Natural Dyeing

I decided to make a special page for natural dyeing as I’ve written quite a lot of posts on my experiments and workshops and this will group them all together.

Before dyeing yarn in any way you will need to put it up into hanks.

Hanks are best stored by being twisted like this

Hanks can be neatly stored by twisting tbem around themselves.

Dyeing yarn in a hank, (rather than a ball) ensures that the colour can reach every strand, and inserting ‘leases’ in the hank prevents tangling and makes unwinding it a far more pleasant experience. The finer the yarn, or bigger the hank, the more leases I add. That’s because I have horrible memories of trying to untangle hanks of very fine yarn that had been dyed without adding enough separating leases. The only option in some cases is to cut into the threads, or to throw away what you can’t salvage. Which is pretty heart-breaking after spending so much time and energy prepping and dyeing the yarn. Not to mention the cost of the yarn.

I thought it might be useful to go through the steps required for making a hank.

I’m going to discuss two alternative tools which make the process easy, but a straight chair back, or a willing pair of arms can also be used.

The first tool is a ‘Niddy Noddy’; mine is a sample size and makes hanks of about a half a metre length. Bigger versions are available for working with larger quantities of yarn.

Niddy Noddy with a hank wound onto it

Start by loosely tying the end of the yarn around the centre pole of the Niddy-Noddy. Hold the Niddy-Noddy with the central pole upright. Then take the yarn under one of the end bars and up to bar on the other end. Take it over this bar, and down and under the opposite end of the first bar to where you started. Continue to make the same circuit until either the hank is thick enough, or you run out yarn.

Undo the loose knot from the central pole. Holding both ends of the yarn wrap them around each other, take one end around the hank, bring it back to the front and keeping the loop around the yarn loose, tie the ends together with a firm knot.

For sample hanks I usually add three leases, as follows. Cut three lengths of spare yarn. These should each be long enough to wrap about four times around the strands of yarn in the hank. Mine were approximately 15cm. Choose a white or ecru yarn for this, or one that you know is colour fast. Even if you’re not going to dye the hanks, be careful as coloured yarns may transfer fibres and colour onto pale yarns.

Working on the long stretches of the hank divide the hank threads in half. Thread the short length of yarn around the hank yarns in a figure of eight and then tie the ends together making sure the figure of eight is only loosely holding the yarns together. If you pull the figure of eight too tightly around the hanked yarns it will prevent them taking up the colour fully.

Divide the threads

Tie the lease in a loose figure of eight around the threads

Repeat this twice more, spacing the leases evenly around the hank. Once all three leases are in place you can remove the hank from the Niddy-Noddy and twist it for storage.

Alternatively you can use a ‘swift,’ to wind hanks. One of these is particularly useful for unwinding the hanks into workable balls after dyeing the yarn. Another advantage of swifts is that they are usually adjustable so short or long hanks, and different thickness hanks, can all be wound on one swift.
Swifts can be made of plastic, wood or metal or combinations of these materials and are usually collapsible. They mostly need to be attached to a table with a clamp. Some have a handle on the top to wind the arms around, whilst others are propelled by your hand pushing on the arms. Motorised versions are so available.

The simplest tool is the back of straight-backed chair, and the most sociable is winding hanks around a friend’s outstretched hands. Do whichever suits you at the time.

Making a hank is pretty much the same on a swift, the back of a chair or hands, but I’ve only included the swift here. It’s a little easier to see how to space the leases on a swift compared to a Niddy-Noddy.

Start by tying the end of the yarn to one of the arms

Adjust the swift to provide the circumference equal to the hank length you want. Secure the yarn to one of the arms before you start, and then swing the swift around to quickly wind the yarn into a hank.

Collapse the swift to remove the hank, otherwise the arms can become bent or even snap.

One last thing. If you are making thick hanks, or using very fine yarns, add additional loops to the figure of eight leases, so that they pass through the the threads three, or even four times.

Passing a lease through the hank three times

I do hope my instructions are clear, and that this has taken some of the mystery out of winding yarns.


Daffodils and onion skins – strange combination, except where colours are concerned.

Yesterday, as mentioned on my main blog page, I went to my first meeting of TAG (Brighton Textile Art Group). I was made very welcome and found that I had lucked into a natural dyeing workshop – what more could I have asked for?

Daffodils and onion skins were the chosen dye materials for the day, and there were bubbling Burco boilers and muslin sausages full of plant matter. The mordant was added to the dye baths for simplicity when working with so many people.

The organiser had thoughtfully hanked 50g of merino yarn and 50g of cashmere/wool blend yarn for each participant in advance. As I hadn’t booked in advance, there weren’t any hanks for me, but fortunately I had brought along my Spurtzler and Nostepinne, both with singles yarn wound onto them. I quickly wound that from the Spurtlzler onto my hand and plyed that into a doubled yarn using the Andean plying technique, then wound it into a hank using a handy book. After that I did the same with the yarn off the Nostepinne.

Voila! Two small hanks of yarn ready to go into the different dyebaths. After a quick wash (the fibre had already been lightly scoured before spinning), in they went.

Here is the result, onion skin on the left, daffodil on the right. After a rinse and dry the colour became slightly less intense, but still pretty stunning as you can see below.

Tap on the picture above to the Brighton Textile Art Group’s website to see other workshops and events.


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