Friday, 25 November 2016

A Trial of Dyeing with Dyers Chamomile Leaves

Another long, mild, dry autumn kept the plants in my dye garden flowering until I stopped picking flowerheads to let them set seed. By the end of October, the perennial Dyers Chamomile plants were still flourishing against a backdrop of faded annuals.
I did once try contact dyeing with whole stems of Dyer's Chamomile rolled in a silk scarf. The prints made by the leaves were a just pale blur of colour, definitely greener than the golden yellow you get from dyeing with the flowers. After clearing this border at the beginning of November, I had a huge pile of Chamomile clippings and once the leaves had been stripped off and crammed into a dye pot, they weighed about 1.5kg. After simmering for a couple of hours and sieving the greenery out, the water in the pot had turned a greenish yellow, deeper and more golden when I added some soda ash to alkalinise a sample in a jam jar.  
Not much sign of green in either jar, still, I added to the main bath a 50g skein of Polwarth wool yarn, which had been premordanted with 10% alum, then gave that an hour or so to simmer with a teaspoon of soda ash, just in case alkaline conditions helped. Considering there was a ratio of 30/1 plant to fibre weight, little colour seemed to have been taken up during the simmering, yet in the morning, when I pulled the wool out, it was definitely green. Must have happened with the residual heat in the pot working overnight. Even so, it seems the leaves only contain a fraction of the dye found in the flowers.  This photo shows the 30/1 skein of leaf dyed yarn (though the camera hasn't done justice to the green I see in real life) together with some locks of sheepswool dyed in a solar jar with only twice their weight in fresh flowers.

I forgot all about the Chamomile Leaf dye afterbath sitting in a pot on the patio. Rediscovering it this week while clearing up after bad weather, I was surprised to see no mould and sniff no evil smell. The leaves must have the same astringent properties as the flowers, which never seem to rot, even after months in solar jars.

Since the recent rainstorms have stripped the trees, I could gather any number of freshly fallen oak leaves while taking the dog for a paddle in the fields. Laying on top some of the madder stems I have been cutting back, the leaves were rolled in a silk scarf mordanted with alum, tied up with string soaked in iron solution
and simmered for several hours in the chamomile leaf afterbath. There was enough dye left in there to turn the exposed silk a muted green, stronger with the added iron than it had been on the wool with no iron.  Once it was unrolled though, I was disappointed to find that the oak leaves had not given me much of a dark iron tracery.

While I was rinsing and ironing the silk, my companion, Elinor Gotland, returned from her trip to London.
"You'd think Bridgend was an island if you listened to British Rail.  I've been on train diversions up and down the valleys, getting past those floods."  She threw herself down on the sofa and shut her eyes. I hastened to put the kettle on.
"You do look shattered.  How did your audition go?"
"Don't ask, Beaut, don't ask. 'Don't ring us, we'll ring you.'"
I put her cup of tea beside her.  She didn't even stir.  I added a slug of sloe gin.
"Lots of people have been delighted with your picture on our 2017 Plant Dye Calendar. I must show you all their messages, once you've rested."
Elinor opened one eye.
"See, I said that thing needed a bit of star quality.  Sold a few, have you?" 
She took a sip of her tea.
"More than a hundred, posted all around the world.  It's been amazing. I've ordered another hundred sets of calendar pages from the printer. Only trouble is, the colour hadn't come out quite right the second time, so I've had to take them back and get a new print run.  The printers think I'm a real fuss pot and say they won't be ready til Tuesday."
Elinor was no longer drooping like a dandelion in a drought. She had perked up and now noticed what I was ironing.
"Shame you aren't as picky with good silk. Didn't get much colour onto that scarf, did you?"
"I don't think there was enough strength left in my iron solution.  The oak leaf prints have left their brown dye, but no pretty iron pattern."
"Can't take the scarf back to the print shop, can you Beaut?"
"Never mind, there's always overdyeing."
"Or shopping.  Christmas is only four weeks away and I am a ewe on a mission to make High Street traders happy.  I bet you haven't even started sorting out presents.  You can drive us up to Cardiff in your car tomorrow, Beaut."
It's lovely to have her home.  Really.

Friday, 18 November 2016

The Humdrum Helix Hat Pattern

I've never had two batches of plant dyed yarn turn out exactly the same.  Even with careful weighing, measuring and equal time spent simmering, flowers picked one week won't have quite the same dye content as those picked the next week.  To get it all the same shade, yarn has to be dyed in one batch and you'd have to have a really big pot to fit in enough for a jumper. I did once manage to get some curtains dyed, but it was a Herculanean struggle. I bet most people who try plant dyeing have a load of small skeins sitting in baskets, waiting for the day they commit to a Fair Isle knitting project. 

Helix knitting in the round allows you to use many small skeins of different colours at the same time, without having to carry the yarn up the sides of the work, as you must with ordinary stripe patterns. I learned the technique from Margaret Radcliffe's Essential Guide to Colour Knitting, which is a completely brilliant book. This link takes you to an older post which includes the principles for knitting the Humdrum Hat, my personal pattern for knocking out a basic hat shape, which can be adapted to knit with any weight of yarn. The following Helical version of the Humdrum is given for aran weight yarn, but I've discovered that with helix knitting, you can even use balls of varying yarn thickness and they seem to average out without distorting the shape. It is for four colours, but you could knit this hat with even more, just divide your cast on stitch count by the number of colours you want to use. Addendum See this post for helix hats with ten colours.

The Humdrum Helix Hat Pattern

4.5mm circular needle with a short 50cm cord, or a long cord, using magic loop
Aran yarn, about 33m x 4 in different colours, A, B, C and D - total 132m
Using my 100% wool yarn, this weighs 75g
Darning needle for sewing in ends

Knit in stocking stitch on a circular needle,16 stitches and 20 rows measures 10 x 10cm (to adapt the stitch counts in this pattern for a different weight of yarn, read this post)

For a snug fit, a hat should measure up to 5cm less in diameter than the person's head. Knitting this pattern, it is easiest to start with a multiple of four stitches.  The 84 stitch cast on is intended for an average person with a 56cm diameter head, wearing a 52.5cm diameter hat. 

Working to a gauge of 16 stitches to 10cm, 80 stitches cast on would make a hat measure 50cm diameter for a smaller head, 88 stitches result in a 55cm hat for a larger head and so forth. Just remember, for a bigger size, you need to start with more yarn.

The long tail cast on gives a neat, elastic start, but any cast on method will do. The brim rolls up, so you won't see the cast on row once the hat is finished. 
Cast on 84 stitches using Colour A. Place a stitch marker and join to work in the round, taking care not to have a twist in your cast on row. This is a helpful video.

To make a single colour brim, like the hat in the photo at the start of this blog, knit round after round in Colour A until the work measures approximately 8cm long.  Let the fabric curl up on itself to form a roll with the first 8cm, exact measurements are less important than having the width of brim you prefer.

For a multicoloured brim like the ones on these two Humdrum Helix hats, knit two rounds in the first colour and then start your helix.

First Round
From the stitch marker at the beginning of the round, continue knitting in colour A for 21 stitches. Now use colour B to knit the next 21 stitches, colour C to knit the next 21 stitches and colour D to knit the last 21 stitches back to the marker.
Second Round
Continue knitting with colour D for 21 stitches.  Here, you will find the yarn from the ball of colour A dangling below the 21st stitch. No twisting the yarns round each other, just drop colour D, lift up colour A and adjust the tension on the last colour A stitch so it is just the same as all the other stitches.  If you leave it too loose or pull it tight as you start to use it again, you will end up with a seam running vertically up the knitting. Knit 21 stitches with Colour A, to where you find Colour B dangling down.  As before, check the tension on the last stitch of colour B and use B to knit 21 stitches, pick up and use Colour C to knit 21 stitches, arriving back at the round marker.

Subsequent rounds
Always continue knitting with the same colour you are using at the end of the round for another 21 stitches starting from the round marker, then pick up and use each colour in turn for 21 stitches.

When the total, unrolled length of your work measures about 18cm, begin these reductions to form the crown of the hat.

Continue to work with the four yarns in a helix throughout the crown.

Reduction Rounds
From the stitch marker, knit 1, knit 2 together, continue knitting til you reach the next colour. With the next colour, knit 1, knit 2 together, continue knitting til you reach the following colour. Repeat til you get back to the stitch marker again, then continuing in the same colour as you were using for the end of the last round, knit 1, knit 2 together and knit to the next colour.

Continue with these reduction rounds.  Once the tube of knitting gets too small to work easily on the circular needle, start using magic loop or change to double pointed needles until there are only 3 stitches of each colour left on the cord - total 12 stitches. Break the working yarn leaving a 20cm tail, thread it onto a darning needle and run it through the loops of all 12 stitches, removing the round marker and the circular needle cord.  Pull tight, fasten off and sew in the loose ends of all four colours. Wash, spin dry and block into shape. I wear hats while they dry to get a perfect fit.

Update read this post for humdrum helix hats knitted with ten colours of dk yarn

Friday, 11 November 2016

Plant Dyes for All Seasons 2017 Calendar

Update - 2019 Calendar now on sale - click here

"Another parcel?  Not Christmas for ages yet."  My companion, Elinor Gotland, grudgingly shifted her teacup so I could put the box down on the kitchen table and saw away at the layers of packing tape with a butter knife.
"This box, my tiny chum, should contain a manual spiral binding machine. The last piece of the jigsaw.  The answer to the final conundrum - how to wrap up my brainchild, the 2017 Plant Dyes for All Seasons Calendar, which is to be both an item of beauty to adorn the home and a practical guide for anyone keen to start dyeing with plants."
"Finished it, have you, Beaut?  Fair play, I thought you'd never be done with fussing over those dye projects.  Not til well into the New Year, anyway."

I'll admit, it has been a lot more difficult to make a Dyer's Calendar than I imagined. I wanted to create the introduction to plant dyeing that I wish I had had, when I started. Simple, succinct and hands on. There are many great books on the subject - I own several of them, as well as a couple I still can't make much sense of. My trouble with reading was that I only really paid attention to the colours, looking for the most tempting ones and working out which plants I could get hold of. The introductory chapters and the technical explanations never sank in. For these Calendar projects, one page is enough to cover the background essentials. 

In my early days, I boiled up loads of local vegetation and wondered why so many things I dyed turned out beige. This blog holds most of what I have learned since, piecemeal, through trial, error, luck and digression. All the experiences of past posts have been boiled down to make this calendar, structured as a beginner's year of learning to use foraged plant dye materials, 
growing a few of the best and practicing a range of core techniques suited to the time of year. Regular readers will be aware that concise is not my middle name and may wonder how such a woffler condensed her writing to one page per monthly project. I believe a mass of information is not everyone's thing and a dyer doesn't need to spend a lot of money, have a big garden or read a big book before starting.
In January, dyeing with onion skins, no need to worry about mordants, just learn how to tell the difference between a simmer and a boil and see how wool, cotton and silk take up varying shades from the same dye bath. Bark dyes in February lend themselves to trying out home made iron and copper modifiers, then in March, see the difference between using these, or alum, or no mordant at all for daffodil dye.
With the spring comes sowing and transplanting dye plant seeds, shifting the pH of a dandelion dye bath and having a go at hammer printing new leaves. Summer is the time to try using those home grown plants in dye baths, solar jars and for contact printing ecobundles, Autumn brings saving seeds, taking dye prints from fallen leaves and making tannin mordants from oak galls and acorns.
The idea underlying this calendar is that through completing a simple, seasonal project every month, building in a couple of basic principles each time, by the end of a year, someone new to plant dyeing could be set up to take on all sorts of challenges, without half as much grief as I have given myself.

Speaking of life's little tribulations, along came my companion to find me in a sea of accidentally upside down printed pages.
"Costed this calendar out, have you, Beaut? Hundred pounds a pop should account for all the lovely heavy paper you've wasted."
"I've got the method cracked now, Elinor. Optimal printer settings for the pictures, foolproof instructions to self for collating the pages." I pointed to a small stack of calendars. "Ready for sale at the Christmas Fairs for £7.50.  If I sell a dozen, I can cover my costs.  What's more, you'll never believe, I visited a wonderful wool shop in Pontyclun today.  Ammonite Yarns are now stocking my calendar for their customers."
Elinor flicked through a calendar to the blank back cover.
"I'm not being funny, Beaut, but you got to think of internet sales and marketing. A celebrity endorsement could shift a few of these. How about a personal message from a glamorous actress for your online customers?"
She laid her portfolio on the desk.
"Did you have someone in mind?"
"Oh, just to help you out, I'd be prepared to add that touch of stardust."

If you would like to be posted a copy of Plant Dyes for All Seasons 2017 Calendar, email me at and tell me which country you live in, so I can send you an invoice to pay by paypal or credit card, £7.50 plus a postage and packaging charge of £1.50 within the UK, £4.50 to Europe and £5.50 to everywhere else. 

I will send out your order within seven days of the invoice being paid, the delivery time will depend on Royal Mail and their overseas partners, if sending abroad.  Do remember, Christmas post is often slower than at other times of year.
I am a UK Sole Trader, trading under the name Rich & Strange Silk and Wool Work.

Anyone who fancies taking up Elinor's generous offer, just say so in your email, let me know the name of the person you are buying the calendar for and you shall have Ms Gotland's personal greeting printed on the back at no extra charge.

Update Tuesday 15 November 2016

I have been both delighted and staggered by the amount of interest in this Calendar.  More people have ordered one than I can keep pace with, doing the whole thing at home.  This has been marvellous, but anxiety provoking.  In order to make sure I can send out calendars promptly, I have asked the local print shop to make me 100 sets of pages, printing exactly the same content from my original pdf file.  I can still customise the back page whenever requested, since I will continue spiral binding the calendars at home. I saw the proof copy today and I consider the quality better than my own printer could manage, particularly on the card for the front cover, which has a much nicer glow.

Terms and Conditions
I will post via First Class Royal Mail within seven days of your invoice being paid.
If you have any questions or problems with the dye plant projects as you go through them during the year, please email me and I will do my best to advise you.
I will refund your payment if you wish to cancel within 14 days and return the calendar to me at Rich & Strange Silk and Wool Work, 29 Bowham Avenue, Bridgend, CF31 3PA UK. The purchaser has to pay the cost of return postage.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Hand Spinning Border Leicester Sheep Fleece.

"It's Wovember already and I haven't got a fraction of my Border Leicester fleece washed.  I meant it to be all prepared for a lovely month of spinning and celebrating wool along with the Wovember crowd."
My companion, Elinor Gotland, leant over to see the gauge sample I was knitting.
"How come that bit's got even fewer stitches per 10cm?"
"Well, I thought the fabric felt a bit flimsy for a jacket, so I spun thicker yarn as well as dropping down a needle size."
She looked at me and sighed.
"Another sample spin gone wrong.  Good job it was such a big fleece."

All in all, the Wovember plan was running way behind schedule.  It started so well. I opened my parcelled up Border Leicester lamb fleece from the Doulton Flock to find it had arrived together with prize winning credentials.  Laid out on the lawn, I could only imagine how one sheep managed to stagger about under the weight of so much wool. The locks were a good 15-20cm long with that nice crimp that doesn't turn into corkscrew curls and an enticing lustre gleaming through the dirt. I scurried round it, finding little need to skirt any manky edges off and not much vegetation to pick out. Though the quality did vary from the shoulders to the britch, all of the wool looked like a joy to spin.

Determined to wash it well without disrupting the lock structure, I sewed a long net curtain into six drawstring bags and laid parallel rows of individual locks inside each one, before rolling them loosely and leaving to soak.  After the cold soak, each bag full had ten minutes in a bucket of hot detergent, a pause to drain and spin, then three hot rinses and spin again, just like the experts say. The method did work fine, when I lifted the locks out of the bags to dry, there was no felting and no grease left, just a bit of dirt on the tips and some natural discoloration, which hardly mattered, seeing as I mean to dye the yarn anyway.

At that point, there was plenty of time in hand to prepare some samples using different techniques and see how the wool spun. Combing first. Seemed I had been all too effective cleaning out the lanolin, each stroke of the comb produced a 15cm ball of electric fibre fuzz, determined to loop over on itself and catch back into the tines, despite spraying with water and even adding back oil - which always seems daft to me.  I persevered, drafting it out into tops off the combs and rolling that to store as nests. At the wheel, using short forward draw, the long fibres seemed to spin finely, all by themselves.

The impressive staple length also made rolags a bit of a challenge to card, though much less electric than the combs.  I do love spinning longdraw, well, my version of it. I still haven't mustered the nerve for that chewing gum stretch just before you let the single run onto the bobbin. I did try flicking out the butts and tips and feeding some fleece into the drum carder - big mistake, the long staple made it hell to separate a dividing line to pull the batt off the drum and the process seemed to create neps in locks that had looked fine beforehand. No point spinning that, I put it away for felting.  Taking a dog brush simply to open up the tips and butts, I really enjoyed spinning a handful of locks from the fold, keeping my finger at right angles to the yarn for a semi worsted result, just like Jacey Boggs showed in her Worsted to Woolen video class.

Elinor found me examining my three Border Leicester yarns and the three swatches I had knitted from them.
"The combed worsted is the best.  Lovely lustre and it will give some drape to that jacket you're so keen to knit."
"I don't want it to hang round my knees. And the nests of roving don't lend themselves to spinning at double knitting weight."
"Make woolen yarn, then." She stretched the knitted sample. "Fullbodied and warm with more elasticity. That'll keep your jacket in shape."
"Woolen yarn pills.  I want to be wearing this jacket for at least a couple of years."
"So spin fine singles from combed nests and make three ply."
I couldn't suppress a groan.  She rounded on me.  "I don't know why you bother pretending.  It's obvious you can't really be bothered with a proper combed preparation.  You just want to tart about grabbing locks and spinning that lumpy stuff from the fold."
"Once it's knitted up, I think irregularities in the yarn will add character."
"Character?  What, like the old fortune teller at the fair or the nutter on the bus?"
"It's Border Leicester, rare, British and special.  It has character. I don't want to look like I bought a 'wool' jacket at the shops. I'm thinking #woolworks "
"Hah, you wouldn't know what to do with a hashtag if it bit you on the ankle."

It is never comfortable to be in Elinor Gotland's bad books.
"Did you see that the Wovember 2016 theme is The Politics of Wool? I'm going to write on my blog how wrong it is that manufacturers can call clothes wool, when really they are mostly made of synthetics. They wouldn't get away with that kind of misleading label in the food industry."
"How much pork do you think there is in the average pork sausage, Beaut? Or horsemeat in a beef lasagne?"
"Well, it's still wrong and I'm going to say so. Look -  #wovember2016 "
"Preaching to the choir, Beaut. Anybody who reads to the end of a blog about a rare breed sheep fleece already cares quite as much about wool as you do. Get out there and #bethechangeforwool "
So she volunteered me to spin and talk at the kids' old school.