Monday, June 2, 2008

This is How We Learn

After all, if everything went smoothly the first time, that wouldn't teach us anything, would it? It would just be downright boring. Wouldn't it? Well, no danger of that here.

Facing a mountain of Stormwatch roving to be spun, I needed a little something to give me a break and liven things up. I've been wanting to try dyeing wool, but it looks a little scary, with all that talk of safety and wearing dust masks and never using the same utensils in your kitchen again. But there is a less intimidating way to get your feet wet, relying on the master colorists at Kraft Foods: Kool-Aid dyeing. Intrigued originally by the description in Robin Hansen's Knit Mittens! and egged on by Linda LaBelle's Yarn Lover's Guide to Hand Dyeing, I dug out some old packets of Kool-Aid that have been in the cabinet so long I thought they'd be petrified.

I had ten ounces of slightly dingy-looking Dorset wool bought on-line that seemed like a good candidate for dyeing, and nine different flavors of Kool-Aid, so I decided to try dyeing an ounce with each color.

One packet, one ounce of wool, easy enough. I put the Kool-Aid in a pot, splashed in a little vinegar, filled it up with a lot of water for the wool to swim around in, and heated the whole works up. I dropped the wool in with keen anticipation, ready to watch the magic happen. I scooped it out now and then to have a look, and the magic seemed to be taking its time. Half an hour later, I was really beginning to wonder. Yes, when you came right down to it, the magic was a bit poky.

Well, I finally figured out that maybe a lot of water needs a lot of vinegar, even if it is just for one tiny little packet of drink mix. It wasn't the magic's fault. It was that happy-go-lucky approach of just dumping ingredients into the pot in haphazard quantities (a strategy that probably works a lot better once you actually know what you're doing). Things went better after that.

I had a wonderful time transforming one ounce of wool after another into jolly candy-coated colors.

I learned a couple of other useful things along the way. One was that, as I'd read somewhere, purples seem to be especially tricky to dye. The purples I got were subtle, nuanced mauvey colors, rather than the straightforward crayon purples I might have expected. I didn't mind that; I was just experimenting, and I thought the results were pretty.

Another thing I learned is that Kool-Aid is very good at creating juicy pinks and reds, and several of the flavors made very similar colors. I didn't mind that either, they're happy, pretty colors, and I can mix them together.

I did notice that the wool didn't seem to take the dye very evenly. I liked the streaks, though, and thought they might lend some nice variation to the wool once carded. But it may have been a clue to the last thing that I may have learned. When the dyed wool had sat overnight and was dry enough, I got out the hand cards to play with it and see what it would look like carded. I took a few locks of wool in one of the pretty pink colors and started carding it gently. It was a pleasure to see it open up and get fluffy, all in such a cheerful color. I rolled it off the card, and delicately pulled it out lengthwise into a mini-roving, just for the fun of it.

It had an interesting feel. I haven't used Dorset wool before, and all the sources where I've read about it describe it as "spongy." It did feel sort of spongy, in a pleasant, soft, springy way. But, as I handled it, I also noticed something else. My fingers began feeling soft and smooth. Hmmm. In fact, the wool felt a little greasy. Hmmm. The yarn dyeing books tell me that wool needs to be well cleaned to take the dye consistently. Now that I think about it, I'm really not so sure if that wool was billed as scoured or raw, when I bought it. It looked basically clean, albeit a little yellowish, especially around the tips. I thought it was just stained. But those attractive streaks I got in the dyed colors may have been a sign that there was a lot of lanolin still lurking in the wool, causing it to resist the dye.

Well, what care I? If there's grease in the wool that must yet be removed, so be it. I've tossed it all in a hot soapy bath to see what happens now. At the moment, it seems to be shedding a lot of excess color into the water. But it's all a joyful experiment, and, whatever the results, I'll know more than I did when I started. If I had done everything right, I might have a "recipe" I could follow successfully. But if I hadn't made mistakes, I might not understand as much about how and why it works and what happens if you veer off course.

This is how we learn.

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