Dying Wool with Black Walnuts

If you have goats who are willing to help, don’t let them.

There has been a lot of walnut dying happening here lately…and walnuts are not just for brown! Dying wool (or cotton, or silk) with walnuts is an excellent intro to natural dying. The process is very flexible and the results are reliably gorgeous. I’m going to describe the process I use, as well as modifications you can make.

First, gather a bunch of walnuts. If you  have a 5 gallon Menards bucket, use that – especially if it is dirty. If you have goats who are willing to help, don’t let them. Mostly, they will be wondering if they can eat the things in your dirty bucket and they’ll tip the bucket over trying to find out. They will do this a stupefying number of times, no matter how firmly you try to explain that the inedible contents of the dirty bucket are exactly the same as they were two minutes ago, when they last knocked it over.

Walnuts will be found in many conditions, including unblemished fully green husks, bruised husks, and dried cracked mummy husks. All of these can be thrown into a pot of water – as is – and will make a lovely dye. Cold water. Warm water. Soak for an hour. Soak for a week. Throw your yarn in with the walnuts, or strain the dyebath before putting in your yarn. Whatever! It will all work.

I have visions of cracking the nut inside the husk and obtaining the walnut halves inside. This is madness because the shells are unbelievably hard. We did research to find the one tool that will crack them and still haven’t been brave enough to try. There are stories of Native Americans using rocks to crack the husks and the idea impresses me without end. But, I am an optimist (and apparently a squirrel), so I enjoy collecting the nuts with visions of winter evenings cracking shells by the fire. This requires relieving the nut of its husk.

I do this with a pickup truck.

Once the nuts are smashed it is easy to separate the husk from the nut. Oh! Do this bit with gloves. Unless you want your hands to be stained brown for the next month. Your call. I’m not judging.

Some of the husks – especially the ones with brown spots – will be home to little white worms in various stages of development. I don’t get squeamish easily, but I’m not fond of the worms. If you have chickens helping you with this process, it is now their turn to scratch around in the broken husks and eat up the worms. Mostly, they will just scatter your walnuts over a large area with their scratching, and they will only eat a few of the worms. I scrape the worms out of the husks (or abandon the ones that are too infested for my sensibilities), but other dyers just throw them in the pot stating that the worms become part of the dye.

Ok. That’s enough about worms.

At this point, I tossed all the husks into bags and plopped them into a freezer. You can use the husks to make a dyebath now, freeze them like I did, or set them somewhere to dry for later use. I’ve never used dried husks, but I am told they are not quite as potent as fresh. I have noticed no difference between using fresh husks or frozen ones.

To make a dyebath, I put the husks into a pillowcase which is in my dye pot, cover with water and simmer for an hour. I let the bath cool overnight and dye the next day. The pillowcase helps keep debris, like dirt and little husk flakes, contained. If you don’t have a pillowcase or bag you are willing to sacrifice, you could pour your dyebath through a strainer, or just not care that there will be little flecks of nature in your yarn.

I don’t measure any part of this, but if you want to experiment or get more repeatable results, you could measure the total weight of your husks. Often, in natural dying, the recommendation is 1:1 dye material to the weight of what you’re dying. So, a pound of wool would require a pound of walnut husks (or goldenrod stems, or whatever). But, varying the strength of your natural dye, or the amount of time your yarn sits in your dye, will often result in a variety of colors.

The first mini in this photo is undyed. The next three colors were obtained by varying the strength and timing in the dye bath. If you are looking to dye a very light brown, I recommend doing it after you’ve dyed darker colors. Let the first few yarns soak up most of the dye, and then dye your lighter colors. That lightest skein actually stayed in the dyepot the longest, but was dyed after the other two. Walnut dye is very potent and clings to wool quickly. When I’ve tried to get a light color in a strong dyebath, even a quick dip of 10 seconds has resulted in a rich medium brown.

An important thing to note is that walnut dye will never exhaust. When using acid dyes, a general rule is that you let the wool sit in the dye bath until all the color is absorbed and the bath is clear. That won’t ever happen with walnut (or many natural dyes). So, when your wool is submerged, it will look darker than it really is. To see what your yarn actually looks like, pull a bit out of the bath and squeeze the water out. It will be noticeably lighter, and when it dries, it will be a little lighter still.

You don’t need any mordant with walnut dyes. I’ve noticed no difference between using unmordanted wool, and wool mordanted with alum. Iron, however, causes a delightful change in hue. Iron is typically used as a post-dye modifier, meaning you dye your wool and then dip it in an iron bath to change the color. Iron usually darkens whatever you’ve dyed. The last mini in the photo above was dipped in iron. I made a warm water bath with 12 grams of iron for 1 pound of wool. I purchased iron mordant from The Woolery (it is quite inexpensive), but you can also throw some rusty metal into a pot to make your iron bath – though this is less precise.

The color change is nearly instant, but I simmered the wool for a half hour (180F). After I finished with the darker colors, I made a charming gray with the exhaust of both the walnut dyebath and the iron modifier bath. I dunked a few wet skeins of wool into the used dyebath for just a few minutes. I squeezed out the water and plopped them into the iron exhaust (now cold), for about 20 seconds. Isn’t this a fabulous gray?

Walnut dying is a ton of fun with so many color possibilities! I have a bunch of husks in the freezer for winter experimentation, so there may be more soon! I did a test batch of self-striping sock yarn, but I’m a little concerned about how walnut dye holds up against potentially sweaty feet… Any experience with that? I’m going to knit a little swatch to wear in my store-bought socks for a day and see what happens. More soon!!

Wool Noir, Chapter 1

“I’ve been in charge of this flock a long time, because I follow certain rules. One of the most important rules is ‘Save the Drama for the Llama’.”

Wool Noir is my second batt club, and it features dark, brooding colorways with an accompanying barnyard mystery.

(I have to pause here to say that spellcheck doesn’t recognize the word “noir,” and would prefer I change it to “Nair,” which is ludicrous.)

There are so many things that I’m enjoying about hosting a club. Generally, I only make 3 or 4 batts of a single colorway, so it has been a lot of fun – and a lot of math! – working out a process for large batches. Plus, it’s always quite satisfying to see a big pile of uniform batts waiting in orderly rows to be sent to their new homes.

IMGP2221I also enjoy packing each mailer with fiber, goodies, and a note. It feels like sending care packages to treasured spinners across the continent.


My most favorite part of the club, however, is that my husband Bill writes a little story for each shipment. Very early in our relationship, Bill shared a short story with me that he had written for our college art “magazine” (aka 4 sheets of paper stapled together – our tiny college is primarily a science school). I loved it, and his creative writing helped me see another side of the mostly rational, not-very-emotive guy I was dating. The story involved a Being of Grain Alcohol that was waiting to have lunch with his cousin, who I think was a comet. Like, none of it makes sense in my brain nearly 20 years later, but at the time, it was a profound awakening, and admiring Bill’s writing remains one of my favorite memories of our early relationship.

Periodically over the last two decades, I remind Bill of this story and try to enchant him into writing again. He’ll politely give the idea a bit of thought, but that’s as far as it goes. He shares a few ideas but never puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. His other concerns – usually overdue farm or house work – end up taking priority.

When he offered to write for the batt clubs, I eagerly encouraged the plan. For the first batt club, focused on unicorns, Bill wrote a short story in rhyming verse, that easily fit on the back of the batt tags. He dreamed up a sweet, adventurous, shrewd unicorn lamb named Cora, who had sparkling wool and could fly.

He also complained, monthly, that the back of the batt tag was too small a canvas, and could he please have more space next time.


For Wool Noir, I removed the restrictions and encouraged him to write as much as he’d like. The story is fully his, and he has been drawing inspiration from our own farm. I love talking over his ideas and brainstorms. Reading his draft usually makes me giggle and always brings tears to my eyes. Bill is such a logical person, so focused on pragmatic concerns, and I really appreciate the chance to set aside conversations about solar panels, hay prices, and potato varieties, for the opportunity to discuss the talking roosters and flying sheep that live inside his head.

I hope club members enjoy the stories that accompany the fiber shipments, but to be honest, it’s for totally selfish reasons that they are included. Not only am I able to demand that Bill write me a story, but I get to set a deadline for him to do it. It’s pretty fantastic.

Below is the first part of the Wool Noir mystery. I’ll post parts two and three after club members have received them. If you have theories about solving the crime, I hope you’ll share them with us below!

Chapter One: An Imposing Shadow

The last beams of the day’s sunlight were still tickling the treetops as Cora descended upon the unruly mob.  The red and gold rays of illumination had been holding their own against diminishing flashes from a departing thunderstorm. But now, the nighttime with its comforting darkness was arriving quickly, chasing the light away, revealing the first twinkling stars overhead.

It was immediately clear that a great discord had overcome the flock– enough so that none of them noticed Cora, the world’s only lamb unicorn detective (not something that you see every day) until she joined their circle. Accusations and recriminations spiraled about like a vortex of autumn leaves. Cora spied a single ewe that seemed to be trying to remain above the fray. She approached, showed her credentials as a private investigator, and offered her services.

“What’s your fee?” This ewe, Martha, was the oldest ewe on the farm. She looked it, too. Cora thought that her eyes betrayed a weariness, possibly from leading her flock for many years. Standing in the door to the barn, she was casting a long and imposing shadow. Weariness aside, Cora could tell that this was not a ewe to mess with.

“I get paid in feed,” was the response from Detective Cora. “My rate is 2 pounds of corn per day. Plus expenses.”

Martha smirked as she explained the problem with this: “Well then, you’re of no use. You see – that’s our problem. All of our corn has been stolen.”

“If you want my help, I’m sure we can work something out.” Cora offered, and Martha nodded in acceptance, adding with a welcoming note “There’s some hay in the feeder in stall two. Alfalfa. Good stuff. The rest of the flock isn’t eating any of it because they’re all worked up over the missing corn. And while half goats are arguing with the flock, the other half are MIA, having been accused of thievery. Go have a nosh as an advance, then come back when you’ve had your fill. I’ll tell you all about what happened. We could use an outside eye to figure it out.”

Cora returned the nod with a thankful shake of her own but had just one question before going to collect her advance. “Everyone on the farm seems worked up about this except you. How are you able to stay so calm?”

All signs of weariness faded as Martha considered her answer, replacing it with a surprising playfulness. “I’ve been in charge of this flock a long time, because I follow certain rules. One of the most important rules is ‘Save the Drama for the Llama’.”

Nodding as if she understood what this meant, Cora made her way into the barn to find her proffered hay.  As she was taking her first bite and reflecting on Martha’s comment, she heard a commotion in the next stall. A young rooster – looking insane without half of his barred feathers – managed to fly over the stall landing on Cora’s nose and scratching it with his spur.

“Ouch – watch it buddy!” yelled Cora, with more than a little frustration. The rooster introduced himself as Tailpipe, and apologized.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to hurt or scare you. It’s hard to fly during my molt. Listen – I overheard you talking to the big crazy one about the corn heist-“


“Yeah, Martha. Don’t trust her. I know what happened to the corn… she took it. She took it all…”

To be continued…

November WIPs and Digital Detox

Settling in for the coziest week of the year.

The past few days on the farm have been very cozy. Temperatures have dropped and daily fires have been keeping us warm. The path to the barn is littered with still-colorful leaves and the sheep are burying their woolly heads in the hay feeders, searching for the best morsels of clover and grass.

It is finally time to revel in wool!! During small breaks throughout my day, I’m working on the Windsor Warmer by Cecily Glowik MacDonald from the Interweave book New England Knits.


It’s a scarf. A rectangle-shaped scarf.

I usually have strong feelings about knitting rectangles. As in, I don’t do it. Because rectangles are so. boring. They’re depressingly the same from beginning to end and they are so rectangular. Ugh. I’m bored just thinking about it.

This pattern, however, is knit from side to side. It’s still a rectangle, but I’ll be knitting less than 50 rows, start to finish and that seems somehow more achievable. I can say this confidently now because the 240+ stitch cast-on happened a few days ago (with the help of some rum) and has been wiped from my memory.

The scarf is all lace, and the thought of 240+ stitch rows of lace did cause mild panic. I mentally gathered all of my most functional stitch markers and prepared for some fiddly knitting. However – Madam Glowik MacDonald is a benevolent genius, and the pattern includes columns of ribbing in between each lace repeat. Built in stitch markers!

IMGP3011It has been a good long while since I’ve knit any serious lace and I am already looking forward to blocking the finished scarf. The anticipated satisfaction is enough to keep my motivation high! Also, the yarn is glorious…far more complex than you can see in the photos (hey, Red, what you gotta be like that??). This is my second project using Flock Fibre, which is dyed in Canada by lovely women, and I am looking forward to having an excuse to purchase more. The colorway is Geranium Kisser, which I am told is a reference to another lovely Canadian, Anne of Green Gables.


My second project is quite a bit more local. Though Bill has sheared our sheep for the past four years, I haven’t yet made him anything with our own wool. His favorite pair of socks are handspun from a down wool roving, so I promised him another pair before winter really took hold. He was noncommittal when I asked what color he’d like…he’s really so agreeable on sock colors. I asked him to close his eyes, clear his head, and tell me about some of his favorite things. Immediately, he decided his socks should be orange and brown like our bedroom.

I dyed 6 ounces of Southdown roving from our sheep, and spun it into a traditional three-ply a few months ago. I’m knitting a toe-up sock with the standard Bizarro Bill Feet Modifications, and have just finished the heel on the second sock (which is four stitches smaller than the first sock, and yet still a bigger sock…spinning consistency? meh).

They are going quite quickly as the yarn is pretty thick. My standard Bill sock is 68-72 stitches, but these are 52. Also, handspun. Also, orange and brown. Also, MY OWN SHEEP!

My last knitting WIP is a raglan sweater for coziness. The pattern is Clarke Pullover by Jane Richmond, and I’ve knit it before. I enjoy the construction and clear directions. The gray yarn has been reclaimed from a wonky sweater I never wore, and I think it’s Dream in Color…worsted weight?? The accent stripes are three Muppet colorways from Another Crafty Girl on her Merino Worsted base – #1 Fan, BWACK!, and Boomerang Fish. I love Sarah’s yarn and I race through the gray so I can knit another stripe with her gorgeous colors.


Finally, I have delightful spinning on the wheel. I finished this 2 oz of Tuesdays at Three on Finn from Three Waters Farm a few weeks ago, and I’m nearly done with the last 2 oz. The fiber really wants to be spun thinly, but I don’t mind. I’ll chain-ply this second half as well, and hopefully have matching socks.


I should make a ton of progress on all these projects over the next week, as it is our annual Digital Detox week. Each year, during the week of Thanksgiving, Bill and I turn off all our electronic devices and disconnect from media, social networks, and advertising. The quiet and slow-pace that results really complements a holiday focused on gratitude, and encourages us to be mindful about all the gifts and good things in our lives. It also serves as a vacation of sorts. The farm severely limits our ability to travel, so disconnecting from the noise of daily life provides needed respite. I always feel restored and energized after our unplugged week.

I am preparing a blog post to self-publish while we’re offline though, because technology can be pretty cool. I find, though, that I often need to remind myself that all these digital wonders are tools to help me accomplish goals, they are not a force to guide or control my life. Giving them up for a week helps me keep technology from asserting undue influence over my daily routine.

So, for the next week I’ll be quietly manipulating wool, cooking cozy meals, and staring pensively into the wood stove. It’s my favorite way to usher in winter.

Autumn Afternoon on the Farm

Today is the perfect, sunny fall day for lounging on the ground and taking 152 photos of the sheep and goats as they lazily chew cud and soak up the sun. I have to share it with you! I hope you can feel the tranquility and contentment from the simple pleasure of having nice hay, a safe pasture, and the smallest autumn breeze.

Knitting Socks for Bill’s Bizarro Feet

Tips for sock knitters who love someone with strange feet.

My husband Bill is my favorite person in the world, but his feet are kind of a sock-knitter’s nightmare. They are wide and big (US Men’s 13), change drastically in thickness from the pads of his feet to his instep, and his toes seem as if they were cobbled together from multiple people (or trolls) of varying sizes.

For the feet squeemish among you, I promise, I won’t show you a picture. There are some things the internet just does not need to catalog.


Fortunately for Bill, I am a patient and determined sock knitter. After making him five or six pairs of serviceable – but not dreamy – socks, and asking him hundreds of questions about fit, I’ve created a few modifications that result in happy socks for his feet, and less guessing/stressing during the knitting process.


All the yarns pictured here are the Viso base from Desert Vista Dyeworks. It is a thinner fingering weight yarn, 75% Merino, 25% Nylon, approx 460 yards to 4 oz. These parameters are similar for many Indie dyers who offer sock yarn. I also knit all of Bill’s socks from the toe up.

IMGP1645To start, all Bill’s socks are knit with some sort of ribbing from the cuff to the toe. I typically do a K1 P1 ribbing for the cuff, and switch to K4 P2 for the leg and foot. The K1 P1 cuff keeps the top of the sock from flaring out or rolling.

The ribbing is important because it stretches well over the wider parts of Bill’s dynamic feet, and hugs in tight around the thinner parts. I knit ribbing around the whole leg of the socks, but only on the top part of the foot. The sole of the foot is plain stockinette.

For the very widest parts of Bill’s feet (his insteps, which are 2 inches bigger around than the balls of his feet), I add a few stitches for more room. In the last 1.5 inches before his heel, I increase a total of 12 stitches, (from 72 stitches to 84). Some increases are on the sides of the sock, where a gusset would be, and some are on the top of the foot hidden in the purls of the ribbing. I do a simple lifted increase in pattern, adding two or four stitches every 8 rows. These extra stitches mimic the added room of a gusset, which I am disinclined to knit for such big socks. A short-row or afterthought heel feels like less of a time commitment and, therefore, makes it easier to combat Second Sock Syndrome, but it doesn’t leave enough room for those two extra inches of circumference. The added stitches are a good compromise.IMGP0891

Finally, the biggest and most dramatic modification I make to Bill’s socks is to knit him anatomically matching toes. The difference between the top of Bill’s big toe, and the top of his smallest toe is nearly 2.25 inches. (For comparison, on my feet – which are perfect – the difference is .75 inches.)

Trying to fit a symmetrical rounded or wedge toe on the insane slope from one side of his foot to the other results in a lot of tightness over his big toe, and a lump of loose fabric over his small toe. It’s not very comfortable, and the pressure from his big toe causes increased wear with a greater chance of holes. The only darning I’ve had to do for Bill’s socks is over his big toe.

IMGP0489To create the shape of a sloping toe, you just have to do more increases on one side of the sock than on the other. There are many different options and formulas for doing so, and I’ve included my recipe below. The only problem with having distinct left and right socks, is that if one gets (temporarily) misplaced, it can be more difficult to cobble together a mismatched pair of socks on The Morning Before Laundry Day as you’re running late for work.

I hope this is helpful for any knitters who are struggling to understand a loved one’s problematic feet topography. If you have any questions or tips of your own, please share them in the comments. We brave knitters must band together and cover the world’s oddest feet with colorful and fun socks!


Anatomical Toe Formula for Big Bill’s Bizarro Feet
(note – I knit 72 stitches on Bill’s socks. Modify these numbers to your preferred stitch count. Also, these instructions assume you are familiar with toe-up sock construction.)

using Judy’s Magic Cast On and double-point needles, cast on 24 stitches (6 on each needle).

Increase 4 stitches each round (like a standard rounded toe), until the number of stitches is doubled – 48 stitches, 12 per needle. (In the photo above, this is the red stripe.)

Knit one plain round without increasing.

Start shaping the toe, by increasing on one side only. (In the photo above, this the the area in the purple brackets.)

Increase round: Knit 1, increase 1 (I do “knit front and back”), knit to one stitch before the end of the round, increase 1, knit 1.

Work two increase rounds and then one plain round. Continue until you reach the desired number of stitches. Your toe is complete!

If you are knitting a pattern sock (not just stockinette), make sure your second sock has the opposite orientation of your first, so you have one right foot and one left foot! I work my toes the same for both feet, but knit an extra half of a round for my second sock before I start the ribbing for the top of the foot. I double check the second sock against the first at least three times, because I am paranoid about knitting two left feet!!