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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.

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