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Natural Dyes


Here at Swans Island we love to highlight the natural beauty of the materials we use. Our Natural Colors line of yarn uses only the highest quality certified organic merino wool which is spun here in Maine, and then all dyed by hand with natural dyes in our studio here in Northport, ME. We’re lucky to have working with us our color creator and dye maven Jackie Ottino Graf, and today we’re sharing some photos from a class she taught last summer on the natural dye process.


Natural dye process at Swans Island


When using natural materials to dye yarn instead of adding synthetic dye to a pot of water, we add vegetable matter (plants, minerals, or insects).  This is dried Cochineal, the dried bodies of the cochineal beetle, used for centuries to create rich, vibrant shades of red.  At Swans Island, we use Cochineal in our Garnet and Beetroot colorways.

Dried Cochineal for the natural dye process at Swans Island


These students are breaking up the roots of the Alkanet plant, which will be later used to create a deep purple. Notice how it’s staining their gloves!
natural dye process at Swans Island


In this pot the Cochineal beetles have been finely ground and boiled with water to create the dye bath.  In Medieval Europe, Cochineal was highly prized, and used to dye the robes worn by Cardinals in the Catholic church.

Cochineal for red, part natural dye process at Swans Island


Natural dyestuffs in their pots!  Tansy, Butternuts, Alkanet root and Butternut wood shavings.
Assortment of natural dyes in their pots


After the natural dyes are mixed we place the yarn in the pot and heat dyepot so that the yarn absorbs the color. Yellow is the most common color achieved with natural plantstuffs, this pot contains the pigment from the Tansy plant.

Yellow is the most common natural dye


The beginning stages of the Cochineal dyepot!  After some heat is added, these yarns will turn a deep, rich red.
Cochineal Dyepot natural dye progress


Would you like to take a natural dye workshop with Jackie?  You can find her next at Halcyon Yarn in Bath, Maine where she’ll be teaching a Natural Dye Workshop and an Indigo Dye Workshop.  For a complete list of 2015 offerings, feel free to contact her at

Our Natural Dye Process

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Environmentally sustainable manufacturing has become an important goal for many companies, a trend we applaud since this is the way we have always operated. Typically wool fleeces are carbonized in an acid bath to remove chaff and other foreign matter, a process that burns the fiber and takes out its natural lanolin.  Swans Island fleeces are washed only in organic soaps that do not damage the wool.  We make our own dyes from natural plant or other organic matter, never using commercial petroleum-based dyes.  We then follow a traditional process learned by dyers over the centuries, first mordanting the yarn by dipping it in a vat of hot water and mineralized salt to allow the application of the colors.  After the mordant, the yarn is dipped in vats containing the natural dyes and water.

Unlike synthetic dyes that allow manufacturing standardization, each natural dye demands that the dyer follow a unique protocol — How many dips, for how long, at what temperature?  Do we need to add a natural ingredient like food grade creme of tartar to balance pH?  Some colors even need to sit for a day and come back for a second dip.  Our concern is always for color and light fastness, and of course to achieve the desired color.  In natural dyeing no two batches come out the same: that would be a problem for industrial dyehouses, but for us, it’s part of what makes each product we send out one-of-a-kind.  After dyeing, the yarn is washed in organic soap until there is no color bleeding, and then hung to air dry.

A Special Celebration at Swans Island

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Over the weekend, the Swans Island team held a special ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the new 2,160-square foot dye house, the construction of which was made possible in part to a Community Development Block Grant. Family and friends of Swans Island gathered for the event, which was marked by a special appearance from Senator Susan Collins, who was gracious enough to stop in and give a brief speech before the ribbon-cutting.  The senator got a tour of Swans Island, learned about the history and vision of the company, and got to see the tiny farm-house porch in we used to do all our hand-dyeing.  She even tried her hand at weaving after getting a demonstration from weaver Lauren Taylor. “Maine has a mystique that no other state has,” Senator Collins told the Swans Island team.  “I’m so thrilled to see the special work everyone here is committed to.  It fits so perfectly into the realm of that Maine mystique.” We think so too.

Swans Island teamSwans Island team

Swans Island team

Left to right: Senator Collins takes a shot on the loom; weaver Lauren Taylor demonstrates a warp set-up; Swans Island partners Susan Williams, Michele Orne and Bill Laurita introduce the Senator to the Swans Island team.

Swans Island Company, Handcrafted in Maine USA Since 1992

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