Friday, 29 May 2015

A Trial of Dyeing Wool with Hopi Sunflower Seeds

I sow sunflower seeds in pots at the end of May, to keep the seedlings safe from the slugs, only planting out when they are big enough to look after themselves. A bold, gold, late flowering in August and September helps keep autumn at bay. Last year, I eschewed the fancy varieties, having been disappointed by the plant dye colours I got from the flowerheads.
Instead, I ordered special Hopi sunflower seeds from an American supplier, which germinated well and grew six feet tall.  The yellow flowers attracted much attention from pollinators and from me, promising a wealth of seeds more exciting than any number of multicoloured petals.  The seeds also appealed to squirrels, who ran along the top of the garden wall eating the best heads from the whole row, pretty much the same day I had decided they looked perfect for harvesting.  If I had had an airgun, those squirrels would be enriching the compost heap now.  The chief object of growing this variety was to try to get a blue dye from the seeds, like I read about in a book on Navajo and Hopi Dyes.
There were just a couple of plants the little sods couldn't reach.  I dried out the seedheads, put them away and tried to move on from a dark vortex of squirricidal thoughts.  In fact, I successfully blanked the whole traumatic experience, only to have a full horror flashback last week, when I went to the garden centre to choose this year's packet of sunflower seeds.
"Thieving, hairy tailed vermin!"  I clutched the packet convulsively.  "I may never get over the loss."
"You still griping about those squirrels?"  My companion, Elinor Gotland, stopped trying to flirt with the nice young man from the garden centre staff, who still didn't seem keen to offer her a deal on a teak Steamer Sunlounger.  "I remember you saying Hopi sunflower seeds weren't worth bothering with, anyway."
"Did I?"
"Yes, you picked up a handful of loose seeds off the ground and had them in a jam jar of water on the windowsill, to try that solar dyeing business.  Didn't look at all blue to me and when your bit of wool had been in there a week, it was pale grey and stank to high heaven.  Put me right off my tea.  To be honest, Beaut, those seeds were better off as squirrel shit, if you ask me."
There is nothing like a bit of opposition to stiffen the backbone.  I weighed last year's seeds and found I had 200g, which looked about twice as much as the 'two double handfuls' specified in the recipe.  Heated to below the boil and kept hot for half an hour,
the seed dyebath did go a deep maroon, just like the book says. At this stage, you are supposed to add a small double handful of ground native alum which is an 'efflorescence of drying soil' and it turns the dye a deep, royal purple. Hmmm.  I've not noticed my pure alum crystals changing a dye bath appreciably, but acids and alkalis have done and who knows what was in that American soil along with the alum.  I took three jam jars of dye, added vinegar to the first, which made it paler, and soda ash to the third, which made it darker, if not definitely purple.  My money was on an alkali dyebath giving the best colour, but to experiment, I divided the whole lot into two pots and used more vinegar and soda ash to bring one down to pH 4 and the other up to pH 10.  Not having a double handful of churro sheep fleece washed with yucca suds, I put into each pot  20g superwash merino tops, premordanted with alum.  There was an instant effect. The wool in the acid bath turned cherry red and the wool in the alkali bath turned steel grey.  Wish I'd taken a photo then, but I just put the heat on low and though it says 'bring to a gentle boil', I interpreted the temperature as below simmering and kept it there for half an hour. 

Once the pots had cooled, the wool from the alkali bath had no colour at all, while the wool from the acid bath was deep maroon.  I tried soaking the the white wool in neat vinegar, but no colour was revealed, so I'd guess the alkali and heat in combination destroyed the dye.
"Well, Elinor, that decides it.  This maroon is much more interesting than that beige I got from the other sunflowers.  I'm going to grow Hopi ones again this year.  What a good job I kept a few seeds separately."

"You forgot to sieve the ones in the dye out before you put the wool in, Beaut.  Never get the bits out of this lot."  She shook the dry Merino and seeds rattled onto the patio. 
"It's a learning curve.  For the next time, I'll remember that and I'll try an alkali bath without heat and maybe add a bit of iron or copper to modify the acid one.  I might even be able to get some churro fleece and yucca roots this summer."
"I'll buy you a catapult for your birthday. And a bag of hazelnuts for the squirrels.  On the subject of presents, I do think this garden could do with a nice sun lounger, don't you?"

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Green Walnut Hull Dyebath used for Dyeing a Silk Ecobundle Leaf Print

This bowl of walnut hulls resurfaced when I was clearing up in the garage. Originally, the walnut cases were green and must have fallen before they were ripe, because we picked them up off the grass last July, while visiting the gardens at  West Dean.  I put them in this bowl with some water and they stayed green for weeks, til I rather forgot about the whole idea of dyeing with them.

"I'm sure I have heard stories of princesses smearing their faces with walnut juice to darken their skin."
"What, like spray tan?"
"No, Elinor, it was a cunning ruse to disguise themselves as simple country girls while running away from wicked stepmothers."
My companion looked sceptical.  She stood her teacup back on the saucer and said firmly,
"Never mind the bedtime stories. Chuck that lot on the compost heap."
Where would I be without Elinor to supervise the garage clean up?   
"Mmm, well, I suppose a princess would have had to lay her plans well ahead if she did want the juice out of this lot." I slooshed the thick black residue round the bottom of the bowl. Then, just to assert my independence, I took it to the kitchen and poured in a kettle full of boiling water.

The fluid appeared very dark, as if there were a good deep brown dye in there.  I simmered the old hulls for an hour with a small amount of alum mordanted fleece, unmordanted wool yarn and a scrap of unmordanted white silk. Yup, it all ended up more beige than San Tropez.  Brown wool I can get straight off the sheep, but the silk gave pale beige a sophisticated sheen.  This walnut dye bath seemed fit for an experimental silk leaf print.

Last autumn, I tried painting the fluid from my jam jar of water, vinegar and festering rusty nails, onto various leaves before rolling them up in silk and simmering in a dye bath.  Few actually made a recognisable pattern.  One of the better effects came from alpine strawberry leaves, which are presently growing faster than I can weed them out of garden paths.  
When they are simmered between two layers of silk in a dyebath with iron in it, my usual geranium leaves make a  clearer iron dyed outline from their upper
surface and let more of their own greeny yellow dye colour out from the underside.  It's hard to be completely sure which side was which, after an ecobundle has dried out and can be unrolled. The strawberry leaves didn't give any dye colour last time, so in hopes of jazzing this scarf up, I fetched
out some dried coreopsis and dyer's chamomile flowers and some dessicated flakes of fermented Evernia prunastri lichen and soaked them in hot water before laying them on the wet, alum mordanted silk.  Some of the strawberry leaves had iron water painted on the topside, others on the back, though this takes a bit of brushing as the fluid tends to bead on the undersurface.
Rather than rolling the piece longways, which means there are many layers of silk for the dyebath to penetrate, I folded it end to end, putting more layers of plant material on, before rolling it sideways round a big plastic flowerpot, so the innermost silk only had three layers above it. Tied up with garden string, after
an hour or so simmering in the walnut dye bath, a night left in there to soak and a couple of days to dry out, my ecobundle looked like this.  The silk then had all the plant material picked out of it and three warm rinses to get the loose dye off, before going through the washing machine on a silk and wool 30 degree cycle with a pH neutral detergent.  Pressed while damp with a medium hot steam iron, finally, I could have a proper look at the prints.

This bit comes from a folded part, it shows that a leaf with iron painted on its underside gave a spotted print where the iron water beaded, below it is an outline from its top surface, showing where the iron leached over the edges. The yellow flower print comes from the dyer's chamomile, the orange from coreopsis and the pink from the Evernia prunastri. Leaves painted on their topside gave the most detailed prints, this might be formed by the walnut dyebath coming up deeper where mordanted with the iron.

My daughter kindly put the scarf on so we could admire the full effect.
"I think printing a band along both ends of the scarf worked out fine, because you don't really see the bit round the back of her neck."
Elinor Gotland was unimpressed.
"Hmm, well, I didn't see mummy's little princess helping clean out the garage.  I think that scarf would suit an older person better."
"Someone with grey fleece?"
"And timeless natural chic, Beaut.  Get that girl to put the kettle on."

Friday, 15 May 2015

A Trial of Dyeing with Sweet Woodruff Leaves and Roots

Chelsea Flower Show is on next week.  This means that it must be nearly time for planting out all my seedlings from the greenhouse.   Rain is forecast for the next few days, the moon starts descending next Wednesday and I will have Thursday off work - what a perfect conjunction of events.

Much of the garden is getting replanted with plants that give dyes. When I got round to reviewing the official 'Dye Garden', which was left bare last autumn, the alpine strawberries and sweet woodruff had struck back, stopped lurking down the shadiest end and surged forward to get some Spring sun. 

Such a lovely, fresh, green carpet.  I hardened my heart, being a woman with special needs and a lot of pots of coreopsis and dyer's chamomile to find homes for.  Much digging later, there were only a couple of oriental poppies spared and a few tulips left to die back naturally.

From the name 'sweet' woodruff and the Latin version Galium odoratum I expected the plant to have a strong perfume.  It doesn't actually smell of much til it has wilted.  I've read that the roots give a red dye, like a weaker version of madder.  Shaking the dirt off, they did have an orange tinge to them, so I spent ages untangling woodruff from all the associated weeds, til I had half a bucketfull.

I couldn't find any details of dye methods, so I separated most of the roots out and treated them just as I did the madder, alkalinising the bath and adding calcium carbonate before warming gently, while the plant tops had the usual hour at a simmer.  There was a fair orange tinge to the root bath plus a lovely scent.

I have mordanted a great length of superwash Merino with alum, planning to dye my own tops for spinning.  Even after the gentlest sloosh in a cold mordant bath, the fibres were getting disorganised, but at least they don't seem felted by heating in the dye baths. Palest pink came from roots and a soft green from the leaves.  My photos never do show the green properly.

I transplanted other clumps of woodruff into a bare area revealed by himself, brutally pruning back a camellia bush. Going to see if they had survived the move, I found Elinor Gotland making her own inspection.
"Wow, that hat is special."
"Just trying on my outfit for Chelsea."
"OOO you lucky thing!"  I paused for thought.  
"Wouldn't you be better off with comfy shoes and a rucksack?"
"Hardly.  I shall be attending the Charity Gala Preview.  All I need to take along is fresh lipstick, as Alan Titchmarsh will probably want to interview me."
Back in the house, it dawned on me that her outfit had been co-ordinated to match a silk scarf I dyed in the remains of the root bath, with hardy geranium leaves and some dried up bits of fermented Evernia prunastri.  As she waltzed off in a swirl of pure Habotai silk,  I called after her,
"At least take an umbrella, Elinor.  It is definitely going to rain on Monday evening." 
"Not in the President's Marquee, Beaut.  They don't let rain dilute the champagne."  
I don't think there will be any point asking her about the Show Gardens.  I'll just have to wait and see them on telly.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Making Stitch Markers for Lace Knitting

I was told last year that lace knitting is not intrinsically difficult and have found it true that lace really does only use a limited range of combinations of stitches and forms of yarn over to draw in parts of a row of knitting and leave spaces elsewhere.  While the craft is simple, one lapse of concentration, one yarn over missed and everything thereafter is thrown out of kilter, scrambling into chaos instead of building harmony.  The second lace scarf I completed had me fascinated, despite the 
amount of time I spent unpicking it.  I'd say the art lies in imagining a new pattern, creating balance and intricacy within the final shape of a piece. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Which means following lace knitting instructions is a discipline leading up to the thrill of a result that cannot be fully anticipated. The plasticity of knitted lace amazes me.  Even when you have finished knitting, the lace effect cannot be properly appreciated until the piece is washed and blocked to stretch out the web. 

I have heard about 'life lines', where you run a thread through all the stitches of a row you are sure is correct, so that if you go wrong later, the work can safely be unravelled back to this level.  Somehow, I never could be arsed to set a life line up.  Luckily for me, I saw a friend's Dragonfly Wings scarf and thus discovered Boo Knits patterns.  The one above is called Sweet Dreams from the In Love Collection.  I call mine 'Root Map', because I started it on a road trip to Glasgow, changing from one shade of madder dyed yarn to another, every time we changed motorways.  Boo patterns not only come with reminders about how to do the stitches and yarn overs, but also advice on placing stitch markers.  These can be used to divide up the stitches into pattern blocks.  When you know there should be twelve stitches between markers, spotting an error tends to happen while working within that small section and if it doesn't, counting back soon shows where the problem lies.
First off, I just used safety pins or little loops of wool in bright colours as my markers.  I worked so slowly that the extra few seconds spent transferring each narrow safety pin or wiggly, knotted bit of wool from left needle to right didn't slow me up appreciably.  Then I was given a couple of pretty wire loops with beads dangling from them and I realised how much easier they were to slip across.  Only problem was, tiny jags of wire around the beads tended to catch in my loosely plied, low twist handspun wool.  So I asked Mum for some plastic, safety pin shaped markers for my birthday and they were a big improvement, though awkwardly rigid and not aesthetically pleasing.  It is a joy to use tools that combine elegance with function.  When I saw this truly beautiful oak yarn bowl on the HillTop Cloud stall at Wonderwool, I decided buying such a thing was not self indulgence so much as becoming a patron of the arts.  I said this to my companion, Elinor Gotland.

"If that bowl was art, there would have been an extra couple of zeros on the price tag and it would be up on a pedestal, not sitting on the carpet with your wool in it."
That ruddy sheep thinks she can play the cultural guru, just because she's actress.
"Elinor, if I call it art, then that is what that bowl is." 
"Ooo, who's come over all avant garde?  I'm afraid Grayson says that kind of statement only works if you are the person who made the thing and other people agree you are an artist."
"So a pile of bricks can be art, but my lovely, useful bowl can't?"
"Well, Beaut, it could be art if Mr Perry had made it, but HillTop Katie's dad hasn't won the Turner Prize.  Or been on telly."

 I myself have been suffering creative torment with the button machine, attempting to express myself through the medium of the stitch marker. I discovered that the little bar can be twisted out of the back of the button shells, leaving two holes for a loop to be threaded through, so the knot is covered once the top of the button gets clamped on.  My prototype was made with a fuse wire loop, like the beaded markers, but the knots in the wire unwound
themselves or broke after I flipped them about while knitting. Silk, wool and cotton loops do stay tied, but they are a bit too floppy to slide the tip of a knitting needle through quickly. Short loops keep the button head too close to the stitches and long loops are a pain to fetch back over on a purl row. By trial and error, I ended up with 2cm loops of necklace cord, the 1mm diameter kind is stiff enough to keep loops open and doesn't catch on the working yarn.  With a padding of cotton interlining, scraps of plant dyed silk cover the tops, each one different and all of them lovely.
"This is not a production line, Elinor, it's a limited edition."
"Well, Beaut, I'd believe that if I didn't know the bead shop just changed hands and became a dog grooming parlour.  You just keep up the artistic struggle and I'll find you another necklace cord supplier online."
"Ooo, could you get me some in white?  Or maybe green, to match the silk?"

I've now got two dozen pretty much perfectly functional stitch markers, light weight on the needle, yet substantial enough to shift about easily.  It takes that many to divide up the long rows at the end of the New Beginnings pattern.  This is undemanding lace intended for worsted weight yarn and I thought the instructions looked boringly repetitive, but suitable for the dentist's waiting room, where I have been spending far more time than I'd choose. The version in the photo on the right has the alternative ending with the lacy tips and I'm calling it 'Root Work'.  The cumulative effect of the simple structure pleases me immensely. So much so, I made another one straight away with more of my practice at handspinning straight from the end of Bond wool tops.  Which still isn't much finer than double knitting weight.
This one has the plain edge and it's for a bloke who makes silver jewellery and big forged sculptures.  I consider him quite enough of an artist to wear a bit of lace and I name the scarf 'Metal Work'.  Some of the copper wire he gave me is now bent into a holder to keep all my best stitch markers together.  

"What do you reckon, Elinor?  If I hang them on the wall and call them 'Neogenesis', does that make them art?"
"Maybe.  But you'd have to shave your head, get some facial piercings and never, ever let on about the knitting."

Friday, 1 May 2015

A Trial of Fresh Madder Root Dye

Most of my madder seedlings were planted out into a raised border, two years ago.  Three have been living in a pot on the patio.  At the end of March, I spotted a red root growing out through the bottom, which I took as a sign they needed potting on and a great excuse to see how much they had grown.  In the books, it says that madder roots grow to pencil thickness in five years and should not be divided and harvested for roots until at least their third year.  These three plants turned out to be coming on ok, despite being cramped in a pot.  Rinsing one of them in a bucket of rainwater  
exposed an orangey red root system, though paler than in pictures I have seen.  I potted two plants on, adding some wood ash to the fresh compost, as an alkaline soil is supposed to encourage the production of alizarin pigment. You probably guessed that the third plant never got back into the soil, falling victim to my flaming desire to have a go at madder root dyeing.
I chopped up the whole thing with secateurs and rinsed it again to get off all the earth.  I've read that pouring boiling water over the roots will clear them of the more orange dyes, leaving the best red.  When I did this, colour just poured out into the water, leaving me panic stricken there would be none still left in those tiny pieces.  I scoured and mordanted some finely spun white Wensleydale and portioned it out into small skeins of random length, all less than 10g dry weight.  The smallest skein went into the first 
hot rinse water, so as not to waste a drop of madder.  I gave it half an hour on a very low heat, just to get it started. By all acounts, madder reds can easily be destroyed by overheating.  I got a bit mixed up, flicking from Jenny Dean's book Wild Colour, to Theresinha's online instructions at Wild Colours and missed the point that the whole dye process can be done without heat.  I could have saved myself constant pot watching for the hour I spent warming those rinsed roots in fresh water in a bigger pot with the largest skein of Wensleydale.  Then I realised I had forgotten the chalk and added that. Then I tested the pH and found it was still neutral, so I added enough soda ash to bring it up to pH 9-10, hoping for the best possible red.

Had to wait for a couple of days to see my first result.  Madder takes much longer to be taken up than any other plant dye I have tried and patience is not my forte, but there was a heartening increase in depth of colour, noticeable even when checking every morning and evening. The biggest ball near the top right is the skein from the first bath, the smallest ball, lower right, came from the first hot rinse water, so it definitely did take out the orange tones.  The pink ball at the top went into the main afterbath for the second phase of waiting a few days, then I poured in the remnant of the hot rinse water and dyed the last two skeins, which came out peachy.  Adding some iron water, one of the peach skeins went back in the pot for a little more heating and turned that pinky beige on the top left.

While I was weeding round the main clump of madder in the border, a few roots fell off into my hand.  They went into the left over dye bath and I contact dyed a piece of heavy Habotai silk by rolling hardy geranium leaves and daffodils into it and tying the bundle up with string soaked in iron water.  My companion, Elinor Gotland, spotted me steam ironing the fabric and suddenly started paying attention.
"That beigey peach is almost a flesh tone on silk, Beaut."
I tweaked it back out of her hoof.
"You have grey fleece."

For a small sheep, Elinor has a powerful grip and a devilish fetish for silk.  To avoid an unseemly tussle, I spent some time in the garden, admiring all my madder dye colours in natural light.  Those geraniums leaked out a good bit of green too, pleased to find the iron had picked out the tracery of their leaves, even though I kept the heat low in the silk dye bath.  

Back in the house, I was staggered to find my friend enthroned on a heap of the most glorious red wool I have ever seen.
"This is what I call Madder Red."
"Wherever did you get that wool?  It's sumptuous, look at the depths and tones in it, that has to be naturally dyed and I know you didn't do it."
Elinor leaned back, playing it very cool.
"Did a bit of shopping at Wonderwool, Beaut, and I got chatting with Sue, who runs Native Yarns. Pure madder dyeing this, she does it herself, one to one weight ratio of root to fibre." She bounced up and down. "This is called Brigantia and it's much softer than your Wensleydale."
I squeezed the skeins and sighed.
"It must have cost you a fortune!"
"Not half as much as you'd think and a hell of a lot quicker than gardening."
"You know that silk scarf I've got?  Interested in a trade, at all?"