Towards an indigo revival?


Jenny Balfour Paul

Recently my guild was privileged to host Jenny Balfour Paul, a world expert on the history of indigo and its use by different peoples. That history is a global story of chemistry and dyes that goes back at least 6,500 years.

“It’s unbelievably ancient this dye. All the other dyes change. Indigo is always blue,” she said.

Balfour Paul’s lifelong study of indigo started mainly by chance as a project to document vanishing traditions so that when the time came they might be revived. Her work has taken her to Yemen, India, China, the Marquesas Islands and beyond.

“My life has been guided by a molecule. It’s a perfect molecule. Without indigo there would be no natural blue dye,” she said.

“Even indigo stories are based on chemistry. Indigo is invisible in the plant. It’s dyed cool not hot. It’s green in the leaves you have to extract the color with oxygen. No other dye does that. Everything about it is different. Indigo doesn’t absorb into fibers. It sits on top of it, in layers.”

But indigo’s story also has a dark side linked to slavery and exploitation, which in some areas is holding back its revival as an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical dyes. Balfour Paul does not shy away from this part of the indigo story, which she sees as the second part of the indigo tale.

The indigo miracle

Indigo vat

The first chapter in the indigo story is—broadly— the incredible story of how indigo pigment, invisible in its host plants, was detected, extracted and used by humans in the first place. Indigo shows up in different plants around the world. It’s the same molecule, but in Europe it’s found in Woad, in Japan it’s polygonum and in Mali it’s Lonchocarpus cyanescens.

How did humans happen upon this miracle molecule? No one really knows. What we do know is indigo dyeing traditions developed worldwide and many of them have since vanished. Or in the case of indigo dyeing in Yemen, it’s literally being bombed out of existence.

Slavery and exploitation
The middle of the indigo story is enmeshed with slavery and exploitation in the US, the Caribbean and India.

In the US, indigo was introduced into colonial South Carolina in 1740 where it was grown on plantations by slaves. It became the colony’s second-most important cash crop after rice.

Jamaica’s first colonial crop was indigo, again grown on plantations by slaves.

In India, farmers were forced to grow indigo and workers’ conditions were appalling. Indigo was big business and in 19th century half the exports from Kolkata were indigo.

That all came to an end in the early 20th century as synthetic indigo had almost completely replaced the natural pigment by about 1914.


Shibori dyed with Indigo

Indigo has struggled to overcome its cultural baggage particularly in India, says Balfour Paul. She is optimistic however that the page has turned for indigo.

“Now it’s a story about revival and environmentally friendly dyeing,”she says.

In El Salvador indigo is now vacuum packed or canned as a paste. The revival of indigo in El Salvador being used by Gap, Levi’s and Benetton for baby clothes, because they know synthetic indigo is toxic, said Balfour Paul.

In 2013 Levi’s 511 collection featured organic, indigo-dyed jeans. People really need one pair of organic jeans, not 10 from discount retailers, says Balfour Paul.

Jamaicans are revisiting indigo and in Kolkata and throughout Bengal there are efforts afoot to reintroduce natural dyeing.

Sustainability and slow fashion are the way forward, said Balfour Paul: “I’m going with it.”

What’s next for Jenny?

Jenny Balfour Paul continues to follow the indigo molecule. She is now working now with Dominique Cardon—another natural dyeing superstar— on the Crutchley Archive at the Southwark Archive in London.

According to the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History:

“Thanks to descendants of the Crutchley family who owned and ran a dye company on the south bank of the River Thames 300 years ago, rare records from this era have survived. The collection includes sumptuous pattern books with samples of wool ‘topped’ with red from madder and cochineal dyes, dyeing recipes and instructions, and customer names and amounts of credit.”

“In 1740 they could colour match as well as any modern dyer. The archive is full of dye recipes,”Balfour Paul said.

I personally can’t wait to see the fruits of their work. It’s bound to be fascinating for any student of natural dyeing.

Jenny Balfour Paul bibliography

Indigo in the Arab World (1996)
Indigo: Egyptian mummies to blue jeans (1998)
Deeper than indigo (2015)

Jenny on the Maiwa podcast

Andrea Mowry and Color Confidence


Last October I took a class from Andrea Mowry, of the popular “Fade” patterns on Ravelry, called “Color Confidence”. The class was paid for by a scholarship from my Guild, one of the great benefits of being a member. Her color change patterns are similar to an ombre, but instead of going from light to dark, they go from one color to another. My hope was to learn through her color combination techniques, ways to use various 4oz braids that we all seem to purchase without necessarily having any plan for. Her patterns primarily use the speckled, hand-painted yarns that are so popular right now, but there is a lot of handspun that also ends up being colorfully variegated, so my thought was that handspun would be a reasonable substitution.

Speckled commercial yarns; hand-dyed handspun yanrs

The first part of the class was learning how to do two-color brioche knitting, which is one of her favorite techniques. Although it involves brioche-specific stitch names, once you get the hang of it it’s fairly easy to see how it works, especially if you are using dissimilar colors. It also helped that Andrea was a good, patient teacher! If you think you might be interested in learning the brioche stitch, I would recommend actually taking a class. You will end up with a lightweight, two-sided fabric, with the background color having the effect of “muting” the foreground color.

Brioche stitch side A

Brioche stitch side B

The rest of the class focused on Andrea’s techniques for combining color, or in her words, “painting with yarn”. The first technique she discussed was the marled effect you can get by simply holding two strands of different yarn together and knitting. This look seems to go in and out of fashion, but it’s been very popular in Vogue Knitting for the past several years, and it is an interesting way to do optical blending. This is also easy to replicate with a two-ply barber pole handspun.

Vogue Knitting Late Winter 2017

Vogue Knitting Late Winter 2017

She then discussed color pooling, and how she breaks up the occasional patches of color that can show up in odd places in your knitting. She is a big fan of using textured stitches, like garter stitch and lace patterns, to visually visually break up the pooling. We knit some samples of two yarns held together in garter stitch, and I chose a solid red and a red-with-lots-of-other-bits-of-color handspun, and I was surprised how much the garter stitch toned down all the other colors. Visually the swatch looked mostly red. After thinking about it, I shouldn’t have been so surprised: a yarn that’s 100% red combined with a yarn that’s 50% red will end up looking 75% red. Combining that with garter stitch, where you are basically seeing only every other row, and of course it will tone down the variegation dramatically.

We then talked about color value, or where a particular color falls on a greyscale. For colorwork such as Fair Isle or mosaic knitting, Andrea recommended having high contrast in value, otherwise the finished motif will look “muddy”. For her Fade technique she recommends using a low contrast in value. When considering whether the colors you like actually work together as far as value, she showed us that by taking a black-and-white picture of your fiber on your cell phone, you can easily see if you’ve got a high or low contrast, because the photo will take away the hue and leave only the value. When Andrea picks yarns for her Fade patterns, she is looking for a greyscale gradient.

Natural-dyed and ice-dyed yarns

The same yarns in greyscale

Finally, she discussed how she transitions from one color to the next. She recommends using yarn from the same dyer when you first start trying her patterns, because you will be able to find families of color combinations to help your Fade blend smoothly. If you are the dyer, so much the better! One of her techniques is to use the Fibonacci sequence to gradually decrease one color and increase the next color, rather than just dropping one color and starting the next.

An example of the Fibonacci sequence, Vogue Knitting Early Fall 2017

Reverse stockinette stitch will hide lines between color changes more easily than regular stockinette. Adding mohair or another fiber with halo will help blur or “fuzz out” color changes. And finally, you can always Fade into a neutral!

For me, the biggest tip was her advice, when choosing colors, to pick something that will look good with your skin tone at the part that’s going to be up by your face. That way your finished project will look good on you, and you will still have the freedom to experiment with colors that you wouldn’t normally think you can wear.

Taking this class really made me consider the role that stitch texture and the physical structure of the yarn being used plays in the perception of color, which I will definitely keep in mind for future projects. Added to that, Andrea was charming and generous with her knowledge: if you are a class-taking sort of person, I would certainly recommend her.

Knit your own adventure: swatching, gauge and EPS


When Tricia Holman visited my Guild to give a talk and workshop I didn’t think much of it. I knew Tricia carries on a knitting tradition begun by her aunt Elizabeth Zimmermann (EZ). What I couldn’t have known is how much my knitting would change as a result. 

Tricia visited the Guild in February with piles of beautiful and creatively constructed garments and hats to discuss how her aunt’s approach to knitting influenced her own designs. 

EZ, known as the grandmother of American knitting, is famous for her newsletters, a mathematical approach to knitting called Elizabeth’s Percentage System (EPS) and the “Surprise Jacket” patterns. 

Tricia noted that EZ’s knitting was deeply influenced by European traditions and that she was an advocate of Continental-style knitting (picking instead of throwing the yarn). EZ did not like purling and opted for knitting in the round or garter stitch patterns like the surprise jackets that have become a favourite with knitters around the world. That’s something else niece and aunt share. 

“I don’t like purling or sewing up. There are some who like it. What is so special about the surprise jacket is it’s really knitted origami,” said Tricia as she demonstrated how a single piece of knitted fabric could be folded into the surprise jacket. The guild members tittered in delight. 

Swatching is not for dummies

If EZ wasn’t a fan of purling or sewing up she certainly was a fan of swatching and test knits. If you’ve seen her Knitting Workshop DVD there are some Sasha dolls on the set sporting little sweaters and hats. EZ herself is surrounded by balls of yarn and swatches. 

That’s because for EZ gauge is everything. That and figuring out how to knit smarter—bending the knit to her vision instead of the other way around. Again her niece Tricia has taken her aunt’s what-if attitude. Through swatching and testing she has her own EZ-inspired designs. 

Tricia had many sizes and variations of the surprise jacket on show—from “very large nephew” size to tiny ones modelled by teddy bears. They showed the jacket’s flexibility. Just change the number of stitches or the gauge to change the size. 

little bear jacket

At the workshop Tricia had us do a teddy bear-sized surprise jacket. I’ve knit a surprise jacket before and I still screwed it up. But if you’re only working on a mini version, then it doesn’t matter so much when you need to start over. Also, you can learn the technique before you jump in to start the real thing. 

Tricia’s other top tip was to make a swatch hat. Want to try out a new idea? Why not make a hat to see if it works. It’s a technique Tricia used for her own patterns including her Spiral Sweater.

Knitting for spinners

Tricia is a spinner and says, “I get lots of wool as a spinner and then you’re on your own with patterns. That’s where the Elizabeth Percentage System is great. I can’t answer how much wool you will need but if you’re a spinner you can always spin some more.”

The Percentage System is a calculation for sizing garments based on gauge and desired body circumference.  “EPS” consists of a simple mathematical formula to determine how many stitches to cast on for a sweater, based on chest circumference and the assumption that sleeves and body are usually proportionate no matter what yarn or gauge is used.

Tricia’s message to spinners who knit was, you don’t need to follow patterns slavishly or be put off by sewing up (or even purling!). With a little imagination and some simple math you can easily make yourself a sweater that fits. 

Choose your own knitting adventure 

Cuff with peerie flowers

Many of EZ’s patterns are based on EPS and are sort of a choose your adventure approach to knitting. She gives you a map. You do the rest. It will all work out fine–if you swatch.

Knitting without a pattern had been out of the question for me, mainly because of lack of confidence, due to a longstanding laziness about swatching. I rarely swatched. I now realise that was dumb–especially for a spinner who knits. 

After a couple of hours with Tricia I was raring to go. I busted out my EZ’s Knitting Workshop DVD, my copy of the Opinionated Knitter and some yarn that had been lingering in my stash way too long.

casting on the body

I cast on the body, did a little leaf fair isle pattern (more stash yarn!). Now I’ve done the body and a sleeve. Once I get another sleeve knitted then it will be time to dive into the yoke knitting. I love yoke sweaters and am excited for this step. Still thinking about what kind of pattern to use. 

In anticipation of my next EPS knit, I’m spinning up some yarn for a Gansey. Now that I know I can choose my own knitting adventure based on the gauge of the yarn I’ve made, well the possibilities are endless! Yay. 

How to choose a fleece for handspinning

Herdwick: cute, but not a fleece for beginners

Herdwick: cute, but not a fleece for beginners

Buying my first fleeces to process at home for handspinning was hugely exciting. I’d just been to my first meeting of the Mid-Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and it happened that two of the members were having a fleece sale that day.

I was lucky to have two experienced guild members there to show me how to look over a raw fleece. They unrolled the fleeces and talked me through what I was looking at, pointed out some of the desirable qualities that hand spinners look for in a fleece. Those are attributes like crimp, softness, good lock structure, cleanliness (no straw, grass or poo, etc). More on that later.

The first fleeces I bought were a Hebridean, a Shetland and a Ryeland. Maybe I went a little overboard. It took a lot of work to get the fleeces scoured, dried and ready to spin. And even though I benefited from having some experts on hand to help choose my fleeces, if I were to do it all over again I would have done my homework first.

Before buying a fleece, I recommend reading up on different breeds and the characteristics of their fleece. There are about 60 sheep breeds in the UK alone and all their fleeces are a little different.

Some, like Cotswold, Teeswater, Lincoln, Leicester and Wensleydale–longwool breeds–have fleeces that are more hair-like, lustrous and require some experience to spin.

Then there are the Downs breeds–Southdowns, Oxfords, Hampshires, Dorsets for example–which have dense fleeces with short staple-lengths, but feature lots of crimp and bounce.

Fleece sale!

Fleece sale!

Then there are the many other breeds that are favourites of hand spinners, like the Shetland, Blue-faced Leicester, Cheviot, Manx Loaghtan and Jacob, which all have their own characteristics. There are also plenty of breeds which aren’t particular favourites of spinners, either because their fleece is too coarse or just not suitable for spinning.

So before jumping in and buying a fleece take a look at some of the books available like Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook or The Spinner’s Book of Fleece to get an idea of what you might like to spin as well as the huge choice available.

There are other questions you want to ask before diving in and buying 4-5 pounds of raw sheep fleece. Are you going to make a worsted or woollen yarn? It will be hard to spin a woollen yarn from a long wool, for example. Which fleeces will best suit your project? Do you want a coloured fleece? How important is softness in your project? Are you looking to create something durable or more lightweight?

What to look for in the fleece 

Now that you’ve decided on a breed, what are you looking for when choosing the actual fleece?

Steve Kennett, vice chairman of the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers, visited my guild back in September to speak on how to pick out a fleece.

Steve unrolled one of the fleeces supplied by a member and gave a few pointers on picking a good one. It had a lovely staple length, beautiful crimp and was muck and VM-free. Steve held it up to demonstrate how the fleece should be nice and open—like a lace curtain.

Jacob lock from raw fleece. Nice staple length and crimp, no breakage or second cuts

Jacob lock from raw fleece. Nice staple length and crimp, no breakage or second cuts






You can see in the photo of the Jacob lock what I mean by crimp. It’s simply the little waves in the wool. Crimp makes wool easy to spin as it twists together and the crimp helps the wool lock together. The rule of thumb goes that the more crimp, the finer the wool. Merino, for example, can have 100 waves (crimps) per inch. Longwools have less crimp and often used  by spinners to add texture and lustre to yarn.

Steve Kennett also said to look out for second cuts (short bits the shearer missed on the first pass) felting and second growth—ie when a sheep hasn’t been sheared and begins to grow a second fleece. He recommended  taking off a lock of fleece, holding it firmly in one hand and giving it a good tug. If the lock is breaks avoid the fleece as it is brittle, will not be nice to spin and could result in weak yarn.

The best part of the fleece is going to be on the neck, front legs and back (between the shoulders). Fleece on the back is generally good. Fleece from the hind legs is generally coarser and kempy. Steve recommended being picky about fleeces and perhaps buying several, but only using the best bits.

I don’t know if I’d go to the lengths Steve does–buying many fleeces and throwing a lot of it away. If I were to go back in time, I’d probably have started with one fleece (Shetland) and made life easier for myself. If buying a whole fleece is intimidating, get a friend to share one with you.

Starting with a fleece instead of tops or roving is, I think, a great way to learn more about sheep breeds, fiber prep and spinning. Fleece you’ve scoured and prepared yourself is going to feel and spin differently from commercially processed fiber. Some of the women in my guild consider commercial prepared fiber to be “dead”, because they view it as flat and lacking crimp. I agree with that to a certain extent, however I have found that top or roving from smaller mills tends to retain some of the bounce and crimp.

Gotland sheep Commercial top (l) Raw fleece (r)

Gotland sheep
Commercial top (l)
Raw fleece (r)

Still it’s an eye-opener when you compare commercially prepared roving with that you’ve cleaned and carded yourself. Take a look at this Gotland fiber. On the left, straight up commercial roving, on the right Gotland right off the sheep. Looks a lot different right? Doesn’t even look like it came from the same breed.

For more information on scouring fleece see these posts: Hot tips for scouring fleece or More hot tips on scouring fleece without soap.

But is it yarn?

Art yarn?

Art yarn?

Ah the allure of Art Yarn. Behold its super-chunky sparkle, its beads, its coils and luscious locks. Resistance is futile. Or is it?

When I started to spin I announced to Sal that all I wanted to make was art yarn. I probably told her I wanted to explore colour and texture. I was making it up.

Sal told me something like this: If you’re ever planning to make anything like a sweater or a wearable garment you should think about making less-arty yarn.

She had a point.

These days I think about hand spun yarn completely differently. What I used to consider art yarn, I now classify as novelty yarn.

Most of the time I’m experimenting with new materials and techniques. I’m spinning to weave or to knit. My use of art yarn is sparse. That’s partly thanks to my fairly boring sartorial habits. Sal tells me that’s a trend now! Yay!

So what about art yarn?

Last month Alison Daykin gave my guild a talk on art yarn (see below). Beforehand I was curious what she would have to say and it got me thinking. What is art yarn? Is it yarn for yarn’s sake? Is it a novelty item? Does anyone actually use it?

I still make a lot of art yarn, but I call it handspun. Like most spinners I’m experimenting with colour, texture and gauge. Most of it isn’t sparkly or bejeweled. The excitement is in the color or the materials.

Here’s some sport weight yarn I made for a weaving project.

Blue yarn

Blue yarn

The blue colorway is a combination of natural coloured and dyed fleece.

The red is a blend of acid and natural-dyed fleece as well as natural coloured. To me these are rich in colour and texture. I’ve made little aesthetic decisions throughout the making process.

Red yarn

Red yarn

Is it art or is it yarn?

These are some examples of what are more commonly considered to be art yarn. There are the dyed locks, the thick/thin look and some bouclé-like yarn.

Bouclé, sort of

Bouclé, sort of


Thick thin

Yarn or art? Both?

Lexi Boeger sees it this way: “I believe the onus is on the buyer to look at the yarn and be able to determine an appropriate project to use it for. This puts more work on the buyer, but ultimately it will make that person also more creative..” (See Spinartiste)

Boeger goes on to say that art yarn can help the knitter (or weaver for that matter) think beyond the pattern and become a designer. My reading of that is: art yarn can be a starting point. It asks the question: what can you make with me?

It’s worth pointing out that Lexi Boeger isn’t making art yarn anymore.



JazzTurtle has a long list of patterns that can use art yarn. But to me art yarn is perfect for weaving–especially saori weaving, which is all about experimentation and personal expression. It’s not really concerned with pattern or convention.

This saori-inspired piece uses some art yarn. For me this piece was a big departure from the norm. Here are colours and textures far from my comfort zone. It marks a step in a creative journey, but I’m not sure the path ends at art yarn.

Weaving with art yarn

Weaving with art yarn

[Sal here. I’m going to horn in on your post for a minute]

I would argue that handspinning is technology, and as such there is an intrinsically practical component to the resulting product. Some yarns take a good deal of skill to make well (bouclé for example), or have aesthetic consideration in their colors or textures (as yours do above), and this intersection of technical skill and aesthetic consideration I would call “craft”. Calling something “art yarn” is almost oxymoronic. Yarn for yarn’s sake, as you say, really makes no sense— like building a chair that you can’t sit on. But I know plenty of people who spin and never do anything with the yarn because they don’t knit or crochet or weave, and are perfectly happy that way. I suppose there is a Venn diagram we could make that shows the people who like to build chairs, but don’t actually sit down. I think one could certainly make yarn that’s an end in and of itself, and it could be considered art instead of artisanal, but I think the intention behind it is key, because it would be subverting the concept of yarn. The rest, as you say, is novelty yarn. I’m curious what your guild speaker had to say on the subject. And if they have any good patterns.

[Now back to our regularly scheduled blog post ;)]

Fancy Yarn and permission to spin

When Alison Daykin came down from Derbyshire to talk to the Mid-Essex Guild about art yarn, like Sal I was curious what she had to say about art yarn. One reason for that curiosity was I suspected [knew] many guild members were dubious of art yarn. Many–not all–take the view that art yarn is what you make when first learning to spin. “Don’t worry,” they tell new spinners. “You’ve just made art yarn!” And then everyone laughs.

Alison Daykin described what she makes as fancy yarn, not art yarn. Fancy yarn, Alison explained was any kind of yarn you made that’s non-standard–core spun, bouclé, crepe, thick/thin–that has some irregularity in the making. That irregularity could be introduced in any or all of the steps for making yarn: prepping fiber, color blending, spinning and finishing.

According to Alison, fancy yarn isn’t anything new,  in fact Mabel Ross, author of The Encyclopedia of Handspinning, was an early advocate of fancy yarn.  However, when Alison started spinning in the late 80s/early 90s she felt spinning non-standard or fancy yarn was discouraged. She was taught that the point of spinning was to churn out yards and yards of yarn that looked like it had been made in a mill.

“I wanted to make different yarn and I felt inferior, because I didn’t want to spin plain yarn,” she said. But after taking a course on spinning and dyeing for tapestry weaving from Bobbie Cox, Alison felt she had, “Permission to spin whatever I wanted. Once you know the rules, you can break them.”

Art yarn, Alison said, is a term that grew out of a trend of making yarn out of recycled materials like plastic bags and cassette tape. She did not see the point in putting yarn in a bowl or hanging it up to admire.

“If I can’t use the yarn, then I’ve wasted my time. Use it to make a garment look different. If you use a little yarn in a piece, it can look lovely. Art yarn has got to be practical as well as beautiful,” she added.



Hot Tips for Scouring Fleece


Our last Guild meeting was all about scouring fleeces, presented by Cydne Pidgeon.

Tip #1: If  you’re going to be scouring a whole fleece, place the fleece in a grocery basket that fits inside a large rectangular storage tub. You can fill your storage tub with hot soapy water and then lower the fleece in the basket. This way the fleece is always supported, even when lifting it back out to drain. You can have a second storage tub with hot rinse water at the ready. As a bonus, you can use your storage tubs for actually storing things when not in use.

Tip #2: Don’t rinse it yet! Spin all that hot soapy water out before you rinse it. Cydne was doing this demonstration outdoors, and she had one of these devices:



This is an electric spinner. The advantage over your top load washer’s spin cycle is that it can go up to 1800 rpm, so it can get all the water out very quickly. It also runs on 110V instead of household appliance 220V, so it’s easy to plug in outside with an extension cord. It has a drain spout on the bottom so you can catch the rinse water, which is advantageous if you have a septic system like I do, so you can divert that grey water out of the sewer and onto your flower beds instead. This nifty device can be purchased here.

Cydne passed around a lock of scoured, spun-out Rambouillet, and it was very clean and almost dry. Since all the soapy water has been removed, there’s only need for one rinse. She spun the fleece in the spinner again after the rinse water, and it was clean, unmatted in any way, and again, almost dry. Fabulous!

Tip#3: If you’re only scouring some locks inside a mesh bag in a smaller bucket, you can still spin between the wash and the rinse…just use a salad spinner. These are readily available at second hand stores, so you don’t have to share with your lettuces.

Tip #4: If you are scouring very fine fiber (like angora), mesh lingerie bags are usually not small enough mesh to keep the fiber in. Bridal veil material is very fine mesh, and you can easily sew up your own bag with a zipper on top.

It’s hot outside. Those fleeces will be cleaned and dried in no time.

Get Carded Sideways


In one of the rabbit-warrens of the internet I stumbled across this blog blurb by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (aka the Yarn Harlot) about sending fiber through your drum carder sideways. I immediately alerted Rachel, that this might be a thing. We had to put it to the test.

I started with a Corriedale batt that I’d already sent through the carder normally:

Corriedale batt

Corriedale batt

I split it in half and sent one half through again sideways:

What! That orientation is wrong!

What! That orientation is wrong!

This is the result. The sideways batt feels thicker and fluffier. I should also note that the fiber piled up in the middle of the drum instead of being spread out evenly.

Left, standard carding, right, sideways carding

Left, standard carding, right, sideways carding

As a different test, I sent an assortment of different staple lengths and fibers through. Longwool, and very crimpy short wool. I didn’t pick the crimpy short wool apart.

Sideways potpourri. This makes it scientific.

Sideways potpourri. This makes it scientific.

Here’s the resulting batt. Then I spun it all up.

Assorted wools batt

Assorted wools batt

Rachel here: Excuse me while I butt into Sal’s post. First of all can I just echo the WTFness of this sideways drumcarding development. Imagine me sort of open mouthed and wondering wha??? and ??? And thinking, well if the Yarn Harlot AND Judith McKenzie say this is The Done Thing, well….

Like Sal, I had to try this sideways drum carding myself. Sal has already described what happens–smaller, fluffier batts. That’s what I found too. Instead of thick and sometimes compacted batts you get fluffy rolags, like the ones you would make on hand cards–but bigger.

These were very easy to spin, like rolags. There was none of that peeling apart and fussing around with a big batt. It was all the good aspects of a hand carded rolag, only bigger and no sore wrists.

Some of the fiber I used was polwarth/silk roving that’s been in my stash for awhile. It opened up nicely when carded sideways and was a breeze to spin.

Lastly I put some scoured fleece (just washed, undyed, still a bit of a mess) through sideways. Here I didn’t see a huge difference putting unprocessed fleece through sideways. The batts were about the same. Having said that, once I get to the stage where I’m going to blend some of this fleece with another fiber or other colours, I’ll be doing that sideways. I like those big, fat rolags!

Longwool single, twist set

Longwool single, twist set

Sally here again: I agree with Rachel, it does make easy-to-spin batts, especially with the longwool blend I tried. I suspect this may be because, by sending the wool through sideways, I’m actually spinning on the fold with the long fibers. I was also able to maintain some of the crimpy locks, which would have been carded apart going through aligned. I think this is definitely a great way to do an art batt.

Test single, both standard carding method and sideways

Test single, both standard carding method and sideways

When I was spinning the batt that was half normal/half sideways, I noticed a definite difference in how the yarn felt while spinning, which I would attribute to a worsted vs. woolen preparation. The sideways portion looked like it was going to have more of a halo due to the fibers not being lined up. If I look very closely, they may be slightly fuzzier, but after washing and setting the twist on the single, there is really very little difference.

So what do you think, Rach, is this actually a thing? My take, it’s definitely not NOT a thing!

Rachel: Sal, I have to agree with you. Not a Thing. I wouldn’t advocate a sideways-only approach to drumcarding. If you want to spin rolags, yes go sideways. If you want to open up some compacted roving, go sideways. But sideways only? I’m not so sure about that.

What I would suggest is being careful about how much fiber you load onto your drumcarder. Don’t overload.


Saori-style weaving on the rigid heddle loom

fork, scissors, tapestry needle

fork, scissors, tapestry needle

While I still have loads of yarn piling up and access to the guild’s Ashford knitter’s loom I’m putting both to good use. On Friday I threaded the loom with almost five meters worth of warp and set forth on another weaving experiment.

I won’t call this Saori weaving–rather Saori-style. It’s hitting a lot of the right themes for me–using up stash yarn, making use of the Ashford loom, thinking about color combinations (in this case pink, orange and brown) and learning new techniques. Saori weaving is also a perfect canvas for art yarn– you know all that fanciful stuff we love to make, but sometimes struggle to use.

art yarn

art yarn

Saori-style weaving is ideal for those of us with rigid heddle looms. It’s a plain weave, experimental, free-style approach to weaving pioneered in Japan. (The Saori website has all the history.) Saori emphasises finger manipulation techniques, color, texture and self-expression. I’ve seen it likened to painting with yarn.

I threaded (warped) the loom with some commercial mohair and boucle yarn from Texere. Loading five meters’ worth took awhile, but I’m hoping the length of fabric will give me something useable for a garment at the end.



For the weft yarns I’m using a mix of handspun and blue-faced Leicester pencil roving which I dyed. The roving is lovely and soft–well-suited for weaving. What attracted me to Saori-style weaving was the clasped warp technique (useful video here) which would allow me to make a zig-zag weave.

clasped weft

clasped weft

And as the “plan” for this project crystallised I realised it would be a perfect time to use this handspun that’s been in my stash for three years or so waiting for a project.

Using a fork as a beater and a tapestry needle to weaving in extra color here and there the fabric is shaping up. I’ve alternated the colors on either side of the fabric–pink and orange first of the left and then on the right, swapping the brown over. Then I’ve used the brown tailspun art yarn for some additional interest.

filling in

filling in

One of the preconceptions I’ve had to jettison is the idea of pattern. There are some themes in terms of color and texture in the piece so far, but no pattern. How is that going to translate into a garment? My guess is that while I would like to make a jacket out of this piece, I might have to challenge that idea and make something else!

Plain weave & pick up sticks on the rigid heddle loom


The stormy weather and holiday break gave me the chance to do some weaving. Finally.

I’ve taken possession (temporarily) of my guild’s 30 cm Ashford knitter’s loom. I had all these crazy ideas about making wider fabric and then cutting and sewing it into a vest like this one from Purl Soho: Quilted Vest. Whether I take the plunge and cut my fabric and sew it into a garment will depend on how brave I’m feeling.

Freestyling stash buster plain weave

Freestyling stash buster plain weave

For this project, I used commercial yarn for the warp and a variety of handspun from my stash in the weft. It’s either Ryeland or BFL and there is some silk in there too. There is also some yarn I spun from a luscious combination of camel/seacell/faux cashmere from HilltopCloud

Honestly there was no real plan for warping. I decided how long I needed the warp to be and how wide and then made do with the yarn I had. I used a navy silk/wool, alpaca (turquoise) and some black super wash–all picked for sturdiness.

Similarly there was no plan for weaving–except I wanted to use as much of my yarn as possible! (There’s still a little left.) The only somewhat fancy technique I used was to make little loops by randomly picking up the weft with a long knitting needle, packing the weft with the reed and then pulling out the needle.

If I’m brave this cloth could become a fancy vest. If I play it safe, it will be a cosy wrap.

I wove my second project on my own 15″ Cricket loom. I used hand spun suri alpaca for the warp and some of the left over camel/silk for the weft. This technique is called faux twill, which is described by Jeen in the rigid heddle looms group on Ravelry. I’ve been wearing this project as a scarf.

Faux twill and fabulous

Faux twill and fabulous

The third project was also woven on my Cricket loom. I used commercial yarns from my stash. The warp is a champagne chenille and the weft is Noro silk/cotton sock yarn and Brown Sheep chunky in a mossy green. Nice right?



I used a pick up stick to achieve this honeycomb pattern described in Jane Patrick’s The Weaver’s Idea Book, published by Interweave. This book is invaluable for RHL newbies like me who want to push themselves and try out many different patterns and techniques. Indeed the rigid heddle loom group on Ravelry has a thread devoted to those weavers working their way through the book. Check it out!

Learning: I want to try out the guild’s four-shaft table loom!

Get Weaving in 2015


It’s worth repeating that there are lots of benefits of joining a weaving, spinning and dyeing guild and that rigid heddle looms are simple yet powerful tools.

During the Guild’s fleece to scarf challenge in November I got to know two of my fellow guild members better–Sarah Howard and Elisabeth Kendrick. Sarah and Elisabeth are accomplished weavers, knitters, spinners and sewers. They have a few books out (Creative Weaving, is one) and Get Weaving is the latest.

Sarah and Elisabeth have inspired many over the years–including me–by showing there’s a lot more you can do with a rigid heddle loom than make scarves or table runners. Their new book demonstrates how to make garments from fabric handwoven on small looms (mostly 20 inch width).

I’ve picked out a few favourites.

I love this poncho. It’s made from several panels of fabric sewn together and as Sal pointed out, it has a pocket!



This bodywarmer is made from fabric woven with roving (ie unspun wool). What a great idea. This kind of garment is definitely a project I want to try.

Body warmer

Body warmer

And I love this jacket. It’s made from strips of rags. Just beautiful.

rag jacket

rag jacket

There’s lots more in the book–trousers, shorts, skirts and blouses. All made from fabric woven on the rigid heddle loom!



How to make a White Christmas wreath

White Christmas Wreath

White Christmas Wreath

The holidays always sneak up on me despite the ample reminders from shops who start stocking their shelves with Christmas Fayre in September. My guild–The Mid-Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers–gave us two months’ warning (maybe more) about this Christmas ornament competition for the December meeting. Still I put the finishing touches on my entry–the White Christmas wreath–in the car before bringing it in to the hall.

The White Christmas wreath is made from materials that anyone who does sewing, knitting and spinning will probably have around the house–felt, buttons, a couple of beads, yarn, stuffing (wool or acrylic) and maybe a pipe cleaner or two if you’re feeling extravagant.

Like so many of my other projects I’d mapped out the what and how mentally. The first step was making some felt for the leaves and flowers. I used the wet felt method described in Complete Feltmaking by Gillian Harris. I used some white fleece I had to hand and some white iridescent angelica fiber. The felt I made was on the thin side and I did needle felt it in places to reinforce. Making the felt was the most time consuming part of the project.

felt--made from llanwenog fleece and angelina fiber.

felt–made from llanwenog fleece and angelina fiber.

The next step was to make a knitted tube that would act as the base. I used my Addi circular knitting machine and some white handspun yarn. Using the machine knitting the tube took about five minutes.

Making a ring on the Addi machine

Making a ring on the Addi machine

I then stuffed the tube with so neppy bits of wool I have in abundance–meaning the bits of wool left over from the combing/carding process. I sewed the ends together, et voila, a ring.

Flowers and embellishments came next.

adding flowers and leaves

adding flowers and leaves

As you can see from the photo I’ve opted for flowers and leaves which I cut freehand. I’ve sewed and glued on buttons and needle felted leaves and flowers into place. Lastly in a fit of inspiration I needle felted a dove to nestle above the poinsettia-shaped flower.

Oh, and I won the competition!

First trophy I've ever won for anything!

First trophy I’ve ever won for anything!