Working with wool and rainbows

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer November 02, 2012 09:03 pm

Melanie Rutledge dips worsted wool into a vat of dye outside her Brookings home. The Pilot / Jane Stebbins

There's something about the smell of warm, wet wool that brings a smile to Melanie Rutledge's face. The Brookings woman spent a recent morning outside, dipping beige worsted wool into vats of dye, preparing skeins of yarn for the annual Brookings-Harbor Holiday Christmas Bazaar.

Rutledge will be there for the first time, with her bins of hand-dyed yarn in a palette of colors: honey mustard, pecan brown, cabernet, peacock blue and the brights of Easter egg dye among them.

“It’s all experimentation,” she said, stuffing a tress of twisted licorice yarn into a quart jar on her outdoor stove. “It’s all trying to get the right recipe down.”

A bin on a table held a rainbow of colors imaginable only in a box of crayons.

Each shade, even if dyed exactly the same as the last, will often vary. The type of animal from which it was shorn – sheep, alpaca and camel among them – the intensity of the dye, the length of time it is soaked and the kind of dye all play a part.

Rutledge got her start two years ago when friends from the United States and Canada decided to try dying yarn and exchanging it with one another.

“And it became a new little hobby of mine,” she said.

Rutledge has worked with yarn since she was a little girl, alongside her mother, crocheting, and her grandmother, knitting.

“I’m like a craft junkie,” she said, smiling. “I have crafty-ADD.”

A cone of yarn holds 1,120 yards, and must be bundled into a skein before it’s dyed. Rutledge dips the wool in the dye, tugging the individual strands from each other for an even color. The wool then goes into a citric acid wash to set it so it won’t bleed.

After her first experimentations with dye and wool, Rutledge attended a Black Sheep Gathering “From Sheep to Shawl,” in Eugene, learning how to dye with elements of nature: mushrooms, wood shavings, spices and vegetables.

Among her favorite yarns is licorice twist that, when dyed, has a primary dark color and a wisp of the same, but lighter, shade in an intertwined strand. She also likes working with Gaia worsted and merino wools for their soft weave. And the thick-thin intertwining of periwinkle yarn brings an almost knobby texture to a finished product.

Rutledge might dye one part of a skein a sharp azure, the other a subdued avocado or twilight mauve, and if the two colors draw to the middle and blend, they create a completely different hue. 

One skein, she noted, features lavender and lilac hues, but its dye was left over from a skein dyed pecan brown and cabernet.

Her favorite dyes include the deep red of cabernet and the bold honey mustard.

“I had my green phase, but I like how the mustard turns out,” she said. “I like the Caribbean blue. I like them all.

“But I could never re-create a color,” she added. “I’m getting more familiar with the dyes, but some colors, the way I mixed them up, it’s hit or miss. It’s always an experiment, seeing how it will turn out. It’s like a Christmas present. You don’t know what’s inside.”

She particularly enjoys seeing the finished product, as she tugs a strand from a skein, knitting it into a pattern and seeing how it plays out.

Next year, she hopes to dabble in dyes made from plants – berries, lichen, mushrooms and wood, among them – and insects, the most popular of which are cochineal bugs harvested primarily in Peru from the prickly pear cacti. The bugs are ground into a powder that creates an array of tints, from bright crimsons and scarlets to soft pinks and oranges.

The colors of one skein reminded Rutledge’s grandmother of the waters of the Chetco – the blues of the deep pools, the browns of the fish-muddied shores and the greens reflecting from the Douglas firs towering overhead. The name stuck: On the Chetco.

“I’m fifth-generation here,” said Rutledge, who hails from the McVay family. “I grew up running around on that river bar. The Chetco really goes through my veins.”