An Interview with Donna Snider of Roots & Rain, Ottawa’s very own local, natural dyer

WS - Hi Donna, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us about your beautiful Roots and Rain yarns. Let's start by asking how long have you been dyeing?

DS - I’ve been dyeing yarn and fabric for a long time now, at first it was the more commonly used acid dyes but as soon as I began to learn about natural dyes, I was totally hooked.

WS - Why natural dyes, what makes it different?

DS - I love the whole idea of natural dyes, using roots, plants, berries, seeds, leaves etc. It's all so fun and exciting to see what nature creates. The results are often unpredictable and unexpected and I love that about the natural world. I can make the same dyebath, using the same type of plants and depending on the water, the time of year, where the plant was grown, or how it was harvested, it can make such exciting and extreme differences to the final result.

WS - What’s your favourite thing to dye with?

DS - Oh that’s a tough question. I really love indigo, an indigo vat is unlike any other dye. You actually create a dye vat which is a long slow process, it can take a day, a week or a month! I love watching the delicate balance occur (even the vats that have failed teach me something), then dipping and re-dipping into the vat and watching the changes occur as the air flows through each skein, it’s always a little bit magic for me!

I also love collecting goldenrod. While driving, I’m always watching for those yellow blooms every summer. I often freeze goldenrod for dyeing in winter months and the smell of the dye pot reminds me of long summer days when everything is cold and white.

I don’t really have a favourite, there are so many to choose from, I suppose I’m fickle that way and my favourite can change from day to day

WS - Where do you get your yarn for Roots & Rain?

DS - I get my wool from a few different sources. My Storm DK for example, comes from Peru; it’s ‘grown’ and processed there by an ethical collective. My Storm DK is definitely one of my favourite bases to dye because it is very low processed and soaks up the dye in such a gentle, natural way. My Monsoon Sock and Tin Roof Single are both New Zealand merino, spun in Canada, right here in Ontario in fact. We don’t have a lot of Canadian mills left and I am happy to be able to support them. With the interest in shopping and buying local, more small mills are popping up which I see as a very positive thing.
I have a new yarn coming out soon that I am working very hard to get ready for the October Wabi Sabi trunk show. It’s another low processed, slightly rustic fingering weight 100% British Blue Faced Leicester, also milled in Canada and an absolutely gorgeous wool to dye with. It needs a bit of extra time and a watchful eye when I’m dyeing because, again it’s very low processed, but I’m all about the slow colour in my pots ... no rushing things.

WS -You said “no rushing things”. How long does it take to dye a batch of yarn from start to finish? I’ve heard it said that natural dyes take longer than ‘regular’ commercial dyes.

DS - Absolutely, it’s like night and day. As I mentioned, I used to do a fair bit of acid dyeing both for myself and for Wabi Sabi so I have a pretty good comparison to go on. Natural dyeing is definitely much more time consuming and way more labour intensive. I could dye up a pot, say a dozen skeins in a couple of hours using acid dyes, where as with the natural dyes it will take me days to dye a dozen skeins.

For example, I mentioned goldenrod. First I have to find the Goldenrod growing. I like to find it out of the way, not in the city or close to the edge of a road where it may have been sprayed with chemicals or come in contact with roadsalt etc. So I find the goldenrod, and tramp through fields or wherever with my scissors and basket in tow and drag it all back home. I clean it up a bit and cut it down to dyepot size, then I simmer it slowly, usually several hours. Next I let it sit anywhere from overnight to a couple of days. Then it all has to be drained and strained, often several times. While I’ve been draining and straining, I’ve had my wool soaking in whatever natural ‘mordant’ I’m going to use. (The mordanting is a very important step, it’s what makes the dye stick). Then I add the prepared yarn to the dyebath of strained goldenrod liquid or liquid gold ! and bring that very gently up to a steaming point. I then let that simmer for a least a couple of hours, sometimes longer. If I am aiming for a more kettled look, I do a minimal stirring. For a more even yarn, more very gentle stirring is needed.

After several hours, when I have the colour I want, I take the pot off the heat and allow it to sit and cool, anywhere from overnight to a couple days. Then all the yarn has to be rinsed, and rinsed, and rinsed, to remove all the dye and any little bits of plant material. Then I hang it to dry, usually for several days.

And the process doesn’t end there. I rewind each and every skein of yarn by hand (I have lots of lovely wooly minded friends who make happy work parties to get this enormous task done). This last step is generally not needed (or even desired in the case of speckled or self striping yarns where acid dyes are used), but with the natural dyes, I find this extra step helps to release any plant debris that may be held there and evens out the natural tones and subtleties of the wool.

WS - You mentioned collecting goldenrod. Do you collect everything you use to dye with?

DS - No, although I do collect or save most of it from my travels, yard, kitchen and the kitchens of many friends. There are some colours I want to achieve that don’t naturally occur here in Canada, but I try my very best to buy from ethical sources.

WS - Some of your yarns are superwash, I’ve heard some people don’t like superwash because it is a chemical process. Why do you use them?

DS - Yes, superwash yarns are of some discussion in the knitting world, especially in the natural dye world. First off, in the most basic description, superwashing is a process that flattens down the little barbs along the surface of wool, these little barbs are what makes wool felt and generally what makes it feel scratchy or itchy to lots of people. Having worked at my local yarn shop, Wabi Sabi, for many years (my dream job by the way!), I’ve been lucky enough to see first hand what people want to buy, knit with and wear and a great many people prefer the texture, feeling and care of superwash wools. Superwash sock yarns, containing some nylon for strength and durability are definitely the most popular types of sock yarns. I also have several yarns that are not superwashed, the majority of my yarns in fact are not superwashed. Many dyers use superwash wools because they are definitely easier to dye and the risk of felting an entire pot of yarn isn’t an issue. I love each and every yarn I put my Roots & Rain label on, but the low processed, more ‘rustic’ wools are definitely my favourites even though they absolutely take more care and time to dye.

WS - You’re obviously a knitter, is that why you started dyeing yarn?

DS - You bet! Like so many knitters, when I first started really getting back into knitting, I really didn’t know a lot about the actual yarn I was using, I’d buy it because it was nice and pretty and soft etc. I used to go to the “big box stores" with my coupon and buy my yarn and was happy enough making blankets and household things. It wasn’t until I started knitting garments for myself that I made the connection between clothing and natural fibers. I don’t really like to wear clothes made from synthetic fabrics (mostly because I find them hot and uncomfortable because they don’t breathe), and suddenly it dawned on me that of course I didn’t want to knit and wear clothing made from synthetics; it should have been obvious, but I just hadn’t made the connection. So my love affair with natural fibers for my knitting began and then the dyeing just kind of emerged and grew out of a desire to learn more and do more. I also stopped buying yarns at those “big box stores”, partly because they don’t have the natural fibres I crave, but also because I really do prefer to buy my yarn from small local businesses and farms.

WS - Thanks so much, Donna! Just one last question. Did you always want to have your own yarn business?

DS - Ha ha! No, that’s a funny thing right there. I never imagined I’d be starting a business in my (ehem 50’s), let alone spending hours and hours with all that it entails. I really just love dyeing yarn and I was dyeing so much and having so much fun and building up such a stash that I thought, “What the heck, I’m going to give this a go!”. I honestly never thought Roots & Rain would take off the way it has. It’s been such a positive and wonderful thing. I have loads of help from my friends and my family, I definitely couldn’t do this without them. I’m really all about the dyeing and my ‘people’ do so much of the design, computer, and business side of things. I love the festivals and shows too, I love to chat (probably too much) to people and hear their enthusiasm about everything fibre related!

Donna will be having a Fall trunk show at Wabi Sabi, 1078 Wellington Street West from October 26th to October 28th.