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Making Yarn, Part 3

Part three of a three part series. You can read part one here and part two here.

It's a hot July evening and we're on the road again. This time we've got two kids in the back seat, bags packed for a week, and passports in the glove box. We're driving to Canada to visit our friends Julie Asselin and Jean-François "JF" Mallette. They're going to let us watch while they dye our yarn.

We head north through the White Mountains. It's a route we've never taken before, and it's beautiful. The sky is a little hazy and when we get a good view we can see layers of mountains fading from green to gray as they get farther away. The day ends with an amazing sunset that seems to last for an hour, the light slowly changing from orange to purple. It fades to black just before we get to the border crossing. Half an hour later we're driving down Julie and JF's street in Coaticook, looking for their house number. From the back seat both kids are proclaiming that they really, really, need to go to the bathroom. Just in time, we see Julie waving from her front porch. We've made it!


Julie Asselin and Jean-François Mallette

Like us, JF and Julie are husband-and-wife business partners in the fiber industry. Unlike us, they are professional yarn makers. They're most known for using hand dyeing to create beautiful and complex colorways. Their designs mix fibers and colors to make yarns that pull you in and reward close inspection. What at first appears to be a solid color reveals itself to be made up of shimmering iridescent layers. Or streaks of pink and green turn out to be made of tiny dots of magenta, purple, orange, yellow, blue, and turquoise. Julie does most of the design, and JF does most of the dyeing. They're both very good at what they do, and we're grateful that they're willing to take time away from their own work to help us out.

Besides being talented, Julie and JF are really fun to be around. They're hospitable, smart, and silly. Their Québécois-French accents are completely charming, and they tolerate our incompetent attempts at French with amusement. In the morning they make us a delicious breakfast of espresso, toast, and home-cured bacon, and then start teaching us about dyeing. Which starts with its own joke:

"So, JF, do you want to tell us about the dyeing process?"

"Well, first you get very sick, then you lie down, close your eyes, and look for a bright light! Haha!"
 

Colors

After breakfast, we sit down with Julie and look at some color inspiration. We have two colors in mind for our yarn, a gray and a pink, but we need to see some finished yarn before we can make final decisions. We all walk downstairs to their studio to start experimenting with dye.

Choosing dye colors is an art. The color of dyed yarn is a combination of the dye and the natural yarn color, and the ratio of dye to yarn makes a big difference. And in most cases the dye itself is a blend of several dye colors in a different amounts, all of which leads to an infinite number of possible colors.

 Julie explaining the colors of dye used in our Mussel Gray yarn.

Julie explaining the colors of dye used in our Mussel Gray yarn.

We've decided to work on the gray yarn first. In its natural color, our wool is a buttery yellow, so to neutralize the yellow we'll need some color from the other side of the color wheel: purple. From her library of dye bottles, Julie pulls four colors in varying shades of purple and purply-black. She chooses a different amount of each color and carefully combines them in a measuring cup, checking a scale to make sure she's got the ratio right.

To test the dye mix, Julie combines the dye, water, and citric acid fixer in a glass casserole dish. Then she adds two skeins of our yarn and mixes it up with a gloved hand. She puts a lid on the dish and sticks it in the microwave for eight minutes. Once we're dying for real, our yarn will simmer in a kettle for 45 minutes or more. But for fast prototyping the microwave gives good-enough results.

After coming out of the microwave, the yarn gets rinsed in the sink and then wrung out in a dedicated spin-cycle machine. Then we take the yarn outside to see the results in natural light.

Look at that, it's gray! And an interesting gray at that. We've overshot a bit with the purple, producing a gray yarn with purple undertones, especially in the darker streaks which occur as part of the natural variability of hand-dyed yarn. We love it. We call the color Mussel Gray since it reminds us of a purplish-gray seashell. Our first color is decided! Time to go into production.

  Left, undyed natural yarn. Right, our first skeins of Mussel Gray.

Left, undyed natural yarn. Right, our first skeins of Mussel Gray.

"My arm is tired!" Jean-François says, later that afternoon. He's finished dyeing the first few hundred skeins of yarn, and he's washing them in a sink full of cold water before hanging them up to dry. He takes two skeins at a time, dips them in water a couple of times, squeezes out the water by hand, then drop them in the spin-cycle machine. Once the machine is full, the skeins take a spin to remove as much water as possible before he hangs them up to dry. He invites us try doing a few skeins, and it's surprising how heavy these almost weightless loops of yarn become when they're soaked in water. Wool's absorption ability is really amazing.

The following day, Julie and Hannah spend the morning prototyping our pink yarn. Hannah has in mind a specific warm-pink color we've named Rosé, and this time it takes a couple of adjustments to get the the dye mix exactly right. The alternative-pink skeins get set aside for one-off small projects.
 

Dyeing

When Julie and JF start dyeing our Rosé yarn, we bring our camera to document the process. It starts with a soak to make sure the yarn is really clean. Any leftover dirt or spinning oil will prevent the yarn from absorbing dye properly.

 Washing.

Washing.

Next, Julie fills a stainless steel pot with water. She measures out the correct amount of our Rosé dye and adds it to the water. Then she sprinkles in some citric acid. Julie says that the dye they're using is specific to protein-based fiber: wool, silk, and other fiber produced by animals. This same dye wouldn't work with plant fibers like cotton. The citric acid fixes it so it will permanently bond with the fiber.

 Adding dye.

Adding dye.

Next, Julie adds our yarn to the pot, quickly submerging it and stirring it around. Hand-dyeing always results in some variations in color saturation, but there are a number of factors that can be adjusted to make the colors more or less variable. Less water makes for more variation, since dye and yarn are concentrated in a smaller areas and there are more likely to be hot spots. Hotter water also makes for more variation, since the dye sets up faster before it has a chance to fully circulate. In this case, we're aiming for fairly consistent color, so she uses  more water, starts it off cool, and keeps the temperature relatively low.

 Adding yarn.

Adding yarn.

 Simmering yarn.

Simmering yarn.

The yarn simmers for about 45 minutes. When it's done, the water is clear, since all the the dye has been absorbed by the yarn and been permanently fixed to it. The dyed yarn is squeezed out, spun, and hung up to dry. After it's fully dry, it will get twisted up into a pretty skein and be ready to send off to knitters.

 Drained and ready to dry.

Drained and ready to dry.

Yarn

It's afternoon on our last day with Julie and JF. Our work is done, and we're sitting around sharing a snack and drink before we say goodbye. We talk about Julie's history as a maker and designer, and the difference between a dyer and a yarn maker. At what point can you say you made a yarn, instead of dying somebody else's?

"Nobody is really a yarn maker", says Julie. "Well, unless you're a sheep farmer who also does hand spinning. Most people need to work with somebody else to source the fiber or get the yarn spun. But I think you can say you're a yarn maker if you're involved in every step of the process."

Our conversation expands to the industry in general, and the amount of time and effort it takes to build up a viable business. Julie says the advice she gives people who are just starting out is this: "If you're going to start a business, it really needs to be your own, where you truly believe you're doing something new. It needs to have a purpose."

We reflect on that. Does our yarn have a purpose? Yes, we believe it does. We started this project hoping to learn firsthand about yarn production, and to share what we learned with our customers and readers. In those respects, we'd like to think we've succeeded. We've certainly gained a lot of insight into what goes into yarn making. And if you've been following along, we hope you've found this glimpse of the process as interesting as we have. Thanks very much for taking the time to read this!

And have we lived up to Julie's other standard, and made something new? Well, there are certainly other 100% wool, woolen spun, two ply, worsted weight, hand dyed yarns in existence. But this particular yarn feels like it has its own unique personality. Like the people whose hands have touched it along the way, it's warm, friendly, and hard working. It's beautiful, but it's not fussy. It didn't come from the fanciest of sheep, it wasn't spun on the most modern of equipment, and it wasn't dyed using the most efficient or precise process. But we wouldn't have had it any other away.

Hold a skein under your nose and inhale, and it's all there. The sheep at Noon Family Sheep Farm. The vegetable-based organic spinning oil that kept the wool moving through the machines at Green Mountain Spinnery. The colorful dyes in Julie and JF's studio. We take a sniff and can't help but smile as it all comes back to mind. We hope that smell puts smiles on the faces of knitters, too, as they imagine where their skein of yarn has been, and then start knitting their own chapter into its colorful history.

  Our finished yarn. Left, Rosé. Right, Mussel Gray.

Our finished yarn. Left, Rosé. Right, Mussel Gray.

Making Yarn: Part 2

Part two of a three-part series. You can read part one here.

 Raw wool, scoured wool, yarn.

Raw wool, scoured wool, yarn.

Green Mountain Spinnery

There's no fast way to get from Maine to Vermont. All the interstate highways around here run North-to-South, so we settle in for a relaxed drive across New Hampshire on the back roads. On the map, Green Mountain Spinnery appears to be barely over the Vermont border. We wonder how Vermont-feeling it's really going to be. Maybe this "Green Mountain" thing is just an exercise in branding?

We shouldn't have doubted. As we roll into the town of Putney, the Vermont vibes are unmistakeable. Green farmland, tree-covered hills. Firewood stacked in every yard. A little downtown where the main grocery option is the Putney Food Co-op, a cooperatively owned health food store. A roadside eatery called Curtis' Bar-B-Q operating out of a broken-down, colorfully painted school bus. But the best part of all turns out to be the Spinnery itself.

We pull in, park the car, and walk through the front door of what looks like a big farmhouse and into the Spinnery's retail shop. Inside we're surrounded by yarn and smiling faces. "Hannah and Abe! Welcome!" In quick succession we meet David Ritchie, Lauren VonKrusenstiern, Maureen Clark, and Laurie Gilbert. All of them seem unusually comfortable and unhurried for employees in a workplace. Their demeanor is of people welcoming guests who have dropped in to visit while they're enjoying a day off at home. We're trying to figure out which one of them is the owner, but nobody seems to be claiming that role. The answer is that they all are: it's an employee-owned cooperative and they're four of the members. Ah ha! That explains it.

David and Lauren tell us where to unload the wool, and we drive around back to the shed and awkwardly haul our two giant bags up onto the loading dock. Inside, it's a treasure vault of raw fiber. Green Mountain Spinnery works with a lot of small farms and fiber producers, so their shed is packed full of small batches like ours, all in different textures and colors. Among the earthy natural colors are bags of wool in bright blue, purple, and green. These have been dyed in-the-wool, before spinning, and they'll end up being blended with undyed wool to make tweedy and heathered yarns.

 Kate and Hannah in the shed. That bag she's sitting on is our wool.

Kate and Hannah in the shed. That bag she's sitting on is our wool.

David helps us get our wool logged in. We work the bags over to an old sliding-weight scale by flipping them end-over-end. He weighs them, and writes down the numbers on a pen-and-paper ledger sheet. With that business taken care of, we meet Kate Salomon back up front. It's time for our tour!

Kate's tour of the Spinnery is a fascinating introduction in yarn manufacturing given by a knowledgeable and patient tour guide. Going in, we weren't sure if we'd even be allowed into the production area, but Kate takes us through every part of the facility, explaining the process in the order it happens. (She also volunteers to take photos and video of our wool being processed, which we're so happy to have and to share here. Thanks, Kate!)

The inside of the Spinnery is both whimsical and steampunk-industrial. The walls are decorated with little notes, collages, poems, quotes, and sketches. The rooms are full of machinery dating from the 1890's to 1950's, boom times of American textile manufacturing. Some of the machines have been taken apart and recombined to meet the Spinnery's needs. As in a post-apocalyptic novel, a band of resourceful tinkerers have found ways to repurpose the abandoned machinery of a previous age.

 The scouring machine

The scouring machine

First up on the tour is the scouring machine. Sheep live outdoors, and their wool can get grimy and collect debris. Wool also comes with a greasy coat of naturally-produced lanolin, which gunks up machinery. So all that stuff has to go. At the Spinnery, wool goes through four cycles of scouring in a special machine, using a hot water temperature and process designed to clean the wool without accidentally felting it. It gets a final rinse and spin (in a machine manufactured in 1896, as Kate points out), and then a cycle in a dryer. Now the wool is clean and dry, ready to process.

 Wool being fed into the picker

Wool being fed into the picker

Next, the wool goes into a picking machine. This takes the chunks of wool and loosens them up, then blows them through a chute into an enclosed room, where they flutter down and land all mixed up. It's like shuffling a deck by throwing all the cards in the air.

 Carding machine, stage 1.

Carding machine, stage 1.

Now we get to the machine we've been wondering about since we first glimpsed it: a room-sized series of rollers that looks kind of like a printing press. This, Kate tells us, is the carding machine. The rollers are covered with carding cloth whose little teeth get progressively finer as they go along. The teeth gently comb the wool to get its fibers aligned and interlocked, until it forms a gauzy sheet called a batt.

 A batt coming off stage 1

A batt coming off stage 1

Halfway through the carding machine, the batt gets turned sideways and repeatedly folded over itself. Then it goes through another series of toothed rollers. This creates a batt with fibers that interlock in all directions, and it's this process that gives woolen-spun yarn its distinctive warmth and fuzziness.

 A batt being folded over before going into stage two

A batt being folded over before going into stage two

At the end of the of the carding machine, the batt goes through something that looks like a pasta slicer and comes out as thin strands of wool, which get wrapped up side by side onto a big roll. The strands, Kate tells us, are called pencil roving. They look like yarn, but they don't have any twist to them. And they're not very strong, as she demonstrates by easily breaking a scrap piece. To become yarn, they have to get spun. We walk into the next room, which is also dominated by a huge machine: the spinner.

The big rolls of pencil roving go on top of the spinner, and each end gets threaded by hand, ninety-six in all. Multiple strands of roving can be combined to create a thicker ply. We get to watch the spinning machine whirr into action. As it's wrapped onto bobbins the ply spins around so fast you can barely see it, but you can see the bobbins slowly filling up.

At this point, our wool will have become what Kate calls a ply. In a single-ply yarn, the ply and the yarn are the same thing, but for a two-ply yarn there's an additional step, and of course there's some vintage machinery on hand for that too: the plying machine, which twists the plys together. Why doesn't it come untwisted? Kate explains that the steam the yarn after every step that involves a twist. That relaxes it, and it re-sets with the twist permanently in place.

 Single plies of yarn. Two of these plies will be combined to make our two-ply yarn.

Single plies of yarn. Two of these plies will be combined to make our two-ply yarn.

It's all really awesome to see. Amazing vintage machinery being maintained and run by clever and friendly people. "The great things about these machines is that they never become obsolete." Kate says. "As long as you maintain them, they'll run forever." Seeing the process also leaves us meditating on the fractal nature of wool garments. Individual wool fibers interlock to become roving. Roving is spun into plys. Plys are twisted into yarn. Yarn is knitted into fabric. At each step it becomes bigger, stronger, and more useful.

 Yarn!

Yarn!

By the time Kate finishes our tour it seems like we're the only people left at the spinnery. We chat for a while and thank her for spending so much time with us. Our wool is in good hands. In a few weeks, the two giant bags of raw wool currently sitting in the shed will come out the front door as a thousand skeins of yarn, ready for knitting.

Or, rather, it would be ready for knitting, if were content to keep it the buttery-white color of the sheep at Noon Family Sheep Farm. But we have other colors in mind, and there's another part of the yarn production process we want to see. So when the yarn is ready we'll take another road trip. Next time we'll be going a bit farther North to Quebec, where our friends Julie Asselin and Jean-François Mallette will dye the yarn to its final colors.

Next Time: Making Yarn, Part 3: Dyeing 

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