Why spin for weaving?


To make fabric like this.

I can’t look at it without smiling.

The seeds of this project were sown at SOAR, the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat at Tahoe in October 2012 when I attended Stephenie Gaustad’s ‘Spinning for a replicate or reenactment textile’ aka the Class of Awesome!  It truly was a Class of Awesome: I left with far more knowledge and confidence about spinning for weaving as well as a class handout containing descriptions of several historic textiles. ‘Donbæk Check’ – named for the burial site where it was found, near Frederikshavn in Denmark – sounded fascinating. Dating from the Iron Age, the 2/2 twill fabric had a chequerboard pattern produced by the light falling differently on the intersections of singles spun clockwise and counter-clockwise in the warp and weft. I’d heard of/seen pictures of twist-patterning in tablet-woven bands but hadn’t thought about it on fabric. Back in the UK I made a special expedition to the University Library to photocopy the reference and vowed I’d try this one day.

Fast forward to January 2017, when I was preparing to teach my first ‘Spinning for weaving’ workshop. While I enjoy making *any* fabric from my handspun, I wanted to show the students something memorable, a fabric that would be impossible or at least very difficult to weave from commercial yarns… and I remembered the Donbæk Check. Perfect. I had 2 x 100g packs of charcoal grey Wensleydale combed top from Julia Desch/Diamond Fibres: this is not pin-drafted top from giant drum carders, this is real (commercial) combed top. It’s special. It’s lovely.  I spun each 100g in a different direction using a short forward (‘worsted’) draw for a dense and shiny singles yarn that would – I hoped – reflect the light effectively.

WensFibreThe fibre: a slightly darker version of the Wensleydale top, together with a washed lock from a Wensleydale fleece. Shiny!

Sized&unsizedThe singles, before and after steaming to set the twist.

I wanted to protect the smooth surface of that yarn and wasn’t sure how much I’d use for the warp, so I used a gelatine size on all of it.

sizingThe sized singles yarns drying on the clothes tree. The plastic bin is weighted with just enough water to hold the singles taut, removing the pigtails, but with minimal stretching. Remember that wet wool is weaker than dry wool.

I wound a warp from just over half the yarn by weight, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise yarns every 26 ends to yield a rough 1″ check. Sett at 27epi for twill calculated from wpi it was seriously sleazy. I unwove the first 2″ and re-sleyed at 36epi, an eyeballed guess. This produced what I think is a lovely looking fabric that wove with a delightfully clear shed; although I hadn’t spun the yarn particularly tightly, the fact that it’s a longwool meant there were fewer ends, well locked down, so relatively little fuzz.


I was worried at this point because although I’d dutifully alternated the clockwise and counterclockwise singles in the weft (carrying the unused yarn up the selvedge), I could not see a pattern. I checked the underside… no pattern. Well. I needed to know how the cloth would behave after finishing (simple washing, in this case), and as the class had been moved forward I needed an example of it as soon as possible, so I cut that strip off as a sample, roughly stitched it to bind the ends and create a tiny ‘loom state’ sample, then washed the slightly larger piece.




The size was obscuring the pattern on the loom state fabric. It’s even more subtle than I expected: if the fabric is flat so the light does not play on the surface the pattern is scarcely visible.


I didn’t have time to finish the sample warp before the class, so I took the table loom and that small sample to show them, which was probably better than the finished sample alone, as students who hadn’t woven were able to try their hand.

Then I raced home to weave it off the loom, stitched the ends and threw it into the wool wash cycle of the washing machine. I ironed the damp fabric on the counter top (not the ironing board, which is too soft), using all my weight and the ‘linen’ setting to flatten it: the chequerboard formed hills and hollows in the unironed fabric.

Sample1Unsurprisingly the weft stripe is more obvious on one side, the warp stripe on the other, but the chequerboard is visible on either side if the light is right.

It’s even more visible if light passes through the fabric. Isn’t that interesting?  I’ll just go and find a hand-lens so I can mark the twist directions of the singles in the sample…


In The Big Book of Handspinning Alden Amos wrote “If warp and weft have the same twist direction, the threads will bed together better during the weaving … If the warp and weft have opposing twists, the individual yarns will be plainer or clearer in outline, the cloth will not be quite as dense.”

First I must consider another factor: the amount of twist I put into the singles when spinning. I almost always spin singles clockwise or ‘S’ – it’s the modern tradition – and this means my hands don’t get as much practice drafting while spinning counter-clockwise. Spinning counter-clockwise felt awkward, and I had to adjust my whorl and treadling to accommodate the slower drafting. When I look at the singles at 20x magnification, I can see that the counter-clockwise singles have a shallower twist angle – less twist – than the clockwise singles.

In that photo the clockwise (S) singles certainly do exactly as Alden suggests: they bed together tightly, forming the densest squares (S/S). Looking more closely at the fabric than I can photograph – you’ll have to take my word for it – I see that the counter-clockwise singles also bed together tightly, but only in small areas of the Z/Z squares: the variation in twist is interfering, and this is why on average the squares look less dense. In the S/Z or Z/S squares, the yarns do seem to form a more regular grid, as though the warp prevents the weft yarns from cuddling together and vice versa. It occurs to me that this sort of interaction would have caused the hills and hollows in the fabric when it came out of the washing machine – and that my hot iron and heavy pressing may have altered the ‘natural’ interactions of the singles.

All food for thought. Further experimentation is required!

The Hat of Authority

That’s a gripping title if ever I saw one. Thanks to Freyalyn, who named the hat during the ‘Spinning for Weaving’ workshop on Saturday as I put it on to call the class to order. It’s hard to miss, especially as the coins and charms chime as I move.

hatwalkingWearing The Hat in public for the first time, hiking in Derbyshire.

Two previous blog posts tell the story of the fabric of the hat: ‘The wrong fibre in the wrong place at the wrong time‘ describes how a highly unsuitable fibre preparation was re-processed to become something far more suitable (if any of the workshop attendees are reading this, note the use of a small cardboard loom-equivalent to establish whether the fabric would full), and ‘A project for the Cotswold.‘ briefly describes how I came to make a hat from it. I didn’t post more because the description became an article for Spin-Off Magazine (Summer 2014, ‘Uzbekistan by Hat’.

The executive summary, in pictures:
I work primarily with handspun singles. To prevent loss of twist, to make the yarn easier to manage and (to some extent) to protect it during the weaving process, the singles may be sized. Here the sized warp is drying on a makeshift stretcher in front of the bathroom radiator. (Workshop people, note that’s a hiking pole and chopstick stretcher, not the broom handle and hoe I use if I have more skeins!)WarpSized

From left to right: the Cotswold warp as it came off the bobbin, after steaming to set the twist, and lastly the dry sized skein.Warp

The hat fabric on the loom: Cotswold warp and handspun ‘Falklands’ (unspecified blend of Romney, merino and similar) weft.Fabric

I chose Falklands for the weft because I wanted to full the fabric, which I did in a hot indigo vat. Here the fabric is drying immediately after dyeing. I agitated it considerably in the vat to aid the fulling; the end result was not entirely even, but very beautiful. Or at least I think so.FabricDyed

Samples of the fabric for my records. Despite the fact it would be difficult to duplicate these handspun yarns (not that I can see any reason to try), the samples are useful records of how the wools and the fabric behaved. Note the tracking (the twill-like diagonal ridges) visible in the finished samples.Samples

I’d never made a hat from fabric. Clearly before I could make a hat I had to make a pattern. Having decided to make a hat inspired by those worn in Uzbekistan, I chose a style that looked as though I might be able wear it in public without dying of embarrassment, and started cutting up bits of paper to work out a pattern.hatplan

My first attempt proved to be a tiny yurt suitable for wearing on my head. But after some adjustments and more waste paper, I tacked together a fabric version to test the size and fit, then untacked it for use in cutting my fabric.TheHatProject.hats

Time passes. A LOT of time passes.

Sheila Paine and many others have written many words about the significance and meaning of folk embroidery. A gift from Sara Lamb, ‘Skullcaps of Uzbekistan‘ proved particularly interesting and useful. Reading and re-reading, I eventually could no longer postpone putting needle into cloth. What to use for the embroidery? Silk, in bright – and significant – colours. Some I dyed and spun for The Hat (it had acquired initial capitals in my thoughts), some were thrums of silks dyed and spun for my tablet-woven bag.embroiderysilks

Research suggests traditional makers usually embroider the hat fabric before the pieces are cut but, as I had never made a fabric hat before and had very little clue about what I was doing, it seemed wisest to make a hat that fit and embroider that. Having used some of the finer silk to sew the hat together, I rapidly discovered that I needed guides for the geometric patterns, hence the lines of white sewing thread.HatAgain1

Each of the patterns has – or is thought to have – a meaning or purpose, generally protective: bringing good fortune, or warding off bad luck and demons. The colours, too, have meaning: in many cultures across the globe red is apotropaic: it wards against evil.

In the photo above, the maze of complex swastikas is a demon trap in the making: entranced by the complexity they wander into the maze and are lost. The mirrors of the shisha embroidery dazzle and confuse any that elude the maze. Above, ram’s horns symbolise strength, courage and protection.

Below, one of my personal favourite symbols, a non-traditional orobouros symbolising infinity and the cycle of life becomes two owl eyes to frighten demons. The mother-of-pearl buttons used for the eyes and the silver coins are traditional embellishments, catching the sun to distract and confuse evil spirits. Hatback

Below, just visible on the left side band are two traditional Uzbek stylised birds. Apparently there is an old belief that if a bird sits on a man’s head it will make him happy (don’t ask, I don’t know). At the front is a sun disk, offering protection from the evil eye and any passing impurity. It is flanked by guardian cats.hatFront

Somewhat distorted by perspective, at the top of the hat is a band of shepherd’s crooks (protective), below which is a band of ‘amulet triangles’. Thought to be based on very, very early depictions of the Goddess, these are protective. Some of mine have diamond-shaped ‘heads’ containing four squares, the shape known as ‘fertile field’ that usually means fertility in the sense of offspring but I’ve used as heads because I’m interested in fertility in the sense of ideas. Tiny gold stars (light to distract demons) and the s-shape that may be a greatly simplified dragon (protective) also appear.  Dangling from the top of the hat are glittering, noisy coins and a miniature silver Maes Howe ‘dragon’.


When I presented my project to the spinning group I found my voice breaking with emotion as I tried to convey how I’d felt as each stitch linked me more closely to the many, many others who for millennia have made clothing to protect those they loved. Writing this I find the same emotion rising again. Think of the work involved in making a garment, even a hat, when women clothed their families in the days before millspun, machine-woven cloth. Gathering the fibre, preparing it, spinning it, weaving it, thinking of the person for whom you’re making it. Saving and bartering for cherished bright silks, shiny coins. Hoping and believing with every stitch that your embroideries are more than embellishment; you are creating a garment that may offer guidance and protection to the person who wears it, a tangible expression of your love and skill.

We’ve lost that. Our lives are so much easier… but we’ve lost something along the way.

That new obsession I mentioned

I’ve decided to practice stitching on the sampler from the Hand & Lock Opus Anglicanum workshop instead of planning something amazing without in fact knowing what I’m doing. I’m already pleased with the decision because I’ve learned that some threads seem to split more nicely than others: all this is split stitch, but the brown shows the stitches much more neatly than the blue, which seems to want to twist and close the open surface created by the splitting. ‘Laying’ the stitches in a finished fill by smoothing the area with the side of the needle makes an real difference to the sheen and smoothness of the fill. I suspect it’s even more important if working in silk rather than single strands of cotton embroidery floss. The direction of the stitches really matters: they have to flow, ideally avoiding sharp corners, so plan ahead.

Incidentally I’m wearing +3.5 reading glasses to work this; each stitch is 1.0–1.5mm long and my ageing eyesight can’t copy on its own. It’s such fun that I spend too long at it each evening: although the fabric is mounted in a hoop that stands by itself, my arms complain about being held in sewing position. I may need to order a cheap pair of reading glasses set up for a longer distance from the optician so I can sit a little straighter with my arms extended a little more.

But this is fun. I’ve decided that weird object he’s holding is a book, which I think I’ll couch in purple silk because I have some. I don’t know what he thinks is hanging from his belt, but I think it’s a bag for the book. I have no idea why the shadow is so dark under his chin; it could be a beard, but I like the line of his unencumbered chin too much to change it. I may run with a couched gold halo around his head but it does look a bit like a Rastafarian ‘tam’ … a tempting thought.

No wonder he looks apprehensive and admonitory! “Don’t you dare” he’s saying, “you heathen. DO NOT DARE DISRESPECT ME!”


There is a lot of beautiful stitching and information about opus anglicanum here. I’ve seen that ‘cabbage stitch’ used to create a pattern of dapples on a horse;  I’m thinking of using it for some of the Pearly Monster’s surface in case I don’t have enough plastic pearl beads. Although I may have some in the Box of Requirement.

Denim jacket yoke leads to a new obsession

I mentioned last June that I’d bought a vintage denim jacket that proved to be in worse condition than I’d thought, so it became an excuse for my first sashiko stitching project. As Wikipedia says, this is traditionally done using white thread on blue fabric, although the truly daring use red thread for decorative effect. I thought it would be interesting to go beyond daring into eccentricity and use the stitch grid as a basis for changing colours. Of course there had to be a skull somewhere too.

This is what it looked like when I showed it to you in June.JeansJacket1

This is what it looks like now.


I am rather pleased with this. The stitching is far from geometric perfection – the old denim has stretched and as a twill fabric it moves – but it has life. I extended the stitching onto the front left shoulder (see the photo at the end of this post) when I realised how thin that fabric was; this wear, taken with the visible wear on the seams on the left side leads me to think that someone who owned this jacket carried a shoulder bag on their left shoulder.

purplecornerThis shows the details but the colours are dark and lifeless thanks to the dim British winter light.

I didn’t plan the colour changes before I began work, just decided I’d move from a relatively pale blue on the left shoulder to purple/red on the top of the right shoulder, and picked colours on the spur of the moment to effect the changes as I stitched from left to right.


I laid out a grid of stitches for the skull. Each grid square contains 6×6 fabric threads and is true to the grain of the fabric. The skull is counted cross-stitch calculated to fit on the area of the internal label, 4 stitches per grid square, worked with a single strand of embroidery floss. I don’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed that most people who see it, even local Guild members, assume it’s painted with fabric paint until they look very, very closely. I intended to leave the grid in place as background to the skull – I like organic shapes set in visible opposition to geometry – but the more I looked at it the more the ‘busy-ness’ of the grid+twill lines detracted from the skull. So I cut the threads and pulled the grid out, thread by thread. skullfinished

I confess I find this sadly exciting. I can paint with thread! In January I attended an Opus Anglicanum workshop at Hand & Lock in London. Working from 10am until 4pm with 30 minutes for lunch I managed to cover about 2cm^2 with stitches… but what stitches! The tiny patch of underside couching at bottom left was a revelation (I can live without pearls). opusang

We started with embroidery floss to establish the technique and finished with gold. I loved it. Tiny stitches requiring precision (and magnifying glasses), exactly what I love. Then Helen McCook (the hare, look at the hare in her header!), the tutor, mentioned Or Nue: tiny stitches requiring precision, painting with colour on gold so the density of stitches influences both colour and shine…  I MUST TRY THIS. LOOK AT IT!
I have acquired an Elbesee ‘sit on it’ hoop stand and hoop (that I have to wrap), I’m stitching a cotton square to mask the areas of embroidery I’m not working on. I’ve ordered gold thread for a trial design, a pack each of gold and silver thread for my first real projects. I know what I want to do but I’ve learned patience: I will start by working something very simple to test my understanding of the technique. And before that I must get some paying work done.

If anyone reading this knows what type of transfer paper might have been used to copy what looks like a laser printer image onto the fabric, I’d really like to know. It’s slightly stiffer than the fabric around it, but there’s no thick layer of plastic as I’ve seen on other transfers.

And of course I get to wear my jacket. First rock concert of the year is in May. I will practice using a wallet so my backpack/purse does not obscure and eventually damage it.


Ethel Mairet’s natural dyeing II: Extract of Indigo

As I described in part I, Highland Blue, the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft is celebrating the centenary of the publication of Ethel Mairet’s A Book On Vegetable Dyes by asking dyers to replicate the recipes. Because I have a thing for blue I volunteered for two of the indigo recipes; this is the second.

4 oz. sulphuric acid, 1 oz. finely ground Indigo. Mix like mustard,  and leave to stand over-night. Prepare the wool  by mordanting with 5 oz. alum to 1 Ib. wool. Boil for 1 hour and dye without drying.

This is the dye also known as Saxon Blue, Chemie, Indigo Carmine, sulfonated indigo, indigo sulphonate, and indigo sulphate, which according to JN Liles in The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing, was discovered in 1740 not long after concentrated sulphuric acid was first made. In my mind’s eye I see a chemistry lab with in which people in lab coats pour this new acid on everything they can think of, just to see what happens, but I suspect it was much more directed. New colours and methods of dyeing textiles were much in demand, so perhaps it was logical to experiment on indigo. It’s completely different from the ‘Saxon Vat’ of the peasants of Saxony in which the fermentation of matter in unscoured fleece drives an indigo fermentation vat.  Although indigo sulphonate is said to have first been used in Saxony. Clearly a hotbed of inventive dyeing, Saxony.

Anyway. In short: the addition of sulphuric acid to indigo converts the indigo into an acid dye, with the sulphuric acid content of the dye bath acting as the acid to fix it to the dyestuffs.

I’d been wondering about trying a sulphuric acid indigo blue long before the Ditchling Mairet project. Blue and smelly is good, blue and DANGEROUS is just as attractive to my inner 5-year-old. But as with ‘ordinary’ indigo, I needed to understand the process before I started. There’s a lot of information on the internet. I was charmed by p255 of ‘The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine’ for 1843


An excerpt from this delightful publication.

which explains quite simply the basic problem I faced: as a private individual in 2016 I can’t buy strong enough acid. 98% as sold on Amazon *sounds* strong, but it’s not: ‘fuming acid of Nordhausen’ is in fact 102% by volume. I will not take you down the by-ways and cul-de-sacs I explored online investigating the solubility of indigo (it’s remarkably recalcitrant stuff) or the phone calls and plaintive emails sent to various chemical suppliers begging them to send me the good stuff. I offered to come and collect it so they could assess my harmless middle-agedness themselves. The answer was always No, Sorry, We’re not allowed to. So I ordered what I could get (which is sold as drain cleaner),  an assortment of lab glassware, and some safety kit.

CAUTION: DO NOT even think about trying this unless you have experience working with strong acid and are fully aware of the hazards and precautions necessary. 98% Sulphuric Acid might be weak for my purposes, but it’s strong enough for the fumes to damage your lungs and eyes. The liquid will burn holes in most things including human flesh.


I faffed a bit about the quantities because clearly, given I had 98% acid, this would be as much art as science. In the end I used 15g of my most expensive indigo powder to 113 ml sulphuric acid. Mixing the Extract of Indigo was quite straightforward. It does mix ‘like mustard’ – it takes a lot of stirring to thoroughly wet the indigo powder. Better to start with a very little acid and work into a paste before adding the full volume. There was no visible reaction when I added acid to the indigo powder but the reagent flask gradually became gently warm to the touch so heat evolved.

Some recipes for Saxon Blue suggest adding chalk to the mix; Mairet doesn’t, and Liles says there’s no need, so I didn’t.

‘leave to stand over-night’
It’s clear from much that I’ve read (including Liles) that this extract in fact benefits from a longer reaction time – if it is well-sealed so the acid can’t absorb water from the atmosphere – so I wasn’t concerned when I couldn’t use it exactly 24 hours after mixing.

The books agree that Saxon Blue is a dye for wool and silk, which makes sense because acid dyes require an acid (low) pH. Acid conditions render cellulose fibres (cotton, linen, ramie) less able to absorb dye; a friend familiar with the chemistry of paper (also cellulose) says “Higher pH on cotton produces very strong covalent bonds. Less pH value, weaker, if any, bonding.” (thanks, Terry!) So the dye particles simply don’t stick to cotton and linen under acid conditions. I had samples of wool, silk, cotton and linen to test this. I mordanted the wool and silk with alum and cream of tartar, one skein each of cotton and linen with alum and washing soda, and left the spare pair of cotton and silk unmordanted out of curiosity.

Mairet instructs readers on the use of the extract in various other recipes.
3) To Dye Wool With Indigo Extract: For 4-6lb of wool. Stir 2 to 3 oz of Indigo extract into the water of the dye bath. The amount is determined by the depth of shade required. When warm, enter the wool, and bring slowly to the boiling point (about 1/2 hour) and continue boiling for another 1/2 hour. By keeping it below boiling point while dyeing, better colours are got, but it is apt to be uneven. Boiling levels the colour but makes the shade greener…

Given that this is basically ‘add what you think looks right’ I worked from Liles’ recipe, reducing the quantity of extract for my 3litre pan.


The colours are not quite right in this, thanks to weird light from both cooker and room lights. It was a little more turquoise than it looks, visibly different from ‘ordinary’ indigo blue. Also, as the dye heated, it developed the chemical odour I associate with rooms full of weaving yarns: not wool, nothing to do with wool or lanolin, a rather sharp indeed acid chemical smell. Very interesting. I opted for a gentle simmer rather than a boil as I wanted ‘better colours’. After 1/2 hour at about 85°C I put the yarns in the sink to cool and ran the dye bath to waste with copious water. And then kicked myself, almost literally, because I forgot to check the dye bath pH at any point. Next time.


On my machine those colours are about right. The pale yarns are the cotton and linen, as might be expected; note there’s no obvious difference between mordanted and unmordanted. The dark are one wool and two silk. Again, no difference in shade between mordanted and unmordanted silk. Once they’d cooled, I began rinsing, and things became interesting because the silk lost a lot of dye. A LOT of dye. I tried to hurry it along by washing a second time with dishwashing liquid rather than gentle soap, but I left it in the water to soak out the detergent and the water turned dark blue again. I put the yarns in clean water and left them overnight: in the morning the water was dark blue. Something interestingly chemical was happening to strip the dye, I think. But I’m not a chemist-dyer, I’m fermenting organic smelly sludge dyer so I need to do some reading.

saxonskeinsAnd here is the result, reskeined with the Ditchling Museum Project Record. I’ve added a bobbin of cotton dyed with with an ‘ordinary’ indigo vat for comparison: it’s clear to my eyes at least that the Saxon Blue is more teal, somewhat greener than the ordinary. But sadly not nearly as green as the example I saw produced by a friend with access to Fuming Sulphuric: the stronger the acid, the higher the proportion of green ‘sulph-indylic’ dye formed by the reaction. But still, it is very pretty.


Now I’m thinking of offering an Indigo Dye workshop next summer, working with fresh leaf indigo and/or woad, plus at least two vats. If I do I’ll happily accept 100ml lab grade fuming sulphuric acid as part payment from one attendee!

Spinning for weaving: workshop at Letchworth Settlement on April 1 2017

24 February 2017: I have had to cancel the Fibre East workshop for personal reasons, but was able to re-schedule it earlier in the year: April 1, 2017, at the Letchworth Settlement. This workshop is also fully subscribed.


Spinning For Weaving
The workshop will cover as many aspects of this as possible (no limits!), so I expect we’ll cover more than the subjects listed below.
Topics will include wheel set-up** and spinning techniques, including ‘production’ spinning; faults and flaws to avoid in your weaving yarns; preparing your handspun yarns for weaving (with special reference to singles, including the use of sizes). We will discuss how the intended purpose of a yarn should influence choice of fibre and spinning technique. We will examine a selection of historic or handspun, handwoven textiles from the UK and elsewhere in order to learn from times and places with strong traditions of handmade fabrics. Having looked at handspun textiles we will at least discuss how to approach the task of replicating the yarn needed to weave a particular textile.

Although the focus is on spinning for weaving, this workshop may be of interest to anyone who’d like to learn to think mindfully about their spinning projects. It is NOT suitable for beginning spinners: attendees must already be able to produce a continuous yarn using a spinning wheel or spindle. Although we will look at some cotton fabrics, the workshop is primarily about spinning wool.
It is a full-day workshop on Saturday 1 from 1000 until 1700. Hot water, tea and coffee will be available, but you’ll need to bring your own lunch.

Note: some of my historic fabrics are stored with sandalwood, cedar wood and lavender soaps or essential oils to deter pests. I will air the fabrics before the workshop but if you’re sensitive to any of these please let me know ASAP so I can air them longer and more thoroughly.

This workshop is limited to 10 students: I need to be sure that everyone has a good chance to try everything, and that I can spend time with those who need it. Cost is £80 per person including materials, of which £20 is a non-refundable deposit to cover room hire and ensure your place in the class. ‘Non-refundable’ means I promise to return your money only if I have to cancel the class.

** In answer to the question in the comments about using a spindle:
People were spinning for weaving with spindles long before wheels existed, so if you’re comfortable spinning medium to fine singles on a spindle you will be fine. You might want to park-and-draft to experiment with true woollen long draw.

The full workshop description and registration forms can be downloaded here:





Ethel Mairet’s natural dyeing I: Highland Blue

The hand weaver and dyer Ethel Mairet was a significant member of the British Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century. Wikipedia has a summary of her life and work here. (“Ethel went away alone and built a house near Barnstaple complete with studios for textile dyeing and weaving” seems such a bald summary of what must have been a terribly difficult time.)

Ethel Mairet is one of my weaving ‘ancestors’, in that my mentors were taught by people who were themselves taught or inspired by Mairet’s work. I had the pleasure of seeing some of her weaving in the flesh at the National Portrait Galleries ‘Anarchy & Beauty’ exhibition, including a jacket woven from handspun eri silk dyed with natural dyes, here shown in A Weaver’s Life: Ethel Mairet, 1872–1952.


Mairet moved to Ditchling, Sussex, in 1916 to join a group of crafts persons including Eric Gill. In the same year (Wikipedia is wrong) she published A Book On Vegetable Dyes (free download from archive.org at that link). Now, a century later, Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft is celebrating Mairet’s work, asking dyers to recreate her recipes for display today.

How could I resist?

I volunteered to work with two of her recipes*, the first being Recipe 8, p69: BLUE FOR WOOL (Highlands), which begins
‘Take a sufficiency of Indigo. (For medium shade about 1 oz. to every pound of wool).  Dissolve it in about as much stale urine (about a fortnight old) as will make a bath for the wool …’
At heart I am about 5 years old: I cannot resist making blue using a smelly technique that other people find revolting. But more importantly, the indigo urine vat is one of the oldest methods of dyeing. I wrote about its history and chemistry here as part of my Summer of Blue. That vat suffered as a result of my inability to keep it warm, but I’ve since found a way to maintain the necessary temperature.

I put the ‘donations accepted’ container in the bathroom and a couple of weeks later the experiment began.


All natural indigo powder contains some non-indigo vegetable matter, the proportion of which is reflected in the cost per gram. The vegetable matter is undesirable not only because it isn’t indigo (and hence doesn’t dye), but also because it adds to sediment at the bottom of the vat that can stain things that contact it. I know from experience that bacterial breakdown of the urine creates sediment anyway, so I used a cheaper grade for this vat, adding about 15g of powder to the 2.5l of the stale urine in a 3litre jar on the 27 November. At this point – having been stored at cold room temperature – the urine was at pH8 and smelled largely of stale urine with very little ammonia.

‘Make it lukewarm.’ 
The first time I made a sig vat, I tried everything I could think of to keep it warm, from black plastic bins in full sun (or what passes for full sun in a British summer) to an insulated box and a hot water bottle and finally a heating pad. Nothing worked consistently: slow/occasional fermentation would bring the vat into condition, I could dye a small quantity of fibre – and then it would stubbornly remain blue and miserable for days. That failure – when the instructions seemed so straightforward! – drove me to find out how and why indigo vats work. Now I know temperature was probably only one of several failures, and I have the tools to check and correct the performance of the vat.

Last summer I built a den in the garage for my indigo fermentation vats: a sturdy cardboard box floored with a thick layer of insulation, with a tray acting as lid. The cord running into the box powers a home-brew ‘brew band’ that keeps a vat at blood heat. During the summer I used it to heat a large volume of liquid in that plastic bin, but here the bin is a waterbath for the urine vat in the glass jar. I put the jar in the bath to warm overnight while I wetted the yarns from the Ditchling Museum.


‘Put in the wool and keep it at the same temperature till the dyeing is done.’
The plastic screw-top bottle hiding shyly to the left of the box is my ‘spare’ urine supply. Fermentation vats rely on the nutrients in the urine, so I soak dyestuffs in urine to wet them: wetting with tap water will only dilute the urine and weaken the fermentation.

On 28 November, after only 24 hours of warmth, the vat was alkaline, at or near pH10 and smelled noticeably of ammonia. HURRAH, bacteria are digesting the urea in the urine, consuming oxygen and creating ammonia to raise the pH: in other words, this vat is working!sig30nov-addfibre

I added the four yarns, each skein suspended by a string to prevent it falling into the sediment that would develop at the bottom of the vat. This wasn’t entirely successful, alas. Better to use a deeper vat with a lot more urine.

‘For a deep navy blue it will take a month, but a pale blue will be done in 3 or 4 days. Every morning and evening the wool must be taken out of the dye bath, wrung out and put back again. The bath must be kept covered and the temperature carefully attended to.’
[I checked the pH as well.]


Taking photos one-handed with an iPhone when also handling something with a pungent, penetrating and lingering odour proved tricky, so I don’t have many photos of the process. Here you can see the characteristic yellow-green of an active indigo vat turning blue before my eyes.

By 10 December the vat was at pH8-9: regular opening and airing allows ammonia to escape as gas, so the liquid became less alkaline, while moving the yarns about added oxygen. Both of these mean more indigo in the vat was returning to its blue non-soluble form.


‘Some add a decoction of dock roots the last day, which is said to fix the blue.’
I didn’t, and I wouldn’t say it. All my research suggests indigo isn’t fixed in that way: once the colourless soluble form oxidises, the particles are either wedged firmly in place or they aren’t. I suppose dock root decoction might act like a glue to coat the yarn and hold the particles in place, but that’s only going to last until the glue is washed out.

I called it a day, removed the yarns for the last time and left them to fully oxidise, slightly thankful that the cold weather means the smell is somewhat less all-pervasive than it was in the summer, when my husband claimed the odour was killing birds as they flew past.


‘The wool must then be thoroughly washed. This is a fast dye.’
Well, for some meanings of the word ‘fast’. Slow in terms of time, but fast in the sense that it’s generally regarded as wash- and lightfast once any unattached particles of indigo are removed. Jeans and other items dyed with indigo lose colour as the surface of the fabric erodes to reveal undyed material.

I handwashed the skeins in a non-bio detergent for delicate fabrics and rinsed thoroughly in cold water. Given the alkalinity of the vat and our extremely hard water I finished the wool and silk in a final rinse acidified with vinegar.


The yarns and process summary, about to be packed off to Ditchling. I am pleased to report they not only demonstrate one of Mairet’s dye recipes, but also the classic ‘vat odour’ that once indicated the finest and fastest shades of blue.

*my work on the second recipe, ‘Extract of Indigo’ (treated with sulphuric acid!) can be read here.