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.
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