Foxglove Tea

Yes, I know that digitalis purpurea is poisonous. The tea I made from spent foxglove blossoms was not for drinking but for dyeing. Dyeing, not dying.  Digitalis has to be ingested in a toxic amount in order to do damage. I’d only dyed a small sample skein but I disposed of the 0.2 ounces of blossoms carefully. No sense taking any chances. Once the dye bath was exhausted I carefully poured out the remaining contents in spots at the back of the garden. 

I’ve been searching for a plant-based source of green dye that doesn’t require the 2-step yellow-dipped-in-indigo method. It’s funny that in a world filled with glorious greens, few plants give a light-fast green shade in the dyepot. I love the indigo produced greens but I wanted something quicker for a tapestry I’ve been contemplating. I was inspired to try another possible green source a few days ago. I saw an old blog post where a dyer was showing off a beautiful pea green skein of wool produced by foxgloves with alum mordant.

Well, conveniently, there were several foxglove plants in our garden who had flopped over in the recent rain and were shedding most of their flowers. I went out Friday evening and gathered as many flowers as I could. I passed over the completely brown and slimy ones and ended up with a handful of mostly purple blossoms. A 0.2 ounce handful, as I mentioned before. And, just as conveniently, I had a tiny 0.2 ounce skein of white babydoll southdown yarn that was ready to go into the dyepot.

With such a small amount there was no sense using any of my dye pots. They’re far too big and I wanted to do this quickly. So I found a plastic jar with a lid and put the kettle on to boil. The foxglove blossoms went into the jar and I poured enough boiling water over them to cover both flowers and yarn. A green-gold colored liquid immediately began to steep so I quickly added a dash of alum and the sample skein. I left the jar on my worktable and didn’t check on it until Saturday evening.


No green, but it did yield a clear, lovely yellow. It’s beautiful, but not what I was hoping for.  Perhaps it’s because I did two considerably different things from the original dyer. I used equal weight yarn and dyestuff while she used something like a 5 to 1 ratio. She also simmered her yarn in the pot for an hour while I merely made tea and let it cool for 24 hours. And then there’s the fact that our well water is somewhat alkaline.  I may try this experiment again later in the summer when we have a second flush of foxglove blooms. I’ll use more blossoms and check/adjust the dyebath for pH.

For now, I have another source of very pretty yellow dye. The search for one-pot green continues…










Silent Feather

Yesterday we had to say goodbye to a very special llama. Silent came to Athlone Farm in 2007 as part of a rescue. She was well into her teens then and had the beginnings of arthritis. She was a lovely gray color, even prettier after I’d shorn two or three years worth of matted hair off of her.

As she and her companions began to feel safe, Silent revealed her feisty, no-nonsense personality and became herd leader. She was very good at her job. Her favorite things were a good roll in the dust patch, followed by a long sunbath. And the occasional alfalfa treat in winter time.

Silent was with us for nine years.  I am thankful to have had the chance to care for her. She always had her companions, including her sister and her daughter, around her. She always had a warm barn to sleep in, plenty of grass and nutritious food, and good vet care. We love her and miss her already.  RIP, my beautiful girl.


This Week: Carded Batts

It has been one of those weeks where I’m too busy to sit down and write. I’m finishing the last of the shearing, trying to get the grass and garden under control, and carding all of the wool I’ve been washing. Instead of a long post I’m going to share a few photos of carded and blended batts, fresh from the drumcarder.

Raw Wool, Babydoll Southdown

Spring means shearing and that means lots of raw fleece. And that means it’s time to buy from my favorite farms. Last Sunday I paid a visit to the Smyth family at Sweetwater Farm. They breed registered Babydoll Southdown sheep right up the road from me in Hampstead, MD. The Smyths love their sheep and take excellent care of them. It shows in the quality of their wool!

Also known as Olde English Southdown, Babydolls are small, friendly sheep with very pretty, springy wool. It tends to be finer than the wool produced by the larger, dual-purpose Southdown sheep. Babydolls also produce lots of beautiful colors and sometimes have spotted coats. These characteristics combined make Babydolls a handspinner’s dream.

I ended up buying 5 lovely full fleeces. Two are white/cream colored, one light gray, one dark gray, and one spotted/multi colored fleece. I’ve already started washing wool and hope to have carded batts, roving, and yarn available on my Etsy store by the end of the month.



It’s Shearing Time Again

It’s Shearing Time Again!

Each Spring when I shear my llamas and alpacas I end up with around 20-25 pounds of suri alpaca fiber. There are 5 suris in my herd and every year I am amazed by their beautiful fleece.

nateandkwam - Copy

 Nate, on the left, is a huacaya alpaca. Kwame, on the right, is a suri. The suri fiber hangs down in long, straight locks. 

Suri is a very heavy, silky fiber. It makes wonderfully light and warm fabric when very finely spun into super thin yarns. But in my experience, 100% suri yarns any heavier than lace weight are not ideal. There are exceptions, of course, but because I sell most of my yarn I prefer to create the most versatile yarns possible by blending my suri fiber.

As little as 20% fine wool blended with suri fiber lightens a skein enough that it is a pleasure to knit, crochet, or weave with. The yarn still shows off suri’s drape, luster, and softness but the wool adds a bit of bounce. The more wool you add, the lighter in weight the skeins become.

Because elasticity and softness are the major characteristics I’m looking for, I choose wool from sheep breeds known to exhibit softness and elasticity in their wool. My current favorites are CVM/Romeldale and Rambouillet. Both are soft and springy and come in lots of beautiful colors.

It’s important to me to choose my fleece from local (to me) sheep farms where I can actually see the sheep. I’ve been lucky enough to find a handful of excellent farmers to buy from here in Maryland. One of my favorites is Pheasant Field Farm in Chestertown, MD. The sheep are happy and well loved and they grow gorgeous wool! Most of the flock are CVM, Romeldale, and Romney x.

And that brings me back to shearing. Ebay, my smallest alpaca, is a very dark brown suri. His fiber is super heavy and slick and really benefits from blending. It’s hard to match that dark chocolate color as well as the fineness of Ebay’s fleece…but this year I can do it thanks to Pheasant Field Farm! Gabriel, a Romeldale yearling, has the perfect wool.

Ebay’s fiber on the left.  Ebay and Gabriel’s fleeces side by side.

I’m excited about this blend and can’t wait to get started. The next sunny day we have I’ll be scouring and putting fleece out on screens to dry. I’ll take more photos of the blending process, the carded batts, and the finished yarn. If it turns out as well as I hope I’ll have it for sale at the farmer’s market next month. See you there!