Friday, 29 August 2014

Making Black Eyed Susan Dye from the Plant to the Wool

Black Eyed Susans often get cited as dye plant sources of green.  I thought the name referred to those little annual climbing vines with orange flowers. Delighted to find out that the dye plant was really Rudbeckia, I love yellow daisies and already had a couple of patio pots full of Goldsturm.

In 2013, I split up the rootbound clumps and replanted them along the path of my new Dye Garden. There were only a few flowers last summer, but this April, when I came to plant out the annuals, the Rudbeckia leaves were coming up thick and fast.  By July, a rich river of yellow daises had grown, a bit taller than is ideal for having right by the path.
A few fallen plants could be considered self selected dye materials.  I had noticed some people on the Ravelry forum 'Plants to Dye For' got olive green colours on wool, while others' results were beige. Time for a careful read of Jenny Dean's book 'Wild Colours' so as to achieve that green.  
To get the colours out of Rudbeckia, the book says the plants need a couple of hours at a proper boil, several days to steep, then another boil before sieving the bits out of the dye bath.  I mordanted some white fleece and a piece of silk with 10% alum and added two tiny skeins of wool, one mordanted with iron, the other with copper. The ratio of fresh plant weight to dry wool and silk was over two to one.  I prefer to think of the outcome as 'cafe au lait'.
Maybe Goldsturm was the wrong variety. Back to the books. Rita Buchanan clearly specifies Rudbeckia hirta Goldsturm in 'A Dyer's Garden' and makes two encouraging points -the flowers give more green than the whole plant and a high ratio of plant to fibre works better.  Sixty flowers weighing 200g went into Dye Bath Mark 2.  Through the whole boil, steep, boil process, this must surely turn 50g alum mordanted wool green?

Beige.  That yarn is three ply, took me ages to comb and spin consistently, twist matching the crimp, just like it says in The Spinners' Book of Fleece.  One of the little test skeins from the first dye bath was a bit more interesting, only I forgot to put knots in them to remind me which was mordanted with what.  

Back into the dye bath with 40ml from the jar of copper piping steeped in vinegar water. No change after half an hour on the heat.  Another splosh from the rusty nail jar to add iron and tadah!  The photo on the right shows olive green/khaki wool, only you have to take my word for it because the camera hasn't picked the colour up properly.

Here is Elinor, wearing Thelma the sheep's Down type fleece spun and dyed with Black Eyed Susan plus copper and iron.  The hat pattern is called Cinioch by Lucy Hague. Knitting her celtic cable designs requires concentration, but I'd say the results are well worth the effort.  The hat was a bit big on completing the knitting, but looks quite modern worn slouchy.  I name it Thelmioch.

It shrunk to the proper size after washing and blocking.
"Now your daughter has such a career in knitwear modelling, it hardly seems worth her going off to University."
"Wow, where did you get that hat?"
"Just a little something Jean Paul put together for me.  I do prefer a more classically contemporary style."

Friday, 22 August 2014

Blending Polwarth and Bond Fleece on Hand Carders

Polwarth was the guest sheep breed at the Weald and Downland Rare and Traditional Breed Show.  I intended to be at the sale of fleece as soon as it started, only I got distracted by all the wool on the hoof.

There were still a couple of bags left at the end of the day, one containing a kilo of Polwarth shearling fleece, incredible long staples and only £14.  Well, madness not to grab it and run. Yes, you guessed, back home I found out why no-one else had bought it. Some is ok, but much of it had half the staple length matted with grease and dirt, which just snapped off after washing.

My washing technique was poor.  I mordanted a clump of cleanish fleece with 10% alum and dyed it with coreopsis, as the plants were at the height of their flowering at the end of July. The butts of the locks were still greasy, coming up fawn, the broken tips that went darkest orange were weak.  More came off as I tugged out separate locks. Hell of a palaver just to get a shoe box full of Polwarth.

I washed a nicer portion of the fleece and dyed it in the afterbath, which resulted in a paler though more even gold.  By then I had completely had it with potching about with dodgy Polwarth, even though I'd only managed about 50g.  My daughter's birthday was coming up and I'd never have the planned scarf finished at this rate.  Then I remembered the coreopsis orange and brown butterfly.
Bond ought to be very similar fibre to Polwarth, the two breeds sharing common ancestors and I still had a huge bump of brownish Bond tops, all commercially cleaned and combed and of a similar staple length. How about spinning a really long colour change in slow gradations 
from palest coreopsis orange through to pure Bond brown? Making rolags on the hand carders, one for each single with changing proportions of the two wools, I ended up spinning three skeins of two ply which I had calculated would be just short of the 320m needed for the pattern Dragonfly Wings.  Easy enough to spin up some more Bond only wool when I ran out.

Being slightly tacky, the Polwarth was easier to spin finely than the slippery clean Bond tops, so the yarn gradually went from light to heavy fingering weight, but hey, who's getting the microscope out?  
Note to self - remember that blending fibres in variable proportions will probably lead to uneven yarn.
When you are knitting a pattern that starts with casting on 3 stitches, the early rows fly past.  I knew I would need much more yarn for the outer edge, but when I was well into the body of the scarf and still on the palest yellow, it was obvious I had miscalculated and spun far too much.  Ah, well, so much for the subtle gradations, stripes it had to be.  I jumped forward to the deeper orange to finish the body, then jumped again twice in the lace border.  

With the help of safety pins marking each 12 stitch repeat, I hardly put a needle wrong. Most enjoyable, lace knitting, til you find you are one stitch out.  This is a beautiful pattern.  After washing and blocking, here is how it looked.  I called this one Fritillary Wings.  Happy Birthday!

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Spinner's Book of Fleece - A Review

Best to start by declaring an interest.  No, I don't own shares in Storey Publishing, but they did send me The Spinner's Book of Fleece for free.  A friend of mine read a publicity release, thought this sounded right up my street and suggested I offer to write a review. 
What a nerve, eh?  
I was practically wetting myself when the package arrived last week - what if it was awful?  What if I didn't understand it?
No need to stress.  
How do I love this book?  
Let me count the ways.

First, were Beth Smith ever to visit Wales, I would be thrilled if she popped in for tea. While never irritatingly chumsy, her writing conveys no distant instructor, but a wonderfully well informed fellow enthusiast.  If you share my tendency to rebel against buying an expert manual that dictates correct method to lowly worms, relax.  Betty makes no bones about having 'an abundance of yarns gone wrong'.  In the section 'An Introduction to Hand Scouring' she writes 'Once, I put a whole fleece in the washing machine'. When a woman is prepared to commit that to paper, who would not take heed of her advice on better ways to proceed? 

Above all, this is a book that explains as it teaches.  Fathoming the reasons is so much more memorable than trying to retain the facts.  I had already noticed that fine fleece is hard to scour and easy to ruin, understanding dawned when I read that 'this extra wax helps maintain the separation of the fibers and keeps them from felting right on the sheep.' Did you realise that a two ply yarn shows off lace patterns well 'because it tends to be flat, which helps keep those holes open.'?  Soon, I was nodding and smiling and even putting down my knitting to concentrate harder. Especially in the bit about twist, a subject I have always avoided because it has a terrible look of algebra about it. 

The structure of the book has an internal logic which works best if you read start to finish, rather than dipping.  The options for preparing fibre are not presented one after another, instead, equipment and techniques are expanded upon within the section concerning the type of fleece they suit best.  So, combing and making top comes under Longwools and drumcarding appears with the Down Breeds.  No attempt is made to be exhaustive in categorising every kind of sheep, rather, there is a deep consideration of typical examples.

All Beth's advice on how to spin and ply a consistent yarn is about understanding and using these skills for specific ends, not so the spinner can better imitate those identical balls of soft, mill spun yarn.  While musing on her philosophy, I was interrupted by my own philosophically minded friend.   

"What're you reading?"  Elinor Gotland appeared round the edge of her book.
"Oooh, this brilliant book about how to turn fleece into the best yarn it can be.  No, it's more about how to get to your perfect knitwear by choosing the right fleece, then washing, preparing and spinning it the best way for your ultimate purpose.'
"Spinning teleologically, is it?"
"I don't think Beth Smith has been on the BBC, but she might have been on American telly."
"Teleology, you numpty.  I refer to Greek philosophy, not light entertainment. Every acorn strives to become the perfect oak tree, although absolute perfection is never attained.  You are saying that Beth Smith spins with extrinsic finality, because for her, creating the ideal yarn is contingent upon it realising the optimum end cardigan."
"Deep.  Thought you were more into Greek drama, Euripides and all that."
"The Classics share themes that will enliven my thesis on 'The Trojan Women', you total pleb."
"Hah, bet Ancient Greek plebs sat in the cheap seats at the amphitheatre, ate sweets and enjoyed a good weep over the death of Astynax."
"Mmm, a valid point, though I think the Tragedies were not merely the light entertainment of their time.  I had no idea you had read them."
"I watched a programme about them on telly."

The Spinners' Book of Fleece is a pleasure to handle, solidly bound and beautifully illustrated. Having admired the body work, kicked the tyres and looked under the bonnet, it was time to take it out for a spin.  Actually, a cross country challenge.  I recently acquired a fleece of unknown breed.  The sheep was called Thelma, she and her friend Louise keep down the grass for an old friend of mine.  
It may sound ungrateful, but I would not have picked this one at Wonderwool.  The fibres felt harsh and gritty and looked so yellowed. While unable to follow Betty's philosophy of starting with a project in mind, I could still use her book to help me work out what to do with it.  Tugging the locks showed they were sound with the characteristics of a Down type.

These include a disorganised crimp which is hard to assess, but some locks gave a strong guide toward six crimps per inch.  Examining the pictures of fleece problems, I think that the yellow that washed out was probably yolk and the band that stayed was canary stain, which the book explained will happen when sheep get sweaty and stays permanently on the wool. Part of these staples must have grown during the warm spring we had this year.  The feel was much nicer once clean. Since it seems to be a short stapled Down type, this could be a fleece best carded, but Betty does say to experiment.  I made ten rolags and combed twelve combfulls of tops.
Now to go off road. Following the advice in the book, I did my best to spin this fleece according to its crimp.  Singles ought to end up with six twists to the inch, which means putting in nine, as half are lost in plying.  My 1981 Ashford Traditional Wheel has a fixed ratio of 10:1. One treadle to just over an inch of drafted fibre was much easier to achieve with short
forward draw off the tops than when spinning longdraw off the rolags.  I made three ply with the worsted and two ply with the woolen singles, then washed and fulled the yarn.  The worsted did end up with six plies per inch, the woolen nearer five.

You have no idea how proud I am of this result.  Thanks to Beth, I did maths that worked.  There is much more twist in both samples than I would habitually spin, but I am ready to sacrifice softness for durability, now I understand why the knitwear I have laboured over starts pilling after distressingly little wear. 
In the foreword, Deb Robson recommends this book as a guide to 'embark on the next phase of your own wool journey.'   They may not look much, but these samples are the most consistent yarns I have ever spun. Click the picture for a closer view and you will see their differences better. The contrast in texture and elasticity of the two knitted fabrics has proved to me the truth of Beth's points about the dramatic impact your choice of preparation and spinning technique will make.  One day, I hope to be able to plan all this in advance, but for now, it seems to me that the woolen two ply might suit becoming sturdy car rug, but the crisply defined, stretchy three ply reveals that this fleece is striving to become the perfect cable patterned winter hat.

I reckon The Spinners' Book of Fleece has ushered in my next phase, a desire to shift from beginner spinner to improver.  In my opinion, the SBOF is going to be a classic.  A fitting companion to the great Fleece and Fiber Source Book, if not Plato's Republic.  

ISBN 978-1-61212-039-3 (hardcover : alk paper)
ISBN 978-1-60342-875-0 (ebook) 

Friday, 8 August 2014

Japanese Indigo Plant Dyeing with Extraction Vat and Spectralite

A hot July by local standards has suited the Japanese Indigo plants growing in the garden. So many seedlings came up in trays this spring, spares went out in the earth in April, rather than hit the compost heap.  Too cold, those were terminally stunted or just disappeared.  I have already had one harvest from the six that stayed in the greenhouse and the potted ones that were planted out in May are now going great guns.  Even the plant in a shady border developed blue marks after I crushed a leaf. Taking the secateurs round the half dozen outdoor survivors provided another 450g of leaves and stems to dye with.  Time to try again at getting the indigo out with an extraction vat.

The instructions on the Wild Colours website are not complicated.  After failing with this process last year, I was scrupulous in following them to the letter.  The leaves in the bowl were steeped in hot tap water, with hot water in the sink renewed three times over 24 hours, the whole thing being covered to retain warmth.  Blue showed at the edge of the washing up bowl and the leaves had leaked out a promising deep brown bath. 

Several sources say that Japanese Indigo has twice as much pigment in it per weight of leaves compared to woad.  The vat doesn't smell the same, pleasantly vernal rather than boiled cabbage.  After extraction, the process is much the same for the two plants.  I carried on with the soda ash and the aeration then the Spectralite, hurriedly putting a bit more fleece in for a soak, now expecting plenty of blue out of this vat. What with the Tour de Fleece spinning, I had no Polwarth yarn prepared, but I did have about 50g scoured fleece which got the first and second dip.  This did take up a much deeper blue than I've had from vinegar extraction.  Now I've spun it up, you can compare this wool to the two vinegar method skeins.
I do winge about this, ought to go and talk to someone who knows about photography, but my camera is not great at picking up shades of green.  While pale, the vinegar method skeins have a subtle green cast to their blue which is hard to describe.  The deeper blue is pretty much as shown here.  A simpler colour, very close to what I have had from woad.  At the end of the session, I put in a last bit of fleece to take up whatever dye was left.  The remnant of the bath, shown below, gave a more turquoise shade.
Considering the three balls, I am not that impressed with them as a colour sequence. They don't go together in the way I had hoped. 
A further disappointment of this vat was how little colour was taken up by my silk jersey fabric and cotton scrim.  They looked quite exotic while damp, but I wouldn't bother putting up a picture of the result when they had dried.  Drab is the word that comes to mind.

I would have expected 450g woad leaves to give a good mid blue to at least 150g of materials. Japanese Indigo is supposed to be stronger and I had believed the extraction vat would dye silk and cotton better than the vinegar method did.  Most likely, I did things wrong at some point, but I can't for the life of me work out what.  So far, vinegar extraction and dyeing on wool has proved quicker, easier, cheaper and considerably more rewarding in terms of colour interest, if not depth.

"Someone's lost a shilling and found a sixpence."  Elinor Gotland, astute as ever and twice as annoying.
"Oh, I was hoping to make something using a sequence of Japanese Indigo dye colours to represent Act Two of the opera, Madame Butterfly.  When she's waiting for Pinkerton's return."
"What, all naive pining and ill founded expectations?"
"I mean constancy despite isolation, depth of spirit in adversity, enduring faith in love. Should have thought you would relish that operatic passion."
"Not my bag, Beaut.  Gazing out to sea from the cliff top never buttered any girl's parsnips."
"What would you have done, if you were Cio-Cio-san?  Smiled at another sailor?"
"Think I'd have spotted that everyone in my life so far was just out for what they could get.  Cio-Cio could have made a success of the geisha business, retired on the proceeds and done something interesting, like study haiku."

"Butterfly escapes 
Japanese Indigo leaves

"Indeed.  Now get a grip and stop contemplating ritual seppuku over a bit of blue wool.  Time to steep some cheerful leaves. A nice tea ceremony will soon put you right."

Friday, 1 August 2014

Longdraw Spinning Black Welsh Mountain X Gotland Sheep Fleece

"Where's Bradley Wiggins, then?"  Elinor Gotland was most disappointed to find that he had not been selected to ride in the Tour de France 2014.  
"I didn't know sheep followed the cycling, Elinor."
"Some do.  Not me. Scrawny bunch, that peloton. Lycra is very unforgiving.  "

I was busy spinning my challenge for this year's Tour de Fleece, not paying much attention to Elinor or who got to wear the maillot jaune, truth be told.
"It's his style I admire.  Team Sky have been fools to themselves.  Win or lose, Sir Bradley is worth watching in any colour jersey." Elinor pottered over.  "What's that brown fleece you've got there?"

"It's half Gotland, half Black Welsh Mountain."
The photo shows a lock of Gotland and a lock of Black Welsh Mountain fleece on either side of the crossbreed locks I was spinning.  Neither parent had soft, fine fibres, but the combination gave a medium crimp, deep colour and good lustre.

At Wonderwool last April, I bought 1.2kg raw locks, intending to spin it up to knit my son a hardwearing jumper. No cutting corners, the whole lot had a proper wash in buckets of hot water with Fairy Liquid to get all the dirt and grease out.  The fibres were 5 - 10cm long, easy to card into rolags and free flowing. The challenge I had set myself for the Ravelry Tour de Fleece 2014 was to learn longdraw spinning to create a really light, warm, woolen yarn.

As I understand it, the prime difference from worsted spinning lies in the drafting.  Mostly, I have used short forward draw, drafting fibre out of a rolag with my left hand before letting the twist from the wheel run into it.  For longdraw, the twist is allowed to pull fibres directly out of the rolag while you move your right hand backwards, letting wool flow out.  

What tended to happen to me was that the twist pulled more, then less fibre out, giving a very uneven thickness to my singles. On the videos, people seem to stretch out the length of yarn smoothly from the rolag, but mine kept breaking so I just tweaked the thicker sections with my left hand to even it up.

Here are ten rolags, which I spun to make each single, as shown on the bobbin. Plying two together made a yarn about double knitting weight, shown on the niddy noddy.

It was interesting to see what everybody else in the team was up to, posting photos on Ravelry and enjoying encouragement and advice as well as admiring some lovely stuff. Even so, I felt a very dull dog, showing yet another skein of brown wool.  I cursed my lack of foresight in choosing a fleece that really did not need dyeing, just at the time when so many fresh dye plants are begging to be used.  

Despite all this, plus some bad days when I just couldn't get the knack of longdraw going, I did like this fleece.  Crisp, but manageable, I would consider it a good choice for trying a new technique.  The skeins have kept a nice lustre, even after washing, snapping to set the twist and slapping on the kitchen counter to full them out.  By the end of the Tour, I had 15 skeins and by my calculations, around 1000m of longdraw yarn, which is 2km of singles.  I knitted up a swatch and put it through the washing machine on a wool cycle.  It came up much softer though somewhat less shiny. Gotland X Black Welsh Mountain was never going to make a fabric for wearing next to your skin.

Just to see how it would come out, I blended some Gotland with Black Welsh Mountain shearling locks and spun it up the same way.

In the sun, Elinor Gotland's worsted arse has a glossy halo. Spun longdraw, the Gotland fibres were even fuzzier than when I spun them with a short forward draw.  Resistant though my firstborn is to any notion of pattern, I might sneak in this skein of combination fleece blend to jazz up his brown crossbreed jumper.