Browsed by
Tag: Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Sutherland one of our forum members who had the good fortune to visit the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival this year. Thanks for the post Elizabeth!

I had a free ticket Southwest Airline ticket to spend and a sister living close to the Howard County Fairgrounds, so I took the plunge and signed up for the Intro to Natural Dyes and Indigo Dyes classes by Jackie Ottino Graf.

Jackie is from Maine and was formerly the head dyer at Swans Island, a company that use locally spun wool and natural dyes to produce yarns and fabric. Jackie was with Swans Island when they were dyeing in small lots on the back porch to when they moved into a large industrial-sized building and began dying in much larger lots.

I really have done very little natural dying, so it was all new to me. We began with a lesson on the importance of keeping a log of our experiments. The log should include the type of fiber and weight (Weight of Goods – WOG), type of mordant, the dye, the dye’s material type and amount, and notes about the process.

Fiber to dye: Description of the fiber being dyed
WOG: weight in grams
Fiber Preparation: any notes on how the fiber was prepared before mordanting
Mordant: List the amount of mordant, temperatures, and duration
Dye notes: The percentage and type of dye used

Jackie showed us the differences in types of dye materials. She favors the powdered extracts for ease of use and consistent performance. She showed us the shopped madder root vs powdered, and the cochineal bugs vs ground bugs vs extract.


The dyes we used were:

Osage Orange sawdust (aka Bois D’arc)
Onion skins
Saxon Blue Indigo
Walnut Hull Powder

One thing that was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was when Jackie said that mordant provided a ‘primer’ between the fabric and the dye that allowed the dye to adhere to the fibers. Alum tends to make fibers sticky, so a pinch of Cream of Tartar helps counteract that.

I took many notes as Jackie was always mentioning things that I had never heard. She talked about when Swans Island build the large dyeing building and change the water supply. They never could get the new water to match the old and just had to change their recipes and dyes. One time she was teaching where the water had a lot of iron in it. The results were very unexpected. Iron ‘saddens’ colors (I like that phrase).

We proceeded with the dying – all fibers were pre-mordanted. The class was in an unheated metal barn, so it was pretty cold. We dyed in an outside area with an overhang. This was the setup we used. Jackie is in the olive sweater on the right.


We started with the cutch and walnut dyes. This is the walnut.


Then we proceeded to the madder (left) and cochineal (right). Cream of tartar added to cochineal takes the pH down for a brighter color. On the other hand, a higher pH for madder gives red and lower pH results in more orange. pH can be lowered with vinegar, citric acid, cream of tartar and raise with chalk, Tums.


We did a quick walkabout to find local materials to use for a mystery dye. We chose some wold raspberry leaves. We threw them into a pot with 2 skeins of wool at about a 1:1 ratio by weight. We were to end up with a ‘rainbow’ of mini-skeins dyed with natural materials, as so. By the way, the rings Jackie’s brilliant find and are usually used in lobster pots.


The Saxon Blue Indigo was to give a blue, and the Logwood was for Purple. The logwood looked very promising when the wool was initially put into the vat, but turned into an indigo blue at the end.


The Osage orange was interesting to me since it’s a native tree in Texas. It gave a nice yellow. The onions gave browner yellows. The raspberries did nothing , so we ended up overdying the skein with several colors to get a green. The colors were a little more subdued than if we had been able to leave them to soak overnight.

Here is the final ‘money shot’, with Jackie.


From Left to right:

Walnut hull powder with iron
Walnut hull powder
Cutch with iron
Saxon Blue Indigo on Gray wool
Saxon Blue Indigo
Osage orange sawdust with iron and then put in the logwood exhaust
Osage orange sawdust on gray wool
Raspberry with Dyer’s Chamomile powder (and I think indigo exhaust)
Osage orange sawdust
Onion Skins
Cochineal exhaust

The following day was a class that used madder only. They changed the pH to get a huge range of colors. When I saw the colors I almost wished I had taken it, but I’m still glad that I spent the day with my sister instead. Here is a photo of the skeins they dyed.


The second class I took was the indigo class. I was a bit hesitant to take an Indigo class as I had heard that the ‘vat’ took a long time to get going properly. Jackie dispelled that notion since she uses indigo powder that has already been fermented and stabilized (or whatever is needed). Also, since the leaves must be processed within minutes of picking (and the nearest indigo plants were hundreds of miles away), creating a true Indigo dye vat is not practical.

Two easy things about Indigo is that it does not require a mordant, and the measurement of the WOG to dye is not particularly important since you can just keep using a pot of dye until it’s gone. Two more difficult things about indigo are that it is temperature sensitive – you must keep it between 125 and 145 F. The pH needs to be 9-10. The harder thing is that you need to keep the oxygen out of the vat – no splashing around.



It’s not just a dump and shake, as there are chemical reactions occurring that you want to take care with. The indigo powder was mixed with a tad of water to get it wet (it doesn’t like being wet so you have to coax it). Then slowly add more water to about ¾ full. Carefully add the lye and stir. You should feel some heat coming off the jar. Add some more water to almost full, then ½ of the Thiox. The Thiox removes the oxygen, so you want to be able to adjust this as needed. Let the mixture sit and mingle for a while. It should turn a green after 20-30 minutes. If it’s still blue, then add a bit more Thiox. This stock should last indefinitely if stored away from sun and in moderate temperatures.

We pre-soaked our yarns and fibers while the water was heating up. When it was at least 125 F we added some of the stock and let it sit for another 20 mins to mingle and meld. After that Jackie showed us how to ‘read the vat’. The first two – temp and pH are simple since you can use a thermometer and litmus paper to test. The third, the Oxygen content, is more subjective as you have to look for the green color. Here’s Jackie showing us the green color.


When all looked well, we skimmed the ‘bloom’ off the top, since it would cause discolorations in the dye. You can see the scummy bloom here.


After this, the dying! Remembering that oxygen affects the colors, we slowly dipped our fibers and fabrics into the vat. We left them in for 2-3 minutes, then took them out to oxidize. That was interesting and fun – watching the colors change from green to deep blue. We just kept dipping and oxidizing until we got the color we wanted, and the class was finished. Voila!


The next day was Saturday and was the start of the MSW Fair. I went with my very patient sister. Her oldest son, his girlfriend, and their 9 month daughter, were soon to depart Maryland for a new job in Washington State, and she was hosting a farewell party, so our time was limited. I had thought about trying to get a fleece, but at one of the classes someone said that the fleece barn was usually packed with people. Since I had not a clue of what was a good or bad fleece, I decided to skip that and head directly to the prepared fiber sellers. When we arrived, the fleece barn had a long line.


Luckily the weather held up for us. The previous days were very rainy and cold for May. You can see the clouds in this view back to the parking area.

Photo by Elizabeth Sutherland
Photo by Elizabeth Sutherland

I hit the main shed first, so I could do some power-shopping. There were sellers of all types there – from raw fleece to finished apparel. There were a lot of sheep-themed nick-knacks along with the fibers and tools. I didn’t see a slant toward knitters, spinners, weavers, or felters, but I was pretty focused on getting the roving. After I had purchased all I could justify, and more than I thought I could take home on the plane, we toured the sheep sheds. I was wishing I had a small pair of snips so I could ‘sample’ the locks.

Many of the exhibitors had nice little displays about their breeds.

I was quite taken with the Jacob sheep and those horns.

Being a city girl, I had never seen a sheep shorn like this.


I thought that I was going to have to have my sister ship my purchases home to me, but I was able to fit everything into my suitcase and the bag I threw into my suitcase at the last minute. The fibers were packaged in plastic bags, so I just sat on them to remove the air and shoved them into the bag. I joked with my sister, telling her to watch the news that evening to see if an airplane crashed due to a sudden explosion of sheep fluff. Luckily, that didn’t happen. I had a great time at MSW, and visiting with my sister and her family. I hope I can go again next year, but stay longer to shop more!

Thanks Elizabeth, looks like next time you need to bring an empty suitcase with you!


%d bloggers like this: