Friday, 28 August 2015

Preparing and Hand Spinning a Black Welsh Mountain Sheep Fleece

I've been told Black Welsh Mountain sheep fleece commands a higher price from the Wool Marketing Board, because carpet manufacturers need only add a little dye to make a proper black for the details in their designs.  Mmm, the operative word in that sentence is carpet. Though Black Welsh may have the deepest natural colour of any wool, having handled a few fleeces in past years, I can confirm it is typically harsh to the touch.  
At the Glynogwr Show a couple of weeks ago, taking advantage of my location in the Wool Tent, I sidled over from the spinning display to have a grope of the entries in the Best Fleece Competition.  Looking at them, I was sure one just had to be a Black Welsh Mountain, then on stroking the shorn underside, I had my doubts.  Far too soft.  
The owner had also entered the livestock competitions with the 'Show Crew' from his flock and was pleased to have me check their fleeces, getting in the pen and practically cuddling any sheep that would tolerate it.  He selects his breeding stock for softness of fleece as well as meat production, simply because he prefers to handle a finer wool.  There followed a highly enthusiastic conversation and an offer to spin some wool for his mother to knit in return for a couple of fleeces.  A plan was made for me to drive up to the farm the next morning to go through the wool sack, since it was due to be collected shortly.
I hesitate at my own temerity, but for the first time ever, I will take issue with that deeply admired and most treasured reference of spinners, The Fleece and Fibre Source Book.  It says that Black Welsh Mountain sheep don't go grey with age and don't have much kemp.  Some do, you know. I speak as one who has got all the way to the bottom of a six fleece deep sack.  
I quite agree that the staple length varies between 5-10cm and the locks are dense and firm, blonder only at the tips. The crimp is disorganised but tight, giving an elastic, bouncy spring to the locks when you stretch them out.  Since the raw wool has little lanolin, it was easy to get straight in there, card rolags and spin long draw.  I made a skein of 2 ply and heated it up to 80 degrees with plenty of detergent, three hot rinses, thwacked it about  to full the wool and soon as it was dry, I knitted up a sample swatch.  Which was not as soft as I remembered the fleece had felt.  Damn.
I stumped down to the kitchen to have a moan to my companion, Elinor Gotland, on the subject of what to do with a ball of rather fuzzy, slightly dandrufty yarn with a modest amount of prickly kemp that the longdraw method had caused to protrude from the knitting at itchy angles.

"Fancy a cup of tea, Beaut? Kettle's just boiled."  Elinor had company, her aunt, Mord Black Welsh.  "I've said she should stay with us, while she refits her boat."
"You're very welcome, Maud. Where are you moored?"
"I'm by here, bach."
Elinor spelled it out for me.  "The boat's on the Ogwr Fach and her name's M-O-R-D  Mord, short for Shwmae Mordwywr, and that's Hallo Sailor, in Welsh. Lambs in Glynogwr said it to wind her up when she was building her first 
I thought it simpler to move the conversation on.
"Is that a withy trap pot you have with you?  I don't think I've ever cooked a lobster."
Mord grinned and Elinor roared with laughter.  
"That's a crab she's got in there, he's called Baetio. A nice little simmer would do him good.  Less of a pet, more of a pest, isn't he Mord?"
"You mind your manners, Elinor, my girl, or he'll be out of there, nipping at your britch, just like he did when you were an uppity shearling, calling your auntie names."

We took the car up the valley to fetch the boat next day.  Mord rested her hooves on a drystone wall and gazed out, over Bridgend, across the Bristol Channel.  There is quite a bit of grey in her fleece and could be she just needed a breather; on a clear enough day to see all the way to the Somerset coast, her old eyes had a contemplation of things even farther off.  
"Was it this view, tempted you to go to sea?" I ventured.
"Not so much to sea, bach, I just had a hunger to see Porthcawl lighthouse. Carried on around the coastline, haven't stopped since.  Fair play, there's still a living to be had on the estuaries.  Hard going against the current, though, lucky I've got myself a proper sail boat now. Or I did, til the flood. Nets are gone and the sail's in rags."  She strode on with such vigour I had trouble keeping up.
Back home, Mord had a look at my spinning and suggested I combed the Black 
Welsh Mountain to get the kemp out.  Spun with short forward draw to smooth the fibres, my second yarn sample was much less fuzzy and the knitted fabric smoother to handle, ok for a jumper.  Mord sat with me, spinning some Welsh Mountain Crossbreed fleece, saying she liked plenty of kemp to make her sail and net weaving durable and waterproof.   I think she approved of my Japanese Indigo dye job, too, as she felted herself a new Sou'wester while she was at it. 
"It's going to take a month of 
Sundays combing enough balls of wool to give the farmer's mother, before I get to use any of this fleece myself.  Love the colour, but I can't understand where all that softness went."
"If it's soft you're after, why aren't you spinning the good fleece?"
"What, the one I left in the bag from the Fleece Competition?  But I went to choose this one, specially."
"Oh aye, dark in the barn, was it, bach?"
"Well, I remember I was a bit frazzled that morning, after backing the car into a lump of concrete on the yard."
"You didn't pick a shearling fleece, that's all I can say.  Look at the tips of those staples. If it was a first shearing, they'd be pointed, not blunt."
Mystery solved.  At least I found out which fleece to use before I sent samples to friends ready for the Tour of British Fleece. 
Mord has finished her spinning and weaving and it's all hooves on deck. We went down to Ogmore By Sea to wave her off on her tour along the South Wales coast, sailing the refitted 'Sea Change' down to the Gower for the cockle picking and laver, then on to Carmarthen for the Celtic Coastline Open Challenge I am already looking forward to seeing her come back up the River Ogwr.

Though I am not so sure Elinor will be as glad to see Baetio.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Dyeing Wool and Silk with Croscosmia Flowers

Crocosmia, or Monbretia, has been taking over the path to my front door, despite some brutal digging at its corms.  I am the Slack Alice of tidy summer borders and crocosmia evades my spring clear outs by lying dormant til May.  Fed up of wet swipes at knee height, I went out along that path with
secateurs, mentally prepared for savage action.  Or not.  It was dry that day, the plants glowed in fiery riot and after sweeping the spent blossoms up, I just wondered if their colour could be extracted for a dye.  The basket had 20g dried or wilted flowers and a brief simmer in a small pan resulted in a strongly orange coloured bath, to which was added 10g merino tops, mordanted with 10% alum.
"Not really captured the blaze, have you Beaut?  What's that beige bit, down the bottom?"
"That, Elinor, is the effect of acid, in this case, vinegar.  Which is something you'd know all about, you caustic old ewe."
"Just because you've wasted a morning and a nice bit of merino, there's no need to get shirty with me."  My companion went back to slicing limes for her ginger beer. "There's a reason why your
reference books don't include crocosmia. Stick to weld and woad, Beaut.  Plants people have been dyeing with for millenia won't piss on your firework."
"Elinor!"  A sip of her drink kindled the glow of comprehension. "Swigging Moscow Mules before tea, now, are we?"
"Ginger to warm the bones and a drop of vodka to blow on the embers. Autumn is coming."

Alkalising the dye bath with dissolved soda ash had minimal effect on the depth of colour in the wool, though the water still looked a decent orange.  Maybe silk would come up better, might even go green with a drop of iron to modify it.  As the puppy recently uprooted a whole coreopsis plant, I thought I would fire away, roll that up with hardy geranium leaves and a couple of dyers chamomile flowers in a silk scarf
and give it a simmer in the crocosmia bath.  The string to tie the bundle was soaked in a jar of water and vinegar with rusty nails, for a supply of iron.  A few more crocosmia flowers got pressed into the mix.

The silk came out a pale gold. Though I'm not sure how much of that colour leaked out from the plants within the bundle, I'm inclined to repeat the whole process.  As the background to the orange and bronze coreopsis prints, crocosmia exceeded expectations.
Staying pale and unmodified by iron actually proved to be its strength.  By leaving the iron to make shadowy leaf prints and form dark lines from the soaked string, the crocosmia scarf turned out a proper bonfire.
"See, Elinor, you've got to innovate."
"Scorching, Beaut, totally scorching."

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Sequence of Blues on Wool and Silk Obtained from One Dye Bath of Double Maroon Hollyhocks

An Essay on Hollyhocks 

Awake, my Double Maroons!  Leave all meaner stalks,  To pink and red bloomed single hollyhocks.  

Let us (since life can little more supply 

Than just to look about us and to dye)  Expatiate free o'er your chromatic fruits, Your giddy heights!  Your promiscuous shoots. 

Hollyhocks are biennial plants. Though I sowed seed from the Double Maroons I had two years ago, either they were cross pollinated with other varieties or those particular seedlings didn't survive. As Alexander Pope recommends in 'An Essay on Man', I'll have to laugh where I must and be candid where I can, for this summer's flowering has made it plain that none of my home grown hollyhocks are either double petalled or maroon.  In garden works, though laboured on with pain, a thousand movements scarce one purpose gain.  Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,  All but the page prescrib'd - their present state.  And my present state is a mix of great relief and smug delight.  As a back up plan, I bought four potted Double Maroon plants early in spring, when I noticed them for sale outside the supermarket. 

Twice as many petals per flower make each plant doubly productive of dye and the colours - well, I haven't found another that gives such a subtle range of blues.  
Indigotin, whether extracted from woad or Japanese Indigo, produces cerulean shades, sometimes with turquoise tones.  
Better for us, perhaps it might appear, Were there all harmony, all virtue here; but to my mind, those blues don't sit right with most other plant dye colours, which otherwise mix and match very comfortably. Such pigmentary puzzles discompose the mind. When knitted in patterns 
with other plant dyed yarns, I find the indigotin plants serve best as overdyes, though simple indigotin blues do admirably enhance the natural browns and greys found in sheep and alpaca fleece.
Anyway, two years ago, more by luck than judgement, a series of six blue shades came out of one dye bath of twelve fresh double maroon hollyhock flowers.  I was not confident this serendipitous result would be reproducible, being all too aware that the growing conditions and time of harvest can radically change dye outcomes, before even considering my current plants might have had the same label on their pots, but did not stem from the original source plant.  Still, Mr Pope had it spot on and shall be free from my paraphrastic meddling for this favourite quotation - Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

So hopeful was I, that having found there were thirty open blossoms to go in the dye bath, I spent an age dividing up 200g of John Arbon's 4ply yarn into 25g hanks, tying each one loosely with cotton and mordanting them with 10% alum, along with a fine habotai square scarf.  The price of failure with this lot would have been exceedingly painful, Silk and merino into ruin hurl'd, And now a bubble burst, and now a world. The silk scarf was folded into three, rolled around a stick and tied with seven bands of
cotton yarn.  As soon as it went into the purple dye bath, the silk started visibly sucking up the blue dye molecules.  Taking care never to bring the water above steaming point, which is only around 60 degrees Centigrade, each hank of wool was briefly warmed and allowed to cool and soak for at least six hours, one skein after another, while one band of cotton was untied from the silk.

Here are the Double Maroon blues of 2015.  Just as in 2013, the first skein has a greenish hue, subsequent skeins tending to purple, then lavender and finally a paler grey/green/blue. 
All are but parts of one stupendous whole, Such a hollyhock is, of Seas the soul; That changes in waves and yet in all the same, Grows from the earth, blooms in th'ethereal frame, Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze, Glows in the stars, and nourishes the bees, Lives through seven dye baths, extends through all extent, Spreads undivided, operates unspent.

The idea of exposing fresh bands of the silk to each serial dye bath to get stripes of the different blues did not come off so well, partly because each band was exposed to all the subsequent baths, not just the next, but mostly because there were too many layers of silk for the dye to penetrate.  One edge is more purple and the other more grey/green, if you peer at it closely in a good light.
Despite dyeing 220g of merino and silk, the thirty flowers were not quite exhausted.  A piece of silk chiffon, with dyers chamomile flowers tied into it with cotton yarn, had the final plunge, a warming and an overnight soak, then was left damp for a day to cure. It came out a pretty grey, until I dipped the flower ends in an alkali solution to bring up the yellows.
Rinsing must have spread the alkali through all of the chiffon as it shifted the shade of the whole piece toward green.  Which wasn't the plan, but I really can't complain, nor die of a rose, in aromatic pain.  
I already discovered that freezing diminishes maroon hollyhock dye colours to green shadows, so I might try drying out the next lot of flowers that open.

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony, not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.                       Alexander Pope 1688 - 1744

Friday, 7 August 2015

Computer Printing Heavy Calico to make a Pinboard

"Compared to silk, this unbleached heavy calico fabric is so easy to work with.  No need to tack it before sewing, look, if I fold it. it keeps a crease just like paper."
Elinor paid no attention.  I tapped her on the shoulder til she pulled her headphones off.
"Calico creases like that when you wear it too, Beaut.  And the crumpled look is so last season. There's no comparison with silk."
"I bought the fabric to make a table cover, Elinor, not a frock.  It was ever so cheap."  But my companion had already plugged back in to her music.  I never was a fan of personal stereo.  Heaven knows what high tech gizmo Elinor bought herself when she was away in Canada, daresay I wouldn't understand if she told me.  I'm still not entirely sure what an app is, though I must admit, having survived without a computer printer for the last few years, now that we have a new one, I do find the performance much improved.

Despairing of generating many products to sell just by spinning and knitting, having a printer opened up the standard resort of the contemporary crafter. I had a go at doing greetings cards.  Not really cutting edge, when I showed off my hard won new command of 'word art', Elinor Gotland
just made sniffy remarks about the puppy getting into everything these days. Titting about one evening, I discovered that if you steam iron heavy calico nice and flat and cut it to exactly A4 size, the machine will print your photos out on it, giving an attractively textured and muted effect.  A4 is the maximum
width, but my printer will spit out a longer piece of calico. Having bought an A4 pin board in a stationery shop recently, I found it was mostly cardboard, the little hooks at the back weren't secure and the whole shebang was never worth a fiver. Here's how to make your own customised version. Cut a bit of old board to A4 size, drill two holes and poke a length of garden wire through, twisting the ends together to secure a loop to hang it from.  With the twisted wire side facing you, glue on a piece of 25mm thick polystyrene insulation board, which cuts easily to A4 size with a jigsaw.  Your printed strip of calico can be wrapped round the whole block and stapled on at the back, then all you need is some push pins. Seeing these, the calico suddenly became of interest to Elinor.
"Those Speckled Face Beulahs are just pushing and shoving to get themselves into the front of that shot.  I could look out a few things from my portfolio for you, if you wanted to use something more stylish and professional for your next pinboard, Beaut."
"Those sheep are Mary's flock, from Ty Cribbwr.  I took that picture when they were waiting to be scanned last January, it's a candid camera photo, nothing
posed.  Anyway, I'm going to try making covers for notebooks now."  Elinor was actually quite attentive while I fiddled about, cutting cotton interlining to pad the fabric out.  She even gave me a go of her earphones. 
"Tranquil piece you've been listening to.  What is it?" I asked.
"Sheep may safely graze. Which would be a fine thing in this house. I bet Bach would never have allowed his dog to worry sheep."
"Oh Elinor, I'll take Yarrow for a walk so you can chill out for a while." We got home to find her deep into some crafting therapy.
"Needlework is hard on the hooves, Beaut, but I've made a few book covers.  Making things to sell at the Glynogwr Show, are you?"
"Mmm, Mary asked me to sit and spin in the Wool Tent, where they judge the fleeces.  I'm doing a display all about wool, with a few

bits on sale.  She says the Show is very informal, but you aren't the only one feeling anxious."
"Ah, stage fright, always builds up before a show.  I'm a marvellous saleswoman, don't you worry about tomorrow, Beaut." Looking at her notebooks, the jitters come upon me and I cannot find this offer entirely soothing.  Best I listen to some Bach tonight.