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Pandemic projects: Boys get hand-dyed, knitted hats – making natural dyes becomes South Hill family’s project

Kate Kearney of south Spokane, an avid knitter her whole life, made knit hats for her sons, left to right, Danny Riggs 3, Albert Riggs, 8 months, and Teddy Riggs, 5.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Kate Kearney of south Spokane, an avid knitter her whole life, made knit hats for her sons, left to right, Danny Riggs 3, Albert Riggs, 8 months, and Teddy Riggs, 5. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

Teddy Riggs, 5½, scaled a backyard tree, while his 3-year-old brother, Danny, trimmed the grass with a pair of children’s scissors.

Albert, 8 months, watched the action from his mother’s arms.

Kate Kearney didn’t need to worry about her sons feeling the January chill – they were all wearing woolen caps which she knitted for them.

Though Kearney wielded the knitting needles, the handmade, hand-dyed hats were a family pandemic project.

“My mother taught me to knit when I was a kid, but I didn’t really get into it until college when I had a friend who was into knitting,” Kearney said.

Over the years she made scarves, stuffed animals, hats, socks and mittens for friends and family.

Last year, she broadened her expertise by learning how to dye yarn using the abundant lichen found around her South Hill neighborhood.

She wanted to knit Teddy a pair of Nordic-themed mittens with reindeer on them, and read that Scandinavians used lichen to dye their yarn because reindeer eat lichen in the winter.

“My sister, Margaret, has a degree in fiber arts,” Kearney said. “She told me to be happy with whatever color I got.”

Indeed, though the mittens in the pattern book were brown, Kearney’s turned out green.

“Teddy inspired the hats,” she said. “We were gathering lichen with the kids and he said, ‘We need to make something for the baby.’ ”

So, with her oldest son as her faithful assistant, they began scouting for lichen in earnest.

“We gathered it up and down Manito Boulevard in the summer,” Kearney said. “My sister, Bridget, came to visit and made up a lichen song.”

After collecting enough of the crusty, leaflike substance, she ordered natural yarn from Paradise Fiber, and then boiled the lichen and yarn together on the burner of their outdoor grill.

She spread it out to dry on their deck.

Wanting to add an additional natural color, Kearney decided to use the bountiful Oregon grapes growing in their backyard.

This time she presoaked the yarn with alum powder, and then strained the boiled grapes before adding the yarn back to the mixture.

Kearney, a math professor at Gonzaga University, and her husband, Kyle Riggs, a math professor at EWU, seized the teachable moments for their children throughout the process.

When they discovered Oregon grapes are pH-sensitive, they added other components like lemon juice, so Teddy could see the differences in hues.

Kearney chose the Beloved Bonnet pattern from Tin Can Knits for the hats.

The results?

Teddy got a purple and yellow-green striped hat, Danny, solid purple, and Albert, solid yellow-green.

For Kearney the best part of the process was working with Teddy and spending time with her family outdoors.

“It’s a great joy for me how the boys are paying attention to the natural world around them, and will point out lichen when we’re going on walks,” she said.

Gathering the components to dye the yarn with her family became a bright spot in an unprecedented time.

“Usually, during the summer we’d be going to the pool or traveling,” she said. “There were so many things we couldn’t do, but this was a way to enjoy the things we could do.”

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