Friday, 24 May 2013

A Trial of Apple Leaf Dye

So it's goodbye to George Cave, Katy, Sunset and Deacon.  In May, I should be soft pruning the espalier apples, pinching out growing tips that would overburden the frame and rubbing off the aphids.  No greenfly, but no apples to come this year. Within a fortnight, all four trees have to come out for the digger to complete the footings for a garden wall.  

It seems a bit like rendering the children down for soap, but I plan to keep the wood and use the bark to make dye baths in winter.  In her book, Wild ColourJenny Dean writes that apple leaves will give shades from mustard to brown, depending on the season they are picked.  Before I add leaf picking and drying to my to do list, I thought I would run a trial of spring apple leaf dye.  I picked about 300g of fresh leaves, put them in a cloth bag and jumped up and down on it to break them up a bit.  The bag went in a bowl of water on Saturday, by Sunday, the water had a significantly yellow tinge. Seemed to be worth proceeding, so Tuesday I gave the whole lot a couple of hours simmer.

At Wonderwool, BarberBlackSheep had a small display of skeins of Gotland fleece blended with other wools. Some had been dyed.  The greys of the Gotland harmonised the dye colours.  Though the term is 'saddening', the effect is far from miserable. 
I have been practicing spinning semi-worsted with Gotland blended with some of the rougher white wool I sorted out from a Jacob fleece. The first sample for the trial is a 25g skein of this wool. Coarse wool and low twist has made it very hairy, think I might increase the twist for the next practice run. The other two skeins are pure new wool double knitting from  
All were mordanted with Alum and Cream of Tartar.  Total weight 75g, so the ratio of fresh leaves to dry wool was 4 to 1.

On Wednesday, once the pot had cooled, I drained and squeezed out the bag of apple leaves.  The water had gone an unappetising murky yellow. Anyone looking at it would agree this horse was not fit for work.

I put in the wool and simmered for a couple of hours then left it to cool overnight.
After my experience with the larch bark dye changing colour in the wash, thanks to the alkaline nature of washing powder, I have decided to treat  some of all my dye skeins with an alkali afterbath.  That way, I can predict what would happen if I dyed wool for something I intend to wash.  I made an alkali solution of cold water with half a teaspoon of soda ash and left one skein in it for half an hour or so, then rinsed with plain water.
Sure enough, there was a significant colour change.

Here are the final apple leaf dyed skeins.
Far left is the original dye bath only.  Middle is the Gotland/Jacob blend and though the spinning isn't great and the colour is not wildly exciting, I do like the saddening effect. Nearest is the skein that had an alkali afterbath, much brighter and stronger colour, although in practice, some more dye appeared to leak out into the alkali bath.

Fair play to Jenny Dean, the spring apple leaf dye colour really is like mustard.  I think I will dry a big bag of leaves and store them in the loft for winter.  Before New Year, I shall plant a Brave New Avalon. 

Friday, 17 May 2013

Gotland and Zwartbles Sheep Fleece - Durable Projects

Gotland and Zwartbles sound like two detectives from a European crime series, like the ones they've been showing on Saturdays on BBC 4. Gotland would be a moody, intense Swede and Zwartbles her bouncy Dutch sidekick.  The two sheep fleeces would have trouble looking more different, but both have great durability.  Imagine the detectives, one older, with wild silver curls and the other with a brunette beehive and plenty of cleavage.  I shall write them a screenplay entitled The Girl with the Sheep Tattoo
The Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook tells me Gotland sheep originated in Sweden.  They are not common in Great Britain.  I got mine from BarberBlackSheep, you can find her forum on the Ravelry website  Not only does she keep a small herd of Gotlands from which she sells sorted locks, free of debris, she also replies constructively to naive and stupid comments and questions from beginners.  This is not an ordinary wool.  You can see the strong, fine fibres in their long open waves and ringlets, but my photo does not do justice to the subtle blue sheen of the real thing.  Like Zwartbles, Gotland fleece felts easily.  My plan to give the whole lot a good scrub in the bath was gently diverted to putting a small amount in a net bag and leaving it to soak undisturbed in cold water for two days, before gently lowering it into hot soapy water for five minutes, then into several similar rinses before laying out to dry.  

This is the first time I have washed fleece before spinning.  I understand that a good way to take advantage of the fabulous colours and sheen, keep the weight and drape, yet produce yarn suitable for a sweater, is to blend Gotland with other, complimentary types of wool or silk.  I really fancy trying a Gotland/silk mix - one day.  Once blended, such a yarn probably wouldn't take well to scouring up to 80 degrees Centigrade.  

First, I decided to get the feel of Gotland on its own. I have been warned that to avoid a hairy fuzz and keep the sheen, Gotland should be spun worsted, that is from the end of a combed or carded roving which aligns all the fibres, rather than spinning woolen from a rolled up rolag.  

Until I get a pair of combs for my birthday, I have only the hand carders.  Rolling the carded Gotland off sideways kept the fibres aligned.  Gently tugging the ends of the bundle created a sort of roving, but this is not the way one should do it, just as good a way as I could. 

Spinning semi-worsted with low twist, as instructed, took a lot of false starts, with the single ply fibre breaking over and over again. Eventually, I got the basic idea and spun my own tiny storm cloud of two ply pure Gotland, about double knitting to aran weight. Now I needed a small project that would show off the lovely colours and take full advantage of its durability.

Pottering about on Ravelry, I came across the perfect thing, a crochet pattern for a macrame style owl hanging designed by Thomasina Cummings, who also shares a forum, dc2tog. If you don't use Ravelry, she has an Etsy Shop where you can get this and many other patterns The owl pattern is not intrinsically complex and is very clearly written.  I don't have advanced skills and need to get the book out to do anything more than simple chain and double crochet stitches.  This was the most absorbing puzzle to work out row by row, a really pleasurable afternoon.  

On the beach, I found pebbles with holes in for eyes and sticks for a perch. Here is Driftwood the storm-tossed owl.  I think he will withstand a season in the garden.

I enjoyed making this owl so much, I wanted to make another straight away. 

Zwartbles is another fleece suitable for the great outdoors. It is now familiar, it was quick and easy to flick comb and spin more superbulky balls from my remaining raw fleece. A 7mm crochet hook was about right.  Rather than wash away all the protective lanolin, I just gave this owl a long cold soak and a rinse to get the dirt out.

Presently, I am grieving over the loss of the garden fence.  The posts have rotted at the base and it is only held up by the espalier apples I have been training for fourteen years. Replacing the fence with a permanent wall means uprooting the apples.  Much as I appreciate my mud spattered husband's Augean labours digging out the footings in the rain and much as I shall enjoy planting new things, I am a bit gutted.  The Zwartbles Owl is called Applewood and has apple branch hangers.  Couldn't manage applewood eyes, because the wood is still green, in fact growing and blossoming  ...  [Sound FX - a stifled sob - I can write screenplay].  

There were some peeled larch branches dried out on the wood pile, so while Steve slaved with a spade, I stayed out of the rain in the garage and had a great time playing with power tools. 

I made a pile of rustic larch wood buttons, gave them a rub with olive oil and reckon they should last and function as buttons.  I am now not so much loosing my espalier apples as  seasoning the wood for a winter of applewood button making. Loads of raw material to try out an apple bark dye bath too.

Since Gotland and Zwartbles both felt well, what better use for them than to be needle felted into another pot on the sponge football? (see last week's blog) Perfect for keeping the buttons in.

The plot for The Girl with the Sheep Tattoo is coming on nicely.  My brother Matt can play the Midnight Shearer.  Such is his skill, that in pitch darkness, he soundlessly steals the finest fleeces to order, for a cartel of unscrupulous spinners.  I shall insist on going on location to screen test the most photogenic sheep - there will be shorn sheep nudity, but all in the best possible taste.  Phoebe can be The Girl, top fleece spotter and criminal mastermind, a thoroughly modern Moriarty. 

My other brother Roo will be typecast as captain of a small ship, smuggling fleeces out from obscure ports all over Europe, under the very noses of the detectives.  I foresee a row with BG over which of us gets to be Gotland, but the wig will suit me best and I don't have the cleavage to be Zwartbles.  Yes, there will be tears, but it will all be worthwhile when we get to sit next to Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freems at the BAFTAs next year.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Making Needle Felted Baskets and Sheep Breed Fleece Variety

Needle Felting must be the ultimate hobby for masochists. Risking a blood bath of torn skin does add a certain frisson to a craft.  My cousin Amy warned me, but I laughed, haha, and booked myself and Blonde Geraldine in for a needle felting workshop on the Sunday of Wonderwool.  Ruth Packham taught a group of us how to make a needlefelt brooch. She was a lovely tutor, let us design our own things, made it all seem simple.  We were well chuffed with our brooches and recommend her  Ruth told us to keep the other hand away from the barbed needle we were poking into our bits of fleece.  Judging by the yelps that punctuated conversation round the table, other people like a bit of extreme crafting too.

Enthused, BG and I scooted off to buy packs of needles from felters' stalls before the show was over.  Bank Holiday Sunday was spent making small needle felted baskets in the sunshine.  Going from a flat brooch to a three dimensional item was bound to be a challenge, but I had a cunning plan.  
Needle felting involves stabbing a long, barbed needle through wool fibres held against a dense bit of foam. Ultimately, this causes the fibres to mat together.  When I saw this toddler size foam football in the supermarket, I reckoned it would do the shaping for me.  I filled a flower pot with stones for stability, taped the ball on top, then started to felt on bits of washed Zwartbles fleece.
Zwartbles, with its bouncy crimp and scaley fibres, felts up a treat.  It took hardly any time to get the ball covered with a strong woolly hairdo.  
Ruth had warned us against felting Merino wool.  It is luxuriously soft and desirable for things worn next to the skin, but has fibres so smooth that their scales are a devil to get interlocked.  I had also washed some of my leftover Jacob X Texel fleece, to make a swirly grey/brown outer layer.  This felted on ok, but  took noticeably more stabbing to get it firmly applied.  Although you are supposed to keep moving the felt around on the foam, so as not to weld it on with tiny fibres poked through, my double layer of felt did peel off the foam football leaving a fairly cohesive nest.  I felted further by stabbing it from the inside or down through the sides.  Without the foam ball, I started spiking my leg or my fingers, finding out just how right Amy was.  Luckily, Zwartbles doesn't show the blood stains.  Now I know how to value her good advice about using a really thick bit of foam as a protective cushion.

Still, I got it felted into a solid nest.  

Decoration - a final touch.  Two eggs made from a sample bag of exquisitely soft angora.  This wool does not like to needle felt.  It took ages to build up layers that did not fluff up and peel back off again.

Making the bird's nest basket rammed home a message I have been broadly ignoring.  My first library books on spinning showed locks of raw fleece and described how the staple length from shorn end to tip and the crimp, or wiggliness of its individual fibres, and the thickness of the fibres themselves, all vary between breeds of sheep and from young sheep to older ones. Claire Boley advised going to the local Wool Marketing Board and seeing and feeling the fleeces before buying.  I just saw some on eBay and thought wow, wool, I want it.  Blind luck that the first thing I bought was two Jacob X Texels, suited to the jumper and wrap I wanted to make.  After my next random purchase, kind people on Ravelry did gently suggest my scorned Zwartbles fleece had sterling qualities, combining colour, softness and durability.  I was just disappointed that I couldn't get it to comply with my desire to spin a fine, luxurious yarn.  I went for another Jacob, since at least I thought I knew where I was with it.  This remains a work in progress, during which I have made still more fundamental errors.  Most recently, I have leaped headlong into buying some Gotland fleece, because I had read of its fabulous storm cloud colours.  I was told, but took no bloody notice - handling it is going to need a completely new skill set.  Now I find that the even the invisible scaliness of each breed's fibres affects its needle felting properties. Just look at my varieties of fleece so far and wonder how I could have missed the fact that they differ in so much more than colour.

Now my bedtime reading is The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius.   I have also found a brilliant free online video tutorial by one of the authors, which takes you from looking at the sheep to choosing and sourcing ready spun balls of wool from breeds suitable for different types of project.

What combination of softness, lustre, elasticity and durability is the best?  The moral of this story is - love the one you're with. 

 All fleece is wonderwool and I am not worthy.  Pass me the felting needle and let me stab myself again.  Just to rub salt in my many tiny wounds, BG sat there on Sunday titting about with lairey bits of vulgar, multicoloured roving. She had no idea what kind of sheep they came from.  And yes, her needlefelt basket is much prettier than mine. Cow.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Larch Bark Dyed Wool Felted Knitted Bag Pattern

Once upon a time, last January, long, long ago, when she had no fleece, no spinning wheel and not even a spindle to call her own, a wool freak became restive and desperate.  Spying a fallen larch tree in the snow, she savagely tore off a branch (before the Council could come along and clear it away) and dragged it back to her lair.  Twigs flew about the sitting room as she peeled every inch. The bark went into a bucket of water to soak for a week, then got simmered for several hours.  At last, she had a winter dye bath, powerfully tree smelling and deepest brown.  

In went all her wool - two 400g cones of aran weight 100% Wool City Wool from in two consecutive lots.  To prolong the excitement, she added vinegar in which rusty nails had been festering, just to see what iron would do to the colour.  Lots and lots of balls of lovely brown wool in two harmonious shades.  Finally, one last pale ball eked out the end of the spent dyebath.

Along came a handsome Jacob X Texel fleece and stole her heart away. She finished with him, moved on to his friend, messed up a relationship with a perfectly decent Zwartbles, then swooned over a Jacob, only to find she had miscalculated.  He wasn't providing the yardage for her wild ambitions.  Now she had no project to be knitting, with a whole day conference looming on Friday, plus a long car journey to the Wonderwool festival at the weekend.  Only then did she remember her poor, neglected, larch dyed aran stash.

Regretting her foolish ways, the wool freak reconsidered her true needs.   A small, portable project to tide her through til the glories of Wonderwool.  A chance to practice knitting in the round, which she hadn't done for years.  A present for a friend's birthday in May. Another go at felting - how she loved the all or nothing peril of the hot wash. Thus was the Larch Bark Dyed Felted Knitted Bag designed and created.


5.5mm circular needle
Main colour aran wool 170g = 280m
Second colour aran wool 43g = 74m
Third colour aran wool 7g = 12m


18 stitches and 20 rows to 10cm square

My knitting is loose and shrinks more in height than width.  When I knitted a tension square and put it through a 95 degree machine wash, it shrank about 30% in height and 15% in width.  The big surprise was that the colour changed from grey brown to ginger.  I sewed all three shades of the larch bark dye and also a bit of left over blue woad dyed and green nettle overdyed with woad, to see if they would all change. Only the larch bark wools did.  My best guess is that the hot wash took the iron modifier back out of them.  The woad and nettle/woad had had no modifier. I had no idea an iron afterbath would wash back out!  I think I like the ginger brown better.  This was an incorrect assumption - it wasn't the iron - see below.


Cast on 60 stitches in the main colour and knit to and fro 20 rows stocking stitch.  Put a small safety pin on the first stitch and knit across the 60 stitches, putting a large safety pin on the last stitch. With the right side of the work facing you, pick up 10 stitches from the 20 rows along the side. Pick up a stitch from each of the 60 cast on stitches, putting a large safety pin on the first and last stitch.  Pick up 10 stitches from the 20 rows on the other side.  Total 140 stitches.  

Turn the work so the wrong side of the base is facing you and knit 5 rounds.  At first, it is a bit tight coming round the corners on a circular needle, but it will loosen up once you have a couple of rounds done. When you arrive at the small safety pin, ready to begin the sixth round, slip the stitch above the safety pin on to the right needle, knit one stitch in the second colour and pass the slipped stich over it.  Move the small safety pin up to this stitch. 

Knit the second stitch in the second colour and continue knitting 2 main colour then 2 second colour stitches, as in the pattern above, remembering you are reading it right to left.  When you are one stitch before the column of the second, large safety pin, knit 2 together and move the safety pin up to this stitch.  Knit 10, keeping the pattern going.  Now you are above the third safety pin, slip one, knit one, pass the slipped stitch over and move the safety pin up.  Knit til you are one stitch before the fourth safety pin, knit 2 together and move that safety pin up.  Knit 10.  Continue the seven rows of pattern as shown in brackets on the chart. When you reach row 13, reduce in exactly the same way.  

Each reduction is of four stitches, as the pattern is only four stitches wide, you just keep doing the same sequence.  Complete six bands of pattern and on the seventh, miss out the alternate single stitch pattern round in the second and third colour and stick to the main colour for this and the following two rounds.  Do a final reduction round, leaving 108 stitches, then one last plain round.
From the small safety pin marking the beginning of the round, knit 54 stitches, bringing you to the third safety pin.  Cast off 44 stitches.  Knit 10 stitches and transfer them off the needle onto a large safety pin, completing the round.  Knit 54 stitches, turn and purl 10 stitches then transfer them off the needle onto another safety pin.  
The remaining 44 stitches will be the top flap.  Purl one row, turn and continue to and fro in stocking stitch for 12 rows.  With right side facing, knit one, slip one, knit one and pass the slipped stitch over it, continue knitting until three stitches from the end of the row, knit 2 together and knit one.  Purl one row. Continue reducing in every knit row in this way until 20 stitches remain.  Cast off.
For the handle, rejoin the yarn to the 10 stitches on the right of the flap and knit row after row in stocking stitch until the handle is 50% longer than you want it to be after felting.  I made mine 110cm. 

Cut the wool leaving a 50cm end and thread it onto a blunt needle. Carefully slide the 10 stitches off the needle and lay them opposite the 10 stitches from the safety pin on the other side.  Graft the ends together by copying a knit stitch in and out of each loop twice, then fasten off.

Machine wash at 95 degrees, with some old towels in there to help with the felting. Shape the bag while damp.  Look how my larch dyed wool changed colour!

Choose a button, cut a slit in the front flap for the button hole and sew the button on.

The wool freak did go to the Wonderwool ball and has sighed over the torment of finishing off this bag.  A beautiful Gotland called Elinor, who has long curls and is not like the other fleeces, has captured her heart. Elinor is now hidden away in a high tower, in a bucket of water, where the wool freak intends she should suffer a sea change, into something rich and strange.  Bank Holiday heaven.


Earthnut on the Ravelry website told me that the colour change was unlikely to be the iron washing out and likely to be the effect of the alkali pH of washing powder.  She was absolutely right.  I took strands of a few herbal dyed wools and soaked them in a jam jar of water with enough soda ash dissolved in it to get a of pH10.  No heat or agitation.  Sure enough, when I took them out and dried them, the larch bark dyed wool had gone ginger.  I think this is well worth knowing, as I often use vinegar to acidify dye baths.