Friday, 31 March 2017

Visiting Tacoma and Spinning Targhee Wool Tops

I arrived in the USA just as it started to rain. The Tacoma bus pulled up outside SeaTac Airport with a strong smell of burning rubber, grubby snow sprayed up from the gutter and the men waiting in line pulled down their beanies, hunched their shoulders and swung aboard with a grouchy energy which seemed to me distinctively American - as seen on TV and films, only now in real life. Even walking in the cold dusk along wide, empty sidewalks was thrillingly strange. Well, it was til the wheel came off my suitcase while crossing an intersection with a dozen traffic lights, counting off the numbered streets, struggling uphill to reach the welcome safety of my Airbnb.

I'd heard that everything in America is bigger and perhaps that accounts for Tacoma's chief difference from Wales. It is called The Gritty City. Just imagine Neath Port Talbot on steroids. Vast freight trains crawl through town, enormous container ships on the Puget Sound would dwarf Cardiff Bay and instead of the South Wales Valleys, when the clouds lift, a whopping great volcano appears. Much like home, I was told real prosperity ended here in the 1970's and as I wandered up from Downtown through the neighbourhoods,Tacoma's style did seem half way between a nineteenth century boom town and an episode of the Jetsons. Maybe not much of it looks glossy, but oh, the vitality of the place, wish we had the funky graffiti, the activists founding public schools for art and science, the liberalism, the warmth, the doughnuts and coffee for breakfast.
The more people I met, the more at home I felt. Some were so interested in plant dyes, I was invited to give a presentation at a campfire dinner. Too nervous to eat, once I got into my stride and people were smiling, I fairly rattled along. Tacoma has a jam packed and friendly yarn shop with a massive selection of buttons and a knitting group rich in political satirists. Anticipating weak beer, Fox News and an alien ideology, I was so wrong, the local breweries are outstanding, conversation is as stimulating as the ginger mix in the Mad Hat Teahouse and you know, I came away thinking I might actually fit in better there than I do at home. Anyhow, I'll end this lovesong to the Pacific Northwest with a picture of the curious bark of a Madrona 
Tree, growing at Point Defiance. Thanks to Cheri for all her kindness, driving me along the coast trying to spot whales and sharing a place of such beauty. 
Lest I get carried away, I'll remind myself that America provides quite a challenge for anyone whose lifestyle choices include lots of smoking and loitering. The highlight of my visit to Tacoma was attending classes at the Madrona Fibre Retreat. The teachers were superb, I am still inwardly digesting the moments of illumination and dreaming up beguiling projects rather than sticking to a practice regime for my newly learned knitting techniques. 

Here is some Targhee wool I bought at the Madrona Retreat Market Place.The fabulous saturated red tops were dyed by Abstract Fibres. The millspun yarn is from Brooklyn Tweed. Targhee sheep are a new American breed, developed during the twentieth century during the shift from farming for wool to raising lambs. Not much fibre quality has been sacrificed, to the touch, the combed wool is irresistibly soft, still crimpy and full of bounce. I meant to read up all about Targhee and plan properly, make samples for some organised and intentional spinning - only I didn't.

Mouldering about at home, wiped out by the aftermath of a bout of flu, instead of tidying and cataloging my stash, I divided the red tops into three equal strips and have spent the last few evenings spinning them short forward draw, around 10 twists per inch, aiming to make 3 singles which would ply up at double knitting weight, to match the Brooklyn Tweed Arbor yarn.  The first two singles went well, this is a lovely wool to handle, very easy to manage. Then I lost concentration on the third section, spun it too thick and not nearly so even. Far from preserving long colour changes, I have ended up with a marbled and barber poled yarn.
Which is not far off the red Arbor dk weight and pretty much totally gorgeous anyway.
How lucky for me that I fell into bad company at Madrona, met the kind of woman who says, go on, buy both, when you can't decide on your shopping. Thanks to her, I do have another four ounces of Targhee tops in an equally glorious orange and grey colourway and may yet be able to write a considered assessment of this lovely fibre.

Here in South Wales, the days are lengthening and tomorrow the moon will be spot on for sowing weld seeds. The nights are still cold, so for now, I shall just blow my nose, brew up some honey and lemon, light the fire and remember Tacoma while knitting with American yarn.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Needlefelting Wool Fairies & Ladies with Lavender Bags

My companion, Elinor Gotland, sat watching me turn out my wardrobe in a fruitless search for 'something fabulous'.
"Give up, Beaut. High time you had a Spring makeover. We'll go shopping this weekend."
"Too late, Elinor. Tomorrow, BG and I are off to Carmarthen for the Merlin Festival."
"Ah, I wondered why the sudden urge to smarten up. Going in for the Magician Competition, are you? Which of you two is going to be the lovely assistant, wear sparkles and get sawn in half?"
"Actually, we've been invited to set up the Rich & Strange stall at the Fairytale Market in St Peter's Hall. The dress code is 'fabulous' and the theme for the whole event is 'Arthurian Legend'."
Elinor looked at my cupboard full of old jumpers and jeans. She sighed.
"BG can dress up as Morgana Le Fay and you'll just have to hide behind your spinning wheel, pretending she turned you into a toad."
It's my guess our invitation to the Fairytale Market came as a result of one of the Christmas Fairs, where we exhibited a tree full of needlefelted fairies and angels. I've been making fairies by the usual method, using Spring colours, silk and merino blends, bit of sparkle, carrying little organza bags full of lavender. Hopefully, customers shopping for Mother's Day and Easter presents will be enticed by the smell.

Though the thread tied round the waist gives a suitably blossomy, blousey effect, I got bored of making pretty pastel fairies and fancied doing some with a more chic and stylish look. A wide ribbon knotted moderately firmly gave a better defined torso, though it left nowhere to tie on any wings. The figure could still hold an organza bag, perhaps she was destined to be a Lavender Lady, rather than a fairy. I skipped the flowing tresses and pearl head band with dew drop decoration, instead needlefelting some locks of wool radiating out from the back of her head, so that they stood straight up round the face. Much more snazzy.

Tying fat pink silk thread in a bow round the back of her head didn't seem quite sufficient. Some kind of headgear seemed called for. A tiny oblong of black netting ruched up under a couple of buttons made the right sort of hat for a chichi Lavender Lady. And hats are fun to put together.

Adding a drop of lavender essence enhanced the scent of a small lavender bag. Grey hair for a modish, mature look. The lavender ladies can dangle from a coat hanger to perfume a wardrobe full of clothes.
Bigger bags and purple rinses, these girls are growing old disgrace-fully. I may not manage fabulous dress myself, but even Elinor agreed the Lavender Ladies should give the fairies in the Fairytale Market a run for their money.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Picking Daffodils to Dye With and the Effect of Alkaline pH

This is the month when daffodils are everywhere in Wales, among the woods, along the roadside and boxed in bunches on the supermarket shelves
While my companion, Elinor Gotland, and I, were strolling into town, I pointed out some particularly bright yellow ones growing on the verge.
"When those daffodil petals have drooped, I shall come back and do some dead heading. Should be plenty of colour left in them to dye a ball of wool."
"You daring devil. A midnight raid in your black balaclava, is it?"
"Oh, why you have to dramatise everything so, Elinor? I'll bring the secateurs one morning. Everyone knows picking the faded heads improves a clump of daffodils. It channels their energy back to building up the bulb, instead of into setting seeds."
"Everyone but you knows picking the town council's flowers can get you arrested. It's callled criminal damage, Beaut."
"You're having me on."
"I'm not. There was something in the newspaper about it."
"What, you mean I could get locked up for dead heading those daffodils?"
"Well, you might get off on a technicality. If not, I'll come up the prison on visiting day and you can show me your new tattoos."

I wish I could get the slugs locked up for eating my daffodils. The pickings in the garden were barely going to dye enough wool to make Elinor an Easter Bonnet, til Puffin Produce came to my rescue. Their farmers grow vegetables and daffs in Pembrokeshire, to supply supermarkets in Wales. The daffs are sold in bud and there are always some that flower too soon for the day the bud picking teams come round. Instead of allowing them to flower unseen in the fields, I was very kindly invited to drive out west and pick as many daffs as I liked, returning to Bridgend in triumph with three bags full. 

In gratitude, I shall always buy Blas Y Tir potatoes and leeks, which is no hardship at all, they are excellent. Well, ten days ago, I was thanking the team at Puffin Produce and rejoicing in this marvellous start to the March project from the Dye Calendar. Sadly, things have gone tits up since. Thinking some daffodil dyed wool yarn might tempt the shoppers to my stall at the Merlin Festival in Carmarthen next week, I bought a 1kg cone of merino double knitting yarn, skeined it up into 50g hanks and took over the bath to cold mordant the lot for 24 hours with 8% alum. For the first dye bath, I simmered a whole kilo of daffodils for an hour, left the flowers in the pot overnight and sieved them out next morning.

Now I am quite sure that alkalinising the dye bath does really strengthen the colour you get from daffodil dye. I'm just not absolutely certain that the alkaline brightness wouldn't diminish if a daffodil dyed knitted item was washed repeatedly with a wool wash, which is pH neutral. This concern grew sharper when I imagined how awful if somebody bought my daffodil dyed wool and then that happened to their knitting? Testing a sample of my first dye bath, the existing pH was actually acid. Adding dissolved soda ash to alkalinise another sample made its pale colour jump to neon yellow. Well, on balance, I thought I could legitimately bring the pH of the whole bath up to just slightly alkaline and use a high ratio of daffodils to weight of wool to get a good colour. Previously, using alkali, I have had a deep golden yellow from a ratio of twice the weight of petals to wool.

With a whole kilo of daffs in the pot, I added only 250g of yarn, simmered it for an hour, left it overnight, put it in the spindryer and hung it up for the dye to set strongly before rinsing. Even with a four to one ratio, the colour was not looking powerful. A couple more skeins dyed in the afterbath were paler still. No matter, I had masses more daffs. A second dyebath with 2kg petals was used to dye only 200g wool. The colour was stronger, but without significant alkalinisation, even this ten to one ratio didn't give half as strong a daffodil gold as I remembered. The photo shows, from the left, the four to one ratio, the afterbath of that pot, then the ten to one ratio. Wondering if I had got the mordanting wrong, I added alum to pot two and tried an all in one dye of some silk and merino roving which I planned to needlefelt into Easter chicks. Didn't make a difference, those chicks are going to look anaemic, still, at least it was reassuring to know all that mordanting had not been a waste of effort. I've put the other skeins of merino away for some dyeing later in the season, when hopefully, my weld seedlings will have flourished. 

When I was rinsing all the skeins after a week of curing, I put one to soak for an hour in a strongly alkaline solution of soda ash. Here it is while damp, next to a rinsed skein that did not have an alkali soak. To see if the brightening effect would persist, I gave the alkali skein three prolonged rinses in fresh water before drying it.
The colour has stayed perceptibly stronger, but to be confident of its permanence, I would have to knit up both skeins into two striped samples and put one through a wool wash cycle in the machine a few times. Knitting has not been on the cards this week. The sun has shone, the world has warmed up and in the mild air, some of the local daffodils are starting to fade and one of the local viruses has been proliferating wildly. Elinor Gotland came home to find me and himself in bed this afternoon. She was quite electrified and started in with some salty innuendos, til we sent her off to town to buy aspirin, lemons, honey and more tissues.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The All About Bag Knitting Pattern

Well, this is the fourth anniversary of Wool Tribulations blog. Last year, I was digging up madder roots and melancholically musing - what's this blogging game about? This year, finds me more cheerfully inclined and after all, it is March, when an old bag's mind usually turns to thoughts of felting. The basic pattern common to these two bags is given below, with the variations.

For posterity, the annual review. Shortly after posting the last anniversary's virtual existential crisis, loads of people started reading the blog, boosting the cumulative tally to an astonishing 421,000 page views. I reckon that would hearten any small time, niche blogger and it has certainly encouraged me to stick at it. As a Sole Trader, I set out the Rich & Strange Silk and Wool Work stall at five events in 2016 and while selling craft items will never keep me in cigarettes, I did better than break even, so the self-funding hobby concept can now be deemed a success. While artistic aspirations took a knock back, with flat rejections from some open exhibitions and no sales at the few that I did get a piece into, an impulse venture, The Plant Dyes for All Seasons Calendar, exceeded my wildest hopes, selling over 200 copies online. Thanks very much everybody, especially Shiela at Hand Spinning News, I am planning some lavish spending at Wonderwool Wales next month. Better still, through the calendar, I have got involved in helping with other people's interesting dye projects and have had a few invitations to speak. Off to the Women's Institute on Monday, I'll be trying to persuade them to start their own dye plant gardens this Spring.

As ever, I digress. The All About bags use the helix knitting technique to make a spiral of six colours of yarn knitted on a circular needle. The helix is an easy way to give the effect of stripes, without any carry overs of yarn and only the six beginnings and ends of yarn to sew in afterwards. 
I made the first bag with alder bark dyed yarn and took it to the Madrona Fibre Retreat, where I had lots of compliments - all about the button. This photo shows how it looks after several weeks on the road, stuffed with knitting project, book, tickets, passport and packed lunch.
The second bag was made with yarn dyed with brown onion skins and has one colour knitted in purl, to make the spiral stand out. The base of the bag shows off the construction best - this picture was taken before felting and final shaping. With a brighter colourway, a more dramatic flap and no button, this modified version is intended to be All About The Bag.


150g bulky yarn in Main Colour A (96m)
50g bulky yarn in colours B, C, D, E and F (32m of each)
If you intend to felt your bag in the washing machine, choose 100% wool of a durable type. I used two 200g hanks of Super Chunky Cheviot from World of Wool. They have Super Chunky Merino already dyed in a whole range of colours, merino should felt well, though I don't know how strongly it would withstand hard use. I quite fancy trying yarn from some of their other breeds and overdyeing the ones in natural colours. Their Super Chunky is certainly competitively priced, the yarn comes as a lightly twisted, fat single, it is loose in structure yet not elastic, which I think works fine for making felted bags.

6mm circular knitting needle
Spare yarn and crochet hook for provisional cast on
Large darning needle for sewing in ends
Stitch holder or extra 6mm needle
Snap Fastener
Decorative Button if desired

Tension Gauge
Stocking stitch - 13 stitches and 17.5 rows = 10cm square before felting.

Felted Size approximately 32cm deep, 35cm wide with a 66cm handle.


Using the spare yarn, make a crochet provisional cast on of 84 stitches on your circular needle. 
Set Up Round - Using the Main Colour A yarn, knit across all the cast on stitches, place a marker and join to knit in the round.

First Round
From the stitch marker at the beginning of the round, continue knitting in Main Colour A for 14 stitches. Now use colour B to knit the next 14 stitches, colour C to knit the next 14 stitches, colour D to knit the next 14 stitches, colour E to knit the next 14 stitches and colour F to knit the last 14 stitches back to the marker.
Second Round
Continue knitting with colour F for 14 stitches.  Here, you will find the yarn from the ball of Main Colour A dangling below the 14th stitch. No twisting the yarns round each other, just drop colour F, 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 14 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 14 stitches, pick up and use Colour C to knit 14 stitches, pick up and use Colour D to knit 14 stitches, pick up and use Colour E to knit 14 stitches, arriving back at the round marker.

Working with six balls of yarn, to avoid getting the dangling ends in a twist, keep them on a flat basket or tray on your lap and rotate the whole thing anticlockwise at the end of each round. For the following rounds, always continue knitting with the same colour you were using at the end of the round for another 14 stitches starting from the round marker, then pick up and use each colour in turn for 14 stitches.

After six rounds,the six different colours will all have completed one circuit. After sixty rounds, they will have made ten circuits, so it's easy to keep track of the row count. After sixty rounds, begin these reductions to form the base of the bag.

Continue to work with the six yarns in a helix throughout the base.

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 2 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 six colours.

Handle and Front Edge
Unravel ten stitches of the crochet cast on, picking up the ten live stitches on your circular needle. Secure the loose end of the crochet cast on. Using Main Colour A, with the wrong side of the work facing you, knit across the ten stitches, turn and knit back making one garter stitch ridge. I knitted 74 ridges for my preferred handle length. While felting will shorten the handle, remember when you carry heavy things in the bag, it will stretch, becoming both longer and narrower. 
Leave the last ten stitches on a spare needle or stitch holder and cut the yarn, leaving a good long tail for grafting.
Unravel the next 42 stitches of the crochet cast on, picking up the live stitches on your circular needle. Graft the ten stitches of the handle to the first ten stitches now on your needle using Kitchener Stitch.
Working with the 32 stitches still on your needle, knit back and forth for four rows, making two ridges of garter stitch, then cast off. Cut the yarn leaving a long tail and use this to sew the cast off stitches back against the inside of the bag, two rows down the helix.

Top Flap
Unravel the remaining 32 stitches of the crochet cast on, picking up the live stitches on your circular needle. Using Main Colour A, work in stocking stitch to and fro, one row knit, the next row purl, for 20 rows, finishing on a purl row.
To shape the curved edge
Row One 
Knit 2, slip 2 stitches from the left to the right needle, then insert the left needle through the backs of the loops and knit the 2 slipped stitches together(ssk), knit to the last 4 stitches, knit 2 together(k2tog), knit 2.
Row Two
Purl all stitches.
Row Three
Knit 2, ssk, ssk, knit to the last 6 stitches, k2tog, k2tog, knit 2.
Row Four
Purl all stitches.
Repeat Rows Three and Four until only 6 stitches remain, then cast off in purl. Don't worry about the 3D dome shape, it will be flattened to a 2D semicircle by blocking after felting.

Sew in the loose ends. Put the bag in the washing machine on the hottest cycle (mine is 95 degrees centigrade) with old towels or clothes to help felt it.
While it is damp, put a large plastic bag inside and stuff it with clothes, squashing them about until you are happy with the shape. Put the bag upside down on a mat and pin out the flap so it is flat and its edges are uncurled. Leave to dry before removing the pins and stuffing. Sew on a snap fastener to secure the flap and a decorative button to finish.

Variations used for Bag Two
To make the opening of the bag narrower, I cast on 72 stitches and started the helix with 12 stitches in each colour.
To make the main colour A stand out within a garter stitch ridge, I worked colour F in purl (the yarn just dangles at the front instead of the back of the work) . On the third and fifth rounds of the helix, I increased one stitch after each colour change by knitting 2 then making one stitch left, or in the case of colour F, purling 2 and making one left in purl. From round 6 the work was back to 84 stitches and completed like the first bag, only purling 2 together in colour F on the reduction rounds. 
From the 72 stitch provisional cast on, the handle was still made ten stitches wide, leaving only 26 stitches for the front edge and 26 for the flap. To create the long narrow triangular flap shape, I knit 2 together in the middle of each knit row until only one stitch remained to fasten off. When the number of stitches remaining was even, I knitted half the stitches before knitting 2 together.

The All About Bag has a decent capacity, is strong enough to carry potatoes and has proved its worth on an epic journey.

These are the voyages of the blogship Wool Tribulations. Its four year mission so far; to explore strange new wools, to seek out new knitting and new crochet patterns, to boldly dye with plants as countless generations of women have done before.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Several Effects of Iron Solution on Onion Dyed Wool and Cotton

If you save onion skins for dyeing, it is remarkable how quickly the stock builds up. Since experimenting with onion dyes in January, my stash had re-accumulated so much as to take over a whole corner of the kitchen. Time for some large scale projects. The biggest dye pot just about held 100g brown onion skins, which I boiled up and sieved out, then used the fluid to dye 200g bulky Cheviot wool yarn a warm orange. The afterbath gave a medium shade to another 100g and then a pale shade to a final 100g.  Adding a good slug of iron dissolved in water to the dye bath, I reheated a 50g skein of each shade of orange for half an hour, finding the iron modified the strong colour to a dark khaki green and the paler skeins to soft brown and grey.

Though iron modification or 'saddening' of plant dyes usually causes an obvious colour change, I was very taken by the contrast between this bright orange and dark green. Onion dyes are substantive, which means they will dye any natural fibre without the hassle and expense of mordanting. 

Having acquired a cotton, double thickness table runner which weighed about 400g, I planned to dye that with the 120g brown onion skins still cluttering up my kitchen and then make prints of leaf shapes on it by dipping some brambles and ferns in iron water, rolling them into the cotton, tying up the tube into a firm bundle and then simmering. The first part of the plan went fine, the cotton took on a deep orange after a long simmer and soak in my fresh dye bath. The iron printing was not such a clever idea - within half an hour of simmering the rolled bundle in hot water, I could see the iron saddening had already seeped through the double layers of thick cotton in a blotchy and unappealing fashion, so I whipped it out, getting only slightly scalded in the process. 

Leaving it to steam and drip dry, I went to cheer myself up with a walk round the garden, pleased to find so many of the spring bulbs were coming into flower.

Then who should I meet, strolling down the path towards me, but my long absent companion, that star of the stage and toast of the West End, Elinor Gotland.

"Hiya Beaut, alright are you? Cup of tea would be welcome."
I was too startled by her outfit to do more than hug her and put the kettle on. Once we were settled on the patio, Elinor explained she was just up from London for a couple of days, while her theatre company guest starred in the St David's Day celebrations in Cardiff.
"Nice hat."
"I've been hounded by the paps and so pestered by fans wanting selfies with me, I decided to travel incognito." I blinked at this, but Elinor was in full flow. "Ah, home. How my soul has yearned for these tranquil hills." She noticed my eyes were now bulging from their sockets. "Anyway, quite a few of the Blewe Belles have gone off to visit relatives in South Wales, so I thought I'd pop over and see how you were getting on. Still plant dyeing, is it, Beaut? What on earth have you put in that grubby lump of cloth?"
"Onion dye with iron prints."
"Well, what are you doing still mucking about with onion skins when it's March and there's daffs galore in the Land of My Fathers? Why aren't you rejoicing in Welsh Heritage and saluting Dewi Sant with some patriotic daffodil dyeing? Oh, if you only knew the pain of hiraeth."
I ignored the hoof she had raised to her forehead.
"Well, I like to see plants flowering in the garden and the daffs aren't likely to fade til we get some warm weather, here in wonderful, wet, wintry Wales."

The iron leaf prints weren't a wild success. Indistinct splodges, more dark grey than green. What with Elinor swanning around in her Welsh Lady costume reciting bardic poetry, I felt the pressure was really on to prove the value of that leftover brown onion skin dye bath. 
Remembering an interesting effect I had from painting iron water onto a cotton vest that had dyed a disappointing beige with red onion skins, I boiled up another tired white M&S vest and it came out of the brown onion bath a rich, though uneven, russet orange. I put it in the spin dryer and set to work while it was still damp. Dissolving 10g iron sulphate in a litre of hot water, I stirred the brew and started to paint it on to this cotton vest with a finer brush than I had used on the beige one. The initial lines spread a little, then turned a good green before my very eyes. Though I had expected the pattern to disperse in the wash, the beige vest has had several runs through the 30 degrees machine wash cycle and the iron marks have stayed where they were put. Hope the same will hold true of this orange version, I was really pleased when I'd finished it.

"Come and see, Elinor, I've painted my onion dyed vest and it looks great. Look, I can be artistic, too."
"What you going to title that, then, Beaut? 'Muddy Pond with Tadpoles' perhaps?"
"Those aren't tadpoles, they're just spots and curls."
"No deeper meaning? Not as symbolic, as, let me think ... a daffodil?"
I could see where she was going with this.
"Lots of pictures don't have meanings. Think about all those still lifes of flowers in a vase or bread and cheese on the table."
Elinor just looked at me, sighed and went off to pour herself some good Welsh gin.