Spinning (and Dyeing) a Yarn
By Andrea Cruz
An animal lover at heart, Ann Mikeal of Winter Haven says she somehow feels connected to her past as a zookeeper when she works with animal fibers, cleaning and spinning raw fibers such as fleece into yarn, and custom dyeing skeins of yarn blanks.
The 28-year-old’s first exposure to fiber was learning to knit as a teenager. When she went to college in Gainesville for zoology – her dream was to catch snakes in the wild – she figured she’d never need her knitting supplies again and gave them all away. But life doesn’t always go as planned.
In 2009, after nearly two years at the Naples Zoo, Mikeal’s family suffered a loss and she moved back to Polk County to help her mother run the family’s electrical business. Four months later, she found out she was pregnant with twins, boys that are now 3 years old.
“I wanted to make them hats, but I wanted to learn how to crochet them,” Mikeal says, and adds she tried to learn to crochet with online tutorials. Her first attempt at a hat, she says, was terrible.
So she went looking for local, in-person help, which she found at Four Purls Yarn Shop and the Polk County Fiber Guild, both in Winter Haven.
Mikeal’s first encounter with the Fiber Guild was at the group’s annual hobby share, held at the Winter Haven Library in the fall. She found herself entranced with a lady spinning fiber into yarn. It wasn’t long before Mikeal bought herself a drop spindle, some fiber, and again, went online for some instruction.
“I could not for the life of me figure it out,” she says. After trial and error she finally realized that she wasn’t putting her hands far enough apart for the length of the fiber – but she persisted with that handheld drop spindle, essentially a stick with a weighted end used for twisting fibers into yarns.
“And I spun like that for probably four months and then got a spinning wheel for Christmas. Then I went crazy and now I have five wheels,” she says laughing.
Mikeal processes much of her own raw fiber for spinning. She purchases the sheared material from shepherds and shepherdesses around the country, imports some from the UK, and does everything – boiling it and cleaning it – in her kitchen sink.
The Art of Dyeing
After a while Mikeal grew tired of spinning white fiber and decided to try her hand at dyeing it. Like many others, she started out with Kool-Aid and cake dyes.
“Everybody kept saying, those aren’t true professional dyes,” she says. So she emptied her bank account and purchased professional dyes, already-spun yarn and fiber blanks. Her home-based business, Twin Mommy Creations, was born.
Her creative process has no rhyme or reason to it. She grabs colors that pique her interest and combines them to see what happens.
“And if I hate it I just dump more (color) of something else,” Mikeal says. With more than 250 species of sheep, each fiber does something different with the dyes. Some absorb more colors than others and they are dyed using different processes – something Mikeal had to learn through trial and error.
“For example, alpaca takes color, but you have to fight to get it wet by holding it down, saturating before adding color or you’ll have white spots,” she says, and explains she has to change the water if she dyes another specie’s fiber so as to not cross contaminate.
To dye superwash wool she starts with either a vinegar or citric acid based water. Both chemicals help to set the dyes.
“People who dye yarn with Kool-Aid don’t have to use a base because the Kool-Aid has citric acid in it,” she says, and adds that acid dyes will only dye animal fibers such as silk, wool, and alpaca, not plant-based fibers, such as cotton and bamboo.
Mikeal dyes two ways: Entire skeins at a time, and dip-dyeing parts of the skeins for a hand-painted look. The exclusivity of her uniquely colored yarns is something a big box store will never be able to match.
Laura Dobratz, owner of Four Purls Yarn Shop in Winter Haven, says she is proud to carry Twin Mommy yarns.
“I love Twin Mommy yarns for the rich color saturation, unique exclusive colorways and quality fiber content, but mostly I like the idea of supporting a fellow fiber enthusiast,” she says. Dobratz also likes that she can offer locals and tourists a locally made product.
Colors to Dye For
When dyeing an entire skein at once, Mikeal lays the yarn in the water and adds small scoops of one color in different spots of the pan – a pan that is only used to dye yarn, not to cook food – to ensure even coverage of the color. She breaks up any clumps of dye and gingerly moves it, being careful not to create knots. She covers the pot and turns up the heat.
Much like human hair, wool yarn has scales at microscopic levels. Heat allows the scales to open up and absorb the dye. Mikeal explains she is careful not to let the water boil, especially when not using a superwash wool as it will felt. Felting happens when wool gets too hot and shrinks to an unrecoverable size – like a sweater that never should have been washed. This won’t happen to a “superwash” wool, however.
Mikeal checks the water every so often to see if it is clear and the dye has been “exhausted,” or completely absorbed. When she’s satisfied it has, she either adds a second dye for a more colorful look, or removes it from the heat to let it cool. If done dyeing, she washes the yarn with hot water and a drop of dish soap, rinses and lets it dry hanging. This final step helps the scales to close up and lock in the dye.
Mikeal prefers her yarns to be “crazy and funky,” and has found a love of dyes that “split” or separate. She enjoys the unpredictable outcome. What appears to be a brown dye may have little flecks of red, yellow and orange that come out in the dyeing process.
“You can take something from the pot and wash it and it’ll look totally different by the time it’s dry,” she says. Her favorite dye color is a chartreuse hue called “Ivy,” which splits into blues and greens with a hint of purple.
“I kind of like knowing it’s not just going to be one color, that it’s a color wheel and it takes all these colors to make one color,” she says.
A Fearless Artisan
Fellow Fiber Guild member and friend, Laurie Williams, says Mikeal is an amazing and fearless artisan.
“She’s always creating something new,” Williams says, “and she presents a niche that isn’t out there.” Mikeal has connections all over the world and works with fibers one might not expect, especially in Florida.
“It’s really rather pleasing to be able to have that available,” Williams says.
Mikeal incorporates rare items such as recycled sari silk fibers and even peacock feathers in her un-spun fibers. She works with wool, alpaca, silk, cotton, bamboo, nylon, and milk fiber, which is milkweed. She says that most anything organic can be made into fiber, and cites corn, stinging nettles (ramie), hemp, flax, rose stalks and even a “white charcoal” fiber.
Working a fulltime job and taking care of her twin boys takes a toll on Mikeal who often stays awake until 2 a.m. to get everything done. Working with fiber keeps her sane, she says, and helps her to decompress after a long day.
“It’s not so much the dyeing as it is the spinning and working with the fiber, it’s very calming and relaxing for me,” she says.
It also takes her back to her days at the zoo. The unclean, raw fiber that is shipped with hay and other natural materials matted in reminds her of her days at the zoo. She enjoys picking the organic material out and cleaning it well enough to be able to work with it.
“Everything about fiber just makes me happy,” she says.
In addition to Four Purls Yarn Shop, Mikeal sells her Twin Mommy products in her online Etsy store. For more info visit TwinMommyCreations.Blogspot.com.