Dyed packages of Preseli, ready for twisting
After spinning, any yarns destined to be dyed head from New Lanark and Laxtons into the mysterious and magical world of Paintbox Textiles. In this former soap factory, Keith and his team work away through the plumes of steam and vapour, turning their hands to all sorts of dyeing projects, from yarn like ours to butchers twine, silk fabrics, cricket whites and school jumpers. It’s a seemingly endless warren of buildings, dye vessels and whirring machinery, and of the dozens of times I’ve called in for a cup of tea on a Yorkshire visit, something new is happening every time.
Keith is one of the truly irreplaceable characters of the textile world, and someone who’s seen and done more roles in the industry than I even knew existed. Invariably, he’s my first port of call when I have an idea or a problem - if he doesn’t know the solution, he’ll absolutely know the person that does. I’d hazard a guess that I’ve never called in at Paintbox for less than a few hours, as we always get chatting about the next big plan!
Without Keith, we’d never have started introducing dyed shades to our range, even though the frameworks for organic dyeing were introduced shortly after the initial introduction of any standards (you can read an interview with Sally about how that all came about here). For years we’d never quite been entirely comfortable with the process and the sustainability of dyeing, and once we’d met Keith it was a year or so of discussions, questions, sampling and testing before we were confident that we could introduce the process to our yarns.
Dyeing - quite rightly - is subject to the tightest environmental controls within the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), governing all aspects of the dyes and chemicals used, water usage and its disposal, energy usage and complete traceability and batch separation.
The best method for our particular yarns is package dyeing, where the yarn is gently wrapped on a perforated tube (technically known as a Parallel Sided Dye Package, or PSDP), and the dye liquor - a mixture of hot water and pigment is pumped up through the centre of the tube. As it flows through the yarn, the dye fixes permanently to the fibre, and the water will run clear.
Dyeing is as much an art as it is a science. Meticulous records of each recipe, each batch and each process will get you close, but the true skill comes in recognising tiny changes in the fibre, the dyes and the results and adjusting accordingly.
Assembling ends of yarn ready for twisting
After dyeing, the yarn will head down to us in Cardigan, ready for the final stages of production. If it’s being twisted, or plied, it’ll first head to the assembly winder. By carefully laying either two, three or four ends of yarn on a package, we create the platform for Volti, our big German Two-For-One (TFO) twister. On this behemoth, each turn of the spindle adds two twists to the yarn (hence being called a Two-For-One), so by switching the big steel gears in the gearbox, we can control the feed rate of the yarn to precisely set the perfect twist. It’s a process of trial and error, using a twist tester to sample, adjust and refine until each yarn is just right.
The blur of twisted yarn on Volti, our twister
Using a TFO twister lets us create huge cones of yarn - up to five or six kilograms - without joins, so it improves the quality of the finished skeins. It’s also a more efficient process, as at full tilt, Volti is capable of twisting a tonne of yarn a day - that’s twenty thousand 50g skeins! So far we only use him with one side running, and only for short periods - he’s also a noisy beast and ear protection is essential. Andy and I both have a soft spot for Volti, and his thundering roar is the perfect backdrop for the careful and intricate process of laying the freshly twisted yarn mesmerisingly onto the cones.
Our speedy skein winder, Che
Once the twisted yarn has rested for a week or so, it’s ready to head over to Che, our (almost) new skein winder. A blur of yarn is about all you can see as 24 skeins are reeled at a time, before we tie a trio of ties, known as leases, to keep everything neat and tidy.
The final moment of magic comes with rinsing the skeins, one of the last processes to still happen on the farm. Our soft spring water bubbles up in the top field, and after a quick trip through a filter and a drop of biodegradable detergent added, it’s the perfect solution for rinsing out ant spinning oils and residues from the yarn. Just as importantly, it also sets the twist and allows the yarn to relax and bloom, giving it softness and bounce that’s unbeatable.
Noddled, labelled and ready to use!
The skeins will gently air dry, before heading over for noddling. This process (like most in the yarn world!) has a myriad of names, we’ve heard twiddling and twisting, turning and looping, but we’ve settled on using noddling. Each skein is transformed from a messy loop into a perfectly formed bundle of fibre, ready for the label to be slipped on, and the yarn loop to be pressed in as the very final step.
It’s a lengthy, complicated and highly skilled set of processes to make a yarn, and we simply couldn’t do it without the experts, the characters, the friends and the family that help us along the way.