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Any color you like

Purgatory Falls Farm in Lyndeborough and Nightingale Fibers in Greenfield dye and deal alpaca wool

Dana Welch knows all her alpaca by name — no easy feat when there is a herd of 65. Welch and her husband started to raise alpaca years ago, when they started their farm in Lyndeborough. They started with a humble little herd, but alpaca function best in large numbers, so they continually added to the flock until the farm was filled with the furry creatures.

Welch uses her alpaca for their fiber, which is silkier and warmer than sheep’s wool. While the process for spinning and dying it is similar to wool, alpaca fleece does not contain lanolin, which means it does not repel water as well as sheep’s wool, but also makes it a hypoallergenic fiber.

It was a natural progression for Welch, who had always been a knitter, to start using the alpaca fleece to spin into yarn and start producing some knitted products, undyed yarns, and yarns that have been colored with natural dyes made from plants from Welch’s large backyard garden.

There are lots of colors to find in the natural world, said Welch in an interview at Purgatory Falls Farm in Lyndeborough, where she and her husband raise their alpaca and Welch turns their fleece into product. Flowers like Marigolds and Dahlias, green plants like eucalyptus and indigo and food products like rhubarb, elderberry and onion skins are all options to create dyes, said Welch.

“There are lots of plants that you can use,” she said. “With natural dyes, you get softer colors. It creates a really beautiful, woodsy color you can’t get with acid dying.”

In natural dying, a mordant is used to soak the fiber prior to the dying process. The mordant is what makes the dye bind to the fabric. Welch uses common household products for her mordant, she noted, and the mordant can change slightly based on the color she’s trying to achieve. Welch lays her yarn or fiber out on a table and uses a dropper to add dye to the yarn, before wrapping it in saran wrap to contain the heat to set the dye. Then, the fiber is rinsed and hung to dry before it’s ready to sell commercially.

And if the color doesn’t come out as planned in the first dying process, the fiber can be dyed again, in a process called overdying, where adding just a few drops of dye and re-dying the fiber can change the whole color.

“It’s a process where you really can’t make a mistake,” said Welch. “If it comes out different than what you thought it would look like, you can simply dye it again.”

Acid dying

There is an alternative to using natural dyes, which is acid dying. Welch said that she does some of her fiber in acid dyes, generally when she has a special order or wants to create a certain effect.

“Natural dyes give you a softer color that you can’t really get with the acid dyes, and acid dyes give you a more brilliant color that you can’t get with the natural dyes,” said Welch.

While it sounds caustic, acid dying is a process that uses a mild acid to lower the pH of the dyebath, which helps to bond the color to the fabric. Cynthia de Steuben of Greenfield, who owns Nightingale Fibers, uses vinegar as her acid, she explained during a dying process in the dye room in her home. The main advantage to this kind of dying is a more consistent product, which is hard to achieve with the natural dying process. It’s also less time consuming, she noted, which is important for de Steuben, who runs her dying business on the side in addition to her full-time job as a nurse and midwife.

de Steuben became interested in the dying process after taking a spinning class in Harrisville that included a dye workshop. A life-long knitter, de Steuben started dying her own wool, and eventually made a business out of it. de Steuben does not raise her own animals, but sources her wool from multiple places. She gets sheep’s wool from as close by as Antrim farms, or as far as Europe, and alpaca from Texas. Most of her product is in yarn, she noted, though she does produce some knitted products. However, they are so time consuming that they are not cost-effective, she said.

Like with natural dying, the process starts with washing the batting to create colored yarn, or washing undyed yarn. Then, de Steuben creates the dye bath, using the vinegar and concentrated dye powders, and soaking the yarn for between 30 and 40 minutes at a temperature of 112 degrees. By the end of the process, the dye bath is nearly clear, with the majority of the color having been soaked up by the fiber.

It’s not a difficult process to begin, said de Steuben, needing only a large pot which is dedicated to the dying process, and a stovetop. Casual dyers can use dyes made out of Kool-Aid or food coloring, which is a good activity to try with kids, or pick up small commercial kits.

Both Welch and de Steuben have catalogues of their favorite colors and the formulas used to create those colors, for both their own personal reference, and as a way to recreate popular combinations.

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