Friday, 27 September 2013

Hand Spinning Welsh Mountain Sheep Fleece

Welsh Mountain sheep take a battering.  I think of them like King Lear, out on the blasted heath, where the stunted trees grow sideways. Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes spout Til you have drenched our fleece.  No-one would expect to spin a lacey shawl with it.  

The Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook tells me all the Welsh sheep breeds have coarser wool, with fibres measuring 32 to 40 microns wide.  Kemp is more like human hair, mixed in with the wool fibres.  Deb Robson found abundant kemp in the South Wales Mountain sample she spun while researching the book.  She comments that it suggests great weather resistance.  Kemp also makes spun wool more prickly.  I found a fair bit in the one I have been working on.

On the left are locks of a Welsh Crossbreed fleece from a local farm.  A friend at work very kindly asked her brother if he would bag up a fleece for me to buy.  My struggle to clean the Suffolk fleece from another nearby farm (pictured centre bottom), introduced me to the marvels of suint.  Still, I was truly delighted when I unrolled this one in the carpark, quick bit of skirting and it was fit to come indoors.  The staple length is variable, 5 - 12 cm, the locks are easy to open with a nice crimp.  I can't measure the fibre diameter, but recently, I was given a piece of Polwarth fleece, sample shown on the right.  The book says this breed has fibre 21 to 26 microns wide.  Although the photo doesn't really convey its silky fineness, I can tell you that smoothing Polwarth into locks is a luxury in itself. The contrast brought home to me how much tougher the Welsh breeds must be, contending with the fretful elements. The farmers too, I'd guess.

A plan to spin a cable jumper from the Suffolk fleece foundered, when I knitted up a swatch of hand spun and realised how stiff and harsh the fabric would be.  Welsh Crossbreed spinning will be durable, should take years of hard wear.  When a washed swatch of this turned out considerably softer and less yellowed, the cable jumper plan was back on.  I learned the hard way about planning, - Oh I have ta'en Too little care of this. Decided to Take physic, Pomp, after making such hard work of the first hand spun jumper.  

So, I had a careful think about how to prepare this fleece.  Seeing as how I want to make a working jumper, rather than an item of beauty, no need to spin a fine thread.  Not much confidence I could manage that anyway.  As it goes, earlier this month, I was very much encouraged by lots of help and patient support from experienced spinners on a spinning rally weekend.  
Poor women, more spinned against than spinning, with me at their wheels and drum carders.  They were quite right, with careful  preparation, any fleece can be spun finely, well, at less than double knitting weight.  Both the skeins above were spun from raw fleece and are shown in all their grubby glory.  To get the finer one, which I made this week for sewing up the seams, I made proper rolags on hand carders.  
However, hand carding takes more time and effort than my chunky spinning needs.   For this fleece, I improvised a kind of 'fauxlag', by laying out locks along my thigh.  I used a dog brush to flick out the dirt from the tips and separate out the fibres on each side, turned the strip over, did the other side and rolled it up into a sausage.  

Still takes time, but this method gives a big portion of fibre per fauxlag.  Not as easy to control the drafting as it is spinning from proper rolags, but good enough.  I wanted a woolen rather than a worsted type yarn, as warmth is more important than drape or even a crisp look to the cable pattern on this jumper.  Plus I am still crap at worsted spinning.

The wheel is come full circle.  More twist per inch makes yarn less soft, but stronger.  I ended up treadling at a medium pace on the 15/1 ratio on the flyer to get a sturdy feel.  The fineness of yarn is measured in wraps per inch (wpi).  I tried drafting more or less fibre into my singles, plying two together and checking the wpi of the resulting yarn.  

Three ply makes a strong, round yarn, but the singles need to be finer and the result is less flexible.  Although my singles don't look very thick when I am spinning, they puff up a lot when the plied yarn is washed. Two ply is less work and more elastic. 

Meanwhile, I had found my original choice of pattern was too full of complicated stitch panels to modify.  Oh, that way madness lies; let me shun that. The cable jumper in Men's Knits looked a much better option.  I got the wpi right for the tension gauge stated, only to find that my sample of knitting shrank 13% in length and got 5% wider after a machine wool wash at 30 degrees.  No good making a working jumper that can't go through the wash.  

An old jumper, which fits just right, was used as my model. To avoid making a crop top with three quarter length sleeves, I calculated all the length measurements proportionately longer.  Since I was in remedial maths at school, this was nerve wracking knitting.  The washing machine shall unfold, what plaited cunning hides. The body did get shorter and wider, but the sleeves were still too long. It dawned on me that I had measured the old jumper along the inside sleeve seam, but measured my knitting along the cable column, which, as any fool can see, is not on the same increasing angle.  Howl, howl, howl, howl!  If I unpick the seams, frogging the upper sleeves could be difficult now they have got a bit felted in the wash.  If I managed to do that and knitted them up shorter, when I wash again, they may well end up at a different tension to the rest of the jumper.  She that has and a little tiny wit, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, Must make content when the jumper doesn't fit, For the rain it raineth every day.

I do blame the weather for another flaw.  Last year's heavy rain caused yellow discolouration of parts of this fleece.  I thought if I mixed in the yellower staples with paler ones, I should end up with a general mottled effect.  As you see, that didn't work out either. Nicotine type stripes. 
Hysterica passio, down thou climbing sorrow.

This evening, I feel much happier. Took the jumper round to the mastermind of walls, digger of deepest footings, undaunted raker of the concrete flood.  With the cuffs turned up, it fits pretty well. Strictly toolshed, but since it kept a Welsh Mountain sheep weatherproof through the snows, it ought to be warm this winter. The worst returns to laughter.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Berry Dyes and Colour Fastness

Don't bother dyeing with berries.  That's like telling a child not to put beans up its nose.  

Autumn berry colours are irresistible. This September there seem to be more than ever.  I just had to try another berry dye.  Or two.

I ought to know better. Last summer I made a lovely red raspberry dye bath.  Within a week, my pale pink wool had faded almost completely.  Last autumn, a fabulous dark blackberry bath - beige wool.  Soaked and simmered deep red rose hips - not even an exciting colour dye bath.  And I'm only talking about lightfastness here, the fruit dyed wool really wasn't worth knitting into something that might go through the wash.

Elderberries were the exception. Last September, I picked a carrier bag full of ripe heads, fermented them for a few days and simmered below the boil for an hour in a big pot of water, then added Texere Chunky 100% wool skeins, mordanted with Alum and Cream of Tartar.  The result was eyewateringly strong, glaring rather than deep purple. Thankfully, it calmed down to a more muted and usable shade over the next couple of weeks.  

That change can't simply be about lightfastness, because the middle of my tightly rolled balls faded as much as the wool on the outside.  I gave some of the batch an iron afterbath, by adding a splash of vinegar that had had rusty nails soaking in it.  This turned it a moody purplish gray.  The dyebath still had a lot of colour and hadn't gone mouldy, so I simmered it again with more wool and got a paler shade.  

I knitted some into a hat for my niece. The hat got worn outdoors - excellent.  Here it is, a year later, worn on a chilly evening last weekend.  Flash photography has made the colours look stronger than they do in daylight. The iron grey is still there, with a mere mauvish reminder of berries.
The same wool was used to crochet a cushion cover. This has sat on the sofa, out of direct sunlight and, oh the shame, has never been through the wash. I brought it out into the sun for a photo.  Although the purple has faded to pink, I like it, it's good for another winter.  I found a spare end of skein which has been buried in my basket for the same amount of time. The colour is noticeably stronger, but also more pink than the original purple.  I conclude that elderberry dye fades, losing the blue tones more markedly than the red.  A powerful temporary colour for dyeing boiled eggs or cake icing, ok for woolen items that won't be washed and stay in the house, if you are happy with pink.  Everything fades eventually, synthetic colours included.  No reason not to enjoy berry dyes, but I wouldn't put a lot of effort into knitting purple patterns into clothes or bags, because the colour is too fugitive.

Lycestra self seeds and grows huge in my garden.  The drooping branches give a big wet slap when you push past them on rainy days.  Pruning it to clear a path, I just wondered if the cooler conditions in a solar jar might capture the colour of the red berries. Despite all my past failures, I tried it out.  Two weeks later, faintest fawn.  Where did that red go?

You might imagine I would stick to collecting berries for pies and jams, now.  I did mean to. Out with the dog on my half day last week, I got a mixture of elderberries, blackberries and dew berries and added a few damsons from a tree in the garden.   This is the recipe for a rob, a cordial to drink with hot water when you have a cold, which I do.
Add enough water to cover, simmer for an hour, pulp with a potato masher and pour through a sieve into a jug.  For every litre of juice, add 500g sugar and whatever suitable spices you have in the cupboard. In this case, sliced fresh ginger and some rather ancient cloves, a cinnamon stick and three star anise.  Simmer for another hour and bottle.  No idea if it does any good, but it hits the spot for me.
Having bottled the rob, I found myself with a sieve full of mashed purple pulp.  It seemed a shame to waste it.  Although it had been boiled, which would destroy most blue pigments, I simmered the pulp again in plenty of water, just to see what would happen to a small skein of mordanted wool.  Not bad at all, wild berry pink.  Maybe I'll use it for a stripe in some socks. 

Had to do something to salvage the wool in the failed solar pot, so I fished out the lycestra and put in elderberries instead.  A friend said she'd heard the solar method will produce a better purple that lasts longer, though it seems more likely that the sun will just bleach the colour away again. Just maybe, the cooler solar method might bring out the blues.  Worth a go.

All things considered, don't bother dyeing with berries.  Use them for jam or rob. 

Better still, bottle them in gin for Christmas. Speaking of which, I wonder what would happen if I dyed wool with sloes?

Friday, 13 September 2013

More Silk Scarves Contact Dyed with Plant Material

One real success from my first attempt at contact dyeing with plants spurred me on to try more. The weather is turning, but there are still plenty of flowers going strong in the dye garden.  Picking them all once or twice a week over the summer seemed brutal, but the plants have bloomed more and continued later than I expected.  My usual approach to dead heading is random - when the mood takes me. 
Since the best result came from the simplest method, I have pretty much followed that again.  Two scarves left in the cupboard.  One was unevenly dyed with woad last year, the other was the last untouched one in the packet. Both were mordanted with half a teaspoon of Alum dissolved in water, put in at 60 degrees Centigrade, left overnight, rinsed and kept wet in plain water.

I thought the soft gray pattern I got on my successful scarf would make the blue much more interesting.  Here it is, laid out wet with a modest sprinkling of red geranium petals and two double magenta hollyhock flowers.  
Rolled around the same piece of driftwood I used before, again, tied up tightly with wool that had been soaked in a jar of vinegar that has rusty nails in it.  

My original flower colours on a white scarf, rolled longitudinally and steamed, were not great.  I used too many petals and got big, unbalanced areas of single colourways without a unifying theme.  
For my last scarf, I mixed the same hollyhock petals with a few coreopsis flowers.  The scarf was rolled around a larch branch which had had most of the bark peeled off last winter.  I know larch bark soaked and simmered gives a brown dye on wool and hoped that the bits of bark remaining around the knots would give a pattern through the layers of silk.  This time, the wool I tied it up with was soaked in a jar of copper pennies and vinegar.  Copper usually gives green on wool.
Wrapped in several layers of clingfilm, both have had two weeks in the green house.  I gave them twice as long, since we have had a fair bit of sun for the time of year in Wales, but it hasn't been as hot as during my first attempt.  Today, I unwrapped them from the clingfilm and will give them a couple of days to dry out before unrolling.

And the results ...

On the left, this time, the iron soaked wool tie did not give gray edges. Instead, there are more diffuse brownish markings.  Wonder if that has to do with the background woad colour or clingfilm wrapping direct, instead of over the top of a bowl as I did before.  Or something else entirely.  Could have done with a few more petals.
On the right, mixing the petals and rolling from the short end has given a better effect.  The remaining bark on the larch branch knots did make a repeating brown spotted pattern.  No evident effect from the copper on the wool tie, though the wool went greenish.

Neither scarf is breathtaking in itself, but they both look rather good when put on. 
The subtle patterns on the blue one are very pleasing close up.  

Time to get back to spinning wool now, I think.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Making Sunflower Dye from the Plant to the Wool

The new garden wall is a thing of beauty - notice the English Bond every five courses.  It is also a shelter and suntrap for tall plants.  Last May, while the footings were still being dug, I planted a multipack collection of sunflower seeds in trays in the greenhouse.  I have taken to starting them this way because slugs are more acrobatic than they look.  Remarkable how they can shin up even a tall stem in the border.  Never mind the worm at the heart of the rose, in my garden, their dark secret greed doth every seedling destroy. 

These sunflowers had to wait a bit longer than planned, growing on in the veg patch.  The young plants finally reached the new wall border in early July and needed daily watering through the heat wave.  In return, they leapt up, tygers, burning bright. Just gorgeous.  Helianthus annuus.  The past hard winter and hot summer have spared me from standing watch with a torch all night.  Truthfully, I mean there was no need to use slug pellets this year.  
I would have grown them anyway, but in  'A Dyer's Garden', it says that if well boiled, sunflowers give a green dye . The 'Russian Giants' have gone over, but 'Colour Fashion' and 'Red Sun' are still putting up plenty of secondary flowers.

At the feet of the big girls, the dwarf doubles 'Teddy Bear' are only just flowering now.  I have to give them a little time in the sun. The Helianthus debilis 'Italian White' look too pale to give much dye, so  'Colour Fashion' and 'Red Sun' were up for the chop.  Rita Buchanan doesn't specify precisely what ratio the weight of flowers to wool should be, but she does say you need to grow lots and must pick them in full bloom.  
Shed a tear over this dye bath. What the hand, dare seize the fire? Certainly twisted the sinews of my heart.  Two hours boil for 500g of flowers, left to soak overnight. Next day, I put in an 80g skein of Texere Chunky, mordanted with Alum and Cream of Tartar.  This got heated up to a simmer over one hour and was kept at 90 degrees for another hour.  

What dread beige!  Noooo!  
Rita says this dye is not pH sensitive, so no good scrambling for the soda ash and/or vinegar to modify the colour.  Haven't bothered with iron or copper afterbaths all season, but I still have a jam jar of vinegar with pennies in it, festering on a shelf since last winter. Poured in a healthy lug and simmered for twenty minutes. Copper did the trick, I got green wool.

Really not worth the sacrifice.  I'd promise the sunflowers will be safe from me next year, only I have read interesting things about Hopi sunflowers giving blue, black and purple dye.  Apparently, 
that comes from the seeds, so I wouldn't have to pick the flowers until the plants had died and dried.  
The copper ought to make this wool a great slug deterrent  itself.  I might end my slug war crimes by knitting little mats to go round the base of next year's seedlings.