Friday, 21 October 2016

Spinning and Knitting a Braid of Dyed Zwartbles Wool and Silk

Past experience of spinning two raw Zwartbles sheep fleeces would never have inclined me to blend them with silk and certainly not to dye the dark brown locks. I thought its warm, natural colour was the best thing about Zwartbles, the tough, springy texture set me to making rugs, crocheting bags and, got to admit it, lining plant hanging baskets.  
Admiring a photo of a handspun hat, knitted in deep blues with a fabulous shift and gleam, I went looking for the source of the original braid of fibre at Hilltop Cloud online shop.  Not seeing anything like the photo, I assumed the colourway was all sold out. Even when specifically directed to the hand dyed 75% Zwartbles and 25% Tussah silk, I found it hard to imagine how a braid like this could spin up into navy shades.
Of course, I had to buy some, just to find out.  The first surprise was how soft it felt. Buying Zwartbles from a discerning supplier makes a world of difference.  Of course, quarter of it is silk, still, though the cleaning and combing process had not eliminated a recognisably Zwartbles type of body and bounce, I'd guess the sheep or lambs this fibre came from must have had finer fleece than I've handled before. Splitting the braid into two 50g pieces, I did my best to tear the first section lengthways into equal halves, hoping to keep the colours together when plying. Spinning fairly finely at a 15/1 ratio on my Ashford Traveller seemed effortless, most confidence inspiring.  Though the blend is not homogenous, a single could be drafted out smoothly, working back and forth across the top edge using short forward draw, whether I hit a silky part or a woolly part. Enjoying myself and keen to see the plied effect, I had the first 50g skein of heavy fingering weight yarn finished in just a couple of evenings.

All that shiny purple and green was still there in the yarn, just muted by drafting the bright silk together with the dark Zwartbles, and somehow, the dominant colour was blue, though not navy.  The Zwartbles itself had taken up the dyes, though I've not seen this done, I believe acid dyes are applied directly to segments of the blended braid. When you look closely, the dark wool is also varied in hue.

Lots of electric blue dye coloured the water when I had given my finished yarn a bath and a couple of rinses.  Better give it one more long soak.  My companion, Elinor Gotland, found me using the time to trawl through all the hat patterns on Ravelry.
"Late supper tonight, is it, Beaut?  My stomach thinks my throat's been cut."
"Give me another minute. I know I've spotted some really interesting shaped hats in the patterns library before. Very distinctive.  I'll know soon as I see one."
"Woolly Wormhead."
"You can cook your own dinner if you're going to be rude."
"Search 'Woolly Wormhead'. Bet that's the designer you're after."
"Ooo, it is, too.  Six whole pages of her hats."  Elinor sighed.
"Filter the search for fingering weight yarn and you'll be done in no time."
Ten minutes later she was back.
"I'm not being funny, but himself has come over all faint with hunger.  He'll come down on the floor like a ton of bricks, if you don't get a move on."
I decided not to tell her the hat I really wanted was supposed to be made in double knitting wool.  Just pressed that button to buy 'Tucked' and tried not to think about the current sterling exchange rate.

This hat ought to be knitted in what must be a tight fabric, using 3.25mm needles and dk yarn.  I could get the correct stitch count on a tension gauge swatch using 3.5mm needles with my rather thinner handspun, though no doubt the effect is not what was intended. Thinking I could run up a hat in a couple of evenings and frog it if it didn't work out, I set off in cheerfully cavalier fashion.  A week later I was still at it.  Those funky ridge tubes are not intrinsically difficult to knit, but they do take a while.  Sustained by the excitement of seeing the next band of colour appear in another ridge, I pressed on with knitting my Tucked, despite unkind remarks from my companion about tea cosies and a secret anxiety that the finished dimensions would make an odd shape of any human head.

I'm delighted with the yarn.  In the finished object, the knitted colours have turned out very much like the subtle navy of that hat I admired on Ravelry and the Zwartbles/silk blend is smooth, soft and comfortable to wear against the skin.  I shall have to rethink my attitude towards Zwartbles and try some blending of fibres and dyeing on coloured fleece myself. The construction of the pattern worked out brilliantly, good fit, great shape. I shall definitely be knitting more of Woolly Wormhead's hats this winter. 

I'm calling this one 'Petrol Head'.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Needlefelting Halloween Witches with Stripey Socks

Black Llama fibre is silky when it lies in locks, rather wild and fuzzy when needlefelted.  The fibres must be quite scaley, because it does needlefelt quickly and securely, even when blended with silk, which I find a devil to stick onto to anything with a felting needle.  Last summer, I was very kindly given a bundle of black llama, specially for making Halloween witches.  This prototype was put together using the same method I learned for making wool fairies.  One of the fiddliest bits is getting a thin strip of roving to wrap smoothly round the pipecleaner to make the hands and arms smooth and neat.  Having knocked out quite a few fairies in the past year, I think the best technique is to twirl the pipe cleaner itself, rather than trying to wrap the roving round it.  
Just hold the fibre against the side of the pipe cleaner with light tension and use your other thumb to roll the pipe cleaner, letting the fibre wrap in a slight diagonal so it covers the length of the pipe cleaner, little by little. Witches need legs if they are to ride broomsticks. After covering two pipe cleaners with red wool roving, adding yellow on a steeper, open diagonal, gave a smashing stripey sock effect.  
It is a great deal easier to complete the legs before starting on the main construction.  The far end of the pipe cleaner was wrapped in black wool, the tip was bent up and wrapped some more to make boots with yellow laces sewn on.  My companion, Elinor Gotland, remarked that the witches she knew would have chosen stiletto heels.  

Mine definitely prefer Doc Martens.  Elinor also insisted that witches have long legs. Admittedly, the first witch I made had legs on the stumpy side. The next was positively arachnoid.

Trying to make the total length from the top of the head to the heels in a ratio of 3 to 2 with the span of the arms gave the best proportions. If you're not bothering with legs, it seems to me a witch looks most dramatic in a really elongated frock. Time to show that small, but perfectly formed, grey sheep how I was getting on.

Elinor took a critical look at the latest arrivals.
"Well, Beaut, this one isn't shy about showing her petticoat."
"Oh, Harriet is hurrying to the Halloween party at Crafts by the Sea.  The big end went on her broom, so she kicked up her skirt, hung onto her hat and ran for it." Smiling in a superior fashion, I continued "What a good job she wasn't wearing stilettos."
"A party?"  Elinor shot towards the door.  Neatly deflecting my point about appropriate footwear, she called back over her shoulder 
"Kick up your heels, these hooves were made for dancing. Come on girls, follow me!"

If you can't get to the craft shop and would like to have a witch at your Halloween party, they are £12.50 plus p+p, order by emailing me at

Friday, 7 October 2016

Contact Printing with Dye Plants onto Canvas

When dye plant flowers and leaves are rolled in fine silk, their colours penetrate through the fabric while it simmers, so an intense colour, such as the deep orange of a coreopsis flower will appear in a repeating pattern, a little paler on each overlying layer of the roll. Dye plant prints on rolled up silk scarves form a palimpsest of all the leaves and flowers within the roll. Experimenting on cotton shirts, I found the thicker weave prevented dye from an individual leaf or flower from seeping through much more than one layer, so once unrolled, a print looked nearer to the original lay out of the plants, less complex, more controllable.  
Well, controllable in principle.  In practice, a heavy linen shirt I dyed contact prints on earlier this year ended up with lovely sharp images of coreopsis sprigs and madder root - if you were looking at the inside of the shirt.  Rather than wear it inside out, I cut sections of the best bits and put them in picture frames, thinking the linen weave looked much like an artist's canvas.

Reading up on this, I learned that canvas is a strong, coarse, unbleached cloth made from plant fibres such as hemp and flax, so it is much the same sort of fabric as linen, only heavier still.  Turning some stored fleece out of an old canvas shopping bag, though it was a bit grubby and one of the seams had split, I decided to wash and mend it purely because it was a plain bag with no printed logo, just natural coloured canvas.  That was early last August, when I had a wealth of fresh dye plant material to pick and a pot of aluminium acetate solution left over from mordanting those shirts. When I have measured out 10% of the weight of wool or silk to make an alum mordant, only half the alum in the pot gets used up, so I can successfully mordant half as much fibre again, using the same solution.  Turned out the same applied to my 5% of aluminium acetate for mordanting the weight of the cotton shirts - simmering the used solution again with one canvas bag in the pot mordanted it perfectly well.

In order to get contact prints that would show best on the outside of the bag, I turned it inside out and put madder roots and flowering dye plants inside - coreopsis, yellow cosmos, dyers chamomile and side shoots of weld.  The bag was rolled around a section of plastic down pipe and tied up with string that had been soaked in iron solution.

Simmered for an hour or two, dangling from the cooker hood into an afterbath of yellow cosmos with alkali, to make the lowest section a rich terracotta, the roll was then turned the other way up, simmered in an afterbath of chamomile and left to soak overnight. Once the sodden canvas had dried out in the sun, it could be unrolled and turned back the right way out.

Though the fabric wouldn't steam iron smoothly, even after a good rinse and a run through the washing machine, the plants had printed strongly and fairly cleanly onto the canvas.  I knew this was definitely a big bag success when my daughter promptly packed it to take away on a trip to Amsterdam.  I bought some more plain canvas bags, mordanted them and went into production, dyeing three at once.  In the process, I've had another lesson rammed home.  People write that you have to wait til plant contact prints have 'cured' and some say ecobundles should be left for weeks. 
Not being good at waiting, the bag on the left was unrolled and rinsed while still damp, just so I could show off to a visitor.  Next to it is a bag which was allowed to dry out completely before unrolling.  I have become somewhat more patient since spotting the difference.

Now the dye plants are being allowed to run to seed, the nights are finally growing cooler and if I don't use up the last Japanese Indigo plants sharpish, there won't be any blue left in them. One last project from September. Curtain fabric, 20% linen and 80% cotton, proved heavy enough to keep contact plant dyes pretty much exactly where the plants were laid, with only minimal
bleeding through layers when rolled, yet was soft enough to take precise prints and also iron nice and flat afterwards. Dipping side shoots of weld into a jar of iron solution made them print clear greens instead of yellow.  I used this fabric to re-cover an old Lloyd Loom trunk for himself's birthday. Now it holds all the cycling paraphernalia he had cluttering up the house. 

Friday, 30 September 2016

Upcycling Felted Jumpers to Make a Sleeveless Jacket

"Mmm, Jaeger.  Since when did you ever invest in any quality wardrobe pieces?"
My companion, Elinor Gotland, was helping me sort through my felt collection.
"Oh, I got that purple top in a sale, years ago.  I used to wear it and then just hang it up to air.  Pure wool, dry clean only.  When I finally tried running it through the wool wash cycle, it felted."

"You Slack Alice.  What happened to the green M&S jumper? An accidental boil?"
"Himself got oil stains on it, so I felted that on purpose.  Before you ask, the yellow is proper felted wool, left over from an offcut I bought to make a banner."
"Fair play.  And with what will you require my assistance today, madam - making more bunting, is it?"
"How rude.  You're on your own with that, Beaut."
"No, making a jerkin, a sleeveless jacket a bit longer than a waistcoat."
"Oh, a gilet. Nice idea, shame the dog is more use with a sewing machine than you."
"Actually, I have a cunning plan, pinched from my Mum.  She used her weaving to make a lovely gilet, hardly any sewing involved, just using woven fabric 25cm wide.  Like the selvedges of her weaving, this felt won't fray, all I need to do is cut it into strips 25cm wide."
The longest single strip I could get out of the green jumper was 56cm, so that was the length of the back decided.  Leaving the
lowest 24cm open as a vent, the 56cm green strip and a 56cm yellow strip were sewn together along the midline using saddle stitch.  The purple piece was far longer.  Finding the midpoint by folding it in half and laying it centrally, overlapping the top of the green and yellow back by 1cm, one more seam joined all three pieces together.  The purple strip forms a wide collar, then
comes down each side to make the front panels of the jacket.  If you had a long enough top strip, all you would need to do is pin it to the outside edges of the back, try it on to work out how much armhole space should be left open at the top, then sew up the sides.  Since I was going to have to sew on spare strips of yellow and green felt to make the front long enough, I thought I might as well make a virtue of it

and fold the extra pieces up into pockets.  Unfortunately, the weight of the doubled pockets strained the purple felt and made the front hang badly, so I needed to cut a band of reinforcement felt to sew all around the front edge.  More sewing than planned, still, no regrets, I finished it in the car on the way to Spinning Camp, where it was much admired.

The good sized pockets easily held my phone, 
scissors, wool, spare tent peg and so forth and the felt was warm, ideal for early autumn.

My companion was too busy to come camping this time.  Probably auditioning for The Great British Celebrity Sewing Bee.  Next Spinning Camp will be 9 - 18 June 2017.  Come and join us, details on Ravelry, Happy Campers UK forum.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Manx Loaghtan Handspun Wool Cushion

My first visit to Wonderwool Wales in 2013 proved to be a weekend of the highest excitement.  New to spinning, it was there that I began wading through the shallows toward the depths of my ignorance.  I shudder, now, to think how I used to refer to all yarn, from alpaca to acrylic, as 'wool'.  Staggering towards the exit on Sunday afternoon, a trader packing up raw fleece offered me half price on her remaining Manx Loaghtan. Since these rare breed sheep are small and primitive, their fleeces only weigh a couple of kilos.  A big, strong girl like me could surely manage to carry home one more bag. The deal was done, what a bargain, beautiful, unusual, gingery brown wool.
Off to my first spinning camp a couple of months later, I didn't want to put anything coarse or crappy on the swop table, so I left the Welsh Mountain fleeces at home and steeled myself to offer up half my washed Manx Loaghtan.  Couldn't understand why it was still there at the end of the camp.  Mystifying.
Put away against the day when I became a better spinner, it was a pleasant surprise to rediscover the other half of the fleece, still in a pillow case in the loft.  Looking at things positively, I have definitely become a better judge of fleece than I was back then.  

Manx Loaghtan locks typically have a widely varied staple length. This one also had a break in the staple, about 2cm up. Matted, felted areas were probably not all due to my washing technique, as they were worst on the chest and shoulder. Oh cringe, no wonder no-one had wanted the other half from the swop table.

"Take it straight to the compost heap, Beaut.  That's what I'd do."
My companion, Elinor Gotland, is a ewe of ruthless purpose.  I hugged the full pillow case to my chest.
"But I spent ages washing this fleece."
"Cut your losses and spin something worth spending time on.  That's real wisdom, knowing when to stop."  
Some lessons I have yet to take to heart.
"Look at the pretty colour, though, feel how soft the fibre is."  I passed Elinor one of the nicer locks.  "Like cafe au lait, pale and frothy on the top."  I sat down at the wheel and started drafting out a thick single, straight from the fleece.  "I just want to try spinning Manx Loaghtan, it's such an ancient breed, saved from extinction on the Isle of Man. Even the ewes have those curious horns and long legs.  The breeders' website says they are remarkably athletic sheep.  'Good quality stock fencing not less than 1.1m high is essential.'"  Elinor snorted.
"Minx could have hurdled that, no trouble at all."
"A wild Loaghtan I met in Paris, danced the cancan in a cabaret, marvellous at high kicks.  So talented, such a shame - she's another one who never learned when to stop." 
"How's that?"
"One night, she tossed her head and went one grande battement too far - got her horns caught in the chandelier and brought the house down.  Literally."

It didn't take long to spin up half that small fleece and Navajo ply a lumpy yarn.  Without any combing or carding, the pale tips of the locks remained intact, stippling the brindled brown.  There was enough wool to knit up into a stocking stitch cushion which matches the sofa rather well. Manx Loaghtan fibre is uncommonly fine, not what you'd imagine from a so-called primitive breed.  When the time comes to stop and sit down, we now have a very comfy cushion.

Friday, 16 September 2016

An Attempt at Making a Fresh Indigo Leaf Ferrous Vat for Batik Dyeing

My friend BG gave me a batik kit last Christmas. Trouble is, the instructions online say batik wax starts melting at less than 50 degrees Centigrade and the plant dyes I like using need a long simmer to fix their colours onto cloth. Recently, I read that a ferrous indigo vat works at 21 degrees and dyes cotton and linen really deep blues with short dips.  It is supposed to be quick to set up and stay active for a couple of weeks, no need to keep reheating the dye pot or rushing to dip more stuff in order to exhaust every particle of indigo within one session.  All in all, it sounded well worth trying to make a ferrous vat with some of the Japanese Indigo plants which are currently ready for harvest in the garden.

The instructions I found start with powdered indigo, which you first hydrate in a small amount of water.  To extract indigo from fresh leaves, I give them 24 hours to steep in hot tap water, with the pot surrounded by a sink full of hot water, which can be renewed a couple of times to keep the temperature up. After the contents of this pot had been poured through a colander and the wilted leaves wrung out, though I had a bucket full of promisingly blue
liquid, past experience of dyeing with Japanese Indigo Leaf vats deoxygenated with spectralite suggested there would be less in that bucket than the 20g of powdered indigo specified in the recipe.  Guessing, optimistically, that I might have as much as 15g of indigo, the 3:2:1 ratio meant
adding 45g calcium hydoxide and 30g of ferrous sulphate.  A further problem was temperature.  My bucket having only 15 litres capacity and being nearly full already, there was no chance of adding gallons of boiling water, so I poured the extracted indigo back into the pot and heated it to the usual working temperature of 50 degrees centigrade then returned it to the bucket.  Though the average ambient temperature in
Wales is considerably less than 21 degrees, I had had a rather wizard wheeze.  Grass cuttings generate a steady heat as they start to compost, so standing the bucket in a bag of freshly mown grass would keep it warm for quite a while, even if the nights got cold. Pouring in the dissolved iron and the lime, I stirred the mix, covered the bucket and let it stew for half an hour.  I bet you are thinking this hodge podge of approximations is
never going to work, because by this point, I had my doubts.  It was almost shocking to see that coppery film and bloom of bubbles showing deoxygenation was really happening, even though the pH was at the maximum my testing strips can indicate.  Past experiments have shown that keeping the vat at pH 9 works best, but at least I wasn't planning to put any wool or silk in there.

BG and I had previously melted some wax granules in an old saucepan and got out paint brushes and the Tjantjing thing for applying a batik resist.  First, we each tried designs on the back of old cotton shirts.  Keeping the wax temperature right turns out to be critical to success.  Too cool and it just sits on the surface of the fabric instead of penetrating through, too hot and it pours out of the Tjantjing into a puddle instead
of a line.  Brushing wax on using leaves for a template, you have to be quick and light handed, or the leaf gets welded on.  Next, we tried out designs on a thicker curtain fabric, 80% cotton and 20% linen.  The looser weave soaked up wax more readily, but by the end of the afternoon, I had despaired of ever keeping the wax temperature right without buying one of those electric heated pans.

When I slid the soaked cotton pieces into the ferrous indigo bucket, green sludge swirled up. Pulling them out after ten minutes, the cotton was coated with slime. Graham Keegan writes that immediate rinsing will not remove the indigo, so I plunged the cotton in a bucket of fresh water, hung it up and watched hopefully.  It did go blue, but not very blue, even after several dips.  The cotton/linen mix fabric
took up the indigo better, though I had secretly been hoping for a more dramatic, midnight blue result.  A few days later, I came back to the vat and found the green sediment had settled further down and it was still working well enough to dye cotton pale blue.  A week later, no heat was left in the grass cuttings and no indigo was fixing.  Trying to work out how to 'sharpen' the vat, which was not only cold, but possibly too
green, I stood the bucket in the sun and chucked in an unknown amount of iron in the form of an old jam jar of water with rusty nails.  This did get it blooming a bit, though it only dyed things pale blue.  Enough - I poured the lot down the drain, resolving to add less lime in future for a lower pH and to keep an eye out for a larger, narrower, deeper bucket.

My companion, The Entertainer, Elinor Gotland, arrived home while I was putting the pieces of dyed cotton and linen into boiling water. 
"Hiya, Beaut." She peered dubiously into the pot.  "Hope that's not our dinner.  Poor Cow, you've lost the plot, gone Up the Junction, stuck here at home."
I bridled.
"It's you who's had a dose of social realism, not me. While you've been off filming yet another Alfie remake in grubby old London, I have been practising the exotic Indonesian art of batik."
"Starring in your own domestic drama.  The Homeliness of the Wrong Resistance Dyer."
"What's wrong with my batik resist?"
"There's an awful lot of wax floating up.  Did you scrape off the cloth first?"
"Umm, no."
"Plenty of time for me to catch up with my enormous pile of fan mail before tea, then. Wax is a bugger to get rid of."
I concentrated on scooping off as much of the wax as possible to make Room At The Top of the water.  Fast as I wiped the ladle, cooling wax congealed back onto it. Beeswax everywhere with never A Taste Of Honey.  Despite clearing masses of the stuff, the boiled cloth still felt waxy.  A second pot of boiling water was needed.  Then I tried rinsing all the fabric with a bit of detergent, particularly the cotton pieces seemed to retain a greasy residue, long after the cotton and linen mix looked clean.

Eventually, I turned from the sink, wringing out the last cloth.
"I never realised this whole batik technique would be such a performance.  Thank goodness that wax has finally gone."
Elinor was busy slipping signed photos into envelopes.  She glanced up.
"Gone, is it?  What wax is not still lining those pots is probably settling about half way round your U bend."
Oh, Look Back in Anger, what a grim kitchen sink drama.  If anyone out there has some slightly more helpful advice than Elinor's, I'd be glad to hear it.  Unless I can formulate a better plan, I'm not sure I'd try a ferrous indigo vat or the batik technique again.  At least, not til time has mellowed the memory of this attempt.