Friday, 26 August 2016

Growing Madder and Madder Root Contact Prints on Cotton Fabric

Eighteen months ago, I germinated a big handful of saved madder seeds. Some seedlings were planted out in garden borders and pretty much disappeared.   Could be the ground was too wet last winter, because my usual suspects, the slugs, have little taste for madder. Other seedlings had an arid time after being transplanted into a large wooden barrel, because the hose doesn't stretch that far. Despite dry spells, they have grown plenty of foliage, I'll just have to wait another year or so to see how the roots are doing. Quite a few more seedlings have survived cramped into one litre pots, putting out the odd tendril of leaves while sitting neglected round the back of the greenhouse.  
"Mariana plants, these are, not madder."  My companion cradled a fresh green spray and looked up at me reproachfully.  "With blackest moss these madder-pots Are thickly crusted, one and all - listen, Beaut, you can hear them moaning - 'Our life is dreary, Fran potteth us not on,' they said.  'We are aweary, we are aweary, we wish that we were dead!'"
"Oh, don't bleat on, Elinor, I might find room in the raised borders this autumn, but I reckon madder won't survive a Welsh winter in heavy clay soil." 
So, the Mariana madders do get an occasional visit from a small grey ewe of poetic bent, a squirt from the hose when I remember and once in a while, the dog investigates the area and carries off a plastic pot to chew.  I find an abandoned madder plant decorating the lawn, howl with rage, feel bad about them all lurking untended, then repot the latest casualty.
One potful got badly injured, tossed about til hardly any compost still clung to it.  Rinsed under the hose, there were many fine, fibrous roots and a modest system of thicker ones.  Far too little for a proper madder vat and only orange colours, rather than the deeper red and brown of an older, bigger plant.  At the time, I was about to have another go at contact dyeing with coreopsis.  An old cotton shirt had had its worn
collar and cuffs cut off and been mordanted with alum acetate.  On its right front, I laid out coreopsis flowers and leaves in the form of a plant and put the madder root in the root position, below, with a couple of hardy geranium leaves. The left front of the shirt was laid over the right and the double layer of cotton was rolled up around a section of downpipe.  The shirt sleeves were laid over the roll and the whole lot was tied up with string which had been soaked in iron solution. 
 A dye bath of about 100g fresh coreopsis flowers had already been simmered to release the dye molecules.  No need to bother sieving them out, as this dye work was never intended to come out evenly coloured.

I did make sure to keep the temperature lower than usual, around 60 degrees Centigrade, for the hour of simmering the pot again with the shirt roll in it, because I've read madder root dyes go brown at too high a temperature.  I know the red takes time to soak into wool, so I left the shirt in the pot overnight, gave it another hour at a low simmer and another day to soak before leaving the roll to dry out.
Elinor and I sat watching himself trying on his funky, upcycled shirt.
"Doesn't he look like a flower power hipster?  That madder root did print a good blood red."
"A hipster who's just had a nasty accident with his nipple rings."

Comments like that account for the delightful harmony in my home.  I left himself muttering darkly about getting halters and muzzles for sheep and Elinor shrieking "Oooo, you bondage freak!", while I put a couple more mordanted cotton and linen shirts in to soak.  After several contact dye trials with fresh madder root, I have found that just the one simmer and overnight soak is enough to get a strong red print, though it is important to let the roll dry out completely over the course of several days. After unrolling, being in too much of a hurry to wash and iron the shirt definitely takes a great deal of the initial colour out and reusing the roots for another dye print is disappointing. Though they remain perfectly intact and still look red, madder roots only give a pale pink print the second time around.

Friday, 19 August 2016

More Dyeing with Yellow Cosmos Flowers on Wool, Cotton and Silk

Yellow Cosmos really enjoys full sun.  For a couple of years, I've been sowing a few seeds, just to keep my stock of plants going, really. Never had enough flowers to do much dyeing and frankly, not that excited by having another source of yellow.  This year, having planted out my seedlings in a better site and paid more attention to cutting all the flowers every few days, August has provided a bonanza of bloomage, mostly bright yellow, some strongly orange.  In 2014, I blogged about my first trial, when I saw how washing dyed wool in an alkaline detergent shifted the yellow toward red.  This summer, weighing and saving flowers in a temporary solar jar has set me up nicely for a bit of further experimentation.
Half a dozen plants have provided about 70g of fresh flowers each week and are still covered in buds, though the two in terracotta pots are always thirsty and droop alarmingly if I neglect to water them.  Pouring some fluid out of the solar jar of saved petals into a jam jar with soda ash, confirmed that alkali deepens the dyebath from cloudy yellow to orange. Simmering the whole week's harvest with another teaspoon of soda ash made a dye bath of rich
terracotta.  After an hour simmering and an overnight soak, a skein of about 50g handspun Speckled Face Beulah woolen yarn turned terracotta orange and there was enough power left in the afterbath to dye another 20g skein a browner terracotta shade, once a slug of iron solution was added in.
Pursuing a revived interest in dyeing plant fibres, I mordanted a cotton T shirt weighing 100g with alum acetate, ready for the following week's supply of 70g yellow cosmos. The T shirt was rolled up with some sprigs of coreopsis and a few weld leaves, tied tightly with string that had been soaked in iron solution, then put into an alkaline bath of yellow cosmos to simmer for an hour or two, soak overnight and dry out.

Once unrolled, it seemed a fabulous orange.  After rinsing and a standard 30 degree machine wash with colour powder, the cotton had faded to a soft terracotta, still with deeper contact prints from the coreopsis and yellow from the weld leaves.  In future, I'll use a pH neutral detergent and a wool wash cycle.

While I was admiring this week's unmodified yellow cosmos dye result, my companion, Elinor Gotland, happened to return from another little jaunt to the Mediterranean.  Lost in thought, I jumped when she patted me on the shoulder.
"Hiya, Beaut.  Still hanging around in the garden, titting about with plants, is it?" 
"Just enjoying this big skein, dyed without any mucking about with the pH, that orange one had an alkali bath and the reddish brown had added iron. All from about one to one ratio of fresh yellow cosmos flowers to weight of wool."
"You really should get out more."  
"While you totted up air miles, I have been travelling in the realms of gold."
Elinor rolled her eyes.
"Hardly an Homeric Odyssey."
"Why don't you join me for my next epic adventure - walking the dog in the fields?"
Elinor quite enjoyed our stroll, making tableaux vivants from Keats' Ode to the golden season. She posed as 'soft-lifted by the winnowing wind', I thought 'hefty chum of the harvest mouse'. Happily, she has now developed a greater appreciation of the yellow cosmos. Never did she breathe its pure serene, Til she saw the silk scarf gleaming brown and gold. Then like stout Cortes, when with eagle eyes, He stared at the Pacific, she looked at me with a wild surmise, 
not quite Silent, on a pot plant in the garden.
"Is this a contact dye from one of your yellow cosmos baths?  Fair play, that old gold background colour on the silk may have been worth the journey."
"I like to think I've come a fair way in the last few years."
"Indeed. Take courage from that thought, Beaut.  See if you can you make it as far as the kettle without getting a nose bleed."

Friday, 12 August 2016

Plant Contact Dyes on Cotton and Linen

The horseshoe border in the middle of the back lawn gets full sun (when there is any).  Last spring, it was dug over with sheep and cow manure from my friend Mary's farm and the dye plants got promoted to centre stage.  Dangerously exposed, although the dog is one year old and considerably less destructive than she
was last summer.  In the hope of improving her garden manners, I fixed some netting for sweet peas to stop her walking straight across the earth and apart from one rosemary bush which she uprooted three times, everything else has flourished, despite another cool, damp summer. These weld plants were only sown in March, here are the rosettes in June and though they are supposed to be biennial,
several spikes were about to flower at the end of last month.  I have become somewhat disenchanted with weld and didn't bother with a late sowing last autumn.  Thrilled with the powerful yellow dye I first had from fresh plants, I've been drying and storing most of the spikes ever since.  Soaking, fermenting and simmering dried weld indoors is not altogether a welcome winter sunshine fiesta, it makes the house smell rank and at the end of it all, yellow from dried leaves is not nearly so zingy. This unexpected 250g of fresh weld ought to have dyed 500g wool, if I had such an amount all spun up and ready.  I chopped it up and left it in a bucket of cold water to ferment for a day or so, while I pondered what to dye.

Past trials of dyeing cotton and linen fabric have suggested that weight for weight, they take up muted colours, compared to wool and silk.  My one attempt at mordanting with soya milk was a big waste of time, money and beans.  The classic mordant process for plant derived fibres involves simmering in tannin, before they can take up alum like wool does. Their greater weight also means far more
dyestuff is required.  One way and another, cotton and linen have seemed more trouble than they are worth.  Being possessed of 250g powerful dye plant and a second hand, but perfectly sound linen smock also weighing 250g, rather shifted the dynamic.  Plant fibres can be mordanted in one fell swoop, using 5% of their weight in alum acetate dissolved in water.  Since the fabric is so much thicker than silk, I supposed
that dye penetration would be reduced, so once my linen smock had had the mordant rinsed off, I turned it inside out and laid sprigs of coreopsis tinctoria and hardy geranium leaves within the body, so they would be pressed against the final outside surface.  The body section was rolled around a length of plastic downpipe and tied tightly with string which had been soaked in a solution of iron.  
The sleeves were tied across a wooden board and the whole thing was immersed in my weld dyebath, which always does look deceptively weak and weedy in colour.  A teaspoon of soda ash to alkalinise the bath brings up the yellow and shouldn't make linen feel harsh, as it can with wool.  

The pot was brought up to a simmer fairly quickly, kept below the boil for an hour and left to cool overnight.  The sodden bundle took several days to get anywhere near dry in this cool, dull summer. Once unwrapped, I was thrilled to bits.  What a result.  It looked even better after a machine wash at 30 degrees and a hot iron, only I can't show you, because my friend BG has it now.

The coreopsis flowers, leaves and stems have printed sharply on the rolled linen, which was indeed dense enough to keep out most of the colour from the weld dye bath and stop the intense coreopsis from bleeding through its layers.  The hardy geranium leaves have left a blur of greenish colour and the odd dark edge. On silk, they would have left a tracery of dark iron marks, but I assume the heavy linen also kept most of the iron on the string from reaching them.  Thoroughly enthused, I topped up the alum acetate in the mordant bath, bought a linen and cotton mix shirt in a charity shop and repeated the whole process using only coreopsis and whatever weld might be left in the afterbath.  Here is how it went.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Knitting with Linen Yarn

"Look at this linen thread I bought at Wonderwool. Still perfectly good to use, even though it was probably spun in the sixties.  That's natural flax beside it. " Elinor paid me no attention.  "People have been spinning fibre from flax plants for thousands and thousands of years. Long before you sheep had woolly fleeces."  
I was keen to give my companion the benefit of my textile archeology knowledge.  "Three thousand years ago in Cambridge, there 
were Bronze Age villagers who wove linen cloth so fine it had 26 threads to the centimetre."  
At last, she turned to look at me.
"Oh, you watched that telly programme too, did you?"
Curses, I thought she'd missed seeing it. Damn BBC iPlayer.
"Yes, well, I thought I might grow my own flax next year."
"Remember your medieval nettle retting attempt, Beaut?  Or should I say, nettle rotting?"
"It was a bit smelly."
"A slimey heap of stinky stalks and not enough fibre to spin knickers for gnat." Elinor dropped the flax sample and settled her specs more firmly on her nose.  "Three and a half thousand years ago, the Mesopotamians spotted some woolly sheep among their short haired flocks. They had the sense to know when they were on to a good thing.  Do yourself a favour and benefit by that historic advance.  Wool is the way forward."

Expecting a grouchy ewe to admire my lovely new skeins of linen from Midwinter Yarns was as futile as the nettle experiment.  I found them most exciting, the plant fibres handling very differently to wool.  Though the skeins felt stiff and heavy, linen fabrics are supposed to soften with repeated washing and ought to last for years without pilling or shrinking or being eaten by moths. Of course, a sensible woman dealing with an unfamiliar yarn would have knitted samples on different sized needles, washed them and then made a considered choice about her pattern.  I just started knitting a Boo Knits Shawl called Out of Darkness.  It was advertised as 'harking back to an era of timeless elegance', so I decided using the contemporary product of a prehistoric fibre would be classically immemorial, enduring and well, spot on.
Linen is utterly inelastic, the flax fibres being smooth and straight with none of the crimp that gives wool its body and bounce.  This may be why the knitted tension in the first garter stitch section looked so uneven -  I just pressed on, hoping it would improve after a wash and blocking out.  The yarn slips along the needles very easily, which is nice til stitches accidentally slip off the needles. With little internal friction to hold
the yarn in shape for those vital seconds while you pick the lost stitches back up, lace knitting proved an exceedingly ambitious project.  I suppose plying linen has to be loose, to keep it smooth and avoid a string-like toughness.  It does mean the yarn splits easily, which would have been less of an issue if I hadn't decided on adding beads with holes only big enough to take a 0.5mm crochet hook, which often wouldn't catch hold
of all the singles at once. Knitting and beading the smallest version of the pattern took a while and once off the needles, it looked and felt more like chainmail than lace. After a machine wash at 30 degrees, the damp fabric was transformed into soft pliability, strong enough to withstand a real beasting of blocking out with pins. Elinor caught me unpinning the shawl.
"Mmm, I see it's dried stiff again."
"On the plus side, linen is holding the lace patterning to better effect than wool."
"Yes, I can see a few bodges."
"No-one will notice when it is being worn."
"Well, I shan't be modelling it."
"No need.  My daughter has no objection to plant products.  She is much more up with the times than you. Quinoa and soy milk are meat and drink to her."  
"Ooo, very impressive.  Let's ask her to eat the ragwort in the garden, shall we?"