Shop Update - More Colors of Straw's Farm Island Sheep Fingering weight yarns

by Sarah Lake Upton in ,

The weather outside is frightful, but I am warm inside playing with yarn. I hope you are all likewise somewhere warm and yarn filled. 

Fresh from the drying rack: two lovely neutral grays, one light (Woodsmoke) and one dark (Slate).  Both colors are actually based on logwood (purple) heavily "saddened" with a mix of tannin and iron which gives them a faint purple undertone in the right light - I can't help but think of the "violet" sheep of the Odyssey  (the dyeing is admitedly a bit of a cheat).


I couldn't help but take photos of some of my favorite color combinations:

With Tiger Lily

With Tiger Lily

With Lichen

With Lichen

With Cress

With Cress

With Zucchini 

With Zucchini 


The view from my desk.  Reginald the kaffir lime tree was not meant to see such weather. 

frightful weather .jpg

Shop Update - New Kits!

by Sarah Lake Upton in ,

Like many other knitters, I fell in love with Kristin Drysdale's Ingeborg Slippers the moment I first saw them on my Instagram feed.  It turns out they are as fun to knit as they are to pad about in.  So I put together kits. 

For my slippers I used Upton Yarns DK Weight Bluefaced Leicester spun from the wonderful fleece of the flock at Two Sisters Farm.  The pattern calls for size 3 needles, but I found that to get the correct gauge I had to go up to size 6s (I tend to be a tight knitter).  I used light blue Glacier Bay, dark blue Delft, and for a blaze of contrast, bright orange Tiger Lily to finish the edges. 

The kit includes those three colorways, and of course, one of my very happy hand printed project bags. 

Any orders placed between now and Friday will go in the mail the day they are ordered (as long as the order is placed before 3:00 - I still need time to pack them up and get to the Post Office - but I will do my best!). 

And don't forget the Moth Discouraging Sachets!

Happy knitting, and Happy Holidays!

What I Got Up To Whilst Home Part 2: scads of gansey yarn

by Sarah Lake Upton in ,

I have been looking forward to this project all year.  First, if you haven’t yet read Dotty’s amazing posts about her Cordova Gansey Project and all that inspired it, you should go to her blog post haste.    Cordova, Alaska,  is a fishing town, and Dotty and her family are fisherfolk.  To very briefly summarize her wonderful eleven part series of posts; while attending Shetland Wool Week she was drawn to the knitting traditions of a culture of fishermen and inspired to bring them to her modern day (though not that different) fishing village in Alaska.  To that end she has created the Cordova Gansey Project, bringing together people interested in all aspects of gansey study, design, creation, and wear.  This June (date) she will be hosting a week of classes and yarn adventure in Cordova in celebration of ganseys and fisherfolk.  The list of teachers reads like a who’s who of the knitters and dyers I am in awe of.

I love everything about this project (history! boats! complicated forms of traditional knitting!) but the bit that I am personally honored by is that a special batch of my gansey yarn will be at the Netloft for this event.  The fleece for this gansey yarn comes from Straw’s Farm, in Newcastle, Maine.  Or rather, the farm is in Newcastle, but the sheep themselves live year round on an Island in Penobscot Bay.  The island has been occupied by sheep for the last two hundred years or so; whatever breed they started as has been lost to time (hence the unwieldy yarn name, “Straw’s Farm Island Sheep”).  The moment I learned about this flock I knew that I had to use their fleece in some project, and when Dotty got in touch about her Gansey Project I knew that it was the perfect match - heritage island wool from Maine going to a gansey project in Alaska.

There are a variety of different fleece and yarn buying models for small yarn producers. Some have their own flocks and sell yarn only derived from that flock, some buy fleece from wool brokers or wool pools, some buy base yarns from a third party, and some, like me, buy fleeces directly from small farmers.  The time needed to get from fleece to yarn to finished yarn varies, as one might imagine, depending on the source of the fleece and the mill that does the spinning.  I tend to start planning my fleece buy in February, buying fleece as the sheep are sheared (the timing of which depends on the farm in question).  Then it’s a matter of getting fleece to the mill, and the mill getting the yarn back to me.  If I send fleece in June I sometimes get it back in August, or sometimes I get it back in January: a lot depends on the size of the job and complexity of the yarn.  This is a long way of saying that I have been planning my part of this project since last February, and finally during my last rotation home I got to work with the yarn.  

Last June Sarah of FiberTrek was good enough to help me pick up 172 lbs of island wool from Straw’s Farm (contributing her Subaru to the cause).

(For anyone who has ever been curious about what 172 lbs of fleece packed into the back of a station wagon looks like.)

Shortly thereafter it was off to the mill, and then all I could do was wait. And wait. And wonder. And plot.

And then in January the boxes started arriving back from the mill.

And I started turning coned yarn into skeins for scouring and dyeing.  And once I had enough yarn ready, my world become all indigo all the time.

(The pot on the left is for scouring. The shorter pot on the right is my indigo pot.)

For all of my plotting and planning, once I started dyeing I left a lot of room for serendipity.  Natural indigo is a funny thing.  Sometimes a certain batch is just a little more gray or a little more blue than the preceding batch, and sometimes really amazing colors just appear for no predictable reason.  So when I was lucky enough to get a really unique batch I let it stand rather than continuing to dye it to a dark blue.

I let the batch on the left stay as it was.  Ultimately I ended up with a few more lots this color - Child’s Glacier

And the finished yarn started piling up;

And piling up;

And eventually I had five colors.

And then it all went out to the Netloft.  Anyone interested in this yarn, or in the Cordova Gansey Project, should get in touch with Dotty.  

And then waaaaay too quickly my rotation home was over and it was back to the Sea Lion for me, but I took a bit of my gansey yarn with me to swatch.  

I swatched without any project in mind, just trying out motifs that I’ve been curious to see in person. I need to tuck ends and block it a bit harder (this yarn has spirit!) but already I am in love with the result.

I have always thought of my ganseys as armor against bad weather and the world; portable, fitted, security blankets for adventure (because in my experience Adventure! is generally cold and wet).  My ganseys are not for wearing indoors when the heat could be turned up a few degrees; I bring them out when I am working outdoors or doing slightly scary things in cold weather.  In my earlier life that meant sanding and painting small boats in a barn heated just enough so the paint would kick, or sailing a schooner in bad weather, or parking cars on the deck of a ferry in a Maine winter, or chopping firewood; now that I am a bit more domesticated these days they come out for cold mornings on deck in Alaska and winter walks with the dog.  The Straw’s Farm Island Sheep gansey yarn is perfect for this sort of gansey, dense and tough, but with a little bit of elasticity.  From an artistic standpoint, the spinning is ever so slightly irregular which combined with the slightly uneven dyeing lends a depth and texture and personality to the stitches.  There are occasional small bits of kemp, which I was at first a little surprised and annoyed by (I didn’t even notice the kemp in the fleece!) but I have come to love, because it is a reminder of island sheep turning their backs to a cold Gulf of Maine wind and just going on about their sheepy business because there’s no point in getting upset about the weather.  Which is exactly how I feel wearing a gansey.
And for those on the Coopworth Gansey yarn wait list, the Coopworth sheep of Buckwheat Blossom Farm have been shorn.  As soon as I get home from this rotation on the Sea Lion (middle of April) I will be visiting the farm, catching up with Amy, and selecting fleeces.  

A Longer Note About Indigo

by Sarah Lake Upton in

My Short Note About Indigo leaves a lot of questions unanswered: what is “crocking”?  how will it affect the finished piece? is there anything one can do to reduce it? why does it happen in the first place? and etc.  This will hopefully answer some of those questions, but I suspect there will be a follow up piece to this piece at some point because I can be a wicked over-explainer. Also because indigo is honestly magic. 

To understand crocking it helps to understand the basics of dyeing with natural indigo. 

To use most natural dyes one basically makes a broth using plants or plant extracts.  The process of dyeing with natural dyes, after scouring and mordanting the yarn, is not actually that much more complicated than the process of making good soup, though it is more time consuming.  (I dye in stock pots and canning pots on my kitchen stove, so the comparisons to cooking may come more easily than they otherwise should).  There are certain variables that need to be kept track of (pH, heat, time, pre-mordants or after-baths) but they are no more complicated that making sure that the soup is seasoned correctly and has enough rosemary.  The yarn will dry a few shades lighter than whatever color it achieves in the dyepot, but like soup making, one can easily “taste” it along the way, and with experience be able to modify it to achieve a desired result.  

Natural indigo is not at all like that. 

Natural indigo is a vat dye, an un-helpful descriptor (can’t vats be used in most dyeing?) that to a dyer means that a complicated chemical reaction must first take place in order to achieve the desired result.  

The colorant in natural indigo, indigotin,  is not water soluble and will not stick to fiber.  To make natural indigo work as a dye, one must first make it change into a slightly different chemical by making the dye bath very alkali and then removing oxygen from the bath.  Doing this will change the dye bath into a form generally referred to as “indigo white” (even through the bath itself is actually a sickly yellow/green when properly reduced).  Once the bath is the proper pH and weird yellow/green color, the fiber may be added and allowed to sit for a short period of time.  When the fiber is removed from the dye and exposed to air it will be that same weird yellow as the dye bath but then as the dye reacts with oxygen and transforms back to indigotin (now stuck to fibers) it magically becomes blue again.  

Photo credit Deb Cunningham - this is the same skein of indigo over the course of about ten seconds as the reduced indigo reacts to the presence of oxygen and turns blue again. 

Photo credit Deb Cunningham - this is the same skein of indigo over the course of about ten seconds as the reduced indigo reacts to the presence of oxygen and turns blue again. 

Depth of color is developed through multiple dips in the indigo vat. 

Sometimes the indigo doesn’t fully adhere to the fiber.  Because indigo isn’t water soluble, washing and rinsing will only convince the most unadhered indigo particles to wash out of the fiber, which leave the particles that are hanging on but just a little.  These are the particles that can break free and stain you hands and needles when the yarn is subjected to the mechanical action of knitting.  But, because these are particles of indigo, not indigo white, they still don’t really want to stick to anything.  I tend to think of indigo particles in this form as being more like chalk dust than dye.  It will stick to your hands and needles and if you are doing color work it may temporarily discolor the other yarns you are working with, but because you haven’t gone through the process of transforming indigotin into indigo white, you are basically dealing with very fine colorful dust.  Once the particles have broken free enough to discolor things, they are usually easily washed away.  The only exception to this is the fine pores of bamboo needles, which tend to trap indigo particles.  

Some of you may have come across photos of natural indigo dyers with very blue hands

Indigo dyes fingernails especially well.

Indigo dyes fingernails especially well.

For instance, this is my hand after a round of indigo dyeing before I found a pair of gloves that I liked.  In this case the indigo in the dyepot is treating the proteins in my skin the same way it treats the proteins in wool, and sticking accordingly.  As noted, this is very different from crocking.  When I knit with crocking yarn I will often get a blue ring around the back of my middle finger where I tension the yarn, and the palms of may hands will become a little blue from where they come in contact with my knitting. 

Some batches of indigo dyed yarn do not crock at all.  Some batches of yarn crock quite a bit.  Sometimes one or two skeins in a dye lot will crock but the others won't.  I do everything I can to reduce crocking, but there is no way for me to eliminate it completely, or predict with batches will and won’t crock.   Generally the mechanical action of knitting knocks the last few clinging particles free, and then with a final soak and rinse during blocking it will be done.