubbies made out of tubes of  netting.

Shower Scrubbies
Cut the string that keeps the scrubbies in a ball so that you end up with long tubes of netting.  These will be used to separate and presoak the wool in preparation for dyeing.


Wool Ready for Presoak
I use a scale to measure out 1 ounce bundles of wool and insert them into the tubes of netting and tie a knot in the netting to keep them separated.  One ounce of wool is a good amount to start with because you can dye a lot of different colors and yet not go through a lot of wool doing it.  If you document how you got each color, you can dye a lot of one color in the future if you find that you need to do that.  So far, one ounce works best for me to have enough but not too much of a wide variety of colors.  Over the past couple of years I have been dyeing varieties of fibers in varieties of colors, each method a little bit different.  You can't buy this range of fibers in this range of  colors anywhere at any price even if you do marry a millionaire to try to do it :)

Wool is Weighed and Bound
I fill the washing machine with warmish water and one capful of Synthropol liquid detergent to presoak before dyeing.  The Synthropol is a special soap that strips fibers of any grease or finishes and opens up the scales of the wool to accept dye more readily.  You can purchase this online on any site that sells dyeing supplies.  Skipping this step will result in dyeing less saturated colors.  I use my washing machine for presoaking and spinning out wet wool - never for washing or agitating.  If you use your washing machine for washing wool you will end up with a felted mess.

Wool Bundles Presoaking in Synthropol
While the wool is presoaking, I prepare my dyepots  - one for each color I plan to dye that day. I start my color planning with the fabric color swatches I have collected over the years.

Fabric Swatches

 I also pick out the dye color recipe cards I have created over time so that I know what colors I will end up with.  On this day, I decided to dye medium to light versions of each color so that I could create light and shadow colors in future wool trees. 

Color Swatches, Dye Recipes and Dyepots Ready
On the left side of the photo you can see some of the bottles of acid dyes I keep mixed with water for each dye session.  The dyes need to be mixed from powder added to boiling water so I keep about 1/2 to 1 cup of each color available so I don't have to mix powder dyes from scratch each time.  I can get better mediums and lights when using premixed dye concentrates and the colors are much more predicatable.  These keep at room temperature in my unfinished basement for months - maybe forever.

Next I place the dye colors I need in each dyepot and then add the presoaked wool that has most of the water removed during the spin cycle of my washing machine.  I have to open the mesh tubes to get the bundles out and hang the netting to dry for the next session.  These also keep for years.

Dyeing Wool
I swish the wool around the dyepot with the large plastic spoons until every inch is soaking in the color.  Then I dump the entire contents of the dyepot into freezer ziploc bags.  The wool is "stewing in its own juice" by staying in the freezer bags and its dyebath while it "cooks."

I place the ziploc bags in a large canning pot with galvanized garbage can lids upturned that act as shelves in the canner and keep the bags off of the bottom of the metal canning rack where they would melt if they touched the hot metal.  If you need to purchase just the garbage can lids without the garbage can, you'll need to go to a Mennonite store to get them- only they will understand. 

I have the canner simmering on a low boil and leave it for one hour while I clean up and prepare for the next dye session or experiment with new colors and make up color recipe cards for them.

When the water in each dyebath ziploc bag looks clear, the wool has absorbed all of the colors and is "cooked" enough.  I remove the plastic bags from the canner and let them cool on my cooling rack.  My cooling rack is made out of a gridded ceiling tile resting on a table.  The clothespins keep the bags from falling over and leaking water everywhere.  by the way, the freezer bags can be reused over and over again before they leak.  The regular ziploc bags are not strong enough to dye with.

Wooling Cooling on Rack
I squeeze out the dyebath water in my laundry sink and place each bundle of wool loosely in my washing machine filled with warmish water.  I slosh the wool a bit just to rinse it with clean water.  Then I put the washing machine on the spin cycle and spin out the water so that the wool seems almost dry.  DO NOT AGITATE.  Do not leave the room while you are using the washing machine or you may forget and the washing machine will continue it's cycle and do what washing machines do best and you will return to a mud colored mixture of blended matting that looks like dryer lint (don't ask.)

Last of all is the drying phase.  The colored bundles of wool are placed on a drying rack overnight in front of a fan.  They are actually ready to use in 2 or 3 hours of drying provided they are elevated and drying underneath as well as on top.

Wool Drying on Rack
I created the drying rack using a gridded plastic ceiling tile laid on top of plastic dyepot bins so the air from the fan can circulate.

Below are the finished wool bundles with the original fabric swatch colors tucked inside that I was trying to dye.  Most of them turned out as planned.  If I have any dye surprises I document how I got that on a new dye recipe card so I can reproduce it in the future. 

Finished Wool