Dyeing yarn for tapestry

I'm in the dye studio.

I'm in the dye studio.

I've spent much of the last week in my dye studio. I will likely spend another couple weeks there. I do love the dyeing and putting together colors for a new project is a whole lot of fun. And global warming has hit Colorado and it isn't even that cold for January. This particular tapestry will need about 25 pounds of yarn, but since there are so many colors and I hate running out, I always make enough extra that I won't. I suspect in the end I'll have dyed about 50 pounds. I don't like games of yarn chicken and the extra yarn is always welcome in the tapestry classes I teach or for my next piece.

Rookie mistake

I've been dyeing for a long time--over a decade. I use acid wool dyes, sabraset and lanaset dyes from Earth Guild and PRO Chemical and Dye. They are the same dyes, they just have different trade names. And of course the colors are slightly different. For some reason, the last time I did a lot of dyeing, I decided that I was going to start using just one company, PRO Chemical and Dye. I guess I thought it would be easier and a little cheaper to source my dye from one place and I was using Deb Menz's dye books and formulas for some of my experiments and she uses their dyes.

However, this led me right into this weekend's rookie mistake.

That beautiful blue yarn is made in part with Blue 2R, a dye made by Earth Guild. I have been using this lovely dye for a decade. I love it. Why would I abandon it?

I started dyeing the blues for the next tapestry late last week. As I began measuring the dyes for the first eight colors, I started to panic a little bit because the jar was almost empty. Searching through my two small boxes of dye powders, I realized there was no new jar.

No. New. Jar.

Then I remembered the aforementioned clearly delusional decision to stop using Earth Guild dyes.

I realized I had enough for the eight colors, and thought, oh great, I'm going to make it!

Only to remember that I had nine more blues to go for this piece and there was no way any other dye could be substituted.

And this was all I had left.

Thankfully Earth Guild was fast. Yesterday this little box was on my doorstep and I'm off to dye the rest of the blue.

In penance I promise to continue to use Earth Guild's Blue 2R for all eternity... or at least until another delusion steps in.

Thanks Earth Guild.

Dyeing in the sunshine, NO WAIT!... snow

Oh Colorado in April. How we do love your sense of humor.
One day I'm dyeing a pink gradation in 70-degree sunshine. The next, I'm cooling my jars in the snow.

I am deep into the dye sampling for a new project. I've spent the last week finalizing the design and talking to the clients about colors... and frankly, reassuring them that I would dye beautiful colors since my computer graphic skills are admittedly poor. The mock-up looked a little like I used spray-paint on the side of a train car perhaps while high on acid. (Don't worry Mom, I just made that up. I've never spray-painted a train car.)

I really love doing the dye sampling. I can test out 8 colors per pot which makes me feel rich at the end of the day. It takes forever to set those pots up, but all those colors are done at once. Unfortunately I can only dye about 30g in a quart jar so the amounts for the full tapestry will have to be done one pot at a time.

And here are the adorable little skeins. This gradation was one I had done before but it has been awhile, so I wanted to make sure I still liked the colors. 

For this project I'm going to need to do some sampling to send to the client for final color approval (see spray-painting on acid above), so having small samples was necessary anyway. This one came out great on the first try. No modifications (that never happens).

One of my Instagram followers asked me about dye sample books. I use three different dye sample resources. The first is my own books created as I dye. Every time I do a dye run I write down the formula for each color on a piece of card stock and put a piece of the yarn next to it. Simple, but effective.
I have two other books. One is by Ginny Phillips. I love this book and have used it heavily for a long time. Ginny is no longer selling these books and I doubt you'd be able to find one anywhere. I now keep mine in a locked fire safe, so don't think you're going to find it!

The other resource which you can access is by Deb Menz and Sara Lamb. They produce a set of dye sample books which you can find on Deb's website. They are called Color by Number. Yes, they seem expensive at first glance, but think about the time it takes to dye hundreds and hundreds of colors and then loop each piece of yarn through holes on card stock printed with the formulas. Just doing the initial research for these books makes it incredible that they even exist. This is a priceless resource if you are a dyer. The only other way to get this information is to dye all these colors yourself. 

Oh, and in case you were still worried about my tax day fun, it turned out okay. Well, the bottom line wasn't fun, but the taxes did get done and submitted on time. Whew.

Dye sample books. Just do it.

I have enough yarn for another big tapestry.
I know this because I just spent all afternoon organizing it and making dye reference cards.

Let me back up.

I finished a big piece a few weeks ago. I know there are many of you waiting to see a photo of it, but you'll have to wait a little longer. I'm still doing the finishing and then it has to take a trip to a very busy photographer.

In the meantime I'm busy dyeing samples for the next piece. I have to make room in the studio for the new set of yarn and so it was time to pack up the yarn from the Lifeline piece. It had migrated into every corner. I gathered it all together and organized it, thanking myself for taking the time to write the dye formula on every ball as I was winding them last year. This will allow me to use this yarn for another piece. There is plenty! (honestly, maybe two pieces. big ones.)
Had I not written the formulas on every ball, I might not be able to tell which gradation they went with and would be much less likely to use the yarn in another piece despite all the work that went into dyeing it. Odd balls without the rest of the set quickly make their way to tapestry workshops to be used by students. Not a bad outcome, but why not use all these great gradations again?

It ended up being 90 colors plus another handful of accent colors pulled off the shelf.

Ninety colors is the number I dyed for that piece.


Each color is dyed in its own pot and each pot takes several hours start to finish. As I was making the color cards I started fantasizing about how wonderful it would be to just order a truckload of yarn from Weavers Bazaar all dyed up and ready to weave. But I fear my process would be missing something vital if I didn't dye my own yarn. For whatever reason, it is what I do.

As a dyer, one of the most important resources you can create for yourself is a file of yarn samples with the dye formulas used to get them. Sometimes it can take many days of sampling in jars to come up with the colors I really want. To have to repeat that work again because I didn't take a few hours to cut pieces of the yarn and write down the formulas would be silly.

So the afternoon found me on the floor of the studio cataloging the yarn for my sample books.

I make a set of cards for each dye project which is usually for a for a tapestry, though sometimes for a workshop I'm teaching. I simply write the formula and depth of shade next to a hole punched on cardstock and put a generous piece of that yarn through the hole. These cards go in a three-ring binder. These binders along with the dye sample books of Ginny Phillips and Deb Menz/Sara Lamb are indispensable resources when planning colors for a new tapestry.

I'm in the middle of dye sampling for a new piece. Stay tuned for more photos of those gradations.

Now the question is, where am I going to store this yarn until I am ready to do a piece in these colors again? My yarn shelf is almost full. I suspect the student workshop yarn is going to get relegated to boxes. Sssshhhh, they'll never know.

The process... so much happens before you start weaving a tapestry

Do you ever get completely carried away with something and just don't want to stop? I started dyeing yarn for my new piece a few weeks ago and I just kept finding new colors I wanted to try. I was forced to stop by sudden sub-zero temperatures and freezing fingers, even in the garage. I considered cranking up the heaters, but decided the universe was trying to tell me, enough already.

Though I like to think that a new tapestry is something I can just jump into, it turns out my process is somewhat ponderous. Slow. Doesn't so much turn on a dime as pivots like an 18-wheeler. My current piece is no exception.

I wrote a bit about the design and cartoon process in THIS blog post. I had the first version of this piece ready to go when I had my studio in Santa Fe. Actually, I even started the piece last spring and had to cut it off when we moved. Then change happened and the design evolved and the new piece took awhile to arrive out of the ether or wherever new designs come from. (Hint: They come from a lot of very hard work.)

Once the design was largely finished I started the process of finding the right colors. I have quite a lot of yarn on my shelves, but it is all leftover from old pieces, dye experiments, and teaching. Most of the balls are no longer tagged and I have no idea what dye formulas I used to create them. In a large piece like this, I have to have enough yarn and I wanted to be able to replicate the colors should I run out (frankly unlikely since I dye enough to cover castle walls though I don't have a castle).

I was having so much fun dyeing, it went on and on.
Eventually I created this matrix of purples. This are three different purple formulas with two further options for each color, one toned with black and one with brown.
I did some sampling with these yarns and eventually I decided on the specific combination for the piece and dyed five more intermediate colors for a gradation for four of the sets from that matrix.
I also dyed a bunch of these fall-like colors for another aspect of the piece.
The weather has gotten warmer again and there were a "few more" colors to dye (turns out a few is 30 for me). There was a large part of the design for which I was going to use a set of colors from another tapestry. After sampling, that idea went out the window. There was too much black in it and I needed something lighter.

So today was a 12-pot day. Thirty colors, three days. Normally I wouldn't do 12 colors in a day, but I couldn't bear one more day of it. The glittery fun that is dyeing my own yarn lost its luster about 15 pots ago.

Dyeing with acid wool dye... it is all in the folks festival T-shirt

Dyeing season.
The time of year when the cars get evicted from the garage and the plants get a healthy drink of slightly acidic water (they love it--alkaline soil around here). The season of sore backs, scalded toes, and mottled surgical scrubs, stolen souvenirs from various hospitals over the years. (They were worn home after certain incidents involving fluids that shall remain nameless. Nothing like taking your good khakis home in a bag and being pretty sure you can never wear them again...)

I am a dyer. I love the structured nature of dyeing with acid wool dyes, that I can replicate the colors I make (except the errors--can never get those again), that the math is simple, and that the combinations are boundless. I definitely admire the natural dyers. Their work seems much more complicated than mine. But I'm hooked on the synthetics. The color gradations are fantastic.

While dyeing the last few weeks, I took the liberty of shooting some video. It was simply meant to give you a flavor for what dyeing is all about. And if I can do it, so can you. Enjoy! (And I swear I am NOT drunk in that out-take at the very end... I just get some weird fake southern accent thing happening when I'm being a goof. My apologies Nana.)

For full screen, push the square icon in the lower right corner of the video window. Or push the YouTube button to view it there.

Oh the yarn.

I have been a dyeing fiend the last week. I am really working hard to get the colors for the next big tapestry done. My arms have literally been aching for the last couple days and I can only assume that this is from a combination of lifting heavy dye pots for days on end, riding my bike around Santa Fe, and perhaps a return to yoga at the same time. I seem to have invented my own fitness bootcamp--weight lifting, cardio, balance. Chasing three year olds around a gym a few days a week doesn't hurt either. Though certainly a constant ache in almost every arm muscle MUST be a sign of impending death, I can only assume that I do NOT have multiple sclerosis. At least Emily assures me that this is most likely not the case, but you can never be too careful when it comes to worrying about potentially severely debilitating conditions.

I vowed that this tapestry would contain no purple, but alas, after much debate, purple has crept in despite my best intentions. The palate for this one is going to look much different than my last few pieces despite the purple however. I think I am going to like it.

The cartoon has been enlarged.
The warp is ready.
It is time to start.