Friday, 21 September 2018

Japanese Indigo Plant Dyeing and Overdyeing

This week, here are my reflections on dyeing with Japanese Indigo plants, overall, very happy, as the plants have loved a hot summer in Wales. During the heat wave, they didn't mind surviving on one good watering each week and dry or damp, they never get eaten by slugs, which is such a bonus in my garden. I'd say not only have the plants grown a bit larger, but also, there has been more indigo than usual in each leaf. I can wedge about 2kg leaves and stems into my dye pot and looking at this year's results, I have had perceptibly more indigo blue out of each dye session than I have in previous, cooler damper years. 


Much as I prize the continuity of use of woad, which stretches back into prehistory, sometimes I wonder why I bother growing it. Mostly, mine has provided lunch for slugs. Half the woad plants have been munched to extinction and the remainder are looking lacey. Hopefully, they will survive to flower next May so I can save seeds and keep the stock going. 
The Japanese Indigo plants seem robust enough to take over the garden, except they always get killed off by cold weather before they can set seed. I've found their dye content diminishes as autumn sets in, so this month, I've been uprooting plants from the border, steeping pots of fresh leaves and hunting my cupboards for more things to dye blue.
Using the method on the Wild Colours website with dithionite to deoxygenate the vat, I can get fairly deep blues from the first dip and then medium blues with repeated dips, but achieving a consistent shade is beyond my powers. This is a whole kilogram of chunky yarn I dyed to knit into a jacket. You can tell the finished object is going to be as stripey as ever.
Despite repeated dips in the vat, the shades I get tend toward baby blue and I'd prefer a colour with a bit more guts. I have tried overdyeing naturally coloured wool with indigo and I think greys turn out better than browns. These skeins were millspun from white Llanwenog sheep, blended with increasing amounts of Black Welsh Mountain fleece to create the two tones of grey. Each skein was divided into four 25g portions. From the left, you can see the results of dipping the first portion of each shade while the indigo vat was moderately strong, the next three skeins were dipped when the vat had been partly used up and the next three were dipped when it had become very weak at the end of the session. The final three skeins on the far right show the original, undyed colours. The overall effect reminds me of the colours of both sea and sky - on a typically wet Welsh day. Note to self, for clothing, I think I'd like the lighter grey with an indigo overdye.



My experience of overdyeing other plant dyes with indigo has been fraught with misjudgement. Whether I dye with indigo before or after dyeing with a yellow, balancing the strength of the two colours is a bit of a nightmare, particularly given the unpredictability of the strength of fresh plant dye baths. Usually, I have too much blue and the wool ends up turquoise.


This year, I dyed some tops with a strong yellow weld dye bath (right) and then overdyed with different strengths of indigo (left, only I didn't try overdyeing any tops with that deepest blue at the top). The three shades of Lincoln Green didn't come out too bluish, but I still can't say I'm thrilled with the colour.
Comparing the overdyed Lincoln Green yarn on the left of this picture to the iron modified weld dye on the right, I think I prefer the latter. Blue adds freshness to the green, but loses warmth. And anyway, with a single dip, the dye I get is always patchy, with repeated dips, the blue gets too strong and I am back into turquoise territory.
Lately, I thought I'd try steaming an indigo dyed silk scarf with oak leaves and an iron blanket, same method as this post, only with a few of the oak leaves also dipped in a weak iron solution. It's been very blowy this week, great for collecting leaves, not so great for working outdoors in daylight. Still, the colour in this photo taken in my kitchen shows what I remember starting with, a fairly light blue, uneven indigo dye. I expected the iron from the blanket to add a grey overlay wherever it had been pressed against the silk.
When I unrolled the bundle, the oak leaves had taken up an iron halo and left a yellowish shade of their own dye, but far from darkening to grey, the indigo blue background looked much paler. Maybe the heat of steaming destroyed some of the indigo? Apart from those silhouette effects, there isn't much evidence of the iron blanket having been there.
All very interesting, there's always more to learn. I can dip the silk in another vat, if I decide the blue is too anaemic. There's still plenty of Japanese Indigo growing in the garden and no sign of cold weather yet. Plants in the greenhouse are flowering and I think the seeds are maturing early, so I may not need to take cuttings.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Dyeing with Iron Dipped Leaves Steamed in a Bundle

Last week, I wrote about using half the leg of a pair of linen trousers in a trial run at printing leaves in a bundle with an iron blanket. This week, you will learn the fate of the other half a leg. The linen had been mordanted with aluminium acetate and was soaked, squeezed out and smoothed over a layer of baking parchment ready for its test. I have used leaves dipped in iron in plenty of dye bundles before now. The thing I wanted to look at was the effect of steaming the bundle, rather than using my usual process of simmering bundles in a plant dye bath. All the leaves were dipped in a weak solution of iron before being laid out.
Untied after being steamed for two hours and left to cool, it was pleasing to see dark iron prints from the underside of the oak leaves and no surprise to find the oak leaves laid face down had left little trace. Interesting to see that halo around the outside of the sycamore leaves, though. That doesn't happen with iron dipped leaves.

The whole piece looked quite exciting while wet, but on reflection, I realised much had been added to this appearance by both iron and yellow chamomile dye, seeping up through the greaseproof paper from the iron blanket trial piece, which had been rolled underneath it and steamed in the same bundle. Once I had realised the limitations of a greaseproof paper barrier, I had much more success using cling film with iron blanket bundles. It seemed well worth using a cling film barrier to have another look a steaming leaves dipped in iron.


I laid out leaves on a silk satin scarf, mordanted with alum. The linen results had at least suggested that lycestra, purple smoke bush and maple leaves could print their own dye as well as an iron outline. I dotted on a few Dyers Chamomile and coreopsis flowers to add a bit more colour, just in case. The scarf was rolled up together with its layer of clingfilm, tied with string and steamed for a couple of hours.





The leaf colours did show up much better this time. Quite a thrill, especially that purple/blue from the smokebush leaves, but the edges of many of the prints were blurred, as if stretched downwards. After washing and ironing, it was clearer that the stretching effect was worse in some parts of the scarf than others. I reckoned the fabric must have been too wet, allowing the plants' dyes to run. Which is an odd thought for someone who usually completely immerses dye plant contact prints in a dye bath. Steaming is a whole new ball game for me, worth pursuing because I do like the cleaner look and clearer background, though using clingfilm irks my conscience.
My next attempt was on two more alum mordanted silk scarves, this time wringing them out firmly after soaking to reduce the amount of water sealed under the clingfilm during steaming. It worked, there was little or no bleeding of dye around the edge of each leaf or flower. Oddly enough, though clingfilm prevented iron from seeping through the layers, a little of the intense dye from the coreopsis had got through, making paler dots on the silk rolled in the layer above and below each flower. Dye molecules must be smaller than iron and clingfilm must be a semipermeable membrane. I am going to find some reusable plastic sheets for future tests, maybe thicker plastic will confine the plant dyes more completely.
My companion, Elinor Gotland, realised I was ironing silk and trotted over.
"Fair play, Beaut, those scarves are classy. Not like your usual jumble of colours at all."
"Mmm. Haven't I been restrained, just using one kind of leaf and one kind of flower?" 
She just looked me up and down and sighed.
"To be honest, there's not much point me explaining the aesthetics of elegance to a woman wearing her husband's old clothes."
"It's my Bohemian look. Arts and crafts vibe."
"Hoobydouche. If you were an artist, you'd understand about negative space." 
Elinor shook out the first scarf with those bleeding edges on the prints. I waited for some sharp rebuke for wasting good silk, but she scooped it up in delight. 
"OMG, I'm having this one. It's practically Salvador Dali."

Friday, 7 September 2018

Iron Blanket in a Plant Dye Bundle - A Better Method

It's over a year since I first wrote a post about using an iron blanket. I remember doing more bundle dye experiments when all the leaves changed colour in 2017 and I did get closer to the iron blanket effects I hoped for
A couple of weeks ago, noticing some of the oak leaves were already falling, I managed to find the pieces of cloth I printed last year, but really couldn't bring to mind quite how I had done it. Unfortunately, last autumn I had little headspace to spare and wasn't blogging. To save me forgetting again, today I'm writing a reference blog about how I have now retraced my steps and moved a bit further forward.
Taking the steps in order, first scour some natural fabric by washing it with soda ash to take off any oils, waxes or stiffeners. Next, mordant wool and silk with alum, cotton and linen with aluminium acetate. Then dye it by simmering the fabric in a plant dye bath. This picture shows linen, silk and wool pieces, all dyed with Dyers Chamomile flowers.

Now the iron blanket. Home made iron acetate solution, made by leaving rusty metal in a mixture of water and vinegar for weeks or months, is inevitably of variable and unknown concentration. I'd say that in practice, the results of using the contents of my rust filled jam jar suggest my homemade solution is usually pretty weak. For the purpose of investigation, I made up a measured solution of ferrous sulphate, pouring 100ml boiling water on 10g of the powder and stirring, so that I would know 10ml contained 1g of iron. Using a syringe, I drew up 20ml and added it to a washing up bowl half full of water. By eye, that 2g of ferrous sulphate gave the bowl a very pale orange colour. My blanket fabric was a fairly thick cotton, cut from an old curtain. It was soaked in the bowl of iron solution for several hours and squeezed out just before using it.


My dyed fabric had been dried without rinsing, straight from the dye bath. I put a piece of linen (half the leg of some loose trousers) to soak in plain water and collected a selection of leaves from the garden, plus oak and sycamore from the trees down the road. I unrolled some baking parchment on the table, smoothed out the wet dyed linen on its surface, laid out the leaves, some face down and some face up, then placed the iron blanket over the top. All the layers, baking parchment, dyed linen, leaves and iron blanket, were rolled up around a section of plastic drainpipe, then bound firmly with string.
The completed bundle was stood on a trivet inside a very large pot with water in the bottom, the lid was put on and the pot was heated to the boil before turning the gas down low to keep steaming the bundle for two hours. I left it overnight to cool and next day, unrolled it. Below is a photo of the dyed linen and the iron blanket, laid out side by side. Not a ravishing success, but much can be learned from looking at it. As expected, the leaves varied in their affinity for iron, which I believe may be due to the amount of tannin each species contains. Most had made blacker shapes where the underside of the leaves faced the iron blanket than where the underside of the leaf had faced the dyed cloth.


This effect showed up even more clearly once the iron blanket had dried out. What happened on the dyed linen is less obvious, though much more important. I decided that the central oak leaf in this photo had worked best as a resist by being laid with its underside facing the iron blanket, as the yellow is brighter than the adjacent oak leaves which had been laid with their undersides facing the linen. I had rather hoped that where the iron blanket had been in direct contact with the linen with no leaf in between, the iron would have modified the chamomile dye to a warm green. As you can see, the yellow actually went more of a dark khaki.

Unexpectedly, the Japanese Maple and the ginkgo leaves seem to have sucked the yellow dye out of the linen. I had read people recommending both of these types of leaves in the past and been disappointed that I couldn't get any dye or iron dip print from my trees. I am delighted to discover that the damn things actually work by 'exhausting' other dyes :)


The hardy geranium aka cranesbill leaves had left beautiful, if subtle prints, full of detailed edges and veins. I grow several varieties, because they make lovely prints in contact dye bundles when dipped in iron. In spring, some types will print with their own yellow dye. Sorry, I don't know the names of the different kinds, but this is what the plants look like at the moment.





Anyway, since they will soon die back when the cold nights come, I thought I would include cranesbill leaves in the next test piece, this time a good silk scarf. I laid the leaves on densely, hoping for pale shapes from the exhaust effect of maple and ginkgo leaves, fine patterns from the cranesbill and bold yellow resist shapes from the oak.
Unrolling the first turn of the bundle looked great. Unrolling more turns revealed much darker silk and far less clarity of leaf prints. Time for a cup of tea and a fag and a careful think. I decided that the baking parchment wasn't preventing iron from the blanket soaking through to the layers rolled underneath and there was just too much iron everywhere. 


First modification of the technique was to reduce the amount of iron. For my next silk scarf I used an iron blanket cut from a thin, worn out cotton bed sheet. It was soaked in the same washing up bowl of iron solution, but wrung out firmly after soaking. I had read before about people using layers of clingfilm in their bundles, but never fancied the idea.
Clingfilm isn't biodegradable or reusable and anyway, I thought it might melt during the steaming and weld itself onto the bundle. Funny how buggering up an expensive piece of silk has changed my attitude, I felt quite ready to give cling film a go. After steaming, the bundle looked as though it had been shrinkwrapped.
Happily, the clingfilm peeled off with no trouble. It had confined the iron from the blanket, allowing it to work only on the single layer of silk against which the blanket was pressed. With less iron available from the thin cotton blanket, the background colour looked much less gloomy, though you can see deeper lines where the string had squeezed the dyed silk most tightly. Taking away that shroud of darkness made it much easier to examine the actual leaf impressions. The ginkgo had had the most powerful exhaust effect though I could now see that the sycamore had also reduced the strength of the chamomile dye on the linen.
With the clingfilm there to keep all the dye localised under the leaf, for the first time in my experience, the Japanese maple had left its own pink dye and the purple smoke bush had added a blueish green. Thick oak and fern leaves had acted purely as resists, keeping the iron blanket off the silk but neither exhausting nor adding anything to the dyed linen.
I am truly delighted to have made a good iron blanket printed silk scarf. With less iron in it, even the effects on the iron blanket looked more interesting. Comparing the baking paper roll against the clingfilm, I shall have to weigh concerns about their relative biodegradabilty against my preference for sharp results.

Anyone got a great idea for recycling steamed clingfilm?

Friday, 31 August 2018

Berry Dyes, Wash and Light Fastness Tested

"I can't remember a year when the blackberries ripened so early. And there are still plenty more to come. Lovely ones, too." 
My companion barely spared them a glance, having other fruit in mind. I watched her pick her way up a branch of blackthorn, sheer madness, but you have to admire that kind of commitment to sloe gin. 
"Mind your fleece on those thorns, Elinor."
She waved a hoof and chucked a ripe sloe into the basket.
"Who dares, wins, Beaut."
I suppose I'm just as fanatical about plant dyeing, though I decided long ago that the only purpose for picking fruit should be with a view to eating it.

Early experience of berry dyes left me soured with the bitterness of pretty pink knitting gone beige by Christmas. At this time of year, Pinterest is simply laden down with fabulous pictures of berry dyed yarn. Planning to make some berry robb, I went back to check the recipe on a blog I wrote five years ago, when the disappointment was still fresh. My companion joined me and we were soon scanning the latest berry dye images to arrive on the computer. 
"It's such a shame. Those colours are going to fade, no matter what they say online."
Elinor looked at my purple stained fingers.
"To be fair, Beaut, most of your dyework was pretty crap, back in the day. Go on, have another go, I'll even give you some sloes, there's plenty left over."
I had to wonder, was I wrong to condemn berry dyes out of hand? Could all these people really be wasting their time? This year of all years, it wouldn't be such a big deal to do a proper trial, trying to avoid beginner's mistakes.


One thing I've learned is the most effective way to mordant fibres is by heating them for an hour in a 10% alum solution. Dyers have been using alum for several thousand years. Another way to improve colour depth and fastness is to use lots of plant material to weight of fibre. With this in mind, I simmered 200g fruit for each 10g sample, a ratio of 20:1. I decided to dye wool and silk blend fibre tops and my test subjects were blackberries, elderberries and sloes, (since Elinor was offering, though of course, sloes are stone fruit, rather than berries.)
The simmer to extract the dye was kept well below the boil, as I have found high temperatures can destroy some natural blues. Purple might be the result of a mixture of red and blue dye molecules, so a cooler dye bath ought to give berries the best chance. After mashing the stewed fruit in my three pots, leaving it to cool and sieving out the juice, I gently heated the samples for an hour and left them to cool in their pots for 24 hours. Another major error I used to make was whipping wool out of the pot pronto, just to see what colour it had gone.
I now realise that during a long soak, fibres are able take up considerably more colour than they absorb during the initial simmering phase. To avoid bleaching out fresh dye, my samples were dried out of direct sunlight and to avoid washing out any as yet unfixed colour, they were left without being rinsed. I did tease out a portion of the fibres from each sample to spin a little skein of yarn.
These are my glamour shots of the results, purple from blackberries, pink from sloes, with the elderberries giving a colour somewhere in between. All the pictures were taken a couple of days after dyeing.


To test lightfastness, I wrapped a few turns of each dyed yarn around some white card, slid half of the card inside a fold of black card to exclude light and taped it against the skylight for a week. It was a wet, grey week, with no sunny days at all. In the meantime, I tested wash fastness by wetfelting some of the dyed fibres around a soap. Here's a link to the method, it involved about fifteen minutes of rubbing the wetted fibres against a bar of Dove soap with half a dozen plunges from hot to cold water. To my surprise, I didn't see any colour wash out of the fibre, there was no pink discoloration of the lather or rinse water.


Sadly, this is how my felted soap turned out. Sloe pink had turned beige, elderberry went brownish, only blackberry held much purple.

"There you go, see, the blackberry dye is alright." My companion has become relentlessly cheerful. Suspecting the sloe gin might already be going into her tea, I sighed, smiled and added an extra stripe of blackberry round my felted soap.


Given the lousy weather we have been having, lightfastness was not by any means an extreme test. After a week, this is how the card looked, shown together with the little skeins of yarn, which had been kept in a drawer. The effect of light exposure was similar to washing.


"I'll have to use that soap up quickly, Elinor. Now the sun is shining through the bathroom window, it will soon go completely beige."
"Oh, don't be so negative, just bathe by candlelight. Anyway, it's all your own fault for not adding any vinegar to the dye bath. Everybody says that fixes berry dyes." 
"Now I know you've been on the gin. VINEGAR IS NOT A MORDANT!!!!!"
"Chill out, Beaut, my body is a temple. While I'm waiting for those sloes to ferment, I've taken up yoga again. Don't stress over lightfastness, rejoice in nature, join me in a sun salutation. Ooo, you've gone all red in the face."


I took the dog for a walk and had a think about things. Acidity does change some plant dye colours, quite a few of them are sensitive to pH.  I do know vinegar isn't going to fix natural dyes onto fibres, but it might affect how they look. I put vinegar and water into one jam jar and dissolved a little soda ash in another, to make an alkaline modifier.


Small samples of the dyed fibres were left to soak for twenty minutes in each jar. Once they had dried, I laid them out, vinegar acidic soak on the left, unmodified fibres in the middle and soda ash alkaline soak on the right. I don't think the vinegar deepened the colour perceptibly. Berries are naturally acidic, it gives them flavour. On a guess, the berry dye bath was already acidic. Washing the fibres with soap while wet felting probably reduced the pH toward neutral and that was why the colours dimmed so quickly, even though no dye appeared to rinse out. Alkali did indeed shift the colour, look at that green, much the same modification as with pink hollyhock dye.

"See, Elinor. More acidity didn't even alter the berry dye colours. All those people putting instructions online about adding vinegar really are sending each other on a hiding to nowhere."
I got out my camera and showed her a couple of photos. "It's all a matter of what you choose to share, a well staged first impression or an evaluation under test conditions."



"Life's an illusion, Beaut. Live the dream. By the way, did you remember to add salt to the dye bath?"