Friday, 25 April 2014

Dyeing Silk Curtains with Apple Leaves, then Woad and Weld Overdyes

Winter sunshine is a cold comfort. Filtering it through silk dyed with weld made it feel like Spring in my bathroom.  I put this blind up last November.  After mordanting a metre of silk dupion with alum, it soaked up the colour from a weld dye bath and has not faded in six months of light exposure.

For years, we have had heavy brown curtains in the sitting room.  While they did exclude the draft from the French Windows, how I have regretted that choice.  After taking down Christmas decorations in January, there was nothing in that room to like.  The paintwork was knackered and a past leak from the shower had stained the ceiling and blistered a patch of the wall.  Sod's Law the curtains were still in perfectly good condition, along with their horrible, fake antique brass curtain poles.  In a fugue state, I went on eBay and ordered 10 metres of lovely silk dupion with slubs in the weave.  Then, like Hercules coming to his senses after the slaughter, I wondered oh, what have I done?

The dyeing has taken months, every step a gamble with £109 worth of material.  The dry weight of the silk was 1.7kg.  Once soaked in the bath to get rid of any dressing, the wet weight was harder to wrestle with than any Nemean lion.  In the end, I just pulled the plug out, refilled the bath with hot water, stirred in a massive dose of 170g dissolved alum and gave it a couple of days to mordant.

Last spring, I saved a load of young apple tree leaves.  Dried out, they still looked greener than autumn leaves. Simmering for an hour gave a warm gold on a test piece of silk. Good stuff.  Two buckets full spent a week soaking, then small portions were stewed in my two biggest pots before sieving out the leaves.  

The silk was cut into four lengths of 2.5m, the apple leaf dye was diluted up to 40 litres and each curtain had a very slow, gentle heating to 80 degrees and an overnight soak in 10 litres of the dye.  There wasn't nearly enough room in the either pot for the material to float freely, so I wasn't surprised to find a random pattern of darker and lighter shades.  The undeniably brown tone was a much bigger concern.

An alkaline soak would probably have brought up the gold in the apple leaf dye. Hercules persuaded Atlas to fetch the Golden Apples of the Hesperides for him, but I just felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. Not another decade of living with brown curtains.

When I overdyed some apple leaf dyed wool with woad, the yarn turned out a summery, fresh green. How much woad would add enough blue to turn this much silk green, but not turquoise?  Last February was devoted to woad trials, aiming to find the right balance with this most unpredictable dye.  In the end, my best guess was 5g woad powder per curtain.  
I made two simultaneous vats with 10g each using the chemical method.  Two curtains got the first and fourth dips, the other two had the second and third.  While my wool woad dyeing is often splotchy, it evens up with repeated dips and a long final soak.  I just hadn't taken into account how impossible it would be to keep the silk submerged. Yup, this was my Hydra, squash down one head and a dozen more would grow.  Me and Hercules, we are like twins.
I let the silk air dry and hang for a couple of days, then put each curtain through a wool wash machine cycle to get the residue out.  Not brown, soft and sheeny, but I wasn't feeling the summer glow in this green.
After mulling it over for a week, I thought sod it, in for a penny, in for a pound. Ignoring complaints from those who don't like being restricted to the shower, the curtains went back in the bath with another 170g of alum mordant while all my stock of dried weld sat in a bucket of water for ten days, slowly fermenting.

It doesn't look much, but weld is powerful stuff.  A fermented dye bath smells rather ripe, simmer it up and the pong and the dye both get stronger.  Another round of diluting the dye to 40 litres and measuring out ten litre jug fulls for each curtain to have another heating to 80 degrees centigrade.  The sun came out while the first curtain was drying and hallo Helios, shoot my arrow, that's the badger. One more rinse and the thing is done.
Only of course, it wasn't. Steve the painter had the sitting room walls made good and repainted in a couple of days flat.  My labours steam ironing, tacking in a heavy cotton lining, relearning how to work the sewing machine, remembering how dreadfully silk slips and rucks up along a seam, breaking two needles and running out of thread meant only one pair of curtains was up by the time visitors arrived for Easter.

I finished the second pair this week.  None of them match, they are all unique.  I am so glad to get back to spinning.  Off to Wonderwool for the weekend on a quest to find the Golden Fleece.


  1. Your curtains look lovely and summery. I certainly do admire your courage and persistence in continuing to tweak your dyeing until you got something you were happy with. Good for you in not giving up. That certainly is a LOT of silk fabric to deal with all at once!

    1. High stakes dyeing, but the sewing machine work was worse. I did not think this one through ....

  2. A brave odyssey but the prize is a beauty !