Friday, 30 May 2014

Making a Standing Wool Table Mat out of Felted Woollen Jumpers

M&S make machine washable 100% wool jumpers, but it is possible to felt them. The grey green one in the picture had shrunk from its original 42" chest. The red one had oil stains on the collar, so I put it through a cottons hot wash on purpose. The multicoloured one from a charity shop completed my collection. Another fascinating display at Wonderwool showed a technique called standing wool, used by Rosemary Stowe and Gill Curwen to make rugs and mats. 

Gill's big rugs are fabulous, but I got these jumpers to make a table mat, as practice. Cutting the front panel of each jumper into strips, the edges frayed a little despite the felting and keeping a straight edge is not so easy when clothes have warped over time to fit their wearers. Double width strips can be folded over so the visible edge has no loose ends and accurate cutting is less critical.  Starting with a strip of each fabric folded in half along its length, I rolled them up together like a Chelsea bun, leaving long ends attached, then stitched across the diameter of the circle, going round like a cartwheel, to hold the roll together.

It takes a long needle to push through the width of a single roll, longer still to sew two rolls together.  I used a long darner and linen thread for strength.  Starting off, I was aiming for symmetry and matching rolls in the three combinations.  As the result was uneven looking and increasingly awkward to work with, I switched to making individual rolls with whatever strips came to hand.
These rolls used up the fronts of all three jumpers. They got sewn on to the central piece wherever they fitted, some just as they were, others with the loose lengths wrapped around their outsides.  I thought this would help hold it all together and give the random design a bit of coherence.  The finished mat is fine flat on the table, though it splays apart between the individual rolls if you pick it up by the edge.  Tighter rolling and firmer stitching next time.
Just for once, Elinor Gotland approved.
"Firm and supportive, this, Beaut.  It'd make a lovely yoga mat."
"You do yoga?  Evening classes, is it?"  My incredulity must have shown.
"I'll have you know I was taught by the Mumbai Guruji.  The movie business out there is all chalo, chalo and no time for chai, Memsahib. Us Bollywood actors were glad of a bit of pranayama to fall back on."
Elinor was up unusually early next day.  Coming out with my cup of tea, I found she had taken the mat outside and was in the Hatha Yoga Asana 'Standing Wool'.  I won't say she was only scoring a point, because no-one could balance on one hoof for that long without a lot of practice. I slurped tea noisily, Elinor remained poised.  
I suspect neither of us were that sorry when it came on to rain.
"Oooh, best not let your lovely mat get wet, Beaut!"
Back in the house, I conceded defeat.
"That guru wasn't wasting his time with you! Do tell, what Bollywood films have you been in?"
"You might have heard of 'How Shanti was my Valley'. Made that with Amitabh 'The Man who put the Ram in Ramayana' - total superstar in India.  Still, it was my wet sari scene that got all the publicity.  Film was barely out of production before we started on 'How Green was my Karma.' but I never finished that one."
"Didn't you want to stay?"
"Course I did. Cracking people, lovely food. Problem was one Bombay Mix too many. What with that and the monsoon season, I got struck. Nothing for it but the first plane home. Fly strike can be fatal, you know, Beaut."  Elinor exhaled gustily.  I left her in peace to open her bottom chakra. 

Friday, 23 May 2014

Making a Rug with Blue Texel Sheep Fleece

This is the raw fleece of a Blue Texel sheep.  Although unwashed, it had very little dried grass in it and had been cleared of all matted dirt - in short, no sheep shit. Thanks to this, most of the tail wool is missing, but it was easy to tell the tail end, on the right of the picture, because the locks were so much coarser and full of hairy kemp fibres.
I bought it chiefly for the colours. The blanket, or underside of the fleece, which was close to the sheep's skin when shearing was done, shows the dominant colour of the wool, which is grey.  This photo shows the rolled up fleece. From the photo above, you can see how dark, chocolate black edges shorn from the belly and legs shade through browner greys to reach pale grey along the top of the sheep's back.

The fleece is big, at least 3kg, plenty for a couple of projects.  I pulled off all the coarse locks from the back end, or britch and all the more matted and short staples from round the edges.  Much of it seemed too rough to spin for clothing, so I ended up with a big pillowcase full of skirtings.  Washing raw fleece to remove dirt, lanolin and grease is a science in itself.  Many fine wools felt easily, but I guessed this particular Texel might survive a 40 degree centigrade wool cycle in the washing machine.  

Elinor Gotland was scandalised.  
"Don't play fast and loose with your assets, Beaut.  You won't be told, but they knew how to wash fleece properly where I grew up.  It needs a long soak and no agitation.
Sheep can sustain a very long,  hard stare.

Well, I admit I have been guilty of banging on her bathroom door.  At least now I understand why she always takes so long getting ready to go out.  After Elinor had read me the riot act, I secured the pillow case with safety pins, put a huge squirt of washing up liquid in the powder compartment and those coarse Texel skirtings came out of the wash beautifully clean and not felted at all.  So there.  

Among the many delights of Wonderwool was a visit to Rag Art Studios.  BG and I got a demonstration of hooking fleece through hessian to make rugs.  I treated myself to a rug hook and a couple of metres of best quality hessian.  Although I had seen the basic technique, I made the rest of this up as I went along.  First, I used a dustbin lid to draw a circle on the hessian and used it as a guide to cutting out an approximate oval.  In my experience, avoiding geometrical accuracy from the very start means you can call a design 'organic' rather than getting fraught when it doesn't come out symmetrical.

I drew on a freehand pattern, leaving a margin of a couple of centimetres.  Folding the edge of the hessian over to the front, I hooked around the edge through the double layer.  This was slow going, although it did hem the hessian.  The fabric will flex easily enough for curves, but I should have left a wider margin as the coarse threads fray easily.  There may well be a better way of getting a strong margin for a rug.
I had sorted the Blue Texel into four broad categories of colour.  The darker locks, being from the belly, had shorter staples, some only 5cm long.  They were much less easy to pull out by hand into some form of continuous roving and needed more twist than the longer grey locks.  Once I had hooked in the outline, I filled in each section. I think I could have left more space between each bump of fleece, as the final rug is very dense.  Although it tried to curl up at the edges, once the whole thing was done, it laid flat, because the curl downwards is counteracted by the weight of the rug on the floor.

Having imagined that the fat bumps of thick roving would fill out a big area pretty quickly, I was surprised how little progress I made each evening.  Still, rug hooking is a satisfying process. This is how I did it.

Working from the back of the rug, put a bit of twist into a short section of roving.  Turning to the front, push the sharp point of the rug hook through one of the holes in the hessian.  As the hook comes out at the back, catch the twisted
roving under it. Pull the hook back through, bringing a loop of roving to the the front. And repeat, repeat, repeat ...

This small rug used almost all the skirted fleece.  It measures roughly 49cm x 56cm and weighs 450g.  Expensive craft, if you paid for beautiful, soft, dyed roving just to make a rug, but a great way of using fibre that would otherwise go on the compost heap.  The name of this one is 'The Chicken Or The Egg?'.  It is now a bathroom mat, very warm under foot and probably machine washable, too.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Dyeing Wool with Blackthorn Flowers, Leaves and Bark

Blackthorn flowers in April.  Last year, hard frosts took the blossom, so come autumn, there weren't many sloes to pick. One shady bank was still covered with late flowering blackthorn right into May this year, which must be why that patch fruited better than the others in 2013.  
I picked 25g blossom from there, though in all the sunnier hedgerows, the blossom is gone and vigorous shoots are well on their way.  Just as happened with the hawthorn blossom, after a two hour simmer, the white flowers gave a warm yellow dye to thin strips of 100% merino prefelt.  I'm still working on a plan to make a green and yellow felt rug. At the price of a few thorn stabs, I picked 400g blackthorn shoots and peeled 200g of bark, leaving the latter to soak.

The soft blackthorn shoots were simmered for one hour, then a large strip of prefelt, mordanted with 10% alum, was simmered for an hour and left to soak overnight.  In the picture, the pale yellow strip was just blossom dyed, the stronger yellow had an alkali soak in soda ash before rinsing and drying.  The bigger piece in the background is a greener yellow than the camera shows, dyed with the blackthorn shoots.  All gentle, natural colours, just as I thought I wanted.  Still, while waiting for the bark to soak, I was tempted to add a little pizzazz to the Blackthorn Dye Series.  
Last autumn, I made sloe gin with blackthorn fruits, by adding a pint of cheap gin and 10oz sugar to a pint of sloes.  The colour is fabulous, though the flavour is an acquired taste.  Elinor Gotland caught me eyeing up the jar and divined my intention.
"You leave those sloes where they are, Beaut."
I didn't listen.  The gin was decanted into a bottle, the sloes were mashed in water and another strip of mordanted prefelt got simmered up in the mix.  Absolutely no effect whatsoever, even when I added a bit of iron water and simmered again.
"Duw, it's like teaching a dog to walk."
"I've saved you the gin, Elinor, though you'd be better off without it." 

For a small sheep, Elinor can be massively irksome.  Who wants to see her stash anyway? Like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief,  I tried not to notice her rainbow braids of acid dyed roving.  My failed sloe dye felt got put in for a simmer in the blackthorn shoot afterbath.  Turned out pretty much the same yellow green and that was that.  Later in the week, the soaked bark peelings were looking a promisingly strong brown. At the weekend, they were simmered for an hour or two, then sieved out. Some big strips of white and grey felt went into the dye bath.

Another disappointment.  The books promise pinks and purples.  I got beige.  Growing wild with frustration, I poured a big slug of iron - that is, vinegar that has had rusty nails sitting in it for months - into the dye bath and put back a couple of pieces of prefelt for another half hour.  Dark brown.  Elinor made no comment, yet I discerned a certain froideur  in her manner.

Saturday night, the ice was broken watching that grand circus, the Eurovision Song Contest.  We drank the beers of many European countries, well lubricated and greatly entertained. Elinor backed Conchita all the way, shrieking as the last douze points rolled in.  
Her verdict:
"Total show biz pro, that Conchita. Fair play, real tears at the award ceremony and not a catch in her throat to spoil the encore. Class act."
My favourite came last.

Here are the results of the blackthorn dye baths.
From the left, bark with an iron afterbath on white, then grey prefelt strips. Bark without an iron afterbath on grey then white prefelt strips. Two greeny/yellow strips from young shoots and two small strips from the flowers. 
Elinor agreed they are nice enough, in an unobtrusive way.

"If you're after glamour, maybe you should take a leaf out of Conchita's book and stop plucking your moustache, Beaut."

Friday, 9 May 2014

Dyeing Wool with Hawthorn Flowers and Leaves

"I'm bringing in the May!" I carolled cheerily, carrying home branches of fragrant, blossoming hawthorn at the start of May Bank Holiday weekend.  Elinor Gotland looked at me over the top of her glasses.
"There's me thinking it was Labour Day." She went back to reading The Guardian.  As I left the room, I could hear her humming The Red Flag. Elinor has become somewhat sardonic.  A recent incident made me wonder if she might be homesick.

I bought a load of needlepunch prefelt merino sheets at Wonderwool, thinking they were undyed felt, not what they are, which is really an open preformed base for wet felting onto.  Inspired by a rug I saw at the show, I intended to dye some woollen felt gentle yellows and greens, with a view to making my own rug.  Nothing too lairy, soft underfoot and easy on the eye.  When I weighed up what I had bought, there was 1.7kg prefelted wool.  Same weight as those curtains I just struggled with.  

Now I know, it makes life much easier if you reduce the bulk into manageable portions before giving it a soak in the bath, then cold mordanting for a couple of days with 10% alum. While I was cutting it up, Elinor started rolling around on the prefelt, specs off and hooves aloft.
"It's the smell, Beaut.  Takes me back."  Saying which, she abandoned herself to her wriggling.

Hawthorn is listed in Jenny Dean's book, Wild Colour, as having the muted yellow and green shades I was aiming at for the rug. While dyeing, I planned to work on felting the prefelt tighter.  Hawthorn flowers have to be simmered for several hours.  It seemed unlikely such pristine white blossoms would give much colour, but the book is right.  This bath of only 25g gave a golden yellow to a 25g strip of medium weight felt.

The leaves and twigs were chopped up into a net bag, jumped up and down on to break them up, then simmered for a hour or so.  I put in two big pieces of thick prefelt, two of grey Nowegian wool prefelt and one strip of medium weight.  Though the total weight ratio of plant to wool was pretty much one to one, as recommended, I'll admit the result was not striking.

"Don't want to piss on your firework, Beaut, but you can buy lovely felt, any colour you like.  Or better still, a new rug"
"Wait and see, Elinor.  I am going to add copper to the dye bath, put some of the felt back on the heat for half an hour and that will turn it a lovely green."
I have had copper piping steeping in vinegar water for months.  It looked a really powerful verdigris green.  I added 20ml. No change. I upped the heat and added another 40ml. Oh horror, the felt was not going green, but beige.

It was also looking less, rather than more felted.
"Right dog's dinner, that. Doesn't even smell like Merino anymore."
I took a deep breath. 

Calm, calm, calm.

"Elinor, are you perhaps missing the flock?"
"Like a dose of scrapie, I am."  She grinned.  "Make us a cup of tea, Beaut.  I've had a touch of the scours, stressing out after that fiasco in Cardiff.  Have to keep well hydrated."
"I just thought, when you so enjoyed the woolly smell of the felt ..."
"Not wool, the Merino smell."
"You particularly like Merino?"
"I've not met many of them, but there was one I was very fond of.  Bruce, his name was.  Bruce Merino."
A slug of sloe gin in that tea, then.

"You were saying, about Bruce Merino ..."
"Yes, I suppose I was.  Lush tea, Beaut. Bruce came over with the shearers one year. Lovely boys, those Australians, if short on their please and thank yous.  One minute I was chatting with the girls by the fence, next thing I was on my back, stark naked.  Good hands, see."
"You mean you were shorn?"
"What did you think I meant?  Like I said, they were lovely boys, not like some in their oversized Wellingtons.  Anyway, I got to my feet, feeling all light without my fleece.  I may have frisked about, just to get acclimatised.  Up waltzes Bruce, more front than Margate.  'Get your coat, Sheila.  You've pulled.'  I'd have given him the brush off, but he was dazzling.  You could go snowblind looking at Bruce.  Hell of a boy."
A silence fell.  I didn't want to pry.
"Right, I am going to give that prefelt the shock of its life.  The rinses will be hot then cold and highly agitated.  For the grand finale, an alkaline afterbath with soda ash.  That'll bring the colour up."

Elinor watched as I soaked my jeans and scalded my hands, splashing prefelt from one bucket to  the other.
"That doing the trick, is it Beaut?"
"Well, it's better than it was."
"Bung it in the tumble drier and make us another cup of tea, there's a love.  You don't want to overdo it or you'll end up like Bruce." 

The tumble drier it was.
"So, what happened to Bruce?"
"Autumn came.  Soon as the east wind blew, he was off to work.  Happy days.  He had a blue raddle and where he couldn't get that powder was nobody's business." Elinor has a very earthy chuckle.  "He was a workaholic, though, Beaut.  Never known a ram like him, on the job, day and night.  He didn't eat properly, he hardly slept, that beautiful fleece was falling off him in lumps.  In the end, they had to take him away.  It was for the best." She stubbed out her cigarette with some finality.  "Is that your tumble drier beeping?".

From the left, hawthorn flowers on the small strip, hawthorn twigs and leaves on the next, the brighter yellow is hawthorn twigs and leaves with an alkali afterbath, then two grey strips.  The first grey had the same process as the brighter yellow, the second had both a copper afterbath and an alkali soak, like the beige strip on the end.  All had an alum mordant beforehand and ended up fairly well felted.
In close up:

Friday, 2 May 2014

Crocheting Amigrumi Sheep with Handspun Yarn

Argo the Amigrumi Sheep was the April Crochet Along pattern for the dc2tog forum on Ravelry. Margo was soon crocheted out of a leftover skein of chunky weight Welsh Mountain fleece spun Navajo 3 ply.  Some had been dyed with an unknown mushroom, the rest left plain.
Cracking pattern from bowtykes. Time to make another, this time spinning some fine wool for a smaller sheep.  I still had a few Gotland locks left from Wonderwool last year.  Sorting out the darkest and the lightest from the spectrum ought to give an authentic contrast between a Gotland sheep's body and its legs and face.

Combing the longer locks required hazardous waving of arms, nearly had someone's eye out, there. Still, the drafted roving was much easier to spin semi-worsted, when compared to the version of roving I made previously on hand carders.   The singles were fine enough to try making my first real 3 ply from three bobbins and still have a fingering weight result.

Gotland fleece has a wonderful lustre. I was very impressed with myself for creating these balls until I tried crocheting with a 2.5mm hook.  The plying was too loose, so my hook kept splitting the yarn. Making the sections below took two whole evenings fiddling about.  It had to be a tight fabric, because my ultimate object was to make a pincushion.

Mum told me that back in the day, pincushions stuffed with raw fleece were highly prized, because the lanolin in them stopped pins and needles from rusting.  I stuffed the head and body firmly with cold washed raw fleece.

The legs of this sheep were made a bit longer than the pattern specifies, hoping to get a more typically Gotland shape.  While Margo is a local Welsh Crossbreed, Elinor the Amigrumi is pure Gotland fleece from a sheep also called Elinor who lives on this farm in Mid Wales.
I left the two of them out on the back lawn and went in to make tea for me and BG, who had popped over for a craft evening.  While Margo was ruminating just where I left her, when I glanced across from the patio, , Elinor appeared to be reading the paper.  I hurried over for a closer look.  She was doing the crossword.  What is more, it was The Guardian Cryptic.

"Where on earth did those glasses come from!"
"Dolce and Gabbana, Beaut.  
10 across must be 'syzygy'."
"BG, this sheep just spoke!"
"Yesterday's news, Beaut.  My first speaking part was in 'Silence of the Lambs'.  I know.  Ironic." She cleared her throat.  
"I'm parched.  Is that tea?"

Over a cuppa, Elinor was happy to indulge our questions.  What a life she has had!  Thrust into the limelight when only a lamb, her local Nativity Play became a runaway success, transferring to the West End, then Broadway. Afterwards, she was inundated with offers, but her agent turned out to be a disaster.
"Bloody fool had me screen test for 'The Big Sheep' and 'A Sheepcar named Desire'.  Who knew the man was dyslexic?"

The poor ewe barely had the price of a Long Island Iced Tea when she met a kindred spirit in Dolores of the Panopticon.  Having discovered a mutual interest in the works of Euripedes, Dolores hooked her up with an outfit of cabaret artistes performing on a Transatlantic Cruise Ship. During a stopover in Athens, Elinor returned the favour.  Blagging her way into the European Congress on Ancient Greek Theatre, by dint of pointed questioning from the floor during Professor Dioxades' Key Note Speech, Elinor exposed wholesale plagiarism of Dolores' dissertation.  After her celebrated savaging of the Prof's academic credibility, returning to Wales was a serious comedown. The flock reunion did not go well and Elinor never was suited to the pastoral idyll.
"Fair play, bringing up triplets is a challenge when you've only got the two teats."  

Was that a tear glinting in her eye, as she polished her specs? Perhaps a moment alone would be tactful.  I wondered if Elinor would prefer to stay outdoors, but she pointed out that Gotland Sheep are shorn in winter and feel the cold. 
"A slug of something in this tea wouldn't go amiss."  The sloe gin my family refused to drink at Christmas brightened her up no end. 

Since graduating in Drama and Theatre Studies at Aberystwyth University, her career trajectory has regained momentum.  Elinor's most recent work was in stand up on the Comedy Circuit in Cardiff.
"No picnic, but a better gig than flock scenes in Pobol Y Cwm, and as for Lambing Live ... with a prolapse like mine, I can't get the work."  It seems she is currently resting, keeping a low profile after her scathing monologue on the Welsh Assembly caused outrage in the Senedd.
"Devolution?  Half of them can't spell the word.  Political satire - more like shooting fish in a barrel, Beaut. Don't talk to me about upskilling the agricultural sector." 

Elinor has made herself at home.  She already feels like one of the family.