A few days ago I saw someone griping about some “harsh” Shetland they were either spinning or knitting – don’t remember which; doesn’t matter – and I thought, “Oh come on…” But I know that there are parts of a Shetland fleece which if you bought them, thinking that they were the soft fine shoulder bits, might disappoint.

Indeed, anyone rushing to the defense of the Shetland breed with stories of ring shawls should be reminded that the Normans could pass a whole bleedin’ gored dress – with big bell sleeves! – through a ring. Passing random garments through gold rings was like a national pastime for a couple o‘ hundred years, there. It was something to do on cold nights, I guess. Or at least, spinning the fine thread for the purpose was! The fact is, if you’ve got the patience to spin, (or the access to purchase) fine enough material, making something that’ll go through a wedding band just ain’t that hard. I’ve done it with the dress, and I suppose I’ll try with the shawl some day, just to say I can.

But it got me thinking, and looking stuff up. And what I found was that during the (really rather long) period when wool was England’s major export, the wool in question was almost all, long or short, what is now considered at best “medium grade”. The raw wool was shipped to Flanders, spun and woven, and then sold for A Lot Of Money, everywhere. Flemish wool was really, really desirable.

Now, an embarrassing percentage of the people I’ve met in my lifetime would conclude from this that the medievals had lower standards than we do, that it’s a real shame they never had any of the fine wool breeds that have been developed since the mid 17-and-1800s, and they didn’t know what they were missing. A few sager types would acknowledge that most twelve-year-old girls who knew how to spin (and we’re still on drop spindles for a lot of the time we’re talking about here, wheels didn’t hit Flanders until 1300 or so) were habitually spinning finer and stronger thread than most of us hobby-types can on our best day, and would also correctly observe that wool cloth (except worsted) was routinely fulled as part of the production process.
But raise your hand if you’re one of the cool kids that thought of pee?

The wool that all the fancy-types who had a Lot Of Money to pay for Good Flemish Wool was also and always dyed. Yes always, you want to go around looking like a peasant? Bleached and/or dyed. (Whereas, just as an aside, the utterly stereotypical “rough homespun” was, obviously, not. But the poor dyed their clothes too, when they had time. Just not professionally.)

Dyeworks stink. Well, stank. I don’t know about now. But one major reason that everybody in the entire world wanted to be upwind of the dyeworks was: Pee. The cloth was treated with urine. Boiled urine. Which is, I am sure but have (thank goodness) no personal experience of, really, really REALLY smelly.

Now! Just to make reading fun, I’m going to change tracks here briefly, leaving you wondering what the heck you’re supposed to conclude from all that disgusting talk, and I’m going to tell you a story about sock yarn. There is, (although it was a close call for a bit there) no pee at all in this story. And it will eventually circle round to the point of all that went before, as long as I can keep it straight in my own head. And there are pictures. Here we go:

A confession: I have never knit myself wool socks. The only wool socks I own were handed down to me after Stalkermom shrank them in an inadvertent (or indifferent) washing machine incident. So the other night, in my usual “hey, let’s see how many things we want to try can we combine into one project with lots of opportunity for disaster” sort of way, I decided to make sock yarn for me. Stripey sock yarn. With natural dye. So I carded up somewhere in the vicinity of four ounces of Suffolk, and began to spin.

I took a very long time with this, because I figured if I was going to go through all the silly steps I’d come up with to make this yarn, I might as well do them right. I turned the whole lot into three bobbins worth of pretty good singles, if I do say so myself. Which I do. Then I put the singles on my warping board.


Then (and this is Scary Part Number One) I took the singles off the warping board. I had them tied all over the blinking place, as carefully as I could, but we’re still talking about the equivalent of a six-metre skein here – in singles. Three of ‘em. I was not sure at this point if I would ever see them intact and untangled again, and I wouldn’t know for at least 24 hours. Scary.

Nothing I could do about it now, though, so I soaked them in water, added mordant (chrome) and turned on the heat. By the way? This book Jodi lent me, a Dyer’s Garden, is really good, but it says at one point that although many dye books say that Chrome is sensitive to light, it isn’t really so don’t worry about it. Well, it bloody well IS! No, nothing went wrong at this point, and really I don’t see why it should unless you mordant wool ahead. But the whole reason I have chrome in the first place is that it’s photosensitive, that’s what I use for sun printing. Just saying.

Now, I haven’t got a lot of natural dye material around right now, being as my someday dye-garden is still a big snow-covered hole in the ground at this point, but I decided to play “what happens if you boil this?”, figuring if the answer turned out to be “nothing much” I could always break out the kool-aid. So I boiled up the ubiquitous onion skins in one pot, some sumac in another, and some peach pits I was keeping for I forget what reason in a third. All the water turned red in a way that obviously wasn’t going to be red when I put wool in it. Then I put the (rinsed) singles in, all together but at different times so they would have slightly different degrees of dye absorption.


I cooked it for an hour, and then left it soaking overnight (having again no idea what the absorption time on Sumac and Peach pits, if any, might be).

Now here’s the bit where we rejoin the first story, also known as Scary Part Number Two. I put the singles into a pot of water and ammonia. This was in case the change in Ph changed the color (which it didn’t) as it does do with some dyes. Vinegar works too. But ammonia breaks down protein fibres, (vinegar has the same effect on plant fibres) so although it’s perfectly OK to use on wool, you want to be careful and not do it for too long, especially if you’re some nut who only has dyed singles, rather than a (stronger) plied yarn or (stronger still) woven cloth. I only left it in for maybe four minutes, possibly not even that long. Pulled it out, rinsed it again (and again and again and again) and then (Scary Part Number Three) put it in the spin cycle.

And at last, resolution! I’m happy to say that I managed to re-warp, ball, and ply the dyed singles into a stripy yarn without mishap. Onion skins still give golds with chrome mordant, sumac leaves and branches give a green-toned brown, and peach pits give an oddly satisfying greyish green, none of which show especially well in this picture, alas.


But the interesting part is that MY YARN IS SOFT NOW!!! It still isn’t as soft as the highgate wool (NOTHING is as soft as the Highgate wool; I really want to know what those sheep were) but the difference between this stuff and that grass stain, for example, is crazy! I would wear this right next to my skin (which is good, ‘cause it’s for socks) but I mean, as a shirt or something. It’s wild! And that was a really short soak, because I was so afraid of breaking my singles. Imagine if it had been longer? Imagine if it had been finely spun cloth boiled in pee?

Toldja I’d bring it together.