Updated: Feb 27
Day One: It's Always Day One*
It's always Day One because there is always something new to explore, whether it's a new yarn base, fiber or color mix. Here's a breakdown of the process of creating a handpainted warp or weft skein.
Yarn Preparation (Cellulose Fibers)
First, the yarn has to be prepared by either winding lengths onto a warping board (this is a wooden frame with regularly spaced pegs used for measuring), or making a skein using a swift. Winding a warp consisting of 200 threads, six yards long takes about 35 minutes. After the warp is measured, it will need to have a number of loose figure-8 ties placed along it every 12 to 18 inches. Putting the ties on every 12 inches is an extra step that most people don't do, but I like the way it keeps my warps neat and organized. Winding a skein is much quicker: using a motorized skein winder, I can create a 1000 yard skein in about five minutes, including adding ties to prevent tangling.
Wash the Warp Bundles
Next, the warp must be "scoured" (washed) in very hot water to remove dirt and spinning oils. Sometimes commercial base yarns are waxed, and this must be removed as well. Cotton and tencel yarns in some cases need to be boiled to clean this off. The yarn is then rinsed thoroughly and hung to dry. Scouring can be done days in advance of dyeing.
Soak the Bundles in a Soda Ash Solution
Soda ash is mixed in water to a ph of about 10.5. This is what makes the dye react to the fiber molecules and become colorfast. The yarn is soaked for at least 20 minutes.
Prepare the Base Dyes
I generally mix about 16 ounces at a time, using plastic squeeze bottles. My standard ratio of powdered dye to water is 2 level teaspoons to 16 ounces for strong colors. These are just base dye solutions and will be further blended to create custom shades. If I'm dyeing a set of four 4-yard warps, I'll use between 4 to 7 base colors. If there are leftover dyes, they will be refrigerated to preserve them.
Mix the Colors
Most handpainted warps will have at least four colors. These are seldom "straight" primary dye hues, but are mixes for more interesting, subtle shades. I use scientific graduated cylinders in sizes from 5 ml to 200 ml, and mix up about 200 ml of each shade into a plastic container.
Arrange the Warp
On a table covered with plastic wrap, I lay out the warp. My table is 6' long, so a 4-yard warp will be loosely laid out with gentle "folds" to about 48" overall. The warp should be wet but not dripping from soaking in the soda ash solution.
Painting the Warp
I then decide on the color sequence of the dyes. Using foam brushes and wearing latex gloves, I'll thoroughly soak the warp with dye, working with about six inches at a time along the length until the entire warp is painted in a pleasing pattern of colors. Using my fingers, I'll press the dye into the yarn firmly to blend the colors. Checking the back side of the yarn for color is important — most times you will need to turn the warp and paint it again from the back, though some yarns are better a taking up the dye than others.
Here are two ways to paint the warp:
Setting the Dyes
Folding over the sides of the plastic wrap, I will begin rolling the warp up from one end until it is a big "jellyroll" of wrapped, painted warp. This is then set in a warm place (85º is ideal) for 24 or more hours. This time is needed for the dye to thoroughly react and fix onto the fiber molecules. Bundles can also be steamed in a large pot equipped with a strainer insert.
Rinsing (and Rinsing, and Rinsing...)
After the dyes are set, I unwrap the jellyroll and rinse the warp. I use a detergent called Synthrapol, which is formulated to remove excess dye from fiber. When no dyes remain and the rinse water is clear, the warps are placed in the washing machine using the spin cycle to remove excess water. I take them and attach one end to a hook on the wall of my dye studio, walk back 4 to 6 yards so the warp is taut, and give it a good shake and snap. This realigns any tangled threads. Finally, they are hung to dry.
But Wait! There's More!
The short list of more is recording dye formulas, keeping a notebook with results, cards with physical samples, bins of sample skeins, photography and the inevitable photo editing for listings, writing compelling descriptions and finally, just doing all that boring "business stuff".
Sometimes I wish every day was not Day One. It might be nice to have a little routine. I'm trying to build some of that into my work-week by committing to winding at least one warp a day in preparation for dyeing. I'm gradually creating sets of dye formulas that I can replicate on a consistent basis, but there is a lot of trial and error in the process; record keeping is essential. You can, of course, be totally spontaneous in your dyeing, but it's not as much of a learning process that way, and if something great happens, you'll probably be unable to replicate it.
Thanks for reading! I hope this is useful if you are a novice yarn dyer and interesting to everyone else. I'll post more about dyeing wool soon. Please leave a comment, and check out my Etsy listings!
* re: "Day One", I work part time in an Amazon warehouse, because believe it or not, weaving isn't a viable way to make a living. That saying is an Amazon thing, somehow meant to be inspiring to us warehouse workers. It's not inspiring there, but it's absolutely true in the studio work I do, whether it's dyeing or weaving.