Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A good day for ....... Dyeing Sheepskin

A lovely day today - lots of sunshine, but there was a stiff breeze, making it ideal weather for drying things outside.   The embroidery machine has been kept going the last couple of days embroidering a new batch of our Hebridean Hoods.  These cosy Harris Tweed hooded capes have a generous hood
lined with polar fleece and trimmed with real sheepskin.  They fasten with a single hand-made button.

The range of colours of sheepskin available is rather limited, so from time to time, I dye strips in other colours so that I can have a bit more variety.   Today was the day!

I have been experimenting with the process over the last 3 years and I think I have now finally got a fail-safe system where I get consistent and predictable results.  Over the years I have tried various methods, some with disastrous results, others just about OK, but I am now sufficiently happy with my method that I am prepared to share it.

I am using two different makes of dyes - Kemtex acid dyes and Gaywool dyes.   Sometimes I mix them together, sometimes one or the other.

The first step is to protect the skin side of the sheepskin and I have found the best way to do this is to generously brush white mineral oil all over it (the kind used for oiling the sewing machines) - being careful not to get any of the oil onto the wool.  The oil soaks into the skin and this means it stays supple once it comes out of the dye bath to dry.

I have about 4 or 5 litres of water in my big stainless steel stock-pot, with a generous splash of clear vinegar and a tablespoon of urea.  I use about 5g of dye per sheepskin strip (they measure 5cm x 86cm but I have no idea how much they weigh).   The water is heated to about 85°C, the dye dissolved in a little boiling water and added to the pan, then put in the sheepskin strips and mash them about with a wooden spoon until they are completely wet and submerged.  I keep the temperature between 80 and 90 - no more than 90 as maximum otherwise the skin starts to shrivel.  I give it a stir every 5 to 10 minutes with the skins staying in the dye bath for about 40 minutes in total.  Then I lift them out and rinse in cold water till the water runs clear.  Outside, I whirl them around to shake off as much water as possible and then peg them up to dry.   Even on a day like today, they will take a long time to dry so I had to bring them inside before I left the studio.  If they are still damp tomorrow they will get hung outside again.  Once dry, they get a good brushing with fine carders and then they will be ready to be sewn into the hoods.

Depending on what colours I want, I may add a bit more dye to the pan and add in more sheepskin strips - these bright green strips were done first using a combination of Kemtex green, Gaywool lucerne and Gaywool rosemary, but once I took them out, I added some Gaywool logwood and put in another two strips to get a darker more olive green colour.  These strips actually started off a pale pastel green, so they had some green there to start.

These navy strips were all in the same dye bath, but two started off as a mid-blue colour and the third started as pale green. They dyes used were Kemtex navy and Kemtex black

The purple strips started as natural white and the dyes used were Gaywool orchid and Gaywool mulberry.

So......... over the next couple of weeks we will be making up more hoods.  As well as the colours you see here, we will have some edged with skins we have not had to dye - aubergine, teal, dark brown, natural, grey, bright blue and red - and some I have dyed previously - wine, purple.

Plenty to choose from!  And I reckon there may still be winter weather to come, so you won't need to wait till next winter to benefit from having one of these wonderful garments.


MK said...

Dear Ruth,
I am very interested in this dyeing method. I've tried it on larger pelt squares, but am still having issues with shrink and stiffness.
Do you have any thoughts on this?
Have you tried the cold water dyes?

Ruth Black said...

I have had best result when I start with a skin that has already been dyed. I think that sometimes the tanning of the hide has been insufficient for it to cope with the dyeing process - but if it has already been dyed, then we know it can cope. An accuarate thermometer is important - even just a second or two of overheating is all it takes to cause parts to shrink, thicken and harden. I now don't let the temperature go above 85 °C as absolute maximum. This means actually lifting the dye bath off the electric ring because otherwise heat is still going in.