Hand Spinning and Dyeing

Every village throughout Egypt, from the South along the Nile River to the entire Nile Delta Region, has many flocks of sheep patrolling the byways for stray blades of grass and neglected patches of weeds. Guided only by a child with a stick, they follow their leader complacently wherever he may go.

There are also many sheep in Egypt raised in the Western Desert by the semi-nomadic Bedawi Arabs. There are three main breeds of sheep, Rahmani, Osseimi, and Barki. They are all three "fat-tailed" sheep, suited well for life in the desert. The fat in their bodies is mainly concentrated in their tail, and this fat tail helps the sheep in the same way as the hump of the camel.

Wool is sheared from the sheep once or twice a year, usually with hand clippers. Longer fibers are obtained by trying to cut the wool off the sheep in one big piece. After the wool is sheared, it is washed to remove any dirt or grease, and then carded. Carding is a process of filling a brush with a handful of wool and then rubbing it together with a second brush. Eventually all the fibers of the wool are lined up in one direction on the brush, and then it is ready for spinning.

In the case of cotton, it is harvested from the stalks of the plant, and seeds must be removed before carding. Linen is made from the stalks of flax. The stalks are beaten to crush them, and then carded by pulling the flattened stalks through a kind of brush with metal bristles, called a heckling comb.

The process of creating yarn from wool, cotton, linen, or other raw materials, is called Spinning. Twisting several fibers together causes them to bind together into a strong piece of string, or yarn. Continuous adding of fibers in this twisting process is called the spinning of yarn. The characteristics of the yarn can be controlled by varying the degree of twist, fiber length, amount of fiber used, etc.

Before the spinning wheel was developed, spinning was done by simply twisting the fibers in the hand. Next, a stick was introduced to help the process, and then a stick with a weight attached to it was used to stabilize the spinning of the stick. The spinning wheel was a big improvement, allowing faster, continuous production of yarn. Hand spinning by the spinning wheel is actually powered either by hand, or by foot.

After the yarn is spun, it is ready to be dyed. Archaeological evidence shows that dyes have been used for over 5000 years in the Middle East and India. Dye plants are still actively cultivated in Egypt by most weavers, and they are typically boiled in water to extract the dye, except for indigo, which must be fermented. The most common dyestuffs are the leaves of the indigo plant, to make a dark navy blue; dried chunks of the root of the madder plant, to make a dark rusty-red; crushed leaves, stems and flowers of the Larkspur plant, to make a soft golden color; reseda, a flowering herb, for other yellows; henna and camphor leaves, to produce beiges and browns; cochineal, a kind of bug, is used to make blue-ish reds like burgundy and purples; and galls from oak trees or tannic acid, is used to make shades of black.

Some dyes must be made permanent by pre-washing the yarn in hot water to which a mineral salt, or mordant, has been added. Various colors and shades of colors are created by double-dipping, or dyeing the yarn first blue, then re-dyeing it yellow, for example, to obtain a shade of green. Lighter shades of a color are produced as the dye in the vat becomes depleted. Less and less actual dye in the pot results in lighter and lighter shades of a color.

Finally, the yarn is hung to dry. The palette of colors and shades of colors needed have been properly dyed, and the rainbow of beautiful yarn shines with creative energy. Maybe color throws the first spark of inspiration, because even at the simple sight of brightly colored yarn we feel it moves our soul and our fingers feel motivated to perform.