Friday, 23 March 2018

Silver Birch Bark Dye at Acid, Neutral and Alkali pH

Last month we had some serious storms. On a blowy Sunday, himself and I took the dog out and found a fallen silver birch tree. I was well pleased, took my penknife out and started peeling a branch, himself soon got bored and walked on with the dog. 

I went back next day to strip another branch and ended up with a whole kilogram of fresh bark which I shared out between three pots and left to soak for a week. Bark dyes are sensitive to changes in pH and shifting the dye bath pH to alkali is recommended to improve the colour. Unfortunately, alkali does not improve wool fibres, it weakens them and makes them feel rougher.
This seemed a good opportunity to test out how much or how little alkali would get the best results from silver birch bark dye. I dissolved a heaped teaspoonful of soda ash in hot water and added it to one of the three pots of soaking bark peelings, before leaving them all to ferment. The following day, the fluid in the alkaline pot was already much darker.

Snow fell, so I brought the frozen pots indoors. After a week, I tested the contents with Universal Indicator papersFermentation had made the two plain pots become acidic, testing at about pH 5. The third pot was still strongly alkaline at pH 9.

I added enough soda ash to bring one of the acidic pots up to neutral pH 7 and simmered them all for an hour before taking out samples to look at the dye bath colours and to double check that the pH had remained the same. The photo shows samples of baths at pH 5, 7 and 9. The deep colour in the alkaline jar looked by far the most promising.
In the meantime, I had been shopping on eBay, looking for some durable chunky wool yarn at a decent price. I was well pleased with my five 100g skeins of British wool from woolbothy. As advertised, they were not smoochy soft, being worsted spun they were sleek and a little stiff, handling more like cotton, but well structured and neither rough nor hairy.
I divided them into ten 50g skeins, gave them a hot soak with detergent to lift off the dressing, then a couple of plain water rinses. No mordant is needed for bark dyes. Three skeins went into each pot for an hour of simmering, then I took one skein out of each pot and boiled the rest, to see whether keeping bark dyes simmering below the boil really mattered.

Here are the results, rinsed in plain water after drying out for a couple of days. In the front row, the skeins that had about an hour simmering, in the back row, the skeins that had a further boil and stayed overnight in the dye pot. On the left, the acidic pH 5 skeins, in the middle, the neutral pH 7 skeins and on the right, the alkaline pH 9 skeins. This is a good strong wool yarn, acid had made the beige skeins smoother while the deep brown yarn from the alkali bath felt slightly roughened, a little squeaky, but still nice enough to handle. All the wool was puffier and softer after washing, dyeing and rinsing than it had been when I first bought it. My conclusions - it is definitely worth testing pH and getting an acidic, fermented bark bath up to neutral before dyeing, but going for a strong alkali is counterproductive, unless you like brown or you are dyeing plant rather than animal fibres. The colours are deeper after boiling and longer steeping, I'd say keeping below the boil isn't critical, though I like the pink from the pH neutral simmer best and I would hesitate to boil a wool that was prone to felting, such as merino. 

Having two of each of the deeper dyed skeins, I decided to modify them with copper as I like that better on silver birch than modifying with iron. The final three skeins were heated in a new pot of water with a slug of homemade copper acetate solution - just offcuts of copper piping left in a mixture of water and vinegar. This one has been quietly dissolving all winter and currently has a strong blue.

The copper modified skeins from each pH dye bath are shown in the back row of this picture. Six small skeins of silk were dyed together with the wool and they are shown on top of the front six skeins of wool.

One last and rather important test before embarking on a multicoloured project. I knitted a swatch with three rows of each colour and put it through a 30 degree wool wash cycle in the washing machine using a handwash liquid detergent that is pH neutral. Happily, thorough washing had no ill effects, the colours that had been dyed at different pH stayed just as they were.

Outdoor photography gives a truer impression of the pinkness of birch bark dye. Plus it was fun to tit about with wool in the woods now the days aren't quite so cold.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Fresh Madder Root Contact Dye Prints and Dye Vat

A couple of weeks ago, I emptied out a whole barrel full of madder plants, which had been growing in there for three years. There were long roots of pencil thickness, lots of thinner rootlets ending in masses of fine fibres, as well as bright yellow shoots running up toward the surface.   After washing, the fresh material weighed 2.7kg. I laid out just over 2kg of roots on towels on the spare bed to dry.  

I had saved the yellow shoots and the clumps of very fine rootlets more in hope than in expectation that they would contain much alizarin red dye. Once they were washed, I chopped up a portion of each and a little piece of solid root for comparison, poured boiling water over all three and waited a couple of minutes to see what colour would be released. The fine rootlets turned the water the same orange as the big root chunks while the yellow shoots turned red and released a more pinky orange.

Within a week, the roots had shrivelled down to a weight of only 500g. The roots weren't chopped up into small pieces, as is recommended before drying, because in the past, I have had more consistent success using whole root shapes to make red patterns on contact dye bundles than I have had getting good reds out of chopped madder dye baths. I used portions of the fresh harvest for trying out both methods once again.

It seems ages since I made my last plant contact dye bundles. These were laid out on a length of baking parchment before rolling, to keep the prints from going right through the layers. With no other fresh dye plant material available, I sprinkled some dried coreopsis tinctoria and dyers chamomile flowers on the fabric along with plenty of the finer madder roots and some madder shoots. Some battered bramble leaves were dipped in iron water and laid on the silk scarf and I added some loose brown onion skins to the wool. Both silk and wool gauze had been mordanted with 10% alum. 
Rolled around a plastic drainpipe and tied  firmly with string, they were both simmered in plain water for a couple of hours. Containing my curiosity, I left them in the pot overnight and allowed them to dry out for a week before unrolling. .
The wool bundle looked a better red, those yellow shoots giving more scarlet, straighter lines, compared to the darker red of the wriggly rootlets. Onion skin and chamomile provided the orange and yellow splodges, making a really good effect on the wool fabric.
The iron dipped leaves did not make much of a print on the silk, maybe there just wasn't enough life left in them at this time of year. Not sure if the iron darkened the whole silk bundle or the madder colour is simply different on silk. Here are both scarves after washing and ironing.

Meanwhile, I had made a cold madder dye vat in a bucket, using 400g fresh roots and leaving it to keep warm on the underfloor heating in the bathroom. On the sixth day, my companion remarked
"Beaut, it's a good thing you've got a downstairs toilet. Otherwise visitors would think you'd been having a very hard time with the menopause."
I thought I'd ignore that.
"I suppose the vat is getting a bit whiffy, Elinor. I'll take it downstairs and try heating the madder up in a dye pot, see if I can get some more colour out of it." Stumping downstairs with the bucket, I wasn't feeling hopeful. "Even though they were partly brown alpaca in the first place, the pieces of wool tops I've been taking out each day haven't gone a really deep red. Don't know what I'm doing wrong. The vat is fermenting, but I keep adding in more soda ash so it stays alkaline and I'm following exactly the steps I used for my first, most successful attempt at this." 
My companion skipped sideways as the bucket sloshed into a dye pot.
"That's not quite true, is it? You've kept all the chopped up roots in that big net bag instead of letting them float in among the fibres."
"Well, there was just that one difference in the method, because I just couldn't face picking endless tiny bits of root out of the tops before spinning them. I'm still going to leave them in the bag while I heat them up now. Watch out for the long thermometer, this pot mustn't go over 80 degrees."

"Next time, dye yarn you've already spun. The bits will come off that easy enough. And do me a favour, no more cold madder vats. A steamy afternoon in the kitchen is one thing, showering next to a blood bath is quite another. Puts me right off my tea."
As if.
Here is the final madder vat outcome.

The top row are the pieces which were taken out of the cold vat at intervals over six days. The middle row were heated to 80 degrees centigrade for an hour with the same roots still in a net bag. The bottom row pieces were heated in the dye bath after the roots had been boiled with a couple of lemons to provide acid, then taken out to the compost heap. Bottom right is an undyed piece of the original alpaca/merino blend tops.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Spinning an Indigo Dyed Variegated Gradient

Here are eight 25g lengths of combed wool tops, after each piece had one five minute dip in a Japanese Indigo leaf dye vat. The wool is Captain Poldarles, a blend of white Polwarth and Merino D'Arles bought from John Arbon. The French Merino D'Arles is naturally coloured, so before dyeing, the tops were white streaked with soft shades of brown. Dyeing this gradient relied on the indigo leaf vat getting weaker each time a piece was dipped into it, so the depth of blue diminished with each successive piece. Further to that, you can see the indigo uptake from a single dip was uneven - it usually is, solid colour comes from repeated dips in the vat.  Doing several dips and rinses, in the past, I have managed to felt merino fibres beyond rescue.

A little gentle drafting returned these single dipped tops to a smooth alignment ready for spinning. Rather than bemoan a patchy dye result, I was of a mind to spin them into a yarn preserving the broad gradient and making a virtue of the added random colour variation. Commercial wool tops are often so processed the fibres lose all their crimp and become lifeless to spin. John Arbon produces tops with exceptional character which handle beautifully, retaining qualities typical of the sheep breeds. As I admired the tops and pondered on their destiny, I foolishly shared my thoughts with my companion, Elinor Gotland.

"This lush Polwarth and Merino blend is bound to lend itself to fine spinning."
"Fair play, Beaut, you've made more than enough chunky handspun."
"I think I will have a go at getting the yarn thickness down to light fingering weight."
Elinor grabbed my arm and marched me out to the hall.
"The finer the spinning, the higher the twist you'll need to put in. Time you took Sleeping Beauty for another ride."
I bought this Schacht Reeves spinning wheel from a friend about eighteen months ago, dreaming of spinning cashmere longdraw from the cloud with the huge wheel whizzing the flyer round at speeds that Roger, my Ashford Traveller could never reach, even if I pedalled his treadle like Laura Trott in the velodrome. In reality, since last summer's efforts produced an overspun, stringy yarn, the Schacht Reeves has remained an extravagantly ornamental fixture under the stairs. 

This time I spun on the lowest ratio, which was 14:1, aiming for two ply light fingering weight rather than three ply. I pulled each section of the tops in half and started with the palest, spinning that then the next palest onto the first bobbin, making a matching bobbin with the remaining halves and plying them together only just beyond the balance.

Though far from perfect, this yarn kept much more body than the last lot. Each of these four 50g skeins changes half way through from one shade of dyed tops to the next and within each shade there are darker and lighter stretches from the uneven dye and within each single, whatever the depth of blue, there is a greater or a lesser proportion of the overdyed natural brown merino fibres.

I sat glued to the computer screen for hours, scrolling through patterns and ignoring pointed remarks about when it might be time for tea and even the dog putting her head on my lap and drooling onto my jeans.
"I have to find just the right project. Light fingering weight yarn at last and I'm dying to see how this gradient knits up."
My companion looked over my shoulder while I was viewing a particularly lovely lace shawl.
"Find a pattern in stocking stitch.The colour of that wool is enough of a hodge podge, knit it into holes and frills and it'll look a right dog's dinner. Which one of us might appreciate, poor starving animal. Just look at those pleading eyes."
"But I like lace knitting and I've spun fine yarn specially."
"To be honest, Beaut, you've run out of people to give shawls to. Enough of the fancy work. Knit something plain that you actually need. And put the kettle on, do."

So I knitted a summer cardigan with three quarter length sleeves using this free pattern from DROPS. Elinor refused to allow me to do it with stripes, so I made each sleeve and the two front pieces staring with a different ball of yarn.

I did add in a little waist and shoulder shaping and a bit of extra width to stop the top button straining and will admit I am chuffed to bits with the fit. There wasn't quite enough indigo yarn left to finish the back, so I had to add in a few rows of off-white near the top. When I spun round to show the cardi off, Elinor was outraged to find I had also eked out the indigo at the bottom by including the off-white yarn in a Fair Isle wave pattern.
"Trust you to sacrifice purity for promiscuity. To add to your many style crimes, that outfit is practically double denim."

Friday, 2 March 2018

Growing Madder Plants in Containers

Looking back to 2013, when I first sowed madder seeds, it was a good job the plants went into a raised border by a wall. Since then I've discovered that planted anywhere else in my garden, madder plants dwindle away and die in the wet winters with barely a red root to show for their sad existence. Because the first plants flourished in the relatively dry conditions of extra height for drainage in the rain shadow of the wall, they flowered and set seed from their second year onward. After three years, I dug up most of the original plants to make madder root dye. Thanks to the seeds they supplied, many of their offspring still live on.
Sown a centimetre deep into small pots of damp compost in March, I find at least half the seeds saved in autumn will germinate at room temperature and grow on strongly in an unheated greenhouse through April. I must have planted out dozens of little madder plants each May since 2015 and while the ones in garden borders didn't survive, plenty of others have managed ok in containers and their roots have made great contact prints.
From the perspective of the prospective dyer, the true measure of how well a madder plant is doing is hidden under the earth. Last summer, plants in their second year were waiting in plastic pots, some outdoors and some in the greenhouse. From August onward, the greenhouse went unwatered. It is only lately I have faced the sorry sight of dead brown plants.
Madder naturally dies back to the ground in winter, leaving only tough, dry stems. To my great delight, when I tried to pick up the line of madder pots in front of the grow bags, I found they had grown substantial roots through the bottom of their pots to get to what little moisture there was in the gravelly soil below. Forking through the gravel, I even found a surprise harvest of madder roots.
The plastic pots outside got the benefit of rain to water them, yet they have no sign of roots coming through their holes. It seems that once established, madder plants grow more roots the less water they get, even to this extreme. The greenhouse is now cleaned and patched up for the spring and those madder plants are staying inside, potted on into the biggest pots I have - with one good watering to help them over the shock.
Size does matter. This terracotta pot is bigger than a bucket and last June, it contained a madder plant starting its third year. The scrambling stems were taking over the pathway with tiny hooks that catch on clothes. Once turned out, although the mat of yellow fibres on the outer surface suggested the pot would be crammed, the internal root harvest proved less dramatic.

Below its crown, this two year old plant had long roots going down through the earth to a fine network at the base .
Six other madder plants that started at the same time, in spring 2015, have been growing in an old water butt with its top sawn off. This is how they looked last March, with new shoots just appearing. Summer brought the usual tangle of foliage flopping over the sides, probably less per plant than was sprouted out by the lone madder in its terracotta pot.
Realising these were now exactly three years old, I decided to find out how well conditions in a 50 gallon wooden container had suited them. Last weekend, braving freezing winds, I spent all afternoon emptying out the entire barrel. After chiselling out the dormant crowns, hopefully with enough roots attached to keep them alive, I dug down layer by layer.
All the soil was dry and friable, easy to shake off. There were yellow shoots as well as big red roots near the top. Deeper in, many thick roots ran all the way down to a riot of yellow rootlets encasing the broken bricks which filled the base. The soil at the bottom was the only damp area and it was finger numbingly cold to sift through, time to go indoors and warm my hands on a mug of tea.
The following day, I stayed in the kitchen for a massive root rinsing exercise. The wet weight of the madder barrel harvest was 2.7kg. The clean roots have been laid out in the spare bedroom on towels to dry and I expect the final weight of madder to store will reduce to only a few hundred grammes. Still, I have read that the alizarin red dye the dry roots contain actually improves after keeping them a couple of months.

All this leads me to conclude that on a clay soil in rainy South Wales, the best madder root harvest comes from planting in the deepest possible, porous container and not bothering to water it once the young plants are established. My plan for the spring is to buy two big wooden wine barrels, drill several holes in their bases, add plenty of crocks and bricks to help drainage and set them alongside the old water butt on raised plinths in the front garden, where they will get the afternoon sun.

I think I shall do just as I did with the original water butt, half fill them with rotted sheep manure, add some handfuls of wood ash to alkalinise the soil and top up with compost. With a bit of luck, replanting two big crowns into each of three barrels will mean much faster root growth than starting with new seedlings. Though the weather is savagely cold, here is a picture of May to remind me how fast the garden will soon be changing. 
Today was a good day for putting on a sheepskin coat, walking the dog in the snow, thinking about the story so far, for garden planning and for dreaming. How very nice it is to be retired, not to have to struggle in to work, but light the fire and stay indoors.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Dyeing Yarn in a Semisolid Colour

By early last summer, I had cracked the best method of preparing fine Mulberry silk yarn for plant dyeing. Silk fibres tend to resist a thorough wetting. Though time consuming, I found it paid to divide a whole 100g hank into 50m skeins right at the start, as this meant no single bulk of fibre could stick together, excluding water, mordant or dye from the yarn in the middle. For the same reason, the four cotton ties on each little skein needed to be loose. While beginning to wet the silk, adding a small squirt of washing up liquid to a big bath of warm water helped to lift off a cloud of dressing. After 24 hours, I would squeeze out the skeins, refill the bath with clean water and leave them for three more days, then change the water and give them another three days. Trial and error suggest it takes about a week for water to penetrate completely through smooth, tightly spun and plied silk fibres . After all that soaking, I could add 10% by weight of alum, dissolved in hot water, to a final cold bath and leave the skeins for 24 hours, knowing that simply swirling them around on a couple of occasions would result in evenly mordanted yarn. The process transformed each of the original 100g hanks into 19 generous 50m skeins. For weeks through the summer, I kept them soaking in a bowl of plain water, taking a few out as and when another flower dye bath was ready. Achieving even, solid colours made me proud of my professional results and happy to be selling them at craft shows.

Even the best preparation does not mean you can be casual about the dye process. If plant material is left in the dye bath rather than being sieved out for the actual dyeing phase, while the resulting colour is likely to be deeper, it may also be splotchy, that is, perceptibly darker in the places where a flower has been pressed right up against the fibre. This problem is most evident when dyeing yarn in a solar jar, which has no room for plant material and yarn to move about. At a time when my mind was preoccupied with other stuff, the skeins in this photo went into large aluminium dye pots. While they could float freely, they never did get simmered or swirled around. They were completely abandoned, sitting outdoors for months in pots of slowly fermenting Dyer's Chamomile flowers. The warmth of late summer was all the heating they ever got. Lucky for me that Dyer's Chamomile doesn't go rotten or smell evil, lucky that silk can withstand prolonged immersion even in dye baths with copper and iron modifiers, but in truth, after I finally emptied the pots onto the compost heap, fished out the silk and rinsed it, I didn't feel lucky. 

My companion, Elinor Gotland (star of stage and screen), has been having her portfolio updated by a London photographer, fresh out of Art School, but highly recommended by her agent.  When she returned, I was hoping for a bit of sympathy.
"Oh Elinor, look at my silk skeins. All that effort wasted on an uneven, amateurish dye job. I can't sell these."
Putting one hoof on her hip, she rolled up her eyes.
"You are soooo white bread. Chill baby doll, semisolid is sick."
"What? Like vomit? With carrot chunks?"
"No, window-licker, semisolid is awesome sauce."
I stared at her, wondering what they put in the tea on the Great Western train service these days. Then Elinor gave up sucking in her cheeks while simultaneously pouting with her mouth half open.
"Just crochet it into a shawl, Beaut. And stick the kettle on."

There are few things I enjoy more than making shawls and returning to a favourite pattern is ever a balm to a troubled soul. This must be my fourth 'Over the Willamette' and it doesn't get old. In fact, I name this small version, crocheted with a fine hook
'Fleek Neckerchief.'

I might even save myself the hassle of all that scouring and soaking and just splosh the next lot of silk yarn straight in to a mordant bath for 24 hours before dyeing. The result will not be uneven crap, it will be a semisolid colourway, which is ill shit. Or so I'm told.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Dyeing Wool with Dried Japanese Indigo Leaves

Rather to my surprise, I have found Japanese Indigo plants grow well outdoors in South Wales. They do have a sheltered, fairly sunny spot in my garden and their border is raised a couple of inches out of the wet clay with plenty of sheep manure dug in. I also have more plants in grow bags in the greenhouse. It is worth giving them the space because not only do the plants mature earlier, I think each harvest gives a greater amount of indigo dye, weight for weight of fresh leaves, compared with the outdoor plants.

On the downside, under glass, Japanese Indigo needs to be fed and watered regularly. My greenhouse has been neglected since last August, so this is how it looked in January. Oh, the shame of that idle watering can next to a desiccated crop. I went out there one bright, cold day, intending to clear out the dead bodies and ended up spending the whole afternoon just picking off the dried leaves. My companion, Elinor Gotland, came out to investigate.
"Duw, I'd have thought you'd have the whole greenhouse cleaned up by now. It's getting dark, the dog wants a walk and himself's dinner isn't started. What have you been playing at?"
"These leaves look blue, almost a turquoise colour. I've heard of people drying indigo leaves on purpose, to dye with later. Maybe something might be salvaged from this lot."
"Cut your losses, Beaut, repentance always comes too late. Now come indoors and put the kettle on." And thus, my bag of 100g dried Japanese Indigo leaves sat in the kitchen, abandoned for a second time.
I am still not finished in the greenhouse, in fact, last week, when I could have got back out there, I spent a day dyeing with dried indigo leaves.
First, I boiled them for twenty minutes in a big pot of water, inside a bag made from net curtains.
Elinor was appalled.
"That pot is far too hot, Beaut, everyone knows you mustn't heat indigo over 55 degrees Centigrade, it destroys the pigment."
"I found this really excellent blog by Deb McClintock, it was John Marshall who translated a recipe from the Japanese and told her to boil the dried leaves."
Elinor looked at the steaming bag of soggy leaves and the dark brown water they had left in the pot.
"Looks like a giant teabag, only no-one wants to drink greenhouse grime. Brew us some proper tea or go down the garden and hose the rest of the muck off the glass, don't waste your time washing dead leaves."
"Deb says to discard this water. I might put 50g of alum mordanted Cheviot wool in there, give it a simmer, see what happens."
"Then I'll make my own tea, thanks very much. Can't trust you not to stick a bit of wool in my cup."

The next step is to extract the indigo from the boiled mush. Like Deb, I started with about 100g of leaves, so I followed her instructions exactly, measured out two litres of water and dissolved 4g of soda ash and 6g of thiourea dioxide in two jam jars of hot water, poured them in to the pot, added the bag of leaves and turned up the gas.
"Boiling again! And you're stirring the pot, surely you know you mustn't stir indigo after adding the deoxygenating agent. Did you whisk it up first?"
"No, Elinor, no whisking, no waiting, this dye vat is singing to me as it bubbles - breaking all the rules and damn the consequences."

I stood there stirring and endured twenty minutes of her droning on about the folly of flogging a dead Indigo plant and me hardly being cut out for wild rebellion and her expectations of tears before bedtime. Then there was blue. Tipping the first, deep yellow extraction bath into a separate pot, a froth of indigo bloomed on the surface and as I pressed it inside the colander, I saw the net bag of leaves had been dyed pale blue. Much encouraged, I repeated the extraction process two more times with 2g soda ash and 3g thiourea dioxide. Pouring the third two litre extraction into the collecting pot, I checked the temperature and the pH of the final vat. Seventy five degrees Centigrade and pH8. Far too hot and not alkali enough - if I were playing by the normal rules.

"So, what are you going to try dyeing? An old T shirt?"
"In for a penny, in for a pound, Elinor. I've divided up and soaked 200g wool tops from John Arbon. I've had it for ages, I think it's Captain Poldarles - Polwarth and Merino D'Arles blend."
"Now I know you've lost the plot. That wool is legendarily soft and dreamy to spin. Only it won't be after you've felted it in that hideous death pot of hot alkali. Last time you dipped merino tops in an indigo vat, the wool was ruined, completely matted."
I stood my ground.
"Last time, I pegged the tops out on the line on a windy day and gave each piece repeated dips. This time, every 25g portion will have one five minute dip and then lie flat to air through. If you don't agitate me, I won't agitate the wool fibres and everything will work out fine."
And it did. Elinor went off in a huff to do lunch with her agent while I worked my way through dipping all eight 25g portions of Captain Poldarles in the vat, getting a series of successively paler blue dyes as the indigo was used up.

That evening, I soaked them with a splash of vinegar to neutralise the alkali, gave them another rinse and a spin dry and left them on a rack. 

Thanks to Deb McClintock, my Japanese Indigo plants did not die in vain, they dyed in a glorious cause. Deb was right about the first rinse bath too. I should have discarded it.