Friday, 13 July 2018

Mordants in Solar Jars

"Are you just stuffing plain, dry Merino into those jars of flowers?"
"It'll be alright Elinor, calm down, I've done solar dyeing this way before."
"What, with no scouring and soaking and mordanting, you expect that wool to take up dye properly? You're off your trolley, Beaut." My companion turned away, settled her specs lower down her nose and resumed waving her hoof in time to unheard music.

"I put some dissolved alum in with the water in the jar, so the sun mordants the wool at the same time as releasing dye from the flowers. Great short cut, quick and easy, especially with all this hot weather." I waited for some appreciation of my cleverness, but Elinor was now absorbed in her own work. I pottered over. "What's that you're reading?"
Elinor pressed her lips together and shook her head.
"Stop distracting me, it's only a few weeks til the performance. Were you not listening when I told you I'd be singing a solo for the Tabernacl Choir? I'm learning the score with the Musical Director breathing down my neck. He's such a perfectionist."
"I know, he gives the tenors a really hard time. I'm a bit nervous myself, Ethel Smyth's Mass in D is a big challenge for all of us."
"Oh, you've got nothing to worry about, hidden up the back of the alto section, copying Gwyneth's every note. You relax, go back to your jars and waste good wool for lack of preparation, I shall be totally exposed to the public eye and ear doing my solo and I do not intend to be second rate. Unlike some." At which, she returned to her humming and hoof waving, frowning diabolically at any interruption, even when I just raised my eyebrows and mimed drinking a cup of tea. Stung by my companion's remarks, I wanted evidence to prove that taking short cuts wasn't spoiling my solar dyeing.

I scoured, soaked and mordanted two 10g portions of blended merino and silk tops with 10% alum and put them into two jars, one with a rusty nail to add iron, and filled the jars with water. Then I tore off two more 10g strips of the same tops, giving them no mordant or soak at all before putting them into another two jars, this time with 1g of dissolved alum added to the water as well as a rusty nail in one jar. Finally, twenty Dyers Chamomile flowers were put into each jar and all of them stood together on the shelf in the greenhouse. The dry tops floated up to the top of their jars, but I reckoned they should soon absorb some fluid and sink down.


The sun shone in the greatest heatwave Wales has experienced in decades. Two days later, the unprepared tops were still floating and athough the fluid in their jars was more yellow, it already looked as though the solar dyeing was working better on the premordanted fibres. My companion was still busy trilling away at her solo and I thought maybe I'd go and practice the fiddly bits of the fugue in the Credo.


Five days in and the situation looked even worse for the short cut jars, where the wool still floated pale above an even more yellow fluid. Time I learned all those Amens in the Gloria. After a week, the unprepared fibres at last seemed to be taking up some colour and I had hopes that the all in one mordant and dye jars would work fine in the long run. No harm in giving all the jars a good shake, just to mix things up.

Two solid weeks of hot sunshine and temperatures up to 27 degrees Centigrade are almost unheard of in Wales.
"Come out of that greenhouse, Beaut. You'll boil yourself alive." I started guiltily and stood in front of the jars as my companion sauntered in. "More solar dyeing is it? Something I ought to see, perhaps?" 
No getting away with this, I had to explain the experiment.
"Looks like the mordant in the water is holding the dye in your short cut jars."
"I think the wool in them looks just as yellow as the premordanted wool now though, Elinor."
"Really? Shall we have a look?"
Before I could protest, the jars had all been emptied out onto the lawn.



"Well, the wool has all gone yellow, Elinor."
"Mmm, but not equally yellow. The short cut jars have not worked as well, the dye is second rate. And your rusty nails haven't modified the colour much."
"Maybe they didn't have long enough to dissolve iron into the water. The wool went really green with rusty nails in those jars of Dyers Chamomile that got left for months. It might have helped if these jars had been left a bit longer."
"Best you tidy this lot up. I must dash. Mustn't keep the orchestra waiting." My companion headed off to another rehearsal, calling over her shoulder, "Don't leave those nails on the grass, they'll bugger up the lawn mower."

I have to conclude that all in one mordant and dye solar jars don't work as fast as ones with premordanted fibres. Unless I intend to wait for months to get this much solar heating into a jar in an average Welsh summer, the short cut method isn't really a short cut at all. Possibly, the results would be second rate how ever long I waited. Now they are dry, I can see that the silk fibres have dyed more strongly in the short cut jars, making a deeper contrast with the pale yellow wool and a good airing has promoted the saddening effect of iron from the rusty nails.


If the results aren't quite what I had hoped, at least in the meantime I've prepared thoroughly for the choir's big event this Sunday. I'm intrigued to know exactly what Elinor will be singing. There's Always the Sun?


Friday, 6 July 2018

Contact Dye Prints from Eucalyptus Leaves

Last April, I happened to see some bunches of eucalyptus on sale outside a florist shop. The owner explained that these were last stocks she expected to have until August, as the eucalyptus supply for the UK is grown in Madeira and Italy, where they leave the trees to grow new foliage for a few months after Easter. I bought one bunch of parvifolia, which is narrow leaved and another with pairs of rounded leaves, called cinerea.
I've read Australian bloggers describing hundreds of types of eucalyptus with widely differing dye potential, so I knew it would be a stab in the dark to have a go at dyeing with random species grown in the Northern Hemisphere. It does seem true that trees grown in the UK don't get enough sun to develop orange dye, as I only had green prints from a local eucalyptus. 


I finally got round to making contact dye bundles at the beginning of June, when a few weld plants had shot up flower spikes that wanted harvesting. None of the other garden dye plants were flowering, so I soaked some of the dried eucalyptus in hot water, to make the brittle leaves and stalks flexible, before laying them out on some fine wool fabric together with the weld spikes.
Some of the weld was was dipped in iron solution and some in copper. The fabric was laid out on a strip of greaseproof paper to stop dye going through the layers and another layer of alum mordanted wool was laid on top, sandwiching the plants. All the layers were rolled around a section of plastic drainpipe and bound with string before simmering for an hour or so in a dye bath of dried coreopsis. 
I left the bundle to soak overnight and dry out for a couple of days before unrolling, when I was astonished to see how well the two kinds of eucalyptus had printed on both the fabric above and the fabric below them. Once the two wool scarves had dried for a week and had a wash and iron, the eucalyptus prints still looked deep orange.



My companion, Elinor Gotland, trailed a dismissive hoof over the fabric.
"Why on earth aren't you using silk, Beaut? Strapped for cash this month?"
"Actually, Elinor, this fine wool gauze cost more per metre than Habotai. Anyway, I hardly have any left of the silk scarves that Mum hemmed for me."
"Well, her hard work is doing no-one any good sitting in a drawer. Get some silk out and use eucalyptus on it, can't go wrong with prints like these."
Privately, I had misgivings. I haven't used eucalyptus much, but past results on alum mordanted silk have been less spectacular. Following online discussions, I've noticed people often talk about adding rusty nails, spraying vinegar onto ecobundles and steaming them for several hours. I've found rust makes very black marks, almost burning holes in silk. Steaming isn't going to reach as high a temperature as boiling, maybe that stops the rust from being so savage. I may have a proper go at it eventually.


For the moment, I decided to try soaking some of the dried eucalyptus leaves for half an hour in plain hot water, some in hot water with vinegar and some in hot water with both vinegar and iron solution added, just to see if one might make better prints. This silk was folded in half lengthwise over the leaves together with some Dyers Chamomile flowers.
Of course, once I unwrapped it, I had no idea which leaves had been soaked in which jar. The prints were much paler than on wool and I reckon the darker, browner ones must have been soaked with iron, though there isn't a marked difference to show which had vinegar and which did not.
In the meantime, I had used the same three soaks for leaves rolled in a cotton shirt, mordanted with aluminium acetate. The prints they made are much dimmer than those on wool and far less dramatic than the colours from weld dipped in iron, coreopsis flowers or madder roots.
Again, I'd guess the darker eucalyptus prints with lots of little grey dots had had an iron soak. Hoping to get a clear idea of what was really happening, I made another roll with two wool scarves. This time, at the top end of the scarf sandwich, shown centrally in the photo, I put three cinerea leaves from a hot water soak, then three from hot water and vinegar, then three from hot water, vinegar and iron. After that, a circle of parvifolia leaves, with hot water from 12 o' clock to 4 o' clock, vinegar from 4 o' clock to 8 o'clock and vinegar with iron from 8 o'clock up to 12 o'clock. This roll was simmered in an afterbath of weld leaves with iron, to colour the borders.




I am not convinced that adding vinegar made any difference to the prints from either of these two types of eucalyptus leaf, whether on wool, silk or cotton. Adding iron made the paler prints on silk and cotton stand out more at the expense of saddening the colour, while on wool, any effect of iron appears marginal.
 "I still have plenty of dried eucalyptus leaves left and I think I'll save them for printing on wool, whatever you say, Elinor."
My companion judged the dye results by her own criteria and took command of the situation.
"I shall take care of this silk, since you don't appreciate it. It's what your mother would have wanted."




Friday, 29 June 2018

Dyers Chamomile and Solar Jars

Two Dyers Chamomile plants have taken over the entrance to my dye garden. Every winter I cut them down to 10cm above ground, every spring they bush out, then sprawl over the lawn in summer. Having survived frost and snow, they are absolutely loving a month of unusually hot weather.
I picked all the flowers last week, rubbed off some blackfly then staked up the stems to stop them getting chewed by the lawn mower. About 500g fresh flowers were simmered in a pot of water for an hour, then sieved out before I put 225g alum mordanted yarn into the dye bath to simmer for another hour. 
Indicator paper showed the bath was acidic at pH 5, so I added just enough soda ash to bring it up toward neutral pH 7. The yarn was 75% merino with 25% tussah silk, which I know takes up dye particularly well. Notwithstanding these advantages, I reckon the hot weather has doubled the dye content of my Dyers Chamomile flowers, as I have never known the dye come out as powerful as the colour of the actual flowers or turn as rich a green with an iron modifier.
A few days later, more flowers had opened and with more hot sunshine forecast, this seemed the perfect time to run a solar jar experiment. Only my Kilner jars were still full of experiments I never completed last year. I remember the tall jar contained 200g flowers, but the garden had to be abandoned in July and I only got round to putting a couple of alum mordanted silk skeins in there during the winter.
The jar sat on the underfloor heating in the bathroom for a while and came outdoors in spring. After nearly a year, the flowers were still intact and sweet smelling and fermentation had acidified the pH right down to 4. When I emptied it onto the compost heap, very little yellow had gone into the silk. Though I hoped that rinsing might wash out the acid and bring up some colour, the silk stayed drab and will need overdyeing. Years ago, I spent July filling these jars with concentrated dye solutions, made in a dye pot then plant material sieved out. They looked very pretty lined up on the shelf, I had scalded the jars in advance and no mould grew. Unfortunately, when I tried to dye with them during the winter, only the jar of meadowsweet gave wool much colour. I know saving up flowers as you pick them over a few weeks works fine in a solar jar, but it isn't a long term storage solution, for longevity, flowers need to be dried.

The other two jars of Dyers Chamomile had alum mordanted Speckled Face Beulah fleece in them. One also had a couple of rusty nails in the bottom to provide iron. Though it looked yellow when I tipped it out, once the air got to the wool, within a minute the iron turned the dye to green. I would have been pleased with the depth of colour if I hadn't seen how much more strongly this year's flowers are working. The fleece felt a bit rough, but as I expected from past experience, it had survived.
My companion, Elinor Gotland, had been less optimistic. She called across the lawn to me while I was carrying the jars down to the compost heap.

"Whatever you left to rot in there, just dump the lot and don't go bringing any mouldy wool into the house, Beaut. What last year's solar jar experiments should be telling you is not to start any more."
Putting the fleece into a bucket to rinse, I shouted back over the noise of the hose.
"I think some of these jars must have had different varieties of coreopsis flowers in them, only they've all turned to mush. Probably rinse off ok."
"Oh, disgusting. Just scrub out the jars and be done with it. What can you possibly make with a few handfuls of plant dyed fleece?" 


Friday, 22 June 2018

Cold Water and Vinegar Dyeing with Woad and Japanese Indigo Leaves

Yesterday morning, the sun shone after a wet week. Inspecting the raised border in my front garden, I realised that though I can rely on the Japanese Indigo plants to crowd out most weeds, a random self-seeded courgette hidden among the rhubarb had started spreading its leaves over their heads.
The garden has been coming on exceptionally well, thanks to a bitterly cold winter and a warm, dry spring, both of which have seriously hindered the local slug population. In the midst of much smug self-congratulation, I bent down to weed among the woad plants at the front of the border and found the wretched beasts had taken their chances during the rain and slimed and climbed up the boards to eat half my leaves.
Deciding to make the most of what woad was left, I put some sections of merino and silk tops in the sink to soak while I walked the dog. In the past, I've used method of extracting dye from Japanese Indigo leaves which only uses cold water and vinegar, so when my harvest only amounted to a modest bowlful of leaves, hardly worth a proper vat, it seemed a good time to find out whether this simple method would work on woad. The leaves had a quick rinse under the cold tap then were torn up and buzzed in a blender with ice cold water and poured into a bowl with a glug of white vinegar. After standing for half an hour, the green slush was squeezed, massaged, sieved through a cloth into a fresh bowl then the last of the juice was squashed out of the pulp through the cloth.



I put in a 15g section of wet merino and silk tops and left the bowl in a cool spot while I added another litre of cold water and vinegar to the lump of leaf pulp and left that to stand for another half an hour before repeating the squeezing and sieving and adding more wool to a second bowl.



Meanwhile, not a lot was happening in bowl one, where the wool tops were sodden with green juice, but not appreciably blue. After an hour, I squeezed out the fluid and encouraged by the sight of pale turquoise, put in my third length of tops to get the benefit of whatever indigo might still be available.


At the end of the process, none of the three lengths of fibre appeared strongly dyed and I suspected that once they had been rinsed, I would have even less colour to show for my efforts. Still, they hadn't been enormous efforts and I'd got quite a bit of gardening done in the intervals. Maybe June is too early to harvest woad, despite the warmth earlier this year. The Japanese Indigo plants had definitely already developed indigo within their leaves, I could see dark blue staining wherever I had bent or bruised a leaf while weeding. The afternoon was still young and I had all the kit out, so I cut a bowlful of Japanese Indigo plant tops weighing 300g and repeated the whole process for the sake of comparison.



This time, the fluid seemed more viscous and blue green and after an hour soaking, the first 15g strip of fibres had turned a more convincing blue beneath the surface sludge.



The Japanese Indigo was working so much better that I didn't stop after dyeing twice with the first pressing and once with the resoaked leaves. I combined the two bowlfuls and left another section of tops in there all evening, took that out and put yet another bit in to soak overnight. This morning, the wool was a much more familiar indigo blue and the fluid still looked as though there was oxgenated blue indigo in it, but enough is enough, I chucked it out. There's plenty more leaves growing in the garden and I'm not convinced these cold indigo dyes fix as well and are as stable as the blues from a hot, deoxgenated vat.



Here are the results of the cold water and vinegar method, woad at the top and Japanese Indigo at the bottom, first pressing then second pressing of leaves followed by dyeing in the afterbath.



I won't rinse them til tomorrow, so I'll have to add another picture later to show the colours once the residual leaf slime has come off. First thought - woad leaves don't work nearly as well as Japanese Indigo for this method, in future, I'll process them properly or not at all. Second thought - Ionger soaking gives stronger colours when using Japanese Indigo. Third thought - I really mustn't neglect to do a proper light fastness test this time. Fourth thought - slug pellets.

The washed tops.


Friday, 15 June 2018

Dyeing Wool with Almond Tree Bark

"So, how was Spinning Camp?" My companion, Elinor Gotland, had been watching me lug the tent back into the garage and load the washing machine. A cup of tea in the shade provided a welcome break.
"Brilliant. I've been getting sunburnt, felting soaps and impersonating dinosaurs."
"Ooo, you don't usually get good enough weather for that."
"Did a bit of spinning too."
"Yes, I saw you unpacking two new fleeces. I thought the car boot was going to burst."
"Hmm, well, things would have been worse if I'd stayed long enough to go to the Fleece Fair."
This morning found me intending to water the dye garden, set up a suint vat and write this week's blog. Before I went away, I dyed some skeins of wool yarn in a vat of almond tree bark. Now they need a rinse and proper consideration, so though they aren't as thrilling as fleece shopping or a pterodactyl attack, I thought I would write a post recording the process before I forget.


Three almond trees were doing nicely in the front garden until a few years ago when they contracted a disease that makes the new leaves blister and curl. This spring, the poor things had more dead branches than healthy ones. When we cut one tree down, I thought I would peel off its bark to try making dye, only there wasn't much that hadn't already shrivelled and dried onto the heartwood.
About 300g was left in a pot of water to ferment for a week then simmered for an hour. The dye bath looked cloudy orange and indicator paper showed it had become mildly acidic at pH 5. I put in three skeins of bulky yarn weighing 150g in total, simmered them for an hour and left them overnight. I took one out and was neither surprised nor upset to find it had gone beige.
Past experience of bark dyes has shown that increasing the pH of the fermented bath to neutral can greatly improve the dye colour. Samples of my almond bark dye bath shifted from orange at pH 5 to red at pH 7, while adding enough soda ash to bring the pH up to 9 made the fluid deep red/brown. I simmered the two remaining skeins at neutral pH, took one out and then added more soda ash before simmering the last skein.


Here is how they looked today, draped over one of the surviving almond trees. On the left, beige from the acidic dye bath, in the middle, a warmer orange beige from the pH neutral bath and on the right, brown from the alkaline bath. Unremarkable I think, pleasant is the kindest comment one might make about almond bark dye. 
Frankly, I would rather have almond blossom in spring and nuts in autumn, failing that, hoping to avoid recurrent disease, I think I shall replace the trees with hazel, hawthorn and maybe eucalyptus. Might get some dye out of that, even if the weather goes back to damp grey normal.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Reusing an Alum Mordant Bath

At great risk of becoming repetitious, I shall once again describe my current quandary. At this time of year, I mordant wool and silk in bulk, ready for the dye plant flowering season. Using 10% of the dry weight of the fibres in alum crystals, sometimes I hot mordant in a large pot of water by simmering for an hour, more often, I cold mordant by leaving fibres to soak in an unheated bath for 24 hours. Last week, I made a dye bath with dried Dyers Chamomile flowers and tried a direct comparison. The wool which had been mordanted hot took up more of the plant dye than wool which had been mordanted cold. I had to conclude that putting my new supplies through a hot mordant process would give me the best results.
Prior to that, when dyeing with birch leaves, I had discovered that increasing the percentage of alum premordant to 15 or even 20% made little difference. I understand that fibres will only pick up half the alum from any mordant bath, whatever the concentration, though I don't understand quite why that should be so. I like to use things up rather than throw them away and having read that alum mordant baths can be reused, I've got into a routine of dividing the things I want to mordant into seven equal portions. I weigh out and dissolve sufficient alum to mordant four portions and after I have finished either the hot or the cold process, I mordant the next two portions in the remaining alum, and finally, repeat the process with the seventh and last portion before chucking out the solution. 
Though I have been growing common dye plants and foraging for others for some years, I still get unexpected results when I am dyeing. This can be all very lovely and serendipitous or all very beige and disappointing, either way, I accept unpredictability, it adds to the thrill. This does not mean I am overjoyed to suppose that some of my duller and dimmer plant dye results may have been the entirely predictable consequence of substandard mordanting practice. I do prefer life's rich tapestry to be a rich tapestry.
This week's trial was a second comparison of hot versus cold alum mordanting plus a comparison of the outcomes of dyeing yarn mordanted in the second and third reuse of hot and cold alum baths. All skeins are DROPS wool, for both the hot and cold process, 50g yarn was mordanted in 5g alum, 25g was mordanted in the leftover mordant bath and then a 12.5g skein was mordanted after that. For the dye bath, I soaked and simmered 100g dried coreopsis tinctoria before adding 100g wool yarn. 


Here are the results. The two larger skeins at the top both had the first use of the alum, the topmost skein in a hot bath and the one below in a cold bath. As before, the hot mordanted skein is an appreciably deeper colour than the cold. The two skeins in the middle were mordanted in the second use of the hot and the cold alum baths and the the two at the bottom had the third use. The very last skein from the third use of the cold bath was left more than 24 hours, I forgot to take it out so it soaked for two days. That one is a slightly darker ginger. I have peered at the others and held them up together and I cannot really tell them apart without reading the labels. They are all much the same as the skein from the first use of the cold alum mordant bath. Which is good news. It suggests I can reuse my alum solutions without sacrificing even more quality of plant dye results and that quite possibly, leaving things to soak for more than 24 hours will improve the results from all my cold mordant baths.


My companion, Elinor Gotland, came upstairs to help me sort through my stash.
"It's high time you cracked on with mordanting all this stuff, Beaut. June is busting out all over the garden."
"At least I know what I am up to now. The expensive yarns can have first go in a hot alum mordant to ensure the best dye results. Then for the others, I'll reuse the remaining bath cold rather than heating it over and over again, because there doesn't seem to be much difference between results from hot or cold reused baths. All the wool and silk tops will have a cold mordant because it works well enough and won't risk felting them. When I reuse the alum cold, don't you think I'd be better off leaving things to soak for two days rather than one?" 
That last question was disingenuous. As I cold mordant things in the household bath, three uses of alum for 48 hours apiece would put the bathroom out of action for nearly a week, which might be pushing my luck. Happily for me, Elinor was too busy fossicking about with my stuff to put two and two and two together.


"What about this beautiful length of heavy tweed from Cambrian Wool?"
"That will have to be mordanted cold because I haven't got a big enough pot for the whole thing and I don't want to cut it til I've decided what it is going to be."
"Oh, I can already picture its perfect destiny, Beaut. These base colours are bound to suit me. I think you should overdye them with Goldenrod and make me a tailored jacket and matching bag."
"All that from half a meter?"
Elinor bridled.
"I have a very slender physique once my fleece is shorn. This summer, my stylist has suggested a dynamic short cropped back and sides with shag cut locks framing my face. A contemporary spin on the gamin style I used to favour in my catwalk days in Paris."
A diplomatic nod seemed safest. I'll just scour the tweed and see how much it shrinks. Elinor's modelling career ended some time ago and she may discover June has been busting out elsewhere.