Friday, 25 September 2015

Making Pumpkins out of Felted Wool

"How's about these for 'close-bosom friends of the maturing sun'?" 
I crouched down to take beauty shots of my needle-felted pumpkins.
"Hmm, 'close-bosom' always brings to my mind ample women wearing ill-fitted bras. And the sun is way past its prime, I saw you using flash photography.  Stop titting about and let's get in before it rains."
My companion, Elinor Gotland, much prefers the flash function turned off, as the glare tends to bounce on her fleece.  That ewe is an arch fiend of the photobomb, she loves the camera, even if it doesn't always love her. 
Earlier this month, BG and I made plans to stuff the Crafts by the Sea shop with an autumnal cornucopia.  We followed these instructions for making felted balls of wool, using handfuls of stiff raw sheep fleece as the cores, swathed with some matted wool tops in orangey shades.  The process is really easy, we just knotted the clumps of wool into old tights and bunged them through the hot wash, then tumbled dry.  The wool fibres do felt into the nylon, but free up if you pull hard on each end of the leg to stretch the tights. 
Our results, while not immediately filled with ripeness, were certainly firmly felted.  Through knotting the nylons tightly, the bigger ones came out pleasingly pumpkin-shaped, though folds had dug in to the smaller balls, making them bean-shaped.   BG, with a patient look, has already needlefelted hers hours by hours. The equinox was upon us by the time I stopped sitting careless on the kitchen floor, dipping more, and still more, silk in fresh indigo vats.  Time to get a move on.

Taking a shortcut on the shaping process, I made segmented bulges on my felt balls by sewing tight loops of wool.

Just a thin layer of variegated wool, needlefelted on, to flesh out the pumpkin look.
"The solid colours of commercially dyed wool tops aren't a patch on our friend Wriggly's hand dyed fleece, are they Elinor?"
"Your needle felting is much fuzzier than BG's."
"It's tactile, Elinor, mellow and fruitful. Like a stubble-plain touched with rosy hue."
"You mean hairy."
"Velvety as my woolly britch, Beaut. You just haven't got BG's technique.  How many needles is it you've broken so far?"
"Such a wailful choir of small gnats mourning about in here. Oh, where are the songs of solace and support?"
Elinor rolled her eyes.
"You'd need to be drowsed with the fume of poppies to wear this thing as a brooch.  Oh, pass me the silk, I'll show you how we load and bless with fruit the vines that round the pergola run."

Not to be outdone, I needlefelted a plump and silky gourd myself. 
With knobs on.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Changing the pH of a Japanese Indigo Plant Dye Vat

I think it could be better to harvest Japanese Indigo leaves just as the plant starts to flower, rather than cutting in July, hoping for a second crop of leaves to grow back.  Each pot full of leaves seems to have given a stronger dye bath, harvested at this time of year.  When you consider what a performance it is to process each vat, a higher indigo yield is worth waiting for.

This week, I cut plants grown outdoors for my fifth vat of the season.  Still following the method on Wild Colours website, only leaving the leaves to steep for 48 hours rather than 24, in case that is part of the reason I've been getting so much colour from them. There are so many botanical variables - sunshine, rain, earth, manure, season, not to mention so much about the dye process that I don't know for sure.
Vat Five was to be an experiment in changing the pH, working on the theory that a more alkaline environment might have been the cause of a purple shaded blue that appeared in Vat Three. I did try soaking a bit of indigo dyed yarn, one end in acid and the other end in alkali, without causing an appreciable change in the shade of blue, but given how strongly pH affects other plant dyes, I still thought the suggestion made on Ravelry was 
plausible.  So, now to change pH before the indigo is fixed.  After steeping, the leaves were squeezed out and drained into a bucket, enough dissolved soda ash was added to bring the pH up to the recommended 9, then the whole lot was aerated by whisking for ten minutes.  At this point, the bath was poured jugful after jugful into three separate pots.  The first had a splash of vinegar to get the pH down to around 8, the second was left at 9 and the third had extra
soda ash to get the pH up to 10.  I gave them all another few minutes whisking, heated them up to 50 degrees Centigrade then added the Spectralite and went to find the silk I had prepared for dyeing. Returning, I found my way barred.
"Have you gone completely tonto? You're never putting good habotai silk into vats you've buggered up on purpose?"
"Calm yourself, Elinor, you are witnessing the creation of a triptych.  While you've been away,
I've invented Double Daisy Tie Dye, which is practically art. Changing the pH in these vats should give me green and purple variations on an indigo theme.  I've already sewed slots in the silk so I can hang it on the wall after the front room has been repainted. My work will be titled 'Ultra Violet 8, 9, 10.'  Pretty cryptic, eh?"
I brushed aside my companion, swept the lids off the pots and let 
the handsewn silk banners float into their vats.  After ten minutes, they were hung out for the first airing.
"That's an understated purple, alright, Beaut. Minimalist, is it?"
"Probably not enough alkali, that's all.  I'll just put some more soda ash into vat 3 for the second dip."
I carried on, grimly dipping and airing that silk, then some yarn and finally, some washed sheep fleece.  In the end, I had to acknowledge that whatever the fibre, the pH 9 vat gave the strongest, clearest blue, the pH 8 was a little weaker in colour and the high pH just caused a somewhat muddier, possibly greenish dye. No purple tones anywhere at all.

"Reinvented the wheel, have you, Beaut?"
"OK Elinor, you can stop bumping your gums.  You were right.  In future, I'll stick to pH 9 like it says in the book."
"Any artist would tell you, blue is a cold colour and we want to be cosy in the front room this winter, so it's just as well you don't hang this silk up.  I suppose I can manage to find something to do with it.."

Friday, 11 September 2015

Tie Dyeing Wet and Dry Silk in a Japanese Indigo Plant Extraction Vat

Even when I weigh and measure, I find the colour every plant dyes will shift with each batch.  While that is annoying when a whole jumper's worth of one colour is wanted, unpredictability seems to be part and parcel of the process and half the fun.  It is harder to fathom how experts can consistently achieve colours so similar than to understand why my own are so varied.  Look at these two bits of chiffon and skeins of wool.  Both 
were dyed in vats of Japanese Indigo with similar amounts of leaves from plants growing side by side in the greenhouse. The plants giving greenish toned indigo on the right were harvested for my second vat, which I blogged about last week, while the indigo purple from vat three was cut one week later, at the beginning of September.  Maybe it was the effect of colder nights.  Wish I knew, as the purple rainstorm is lush.
Arashi is Japanese for storm and though I deviated from the classic shibori method, that chiffon scarf was dyed after pole wrapping. After a discouraging start, when the string came off the top just when the last scrunching phase was coming up, I can report that the whole process is a great deal easier with a really long 'pole', or in my case, length of plastic drainpipe.  This time, I wound the string at wider intervals, shuffling up deeper folds of fabric to stick out into the dye bath.  To improve dye uptake, the whole thing had 24 hours to soak in a bucket of water before going into the vat.  Didn't consider how to get the pole in the pot on the cooker, in retrospect, I could have stood the pot on the floor. 

The indigo did get taken up by more of the silk than last week, but I think in future, I might try massaging the pole while in the vat, as the combination of string and scrunching and three layers excludes the dye pretty effectively.
After these efforts to make the blue penetrate chiffon in complex oriental folds, I tried a simple experiment with tie dye on dry silk.

The picture shows chickpeas in silky bondage, with cotton yarn making a crochet start loop pulled tight behind each one, the pattern random, though the lengths of yarn between pairs of chickpeas was kept approximately equal. That way, when the yarn is picked up under a wire, the silk droops in uneven folds with the chickpeas held at an equal height.  The wire can be used to suspend the silk for ten minutes, partially

immersed in the indigo vat, and again while it airs for another ten minutes to oxygenate and fix the dye.

The silk at the top stays dry until its second dip, when the whole piece goes into the vat for another ten minutes before airing again. Hang each piece of silk up with clothespegs on the top corners and release the chickpeas from their loops to see the final effect.
Dry fibres take up dye unevenly, which is why the books always recommend soaking wool and silk in advance. On wetted material, repeated immersions in an indigo vat even up the blue, I suppose because most fibres have had the chance to reach dye saturation point.  This experiment aimed to exploit the haphazard shadowing of indigo on dry fibres, on a background of deeper and more even double dipped colour.  The result was strongest on fine habotai, which must have soaked through most quickly, moderate on the medium weight habotai and palest on heavy habotai silk.  I think the pattern is like flowers.  I daresay this has all been done before, nonetheless, I shall name it Daisy Tie Dye.

Since the deeper background gave the best effect, a couple of days ago, I tried the same thing with fewer chick peas, deeper droops of fabric between them and a sequence of three ten minute dips at three levels.  Vat Four was made with indigo plants growing outdoors, which gave a cerulean blue, so Vat Three's purple tint can have had nothing to do with cold nights, after all.  

Anyway, here it is - Double Daisy Tie Dye. 

Friday, 4 September 2015

Trying to Tie Dye in a Japanese Indigo Plant Extraction Vat.

Japanese Indigo plants are frost tender annuals and need sowing under cover and bringing on under glass to survive in Wales.  I treat mine like tomatoes, they sit in grow bags in the greenhouse, getting the same amount of food and water.  With the cool, wet summer we have had, my tomatoes have been a big disappointment.
Barely any of them ripened til mid August and sitting green on the vines for so long, their flavour is little better than the ones from the supermarket.  Japanese Indigo are supposed to be ready by July and I'd like to say I held off harvesting after careful consideration of the prevailing conditions affecting probable dye content, but the truth is, though the plants have been growing right through the work bench, I just
didn't get round to them til mid August.  In any event, waiting has paid off handsomely.  I have already had two goes at dyeing, with big pots full of leaves and chopped stalks steeping for 24 hours in a sort of bain marie in the sink.  Following the instructions on the Wild Colours website, I have been using the extraction vat and spectralite method.  Despite so much rain, there is plenty of indigo in those plants, better than last
year, I think, though perhaps I am getting more adept with the preparation.  Not that much more organised though.  I can reassure anyone whose leaves end up steeping for 48 hours instead of 24, this doesn't seem to cause problems.  On top of getting a good strong range of blues on plenty of sheep fleece and yarn, I've been having a go at tie dye on cotton and silk fabric.
I thought using an indigo vat
would be the absolute classic method with online instructions easy to find.  In practice, I turned off the computer late one night with unresolved questions. I found lovely videos of shibori being done, some nice professional tutorials sponsored by dye manufacturers and this fascinating documentary from Arimatsu, where the technique originated.  Deeply disappointing to find that in that heartland
Arimatsu, after exquisite and painstaking work on the cloth, they now use artificial dyestuffs, though it did give me a giggle to hear the voice over explain that 'shibori is Japanese for tie dye', having read a few snippy exchanges between crafters about the authenticity of claiming a method of tie dye to be
'shibori'. Running stitch effects looked good, so I spent a pleasant hour sewing in curving lines, then ruching up the cloth in a way that I hoped would turn out as a sort of stem and vine tracery, joining up the yellow blobs on this uninspiring result from a past plant contact dye on silk.  I also tried folding some silk  I accidentally dyed beige around a section of plastic drainpipe, winding string around it and
shuffling the fabric down the 'pole', though doubtless, this was not truly a shibori arashi dye method. All of the pieces came out worse than they went in. I had soaked the running stitch silk before dyeing and it took up an equal amount of blue throughout, no pattern added at all. I put the pole silk into the vat dry, and though it looked blue, once unfolded, only a few little strips of the outer layers had taken up any indigo at all.

As well as the effect of presoaking, the weight of the silk weave must have a significant impact on how much dye penetrates folded layers.  For my second attempt at arashi, I used a square of silk chiffon and made pleats like a curtain, so that the maximum number of layers would be three and across the full width, some bits would end up
in the outer layer with maximum dye exposure.  A fiddle to wrap around the pole, but manageable with a couple of strategically placed elastic bands.  Spiralling the string tightly round is a labour of love.  The finished wrap had two good ten minute soaks in the indigo vat. 
Very exciting to unfold. Once the pleats were out, the fabric folded inside was only palest blue, but luckily, so far as I am concerned, the scarf itself turned out lovely.  Next time, I will wrap the chiffon in advance and soak the whole pole before dyeing.

Looking closely at one video, I decided the running stitch technique was being sewn with two lines of stitches in parallel, then the two ends of the thread were pulled tight and knotted together, forming a narrow, closed loop. Hoping this would exclude the indigo better than my single line of stitches, I tried a few short curving double lines to make stems, adding some old school tie dye using little loom bands to strangulate the silk pinched behind some chick peas, hoping this would give a blossom effect.  The silk went into the vat dry and only had one 10 minute dip, to 
minimise the amount of indigo soaking under the stitches. This did leave a clear pattern, though utterly lacking in oriental sophistication, or indeed, any style at all.  Unless I can dream up a better design, I shan't bother with that again.  What has fired my imagination are the random surgings of uneven dye uptake on dry silk.  More lovely and much less effort.