A Day in the Life of a Hand Dyer: or How I Kicked the Bucket!

A question I am often asked is “What is it like to be a hand dyer?” I think there can be a lot of mystery and mythos around hand dyeing as a career. Some see it as being very artsy, ethereal, and connected to a higher creative plane. Certainly one of my friends who finally admitted to me what she thought I did all day had envisioned me drifting about my studio, no doubt clad in a diaphanous dress, whilst communing with the artistic spirit of the yarn, as I gently stroke it with colour. Others think it is a dirty, dangerous, hazmat-suit-clad operation fraught with peril on all sides, meant only for the heartiest of souls, who venture into the studio to daily do battle with yarn and dye, scaling mountains of steam and poisons on all sides, that are ready to leap on the unwary and commit fell deeds.

In reality I think it falls somewhere in-between these two extremes. Dyeing certainly has its dangers, and its higher level creative moments, but there is more to being a hand dyer than just the dyeing! So let me take you through my day so you have an idea of what it is really like.

I’m going to use yesterday as my fodder for this adventure – for dyeing is always an adventure. Yesterday started like any other day. I got to work, dove into my work email, answered inquiries, gave colour advice, forwarded the things that needed to be forwarded to our people that handle sales and accounting, and checked all our social media, responded to comments, liked posts, saw what others are up to. Then I headed for the dye pots. My dye pots are large. They hold 100lbs of water, and so they don’t move from their big gas burners once they are filled. I use a big hose to fill each one, and then start them heating, ready for the day’s dyeing. While the pots heat up, I take the yarn that was dyed the day before off the drying racks and put it ready for the labellers, as well as plan the day’s dyeing, which can include any retail sales from our website, wholesale orders, and dyeing for upcoming shows. It’s a very busy time in the studio.

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Inuit Art on BFL Fingering yarn

Once the pots come up to the correct heat, yarn and dye go into the pots. While they do their thing I am doing all sorts of other things. I am constantly checking emails so that we can respond to inquiries as fast as possible. There are lots of behind the scenes business emails too, meaning I chat with our mills that spin our yarn, designers that are working on designs using our yarn, and of course magazines! Yesterday was exciting as we had a request for yarn to go to one of our favorite magazines, for a super secret project. The thrill of working with a magazine like Vogue Knitting, or Interweave Knits never gets old. The people at these publications are wonderful! It does mean a lot of back and forth from dye pot to computer though.

The dye pots are relentless and hungry. As a batch of yarn finishes I take it out, put it into a nice clean 5-gallon bucket to cool down before it is washed, and then I put in the next dye lot. This takes a lot of concentration so that one gets exactly the right colours on the right yarn. I love dyeing – it never gets old to me and I see it as very much like a complex dance, where one coordinates all the steps, the colours, and the yarns in a whirlwind of activity. Each dye lot is as enchanting to me as the last. To me they are individual acts of creation, and they elevate me! As the yarn comes out I pile up the buckets into a tower, and they are very satisfying to look at, because I know they contain beauty.

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A modest two level tower featuring Eiffel Tower and Roaring Twenties on a variety of base yarns.

Alas. Dyeing can indeed be fraught with perils, and given all the things that I do at the same time, it means using a lot of careful protocol to stay safe. It works very well and there are rarely any issues. However, once in a while I can slip up. Yesterday I danced the dance and the dyeing was good. My tower was FOUR buckets tall and I was proud. And then it happened. I did something very, very silly. I set a very hot pot lid on the top of the tower, just for a moment you know. You see, Shasta the studio cat was right outside the big picture window having a nice bit of time outside, accompanied by our labellers who were enjoying a light lunch, and she caught a giant mouse! A brief but epic battle ensued. Shasta has been working hard at filling all the duties of a good studio cat, and that means helping out by keeping mice under control. She is very proud of this self taught task and is very good at it, usually killing them instantly. But being a cat this means she likes to toss them. So she threw her (dead) mouse straight at my poor yarn labellers and their lunch. Who in turn leapt and screamed and there was much hysteria around the dodging of the mouse. And in the middle of all this the doorbell rang and it was the huge truck coming to pick up a giant order of yarn going out to our distributor. With no warning, so of course it wasn’t on a pallet out front for him, and he was GRUMPY.

As you might imagine this was a tad distracting. So I got too close while I was trying to see what was going on, and kicked a bucket at the foot of the tower. Ouch. But it gets worse. Now did you know a hot pot lid (and these lids are HUGE and weigh over 5lbs each) will create an air cushion of super heated air under them and basically float on it? Well they do! And thus began disaster… The pot lid LEAPT from the top of the tower and flung itself with deadly and unerring accuracy at my arm. Edge on of course. It smacked me really hard on a sore tendon, and made my arm twitch really hard. That flung the pot lid back up into the air, along with the dye in the measuring cup I was holding. Dye went everywhere. But more importantly, the pot lid described a graceful arc, making straight for my big toe, which already hurt, and landed sharp edge down on it. Oh my.

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My poor toe! Art work by the very talented Kelly Norwood.

For a minute I wasn’t sure what to do. Dare I look at my toe? Was it chopped off? It certainly FELT chopped off! My arm was numb and screaming all at the same time. My knee was in agony as somehow that stupid pot lid managed to attack it too, perhaps on the rebound from my toe. The noise was incredible, consisting of a series of crashes and bangs and thuds from the bouncing lid and the buckets of yarn that were falling from on high. The assistants were screaming (there was continued mouse flinging). The truck driver was UNIMPRESSED. What did we mean we weren’t ready?

But did this stop me? NO. I am a dyer. And that meant I changed the yarn in the dye pots, we corralled the very loud and proud feline, disposed of her mouse, consoled the labellers, cleaned up the dye (except for the stuff on the ceiling that will just have to fade), told the truck to come back in the morning, and then I looked.

Good news. My toe is still attached. It may have the most spectacular series of rings of colours since the creation of the rings of Saturn, with flamboyant circles reaching close to my ankle, highlighted by a lovely big Band-Aid, but amazingly it isn’t broken and I can still walk. Sort of.

And best of all, I made PRETTY THINGS!

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Some of the yarn dyed (and labelled) yesterday. From left to right: Merino DK (To Boldly Go), Silk linen heavy lace (Pieces of Eight and A Midnight Clear), and BFL fingering (Kismet).

One thought on “A Day in the Life of a Hand Dyer: or How I Kicked the Bucket!

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