Friday, 24 April 2015

A Trial of Dandelion Flower Dye

The roadside dandelions look outstanding this April. As I crouched on the verge of the A48, snapping off flowers and ignoring the cars whipping by, I was joined by an ancient itinerant who hopped off his bike, asked what I was doing, then lay down for a sleep in the sun. I have a way to go to be as free as him from concern about who might see me and what they might think. Bit more uncomfortable than I had supposed, just taking this small step off the beaten track, inwardly debating which of us was making best use of our time, given the probability I was collecting material for yet another natural beige dye.  Still, there were heaps of flowers and pretty quick to pick.

Anyway, back in the privacy of a suburban kitchen, 900g dandelion flowers were simmered for an hour or so in 7 litres of water, leaking out a clear yellow colour. Remembering that flower dyes often come out stronger at an alkaline pH, I filled two jam jars and added soda ash to one til the pH came up to 10.  Since the dye colour got visibly deeper, I alkalinised the whole bath.
The subjects for this dye trial were 50g fleece mordanted with alum, 35g wool yarn premordanted with iron and 35g premordanted with copper and 20g cotton jersey mordanted with aluminium acetate. Overall, the ratio of fresh flower weight to wool and cotton was about 6:1.  The things were soaked beforehand then simmered in the dye for an hour or so and left in the pot overnight.
After a couple of rinses in plain water and a chance to dry out,
this is how they looked.  Only all a bit greener than the camera will pick up and you'll have to take my word for it that the cotton was a stronger yellow and the iron mordanted skein less red in tone, though it was nearest to the dreaded beige.  
Hardy geraniums have been making the most of this April sun too, putting up new leaves.  I did not realise how well they contact print til halfway into last summer, so I took the chance to see what the spring leaves would do on a strip of alum mordanted silk, bound up round a length of 
drainpipe with string

soaked in iron solution and simmered in the remains of the dyebath.  The ochre splodges come from a few dried up petals of yellow cosmos I found gathering dust in a dish, the background silk took up a pale green and the leaves printed quite clearly with iron, but didn't add much colour of their own.  While I count the weeks in linear time, my imagination has been jumping through a wormhole to another dimension when my life can be immersed
in plant dye baths.  Now for a bold step forward, to discover the exigency of dyeing fine wool fabric, which is actually heavier and more expensive than good silk, but I think might sit well as a stole or wrap.  Truly daring, I cut a piece 1.5m long by 50cm wide, scoured and mordanted it with 10% alum, then laid out a band of geranium leaves sprinkled with dried coreopsis flowers, folded the other end over, added some more leaves and flowers and tied it up with the iron soaked string.  As the wool fabric weighed 100g, I picked another 400g dandelions and simmered them up in the previous afterbath, before giving my creation a simmer and an overnight soak.  
Next morning, I headed off to work sad at heart, as the wet wool looked like that dingy brown I got on iron mordanted yarn.  Which of course, I could have predicted, had I paid attention to the original test bath findings.  When I unrolled the 
dry bundle, it was a real lift to find the geranium leaves had given up a green gold.  I think that may have happened because I alkalinised the bath again, to get more colour out of the second lot of dandelions.  The main colour also came out more of a subtle olive green than the photo shows, so my piece of wool fabric is not quite as dull as it seems.  
"I don't think the time and the dandelions have been wasted, do you, Elinor?
"To be honest, Beaut, I'd say you should have laid down and made the most of that sunshine.  Don't know how long we'll wait for some more, they're forecasting rain all next week."  
"Right now, I care nothing for the weather.  At last it is Wonderwool Wales !"  I skipped about, slinging a change of underwear and a toothbrush into a holdall, leaving plenty of room to bring home all my shopping. "Is your bag packed for the weekend and have you taken some cash out?  Remember lots of stalls don't take cards."
"Oh, I only go for the atmosphere, Beaut."

Elinor Gotland is economical with the truth, if nothing else.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Hand Spinning Combed Wool Tops

Wensleydale sheep have long stapled ringlets.  I managed to process my first bit of Black Wensleydale fleece by flicking each of the locks open and spinning them one by one. Thanks to some helpful tuition at a spinning weekend, I have now learned that the butts don't just pull straight off the comb if you slide them onto the tines with a couple of centimetres sticking out at the back.  
The other hand comb pulls through the fibres much more smoothly if the locks are misted with a little water spray.  Though they get less electric, you still have to take care not to let the long fibres loop back on themselves.
"I'm not going to lie, Beaut, I reckon you are slower with those combs than you were with the flicker."
"Elinor!  Leave that perfume bottle alone, I've just repurposed it as a fleece sprayer."
"You've put lavender oil in this water.  Thought someone's Nanna must be visiting."
"I'd rather have lavender scented yarn than whiff like an overripe tropical fruitbowl."
"I'm experimenting with a new shampoo.  Might be a little heavy on the coconut, but I can just feel it nourishing my fleece.  You're as stuck in a rut as the Rolling Stones.  If they were driving in the slow lane with a flat tyre on their tour bus."

It did take me a couple of evenings to comb these little nests of Black Wensleydale. Although they were far easier to spin evenly than drafting from one lock after another, after all that work, I overplied the singles and ended up with a rather wriggly skein of fingering weight yarn. Elinor beckoned me over to the computer where she was researching on the information highway - or online shopping.
"Weight for weight, that raw fleece cost you as much as mill combed white Wensleydale.  Was it really worth the effort?"
Just for comparison, I did buy some full Monty, superwash processed Wensleydale. Both had a the same staple length, but unlike my combing, the tops had no neps at all.  And all I had to do was draft out the white braid in 
advance before spinning a finer and more even yarn.  
"It feels different, though, Elinor, there's less crimp, less life in the wool."
"What could be less lively than your dingy plant dyes?  Walk on the wild side, lovely girl, give yourself a treat and try a braid from Colourful Designs."  
This fibre is called 'Very Berry', a wonderfully soft Falklands Superwash Merino dyed by Bex. I've watched spinners turning out laceweight singles just working straight from the top of a braid.  
My drafting kept pulling down one side, til I was shown 'wafting'. Just break off and flap the end of the braid about til it comes back to a point.  No struggling for solid colour, even the plying was an adventure, watching the berry shades in the singles mix and match.  Knitting Elizabeth Zimmerman's classic Baby Surprise Jacket was my final
venture into the unknown.  The pattern is all worked in one piece and even with the supplementary instructions, I must have been half way through before I could see how it would fold to make a human shaped garment. I'm calling this one Sabrina's Aubretia. It is machine washable, which I consider essential for babywear if you are any kind of a friend to the mother in question. I made the newborn size, but since my spinning came out double knitting to aran weight, she looks a little lost inside it at two months old.  It is going to take perseverance to learn to spin fine yarn from tops without predrafting.  Wonderwool is on next weekend, oh the excitement - it is just possible I may succumb to buying another colourful braid.  Got to keep up with the times. 

Friday, 10 April 2015

Elgin Jumper Knitting Pattern

After some tribulations, my hand spinning of an Exmoorino sheep fleece only produced a moderate length of bulky yarn.  I calculated that I must have spun enough to make a medium sized jumper with a very open neck. My sister (see photo) likes wearing things off the shoulder.  Once the jumper was washed, I dried it flat with the body smoothed out widthways - only gently, no blocking pins. To my immense delight, this resulted in a looser fit than the unwashed version had led me to expect.  More by luck than judgement, the shape has worked out close to my original idea of 'fall from the neckline' knitwear.  I want to make one for myself now and I have considerably more spare tyre to hide, so I'll find out soon enough if the pattern below works out as well using other wool. Though the yarn took ages to prepare, this is a really quick knit.

Elgin Jumper Pattern 


80m cream aran/chunky yarn 
(8-9 wraps per inch)

400m marbled colour bulky/superbulky yarn
(6-7 wraps per inch)

8mm and 10mm circular needles
darning needle for weaving ends

You'll have to forgive me for the imprecise weights of yarn, my handspun was thicker and thinner in places.  How many wraps of yarn fit into one inch space on a ruler depends very much on how tightly you pull the yarn while you are wrapping. If you are bold enough to have a go at making up this pattern anyway, my 'aran' yarn is on the thicker, fluffier end of the spectrum of commercial balls of aran I have at home, more like the UK yarns designated chunky.  My 'bulky' yarn is a bit leaner and firmer than Sirdar Indie.


10cm square = 8.5 stitches and 12 rows before washing in the machine at 30 degrees Centigrade on a wool wash programme and after the wash, when smoothed gently widthways while laid out to dry, 10cm square = 8.5 stitches and 15 rows.

When I try this again, I will knit a large tension gauge and adjust the needle size to make it come out right, because I really am pleased with the final shape once it is put on. 

One Size - Medium to Large

Chest 122cm, Body length from armpit down 45cm, from neckline down 60cm.
Sleeve from armpit to cuff 43cm

Making the Body

Cast on 100 stitches of the cream yarn on an 8mm circular needle.  I used the long tail cast on method, then worried because while it was stretchy, it seemed so much tighter than the knitting above it.  In the event, the rib band did not fit snug around the hips, but the way the cast on edge drew the bottom edge inward gave a nice bell shape instead of a straight drop.

Place a stitch marker and join the cast on stitches to work in the round.
Border - 12 rounds of knit 2 purl 2 rib.

Change to 10mm circular needle and the thicker, marbled yarn and knit rounds until the work measures desired final length to armpit, plus the extra length calculated according to the length your tension gauge sample lost after washing and spreading out.  I wanted 45cm and knitted an extra 7.5% = 49cm.

From the start of the next round, knit 48 stitches, cast off 4 stitches for the right armpit, knit 46 stitches cast off 2 stitches, remove stitch marker and cast off 2 more stitches. 

Making the Sleeves

Cast on 24 stitches of the cream yarn on an 8mm circular needle.  Place a stitch marker and join the cast on stitches to work in the round.
Cuff - 18 rounds of knit 2 purl 2 rib.
Change to 10mm circular needle and the thicker, marbled yarn and knit 9 rounds.
At the beginning of the 10th round, make one stitch left, then one stitch before the end of the round, make one stitch right and knit one (26 stitches).
Knit another 11 rounds and repeat the same increase on the 12th (28 stitches).
Knit another 13 rounds and repeat the same increase on the 14th (30 stitches).

Continue til work measures 44cm + 7.5% = 47cm.  I might do shorter sleeves, possibly even three quarter length next time.  On the last round, knit to 2 stitches before the marker, cast off 2, remove marker and cast off 2 more stitches (26 stitches).

Making the Yoke

Knit 46 stitches across the front of the body, hold the 4 cast off stitches of one sleeve against the four cast off stiches of the body and continue knitting round the 26 stitches of the sleeve, then knit across the 46 stitches of the back and round the 26 stitches of the other sleeve (144 stitches).
I did the reductions under the armpit by knitting 2 together through back of loop then knitting 2 together at each junction of the original body and the sleeves on the next three rounds, then knitting a plain round and after that, a final reduction round.
Reducing 8 stitches per round 4 times reduces the stitch count to 120.  
My method left little gaps in the fabric between each pair of reductions.  Nice ventilation on a warm day and not awfully noticeable, but when I do this again, I will reduce two stitches at each junction of body and sleeve using a centred decrease - slip two stitches together as if to knit, knit one and pass slipped stitches over.

In the next round of knitting, I placed markers every 12 stitches starting at the front of the left armpit.  Next time, I will put the first marker 6 stitches from the centre of the front to make the yoke reduction stitches look symmetrical.  Ten stitch markers divide the whole round up into sections of 12 stitches each and you need one to look different to remind you when you reach the beginning of the round.
Next round, knit two together after each marker (110 stitches).

Knit another 5 rounds and on the sixth, knit two together after each marker (100 stitches).
Knit another 3 rounds and on the fourth, knit two together after each marker (90 stitches).
Knit another 2 rounds and on the third, knit two together after each marker (80 stitches).
Knit another 3 rounds and on the fourth, knit two together after each marker (70 stitches).
Knit 2 rounds.

I had a brainwave while wondering how to finish the neckline.  This i-cord stops it from stretching and makes the whole yoke hang well.

Change back to 8mm needles and the plain yarn.  Knit one round and cast off using the i-cord bind off.  I followed the instructions on this video.
If you prefer a narrower neck opening, (as I think I might, my bra straps not making a very fetching accidental display,) you could do one more reduction round bringing it down to 60 stitches, then knit one round more before changing to the plain yarn for one round and casting off.
Weave in the ends and sew up the armpits, wash and dry flat after smoothing out widthways.

Happy Birthday, Pip!  Hope you get back to Greece this summer.  I may get as far as the British Museum to see the real Elgin Marbles.

June 2015 - I tried those modifications making another one of these, blog here.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Felting a Batt of Wool Fibres in the Washing Machine to make a Bag

"You practicing The Twist, or is it ants in your pants?"
I found Elinor Gotland shimmying about, scratching at her britch end and kicking up her hooves.
"Get this fuzzy rubbish off the floor!  I'm not being funny, but I sat down on it for five minutes rest and I'm up to my armpits in hair."
When I bought that batt of rough mixed fibres, the lady on the stall said her Mum had just drum carded all her waste wool and suggested it might make some interesting felt. It has been sitting in the cupboard for nearly a year, waiting for me to muster the courage to start soaking and rolling long enough to wet felt it.
Picking it up, I still liked the colours and textures, but knew full well if I put it away again, it would just sit there for another year.  The batt must be over a centimetre thick.  Wrapping some of it loosely round a small plastic storage box, I sewed the parcel closed with a bit of wool, bunged it in a pillow case and put it through a 60 degree Centigrade machine wash on the 'intensive' programme with some deeply offensive towels my
son had unearthed from his gym bag. Good job the pillow case was firmly tied closed, at the end of the wash cycle, there were great clumps of loose hair clinging to the inside, though the bulk of my felted object had rounded and moulded into a tight pebble shape. I slit open the top, wiggled the plastic box out and left the shell on the radiator to dry.
"That hairball hasn't felted much on the inside, you know."
"It is not a hairball, it is my
prototype Painless No-Roll Mechanically Sculpted Felt Bag and the hair problem will be sorted when I've made it a lining. Nobody invited you to climb inside it Think I'll just do a little freeform needlefelt decoration with some handspun yarn."
When she had finished brushing herself down, Elinor came back to see how I was getting on.
"Not really up to BG's artistic standards, is it?"
I stood up and shook off 
the loose hairs covering the front of my jumper. Elinor just happened to be standing at my feet.  Despite the constant shedding of itchy hairs from within and without, needlefelting on scraps of silk hanky to make random roses was a most pleasant way to spend an evening - very peaceful indeed, after Elinor stopped sneezing ostentatiously and decided to listen to the radio in the kitchen.  Loose hairs were still drifting off the bag, bit of a bird's nest, even after trimming with scissors and adding a copper wire handle and a lining made from a shrunken jumper.

Having had another go with a hair free batt of wool fibres, I can confirm the idea itself is sound.  In fact, I have turned out a couple 

more bag shapes this week, for me and BG to have a Bank Holiday fiesta of needlefelting. Not a method for the energetic, wet felting purist, but spot on for Slack Alices who would rather spend Good Friday making an early start on the chocolate and petting the Easter Bunny.
I have called my prototype bag 'Rock Rose'. Hidden in the garden, it will be just the thing for an Easter Sunday Egg Hunt. 
If there is still any chocolate left by then.