Friday, 22 March 2019

Dyeing with Dried Madder Root

A shoe box full of dried madder has long awaited its moment of glory.
"Ooh, Elinor, it must be over a year since I dug these roots upI'm so pleased they haven't gone mouldy. Some gorgeous red yarn will really liven up my knitting."
"Fair play, Beaut, can't fault your optimism. Just bear in mind the last few madder vats. Considering your track record, I expect you'll end up moaning over balls of orangey brown wool."
Conveniently ignoring my companion and a store of less successful muddy orange fibres, I pulled out the best leftovers from my past madder dye sessions. Proof that blood red was possible, if not probable.
New shoots are already coming up from the plants in the garden, so I could as well have dug up some fresh material. I hoped my stored supplies would work better, since I've read that the dye gets stronger once roots have been dried out,. With 100g of yarn to dye, I decided 150g dried root would be a generous amount and guarantee me a strong red ... if I could get the method right.
My experience suggests that breaking down the roots at the beginning does help release their dye. Though I've spent ages slicing and macerating fresh roots, when I put these desiccated bits into a blender with the blade for chopping nuts, they buzzed down to a gritty powder within seconds. Which was great, til I remembered they hadn't been scalded yet.
Madder contains other dye colours as well as the red alizarin. Pouring boiling water on the roots and leaving them to soak for a few minutes quickly releases a considerable amount of dye. Since more of this is yellow than red, scalding can clear some of the orange tones. Sadly, if I'd decanted the fluid I'd poured over my buzzed up madder, I think I'd have lost half the powder.
I understand that alizarin red isn't easily soluble in water, so even though I hadn't managed to remove any of the yellow dye, I hoped leaving this bowlful on the underfloor heating in the bathroom for 24 hours before dyeing would at least get a better percentage of the red out of the roots and into the water. Next day, my dye bath looked dark brown.
It is said that bran will take brown dye out of a madder bath, so I put some rolled oats in a gauze bag and dropped them in the pot. Then I stirred up calcium carbonate in hot water and added that, since hard water is supposed to improve the red. Finally, I added enough soda ash to raise the pH to 8.
Alkaline conditions favour redness. The sample of the dye bath on the left is alkaline and I thought the acidic sample on the right did look less red, more scarlet. My best results so far have come from slow dyeing over five days without much heat, but I have also had disappointing results with the slow method, so heat and time aren't absolute factors. Anyway, I didn't want to hang about.
Adding warm water to the pot to float the first 50g skein of wool, I heated it on the gas to about 50 degrees Centigrade for an hour and left it to soak overnight. Next day, the pH had dropped back to neutral, probably because the roots were still fermenting in the bath. This yarn started out as a long colour change from white through grey and brown.

The white parts of the wool had become reddish, but not powerfully so. I think I actually prefer the brighter tone on the second skein, shown on the right, which was dyed in the afterbath under acidic conditions (I put a lemon in). Overdyeing madder red onto the brown and grey parts of the yarn does seem to have added interest, but the overall result is quite muted. All in all, despite my best efforts, I haven't achieved the rich blood red or bright scarlet I hoped for.


My companion joined me in the green house, where I was stolidly planting more madder seeds. She raised an eyebrow. 
"It'll be years before you get to reap what you're sowing in those pots."
"It'll be years before I've tried out all the different madder dye methods." I sighed. "Best guesses aren't getting me the best results, but there are so many variables to consider, I hardly know where to begin. Never mind when I shall reap these roots, the Grim Reaper may come for me before I manage to get all the elements just right." 
My companion chortled to herself, which I thought rather unkind.
"Talking of the Grim Reaper, this'll cheer you up, Beaut. They call my friend, Cleopatra Jones, 'The Quim Reaper'. She's a beautician, marvellous knack around the bikini area."


Friday, 15 March 2019

Spinning Shetland Wool Tops


My companion watched me stuff all my yarn back into hiding. Few balls were made of really tough, durable fibres and none of them had a long colour change. I knew that really, I'd just been checking. I sighed.
"How is it that I never own exactly the yarn I need?"
"Face it, Beaut, you're addicted to knitting those entrelac bags. No quick fix, if you want to make another one, you'll have to spin some of this wool first." 
Turning to my fleece stash, plenty of the raw wool looked hard wearing enough to become a bag, but I'd failed to get it washed while the sun shone last summer. I did find four bumps of combed Shetland wool tops in natural colours. Being coarser than I'd expected when I bought them online, these had been facing an uncertain future from under the bed.
Shetland sheep grow a wonderful range of coloured fleece and the tops were intended for making cosy thrums, only the hat I made with them turned out really itchy. On closer inspection, the white wool looked and felt considerably finer and softer than the other colours, the dark chocolate being next softest while the faun and grey felt properly hairy. OK for a bag though.

Spinning on a high ratio, I spun short forward draw with high twist, aiming for a dense, smooth yarn. After spinning a 20cm portion of one colour of tops, I tore off a short piece of another and blended it roughly with the first, just by splitting and drafting the two between my hands. The resulting single had the sort of long colour change I so enjoy knitting as entrelac.
It wasn't until I had chain plied the first bobbin that I noticed I'd also spun a long weight change. Watching the Six Nations Rugby on telly, it wasn't the exciting moments of the games that had affected my drafting, so much as the different qualities of the four Shetland tops. The coarser fibres had tended to run more thickly through my fingers and once three plied, that effect had been trebled.
The white sections of the yarn had turned out about double knitting weight, while the faun and grey were nearer aran. Even when paying greater attention while spinning the next bobbin, consciously aiming to draft all the colours equally, this intrinsic tendency of the fibres to do their own thing proved surprisingly hard to correct. After spinning four 50g skeins of irregular weight yarn, I was still fighting the tide.
"I've had it with spinning this Shetland, Elinor. I'm going to start knitting. There's enough yarn here for a small bag in sepia shades. Call it a rustic clutch."
"Which sounds like the last dance at the village hall, only less fun. You've been craving the thrill of entrelac colour play, don't give up now, mordant that yarn and make it fabulous."

I'm not sure how spectacular an uneven, natural coloured, tightly spun Shetland yarn can become, but I'm giving it my best shot. Never say dye.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Spinning a Durable, Long Colour Change Yarn from an Indie Dyed Braid

"This craft room looks like a bomb site, Beaut." 
My companion, Elinor Entrelac Gotland, stood in the doorway with a cup of tea in her outstretched hoof. Sitting back on my heels to reach for the cup, I managed to spill tea on a heap of plant dyed fleece. I winced and my companion shrugged. 
"To be honest, those colours look mouldy anyway. Tea could only improve them."
"Well, it's not the right wool to take on the Cronkhill spinning weekend. I want to spin tough yarn to make a firmly shaped bag and that Down type fleece would be too bouncy and elastic. This coreopsis-dyed Polwarth is a great colour, but much too soft." I opened another box and pulled out a handful of corkscrew locks. "If I combed some Wensleydale it would be strong and smooth, only this isn't dyed yet and I want to spin a long colour change yarn."
"How about these?" Elinor profferred two 100g braids of fibre dyed by HilltopCloud. I read the label.
"Oooh, perfect. A blend of Romney wool, silk and linen, all smooth, durable fibres and I love the colours. Is this what you'll be spinning at Cronkhill?"
"You can have it. I'm not coming, Beaut. Got a better offer."
I clutched the gorgeous braids of fibre, both delighted and baffled. What could be better than a weekend away with friends, spinning, drinking Damson Gin and nosing round Shrewsbury? Elinor started humming Calon Lan.
"Go on then, tell me."
"I've been given a ticket for the Six Nations Rugby. This Saturday, I'll be rubbing shoulders with Sam Warburton in the South Stand Lounge at the Principality Stadium, drinking champagne and watching Wales v England." 
I wasn't sure Elinor would be tall enough to rub shoulders with any of the players, but she was chuffed to bits and so was I. 


While the crowd were singing Hymns and Arias in Cardiff, I was sitting in an English farmhouse spinning short forward draw with high twist, drafting to and fro across the top of the braid to make my single transition as slowly as possible from one colour to the next. Chain plied with equally high twist, the yarn turned out smooth and as hard and inelastic as string. Although only aran weight, the grist was so high that 50g fibre made only 56m yarn. Somewhat to my chagrin, despite best efforts, the colour changes in the yarn were of only moderate length and muddier than the braid. On the upside, news of a convincing victory for Wales had me bouncing on the sofa, discommoding adjacent spinners.
It took my companion several days to recover from emotional exhaustion brought on by the rugby. Once she had her voice back, she asked to see what I'd done with her braids.
"Fair play, Beaut, that yarn is harder than JPR Williams. There'll be years of wear in that."
Knitted on 3.5mm needles to create a tight fabric, I think the six stitch squares of entrelac have given the best possible definition to the colour changes.
Using two inch jute upholstery webbing and the same construction method as for the first bag, yarn spun from the second braid was knitted into covers for the brim and the handles. I knew the bag was a success when I found Elinor packing it with her overnight things to fly up to Edinburgh. I'm led to believe that she's been invited to sing Ar Hyd Y Nos at tomorrow's game with the troubadour of Wales, Max Boyce.



Friday, 1 March 2019

Belt and Braces Knitted Bag Construction

Like the daffodils, already flowering in this unseasonably warm February, my companion, Elinor Gotland, has decided Spring is upon us. Fuelled by a couple of episodes of Marie Kondo, the Spring Cleaning Urge has galvanised her into radical action and none of my wardrobe is safe.
"Is that battered old cardigan really 'sparking joy' for you, Beaut?"
I picked at a sleeve.
"Well, I don't feel joyful about the felting and pilling on the cuffs, but I am really fond of this one."
Elinor was not so easily to be thwarted. She intends to take a full bag of my clothes to the charity shop.
"Consider, would you dream of wearing that cardigan outside the home or are you just wasting cupboard space on an item of limited function for foolish nostalgia?"  
I hugged my droopy knitwear round me.
"This is precious. And vintage. I remember buying the yarn in the 1990's at Liberty's and it cost me an absolute fortune. Back in the day, I'd never seen knitting wool like it, quite irresistibly gorgeous. I think the yarn must have been Noro and I think maybe it can still be salvaged."

Once the collar and cuffs had been cut away, the body of the cardigan unravelled quite readily into about 450g of aran single ply yarn, looking like a loose blend of wool and silk in a long colour change. 
My companion positively snarled when she caught me heading upstairs to tuck it away in my yarn stash.
"Surely storing a cardigan as balls of wool must be a step up on folding your Tee shirts really small?" 
Elinor dragged the charity bag into the hall.
"Use it or lose it, Beaut."

With plant dye baths, I find it jolly difficult to achieve slow transitions of dye on yarn. A vague idea of using a long colour change to knit entrelac, as suggested in Margaret Radcliffe's book, The Essential Guide to Colour Knitting Techniques, has been on the back burner of my mind for some years. On a wet Saturday afternoon, I took the book off the shelf and read through the instructions.
"Looks a bit fiddly to do. Have you ever tried this, Elinor?"
My companion was bolt upright on the sofa, transfixed by the rugby. She turned to me as they reset the scrum.
"Entrelac is my middle name. Get a backbone, you'll be fine."
Casting on 60 stitches on 4mm needles, I followed the instructions to create six 10 stitch base triangles and spent happy hours rapt in the pleasure of seeing what colour would appear next and how it would play with the adjacent sections. Entrelac is satisfyingly interesting knitting, holding my attention just enough, but not too much to critically appraise controversial decisions in several successive Six Nations Rugby games. 
"Referee! Knock on!" 
My companion bounced on the sofa as George North charged up the field. 
Like the French team, I'd have done better to start with a game plan and stick to it. When more than half the yarn was used up, I still had no idea what to do with my piece of entrelac fabric, 52cm wide and now 45cm long. Time to finish with a top row of triangles.


Folding it in half, crocheting the long edges together and tucking in the corners to create a squat, oblong box shape, I decided that with a wide brim on top, the piece could become a bag. Casting on 20 provisional stitches and knitting a strip in stocking stitch, when it was just a little shorter than the total distance around the top of the bag, I joined the two ends with a three needle bind off.


"I doubt you washed that cardigan very often." My companion watched the dirty water swirl away after the two knitted pieces had had a thorough scrub. I heaved a sigh as I laid them out flat to dry.
"The strip for the brim has curled up and though I hoped hot water would tighten up the entrelac, it seems to have got looser. Hey ho, lining the bag with some of Mum's leftover upholstery material might firm up the construction."
"What about folding some of this jute upholstery webbing inside the brim piece? That'll uncurl your knitted strip."
Two inch herringbone webbing fitted perfectly inside the folded circle of knitting I'd made for the brim, forming a stiff belt from which to suspend the entrelac bag. To give the bag shape, I sewed another length of webbing against the seams on the short sides and tacked it to every junction of entrelac squares across the base, folding each end of the strip over the belt for the brim.
A third length travelled up from under the base webbing, crossing outside the brim, looping over to form a handle, passing back down under the base and coming up on the other side to loop over as the second handle and finishing under the base. Wherever they touched, the strips of webbing were sewn against each other, except where the handles crossed the brim.
It took an unconscionable number of pins to hold the lining against the brim, the brim against the top of the entrelac and the knitted strip over the brim, but once everything was in place, a single circuit of running stitch sewn with button thread through the lower edge of the brim webbing held all these elements securely together. Next day, I was due to travel up to Edinburgh to visit my daughter. Desperate to find a project to keep me entertained on the journey, my companion watched me scuffle about, madly rejecting patterns and casting aside unsuitable skeins of yarn.
"Calm down, Beaut. Why not take the entrelac bag with you as hand luggage and use up the last of your recycled yarn knitting covers for the handles while you're away? You could even use the buttons off the old cardigan to reinforce the handles flat against the brim."
Sounds improbable, but this plan worked perfectly well.
When crocheted inside a ten stitch wide strip of knitting, the webbing didn't so much roll as crumple into a tube shape, but the handles are both sturdy and comfortable to hold. I even had enough time and yarn to knit pockets for inside to hold my purse and phone. 
This could become my basic construction method for all sorts of knitted bags, upholstery webbing making them strong and giving them shape without needing to felt the knitting. All in all, I'm very pleased to have recycled something old and learned something new.
E.E.G. Elinor Entrelac Gotland. I never would have guessed.




Friday, 22 February 2019

The Betula Jacket Knitting Pattern


The Betula Jacket is a variation on the Shorelines Shawl Collar Cardigan pattern and I'd say it's an improved version. My daughter liked it so much, it now belongs to her. 

This one is knitted in World of Wool Chunky Superwash Merino and Silk which I scoured and dyed with silver birch tree bark. The yarn is quite heavy and drapey and the knitted fabric actually increases in size after washing. Maybe not for the purist, but good news for my daughter, superwash yarn does have the great advantage of making knitwear less likely to be accidentally shrunk in the wash.


Materials
300m chunky yarn in Contrast Colour (CC)
600m chunky yarn in Main Colour (MC) - my MC is actually 200m of three shades of pink knit in stripes
4.5mm and 5.5mm circular needle with long cord
Pair of 5.5mm straight needles
4 Stitch Markers
4.5mm crochet hook
Tapestry needle for sewing in ends
35cm open ended heavy duty zip
Sewing needle and thread and 40cm x 20cm fabric for facing zip if desired.

Tension after washing - 10 cm squared = 14.5 stitches and 18 rows 

Size
Finished jacket has a bust measurement of 108cm and a hip measurement of 98cm (with ribbing intended to stretch to fit).
In the photos, it is worn as a loose jacket by my daughter who is size 10, though it was actually made to fit me, size 16, with 100cm hip and 105cm bust measurements.



Abbreviations
CC = contrast colour
k = knit
k2tog = knit 2 stitches together
M1L = make 1 stitch angled left
M1R = make 1 stitch angled right
MC = main colour
p = purl
PM = place marker
RS = right side
ssk = slip 1 st as if to k, slip the next st as if to p, slide the left needle through the front loops of the two slipped stitches and k together 
SM slip marker
st = stitch
w&t = wrap yarn around needle and turn to work back in the other direction
WS = wrong side
yo = wrap yarn over needle before working next stitch


Pocket linings (make two)
Using 5.5 mm straight needles and MC, cast on 22 stitches and knit 4 rows of stocking stitch, then break yarn leaving a long tail for sewing up the pocket later. Keep both pocket linings on a straight needle.

Body
Using 4.5mm circular needle and CC, cast on 133 st (I used a twisted longtail cast on method)
(WS) Edging Row One   
P1, *P1, K1* repeat from * to * to last two st, P2
(RS) Edging Row Two   
K1, *K1, P1* repeat from * to * to last two st, K2
Work this pattern for 13 rows to make ribbed edging, ending on a WS row.

Change to 5.5mm needle and MC (if you are making stripes, change colour every two rows, carrying yarn up alongside fabric edge).
Row 1 k
Row 2 p
Row 3 k 27, pm, M1L, k 25, pm, M1R, k 25, M1L, pm, k25, M1R, pm, k27 (137)
Row 4 p
Row 5 k
Row 6 p


Make pocket fronts:
Row 7 k 23 and turn, leaving the other stitches still on the circular cord - you will now be knitting only these 23 stitches to create the front of the right pocket.
Row 8 p back to edge
Row 9 k 21, k2tog (22 stitches)

Row 10 p back to edge
The sloping opening of the right pocket is created by repeating rows 9 and 10 another 10 times. Slip the remaining 13 stitches onto a holder.

Using a straight needle, slip 23 stitches off the other end of the circular cord. Attach yarn at the edge which will become the pocket opening to knit the front of the left pocket.
Row 7 k
Row 8 p
Row 9 ssk, k to end (22 stitches)
Row 10 p
Repeat rows 9 and 10 another ten times. Break yarn and leave the remaining 13 stitches on a holder.

Making more of the body and completing the pockets:
Row 7 Using the needle at the opposite end of the circular cord to the right pocket and starting from the far edge of one pocket lining, with its RS facing, knit across the 22 stitches of the pocket lining from the straight needle, then knit across the stitches on the circular cord, slipping the markers as you reach them, to the junction with the left pocket front. Take the straight needle with the remaining pocket lining and knit across these 22 stitches to finish the row.
Row 8 p (135 st)
Row 9 k to marker, M1L, k to marker, M1R, k to one st before marker M1L and slip marker, k to one st before marker MRL and slip marker, k to end (139 st)
Row 10 p

Continue working in stocking stitch for another 6 rows.
Row 17 k to marker, M1L, (k to marker, slip marker) repeat, k to one st before marker, M1R, and slip marker, k to end (141 st)
Row 18 p removing markers.
Continue working in stocking stitch for another 4 rows

Once the work across the pocket linings and the main body reaches the same height as the pocket fronts (a total of 22 rows stocking stitch), slip the stitches from the pocket tops off the holders and onto two separate straight needles.
Start the next row by knitting 1 st from the right pocket front, then for the next 12 stitches, holding the pocket top in front, knit together one st from the right pocket top with one st from the main piece. Knit across the work to 12 stitches from the end, knit together one st from the left pocket top in front of one st from the main piece and finish by knitting the last stitch from the left pocket front (143 st)

Continue working in stocking stitch until the work measures 32cm in total finishing on a WS row


Sleeves (make two)
Using 4.5mm needle and CC, cast on 33 st (I used a twisted longtail cast on)
(WS) Cuff Row One   P1, *P1, K1* repeat to last two st, P2
(RS) Cuff Row Two    K1, *K1, P1* repeat to last two st, K2
Work this pattern for 9 rows to make ribbed cuff, ending on a WS row.

Change to 5.5mm needle and work in stocking stitch for 2 rows, change to MC and work another 8 rows, ending on a WS row. (If you are making stripes, change colour every two rows, carrying yarn up alongside fabric edge.)
Sleeve Increase Row   K1, M1L, K to last 2 st, M1R, K1
Work this increase row on the eleventh row and every following eighth row until you have 49 stitches on the needle. Continue working in stocking stitch until sleeve measures 41cm. Place first two stitches and last two stitches on safety pins, cut yarn allowing an end for weaving in and leave remaining 45 st on needle.


Yoke
Starting with a RS row on 5.5mm needles in MC, k 34 across body, place 4 st on a safety pin and PM. K 45 across one sleeve and PM. K 67 across body, place 4 st on a safety pin and PM. K 45 across the other sleeve and PM. K 34 to the end of the body. (225st)
Purl back across all st, slipping markers.

Decrease Row for Neck and Yoke
K1, K2tog (neck decrease) *K to 3st before marker ssk, k1, SM, k2tog, K to 2 st before marker, ssk, SM, K1, K2tog* repeat from * to *, K to 3st before end, ssk (neck decrease), K1
Purl back across all st, slipping markers.
Repeat these two rows 9 times in total (135st)

Decrease Row for Yoke only
*K to 3st before marker ssk, k1, SM, k2tog, K to 2 st before marker, ssk, SM, K1, K2tog* repeat from * to *, K to end
Purl back across all st, slipping markers.
Repeat these two rows 12 times in total (39st)

Final decrease row
K1, ssk, K1, remove marker, K2tog, K1, SM, K1, K2tog, K19, ssk, K1, remove marker, K1, ssk, remove marker, K1, K2tog, K1 (33st)
Purl back across all st, slipping 1 remaining marker and leave 33 st on needle.


Front Edge and Collar

Using 4.5mm needle and CC, with RS facing, starting at the bottom of the right front edge and working through the spaces between the first and second columns of stitches, pick up one st through the first four row interspaces, miss a space, continue picking up 4 st from every 5 rows up the front, along the neck angle and up the straight edge of the neck, knit the first 5 live st from the needle, SM, K 28, pick up 4 st from every 5 rows of the straight edge of the neck, from the angled edge of the neck and from the left front edge.


First Row (WS) P1, *K1, P1* repeat from * to * until you reach the marker. Remove marker. If you just made a purl stitch, w&t now, if you just made a knit stitch, P1, w&t.
Second Row (RS) *K1, P1* repeat from * to * for 24 st, w&t

Short Rows for Collar
Working in the established rib pattern, when you reach the wrapped yarn, knit it together with the next stitch, P1, w&t. Repeat this for 40 short rows, at which stage the collar will cover the entire slope of the neck line.

Next Row
Working in the established rib pattern, when you reach the wrapped yarn, knit it together with the next stitch, then continue P1, K1 rib to the end of the row at the bottom of the right front.

Next Row
Working in the established rib pattern, when you reach the wrapped yarn, knit it together with the next stitch, then continue P1, K1 rib to the end of the row at the bottom of the left front.

Work in rib for 9 full length rows

Either, cast off in rib and bend the width of the straight edge of the front border in half, sewing the cast off edge to the front of the work on both sides, 
Or use the working end of the yarn and a crochet hook to fix each live stitch of the straight edges of the front border into the stitches of row one of the border, 
Cast off all the collar stitches loosely to allow it to fan out.

Pocket Edging

With right side facing, pick up 20 stitches evenly across opening of pocket.

Knit one row
Cast off knitwise and sew down edges.
Repeat on the other pocket.


Finishing

Using Kitchener Stitch, graft together  the four safety pinned stitches from the sleeve with the four stitches from the body at each underarm. Sew up the sleeve seams and sew in the pocket linings. Weave in all loose ends. Wash and block then set the zip in to the WS of the straight edges of the border, completing the job with fabric facings.

Note to Self - I do want one of these jackets - the fabric would be fuller and bouncier knitted in a yarn woolen spun from a Down type sheep fleece and the collar could be fab made in a mad art yarn, possibly even with tail spun locks.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Exhausting a Silver Birch Bark Dye Bath

Though I know silver birch bark contains enough colour to dye an equal weight of fibre, I prefer to start with twice as much bark, so as to be sure of a deep pink result. After peeling 600g bark off a fallen birch branch, I planned to dye 300g yarn. 


The peelings were left to ferment for a week in a bucket of water, then simmered for an hour or so and left overnight. The process of fermentation had reduced the pH of the dye bath to a fairly acidic pH 5, so I added enough dissolved soda ash to bring it up to neutral pH 7 before simmering my scoured yarn for an hour. After soaking overnight, the yarn came out a nice deep pink and the dye bath was still so dark I could barely see the peeled bark floating around at the bottom of the pot. Retesting with indicator paper later that day, it seemed that the bark must still be fermenting despite having been simmered, as the pH had dropped again. Over the next five days, I kept adding a little more soda ash to keep the pH neutral and dyeing successive batches of scoured yarn by simmering for an hour and leaving them in the pot for an overnight soak. By the time the dye bath was giving only palest pink, the original 600g bark had dyed 1.4 kg of fibres - some of them shown in the photo above.


The fluid still looked dark. Nonetheless, I feel clear the dye bath is exhausted - or possibly, vice versa.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Red Onion Skin Dye On White, Grey and Alum Mordanted Yarn

"More onion dyes, Beaut?" My companion heaved a sigh. "Whatever could you want more ginger wool for? Thinking of knitting yourself a uniform and joining the Brownie Guides?"
"This week, I want to try dyeing white and grey wool with red onion skins. I expect red onions won't give me ginger so much as plain brown wool - which might do for a Brownie cardigan, except I'm just that little bit too old and I think my niece is in the Rainbow Guides."
"Never seen any brown on a Rainbow, Beaut. Brown is just a muddy old mixture and brown overdyed on grey wool will be as dull as ditchwater. Why don't you mordant this yarn with alum? They say alum makes red onion dye turn green."
One of the great things about onion skin dyeing is that you don't need to mordant your fibres beforehand to get strong and lightfast colour. Dye things well in the first place and I've found onion skin dyes only fade much if they have to be washed. Still, I had to agree this experiment would be more interesting if I divided my three balls of yarn into two skeins and mordanted one of each with alum, before dyeing all the skeins in the same dye pot.


To extract the dye, 80g red onion skins were boiled in water for an hour or so and left in the pot overnight. The six skeins, weighing 150g in total, were simmered in the dye bath for a couple of hours. Big disappointment when I fished them out next day.
"Overdyeing grey yarn with red onion skins may have given me dull and predictably darker browns, but I might as well not have bothered with the alum mordant. There's barely a hint of green to be seen."
"You probably did the mordanting wrong. Wouldn't be the first time, would it, Beaut?"
"I did my best. Three of those skeins had an hour simmering in a 10% alum solution and then 24 hours to soak afterwards."
"You wouldn't have reused that alum solution that's been sitting on the patio for weeks?"
"So what if I did?"
My companion wandered off sighing and tutting under her breath. I don't usually store mordant solutions for more than a few days, but I've heard people say they keep theirs indefinitely. Though perhaps not outdoors in the snow.


I did actually have some of the same white DROPS Alaska yarn that I accidentally mordanted with 15% alum, ages ago. A 50g skein went into the red onion skin afterbath for a simmer. Result next day was quite definitely green, so poor mordanting must have been the problem previously. Remind me not to bother keeping used alum solution hanging about.

Looking at my onion skin dyes of 2019, after all that experimenting, my companion pointed out that both the brown and the red onion skin colours look nicer on white than grey wool. 

"Still, the alum mordanted skein from the red onion bath makes me think green and ginger brown colours could go well together. Instead of dyeing the last few balls of this wool with bark like I planned, I might wait for the trees to come into leaf. Greenish yellow leaf dyes should come out well if I'm overdyeing grey yarns."
"Yes, Beaut. So long as you mordant them properly."