Behind the Scenes: Kathy Sparks Uses Natural Dyes to Infuse Local Wool with Color

The day threatened rain, but so far was dry, so Kathy Sparks was outside her studio, The Hand Maiden, dyeing wool yarn.

Kathy dyeing outside her studio

She has a graduate degree from Western Washington University in dye chemistry, where she investigated the effects of mordants (fixatives) and temperatures on different fiber combinations, and she treats dyeing like a science.

She pulled out her notebook, which contained pages and pages of notes on temperatures and times, plus calculations of dye amounts for different materials and detailed notes.

Kathy is also a purist, using only dyes she makes herself from natural materials, and dyeing locally sourced wool which she often hand spins herself.  Today she was dyeing with Bazilwood (a purple dye), yellow onions (which will give a golden color), and madder root (which will give an orange color).


Kathy made the dyes herself by extracting the pigment from the natural materials.  She then poured the dye into a vat of water containing the undyed wool and is now heating the mixture to fix the dye to the fibers.  The wool will sit in the dye vats overnight, then will be rinsed and dried.  The resulting yarns will be ready to use in knitting or weaving projects.

The yarn is already taking on color

Kathy has been dyeing with natural materials for decades.  One of her favorite things is dyeing with lichen, often gathered locally in Indiana or in New Hampshire where she goes each year to make baskets.  In fact, she’s always on the lookout for lichen, which she collects sustainably, preferring windfall trees or dead branches, and taking only a small amount from each lichen growth she finds. She can create 28 different colors using lichen alone.

A variety of yarns Kathy dyed using lichen

Recently, she’s been working on what she calls “the project of a lifetime.” In the 1980s, Kathy collected lichen on a graduate school trip to the Arctic.  The lichen has been preserved in a dried state since then and is still viable today.  Kathy fermented the lichen in ammonia to bring out the color or boiled it in water to extract the dyes.  She sourced Shetland wool from Breezy Manor Farms locally, and hand spun it  into yarn. After dying the yarn with the lichen dye, she is now hand knitting the wool into a sweater.

While not all Kathy’s project take sourcing to this extreme, she has evolved over the years to use only wool, locally sourced if possible, and natural dyes.  If you visit The Hand Maiden during the Back Roads of Brown County Studio Tour in October, she’ll be dyeing yarn on Fridays (except Oct 19, when Kathy will be teaching a dyeing class out of town).  She’ll also have hand dyed wool skeins for sale, as well as mittens and other items hand knitted from the yarn, along with her hooked rugs and handmade baskets.

Hand dyed yarn
A weaving project using hand dyed yarn

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