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Overdyeing Natural Coloured Fleece

Text: Catherine Jane. Photos: Kate Mahoney. This article was originally published in the March 2019 issue of Creative Fibre magazine. Note: the colour definition in the photos is much more clear in the printed article.

The theme for the September 2018 field day of the Mid Canterbury branch of the BCSBA was overdyeing on naturally coloured fleece. We wanted to see how different natural shades would take several colours of dye.

Our Goal

The idea was to have four dye pots, one each of the four main colours: red, yellow, green and blue. As we were limited by time, space and number of dye pots, we decided to use strong colours, not pastels.
Several of us brought along samples in the various forms of raw, carded fleece and spun yarn. All samples had been washed. There were no rules about who could dye what or when, and we managed to dye almost all of the samples.

One member wanted to be a bit scientific and created six net bags into which were inserted samples of fleece: five different shades of natural colour; pale grey, mid grey, pale moorit, a mid brown moorit and a non-moorit brown, along with white to give us a base colour for comparison. The reason to include the non-moorit brown was to see if it reacted differently to the moorit, which is reputed to have an orange influence on colours.

One of the six bags before dyeing.

Our aim was only to compare how the different natural colours took up the dye in comparison to each other. There were a lot of other variables that this experiment did not take into account, for example:

  1. The influence of different breeds on dye uptake. The white and the two grey samples were Polwarth, the other three were Corriedale cross.
  2. The amount of dyestuff in relation to how much fleece was put in the pot.
  3. How shades of the hues would be taken up. We used strong colours, and didn’t consider percentages; see the point above.
  4. The difference between the colours on the red or the green spectrum of yellow, or the red or yellow spectrum of blue.
  5. The influence of different lengths of time in the dyepot. In most cases samples were simmered until the colour in the pot was more or less exhausted.

To some degree the dyeing was too successful as all the samples took up the colour really well, even the darker shades of grey and brown. This made the colour differences much more subtle than might have been expected. We obviously had good strong dyestuff with the right amount of acidity and added salt. What is does prove is that natural coloured fleece can be overdyed with great success – even quite dark fleece.

The colours on the white fleece

Predictably the yellow dye produced the greatest variation in colour. In spite of the fact that we used a dye on the red side of yellow (rather than one on the green side) the grey shades dyed with a definite green tinge (showing the blue influence of grey fleece) while the moorit shades were definitely more orange. The mid brown moorit produced a gloriously rich coppery yellow, quite different from the non-moorit mid brown which, like the grey shades, tended towards the green.

The colours on the pale grey fleece

Otherwise, all the natural colours picked up the hues really well, producing more muted tones than those on the white fleece. Again predictably, the tones became more muted on the darker shades of grey and brown, but apart from the yellow, they were all definitely the same hue as the white. I was particularly pleased with how well the moorit shades dyed. I had known blue dye over moorit produces lovely shades, but this experiment showed that it takes other colours equally well. The colours on the pale moorit were surprisingly bright.

The colours on the mid grey fleece

As well as these samples, one member had brought some spun yarn which was quite a dark grey natural colour – what I call a school boy grey – and the carded fleece. All the spun yarns dyed up beautifully, and as the blue dye pot was not exhausted we threw in the remaining grey carded fleece as an afterthought. It came out of the dye pot as a paler, but very definite, shade of blue.

The colours on the  pale moorit fleece

Another member had brought some yarn spun from multi-coloured fleece, with the natural colours ranging from almost white to a very dark grey, which went into the green pot. It came out a lovely mixture of greens, ranging from quite pale to almost black.

The colours on the  mid-brown moorit fleece

Woolcrafters in New Zealand are very fortunate in the quantity and quality of beautiful hand craft fleeces available to them. I would venture to say that many of the best are naturally coloured, for the simple reason that coloured sheep are bred almost exclusively for the hand craft market, and reputable breeders of coloured sheep have a good knowledge of the requirements of hand crafters.

The colours on the  non-moorit brown fleece

This experiment shows that the purchase of a coloured fleece does not limit the buyer to use it only in its natural colour, as no matter how beautiful the natural shade, too much of a good thing remains too much of a good thing. Natural coloured fleeces can be dyed successfully, and will also extend the colour range that can be achieved with one single dye.

The colours on the  dark grey yarn

In Summary
  1. All the natural coloured fleece took the colour really well.
  2. Even the darker natural colours produced good true colours, though we didn’t try the darkest shades of natural grey or brown.
  3. Colours tended to get more muted as the natural shade darkened.
  4. The greys and the non-moorit brown took on a definite green tinge from the yellow dye.
  5. Moorits definitely have an orange influence, but this didn’t really affect the green or blue colours. Both the pale and the mid brown moorit samples produced lovely clear colours.

The multi-coloured yarn dyed green.

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