Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Four Commandments of Dyeing Fiber (Roving)

I have recently been trying to spin some fiber from another dyer, who has a reputation for good fiber prep. And I have to say that I'm a little shocked that people would consider this to be good. Yes, anyone can have a bad day and turn out something that's not up to their usual standard. But I had two braids, and to let two of these slip through the QA process seems like it's a standard rather than an exception.

One braid is a total loss--the felted bits of Wensleydale are knot-like, and despite the gorgeous colors, I've given up on spinning it. Disappointing, because I was looking forward to spinning my first longwool. But hey, maybe it was me, as a newer spinner working with a more challenging fiber.

Because the first braid was a waste of money, I was determined to spin the other braid, which was 100% BFL, a fiber I have dyed hundreds of times and am very familiar with. Imagine my disappointment when this, too, turned out to be difficult to spin. It's technically spinnable after you rip it apart sideways, and I've spun nearly 2 oz of it so far. But it doesn't draft easily at all, and leaves my thumb and forefingers aching for the next day, with tenderness radiating up to my shoulder and neck. I've decided that despite the lovely colors, it's not worth it to me to spin the rest of the braid. I have enough joint problems as it is.

Yes, people are always saying, "Don't spin bad fiber--sheep grow more wool all the time." But the fact of the matter is that buying fiber COSTS MONEY, and when you work hard for it, it's painful to just throw it away.

This experience has gotten me thinking about what I consider to be fiber dyeing rules. Others may dye it differently with great results, but here's what works for me.

1. Thou shalt not touch the fiber when it is hot. When you're intentionally felting/fulling fiber, you put it in the hottest water you can stand, with detergent, and agitate it. When you're dyeing fiber, hot water is unavoidable--it's an essential part of the process (unless you're talking about plant fibers and fiber reactive dyes--totally different process that I don't use). And detergent is present as well, since it helps to open up the fiber and remove the last bits of processing residue. Only the last leg of the felting triumvirate is missing--agitation. KEEP YER HANDS OFF OF IT. I try to avoid even bumping the pot.

How do I define "hot"? Anything higher than room temperature. If it's even a little bit warm, I keep my paws off the pot. Room temperature does vary with the season, and I dye fiber with as much success during the summer as the winter in my unheated garage--so I often try to justify to myself that if it just gets down to about 70, it's okay to rinse. But I talk myself out of it. Cutting corners to save some time often means that I just end up having to redo the whole thing again. It's not a timesaver at all.

2. Thou shalt not rinse too many times. Sad to say, I have (in my opinion) ruined BFL/silk with too many rinses. Last year, I did have a customer who bought one of my seconds at Black Sheep Gathering come and find me at Sock Summit, so that she could tell me that there was nothing wrong with my "second quality" braids. I'm not sure if I'm too picky or if customers are accustomed to doing some yanking and pulling during drafting. But ...

3. Thou shalt err on the side of being too picky. Every time that I'm on the fence about whether something is first quality or not, I throw it in the seconds bin. I think, "If this is the only thing of mine that this customer sees, would I want this to be her or his only impression of my work?" When I put it that way, the answer of what to do is always clear, even if it costs me some money.

4. Thou shalt not dye fiber for wholesale. I do have exceptions to this commandment, as I have retailers who take my product to shows that I can't vend at myself. But generally, when I'm filling a wholesale order, I'm dyeing colorways chosen by someone else, and attempting to match a stock photo. I'm focusing on accuracy, and if an interesting variation or idea pops up, I don't pursue it. By keeping fiber at a retail level, I'm preserving a certain creative freedom that makes me a better dyer.
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