Friday, 20 April 2018

Oak Gall and Oak Bark Dye on Wool at Acid and Alkali pH

"Ye Gods and little fishes, is there no end to your boring brown bark dyes?" 
I cowered at the fearsome glare of my companion, Elinor Gotland. 
"Well, I did think the yarn might come out more pink."
"Pink? Whoever told you oak would dye wool pink?"
I shifted uneasily in my chair.
"Actually, I said that myself. I know I got pinky brown colours from oak galls and from oak twigs and again from acorns when I dyed with them before. Seems I've been a mine of misinformation about oak as a dye and a tannin mordant."
Elinor put down her oak twig.
"Wash down the humble pie with some other brown tannins, Beaut. You've left your tea bag brewing long enough to strip paint."

This past couple of months, I've been much interested by the way a week of fermentation in cold water makes bark dyes acidic. Simmering yarn and fabric in a fermented bark dye bath has given pale colours, increasing the pH with soda ash has not only deepened the colour, but in the case of silver birch, transformed it from beige to pink. All done with no need to mordant wool or cotton in advance.


Hoping to explore a little more of this alchemy, I went looking for fallen oak branches. Although there were heaps of fresh twigs under the trees in autumn, in March I found only crumbly old wood and one small branch to peel. On the leafless trees, dried up oak galls were easy to spot and no trouble to pull off.
Coming home with a 200g haul, mostly oak galls and a handful of peeled oak bark, I broke the galls up with a hammer and left the lot to soak in a bucket of water for a week or so. After simmering it in a pot for an hour, I sieved the bits out of the dye bath through a piece of old net curtain. 
Three 50g skeins of unmordanted wool yarn were simmered for an hour. Having tested the dye bath to check it was the expected acidic pH 5, I wasn't surprised that the wool went beige. Taking out one skein, I added dissolved soda ash to bring the dye bath up to neutral pH 7 and simmered it again before taking out another skein. Which had gone brown.
Deciding to bash on anyway, I increased the dye bath to alkaline pH 9 and gave the last skein a final simmer. It came out a dimmer, duller brown.  Here are samples of the dye bath at each pH. The more alkaline, the blacker the bath got, but never a hint of pink in the wool it dyed.


Wool Dyed with Oak Bark and Oak Galls at pH 5, pH 7 and pH 9

The yarn was left to cure for a week then each skein was rinsed separately and allowed to dry again before I brought all three outdoors to examine them in natural light, drink tea and have my work critiqued by my dear companion. 


"Did you save those bashed up oak galls, Beaut? There'll still be plenty of tannin in them."
"Yes, they're in that bucket of water. Don't think I'll use them to dye anything else, but I might try mordanting some cotton."
"Don't go getting that wrong, like before. You'll need to mordant the cotton with alum as well, then put it back in the tannin bath."
"I know, I know. Hardly seems worth the bother, when a single bath in a 5% solution of aluminium acetate will mordant cotton and linen perfectly well."
Elinor treated me to another of her looks.
"That's not a very enterprising attitude. I thought you were going to grow your own ecofriendly soy beans this year and try mordanting with them."
"Soy milk isn't a mordant, it's a protein binding agent. And no, I'm not planting soy in my garden."
"Just going let someone else chop down a rainforest and replant it with a genetically modified soy monoculture?"
"Just going to ignore the whole soy option, Elinor." 
"I had a friend who swore by soy milk for ecoprinting cotton."
"Yeah, and I've got a friend who's going swimming in a bucket of oak galls in a minute." 
Exit Elinor, pursued by a bear. A brown one.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Alder Bark Dyes at Acid and Alkali pH

"Not more bark dyeing, is it, Beaut?" My companion, Elinor Gotland, opened the back door to let out the heat. "It's like a sauna in this kitchen."
"Oh, good, I thought it was just me."
Elinor wiped the steam off her specs and watched as I unbuttoned my cardi and flapped the bottom of my T shirt.
"I thought you were past all that."
"So did I, but the hot flushes are back worse than ever."
"Ah, the Menopause Fairies bring many gifts."
"Menopause Fairies? I never heard any stories about them."
"To be honest, Beaut, not many people have. They just don't get the same media attention as the types that cluster round the crib, getting in all the Christening photos. Fifty years on, nobody brings a camera to anyone's Festival of Changes, but Sweaty Betty the Hot Flush Fairy is usually the first to turn up and the last to leave."
While Elinor was talking, I had turned down the heat under the pots.
"Drat and double drat. I didn't mean to let them reach a full boil."
"That'll be Slack Alice visiting you with her fairy gift of Inattention. What have you got in there anyway?"
"This pot is another silver birch dye. While I've plenty of fresh bark available, I thought I'd have another go at dyeing cotton and see if changing the pH makes as much of a difference as when I dyed wool."
"And the other one?"
"I'm doing another pH experiment, using alder. Had to peel branches for bark, because rainstorms have washed all the fallen cones out of that ditch where alder trees grow."
"You know full well what'll happen when you increase the pH, you've done it before."
"Have I?"
"Yes, last year, you knitted that bag with alder dyed yarn. Then you put it through the washing machine with ordinary washing powder and it changed colour. You remember, washing powders are always alkaline, same effect as soda ash."
"Oh. Maybe you're right." 
"Goofy Gladys is the Memory Fairy."
"I don't think I like these Menopause Fairies. Are there many more of them?"
"Well, there's Gladys' best friend Grace, who makes you bump into things. And watch out for Gloria, the Gravity Fairy, who grabs any dangling parts ..."
"Enough. I shall combat Gloria with an underwired bra."
"You'll need a full metal jacket for those, Beaut."
I heaved a sigh and turned back to my dye pots.


Two hundred grams of alder bark had been soaked in a bucket of water for a week. Testing with a strip of indicator paper showed fermentation had made the water mildly acidic at pH5. After simmering for an hour, I left the bark in the pot and added three 50g skeins of wool yarn, simmered them for an hour and left them to cool before taking out one skein.
This time, I thought I would alkalinise the dye bath using wood ash, so I took a tablespoonful from the grate and put it in a jam jar with some water. Once the ash had settled, the fluid tested strongly alkaline. Unfortunately, you would need far more than one jar full to alkalinise 10 litres of dyebath, so I had to add some dissolved soda ash too.
With the vat brought up to neutral pH 7 and simmered again, the wool wasn't changing colour perceptibly, so I added more soda ash to make it mildly alkaline at pH 8.
After the pot had cooled, I took out the second skein, increased the pH to 10 and simmered one more time. Here are samples of the dye baths at each pH, though rain wrecked the indicator strips before I could take the photo.


Alder bark dyed wool yarn at pH5, pH8 and pH10



The dye bath still looked dark, so I added a slug of iron water and simmered another 100g skein of wool, getting a saddened version of the alder dye colour which is shown on the far right. All the skeins were left to dry for a week after dyeing, then rinsed separately in several changes of water.


Knitted into stripes with some undyed yarn, a small swatch did not run or change colour when washed with pH neutral washing liquid in the washing machine on a 30 degree wool cycle. I've found both silver birch and alder bark dyes seem washfast and stable as long as you don't mess with the pH after dyeing. I've taken on trust the idea that the tannin in bark means that wool doesn't need to be mordanted before using bark dyes. Which is confusing, because tannins are supposed to be part of the mordanting process for plant fibres like cotton, but are not supposed to be effective mordants for animal fibres.


The All About Bag I dyed with alder bark and cones has got rather battered over the past year. It wouldn't ever have been quite the same colour as the new skeins, but looking at it now, I'd say it has proved lightfast and I am confident that whether that is due to tannins or not, no premordant is needed before dyeing wool with bark.
My companion found me comparing the old with the new.
"Ooo, super duper, once again you have discovered that alder dye is brown and even more brown when it is alkaline."
"I think the colourway is rather lovely, Elinor. Even the beige from the acidic dye bath."
"You'll be wearing elasticated slacks and a camel cardi next."
"So what if I do? I'm happy."
"Ah, I see you've met Frankly."
"Frankly? Bit of an odd name."
"Well, Beaut, she's an odd fairy. Whatever you called her, Frankly wouldn't give a damn, a toss or even a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut. She'd live in a boiler suit, if it weren't for the trauma of going for a pee."
"I like the sound of her much more than Sweaty Betty and Goofy Gladys."
"Fair play, she's, how can I put this ... unconventional. Alternative. You'll remember from the fairytale christening stories, there's always one fairy who appears at the last moment with a gift that subverts all the others. As far as the Menopause Crew are concerned, that's Frankly."




Friday, 6 April 2018

Felted Sheep Soap on a Rope

The Sheep Soap on a Rope is my latest craft product. It's a bit more of a faff to make than the original version, but as before, it was inspired by a misfortune which befell my dear companion.

I didn't see Elinor coming into the kitchen. I didn't hear her tapping her hoof. I didn't sense her mounting irritation. Happily oblivious, I was standing at the sink, massaging merino wool round a bar of soap, staring out the window thinking of nothing in particular. I started when she jogged my elbow.
"Gone OCD have you, Beaut? Developed a personal hygiene fetish?"
It took me a minute to catch on.
"Felted soaps on ropes are in demand down the craft shop, Elinor. I ought to thank you for giving me the idea."
"Glad you like them." 
Elinor leaned against the taps watching me, til I felt obliged to converse.
"I enjoy felting them even more now I'm using organic Welsh soap - it's got beeswax and honey and herbs in it. Go on, have a sniff of this."
"Mmm, rosemary. No wonder you're acting like a tranquillised elephant." Elinor jabbed my hand with her hoof. "Wake up, Nelly. I'm sorry I ever mentioned felting soap now. This is so dull and unimaginative."
"Oh, do let me be." I elbowed her out of the way to plunge my felting into cold water. It was absolutely not my fault that Elinor fell in too and came up clinging to the rope on the soap. It was a selfless act of inspiration, she is my muse, my singing, dancing, tragically sodden Melpomene. 


If you too would like to make a slightly more imaginative felted soap on a rope and you can spin your own yarn, here are the things you will need. If you don't spin, you can substitute thick wool yarn in green and black for the green and black wool tops. It has to be real wool yarn, in order to felt into the white merino covering. 
If you are a spinner, spin about 10m of a single with Z twist, about the right thickness for two ply double knitting yarn. Navajo S ply the single with lots of extra twist, then Navajo Z ply the resulting yarn back to the balance, so that you end up with about one metre of densely braided yarn in both green and black.

Choose a nice lathery soap. Scrape the edges of the bar to round them off, using a knife or a potato peeler. Sharp corners are liable to be rubbed bare of wool during the felting process. 


Cut a groove into the edges of the bar of soap in the middle of all four sides and on the long sides, also at one quarter and three quarters of the way along.


Tie the black yarn around the long axis of the soap, knotting it within the groove at one end with a loop, which can be cut leaving three ends to plait into a tail.


Make a knot at the end of the remaining black yarn, wrap it round the short axis of the soap and tie inside a groove, leaving a short length loose at either end to form two legs with knots for hooves. Repeat to make the other pair of legs.


Make a double overhand knot to create a loop of the green yarn at the length you would like the rope to suspend the soap. Pull the loop knot firmly against the groove at the top centre while you tie the green yarn with a knot lying in the groove at the bottom of the soap. 

Divide the white merino tops into two long strips and draft them out slightly. Wrap the first piece round the soap longways and wrap the second piece with the fibres running at right angles to the first, making small gaps to pull through the legs, tail and loop.

Hold the wool tops in position while you stretch the toe of a pair of nylon tights around the soap. Wet it under the hot tap and press the wool down against the soap, then start to massage the wool flat. After a couple of minutes, peel off the tights. 
The white merino will only have made a loose jacket round the soap, but the legs and tail are liable to get felted into it. Now is the time to rinse off the lather, free them up and continue rubbing the soap between your hands, making sure the yarn doesn't get bound back into the white body.

Plunging the soap from under the hot tap into a bowl of cold water helps to tighten up the felt. It takes about ten minutes rubbing and plunging to create a solid wool covering, at which point, you can squeeze off most of the water into a towel.

I've discovered that if you needlefelt the decorations straight away, while the soap is still damp, it's much easier to poke wool fibres into the soft surface and the needle is much less likely to snap. A 38 gauge star needle works better than the finer triangular needles.
Leave your finished sheep soap on a rope on the radiator to dry.
Hang it up in the shower and you can lather yourself clean against the gently exfoliating felted surface then hang it back up to drip dry.

Stop when the fun stops.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Silver Birch Bark Can Dye an Equal Weight of Wool and Cotton

Last July, I made a dye bath by fermenting and simmering a couple of hundred grams of silver birch bark and it dyed all of this.


First into the dye bath was a 25g skein of wool yarn, which came out orange brown, so I added a teaspoon of soda ash to make the bath alkaline and a glug of home made copper acetate solution to bring up better pink tones. A second 25g skein of wool came out a deep red/brown and two small skeins of silk were dyed a paler shade. After that, I used the dye bath as a vehicle for simmering a rolled and tied silk scarf contact print and the exposed silk at the borders went a rather gorgeous version of the same colour. Over the following week, I used the afterbath to provide background colours for plant contact prints on a linen shirt and two cotton frocks, getting successively paler pinks. The wool yarn had had no mordant, but the silk scarf had been mordanted with alum and the cotton and linen had all been mordanted with aluminium acetate in order to take up colours from fresh dye plant leaves and flowers. I can't recall the total weight of materials dyed in that one bath, nor indeed how much bark went in it in the first place, but I was sufficiently impressed to take this picture.

Lately, I used a whole kilogramme of silver birch bark divided into three dye baths to study the effect of making the naturally acidic pH of a fermenting bark bath more alkaline. By the end of the process, the three baths had dyed a total of 480g unmordanted wool and silk yarn.


Afterwards, the pots sat out on the patio with the bark still lurking at the bottom. A week or so later, I poured all the contents through a colander into a bucket, dumped the bark on the border as a mulch and carried the bucket back to the house.
"You're not hanging on to that mouldy old dyebath, are you, Beaut? It's gone all slimy, you can't put any more wool in there." My companion followed me back to the kitchen and peered into the bucket. "Is that a drowned mouse?"
It was just a floating leaf, though I'll admit, the bark afterbath had become more viscous. It also looked a much deeper red than when it was first made.
"I bet this bucket is still full of dye, Elinor. I bet it will dye loads more stuff."
"I bet it's full of tannin from all that boiling and far too alkaline from all the soda ash you poured in."
Testing with an indicator strip showed the bucket of afterbath, two parts of which had been alkalinised for the first dye session, had become acid again. I added enough soda ash to bring it back to neutral pH 7, which made the colour deeper still, then called Elinor over.
"See, the bark must have gone on fermenting in the pots, the pH had fallen right back down. What a good job I didn't listen to you, you old doom merchant." 
My cup of triumph overflowed when another 100g skein of wool yarn had been simmered for an hour and came out pretty much the same pink as the original test skein which was simmered at neutral pH. 
"Now watch me dye loads of fabric, I don't even need to mordant anything." Elinor was busy chatting on the phone and just waved me away with a distracted hoof. After a good rummage in the cupboard, I came back downstairs with some offcuts - half a metre of cotton/linen blend curtain fabric in a natural beige and half a metre of white cotton curtain lining. They seemed pretty soggy after half an hour in the sink and appeared to go deep pink as soon as they had submerged in the dye bath. I lit the gas under the dye pot and shot back upstairs to cut half a metre off a heavy canvas curtain I'd been saving.
My companion saw me pass.
"Steady on, Beaut, at least give it a wash. Ych a fi, I can't believe that curtain was put away so grubby. Are you sure it's cotton canvas? Feels a bit stretchy to me." I just carried on cutting off the curtain rings, though I did put the whole thing through a hot wash before putting my cut half metre into the dye bath along with a glug of copper acetate solution. Once all the fabric was hanging up on the airer, I felt entitled to a very smug smile.
"Just think of the lovely pink project bags I can make with that."
"They'll be hand sewn, will they, Beaut? Seeing as how you're too scared to try using the lovely sewing machine your mother left you."
Rather ostentatiously, I put another 100g skein of wool into the dye bath.
"I'll get to it, Elinor, that machine is just more complicated than my old one. This fabric will inspire me."


Only this fabric looked rather odd once I got it down a few days later. The dye was wildly uneven on the cotton and had sat on the humps and disappeared from the creases in the heavy canvas. Worse was to come. When I put it in the sink, the dye flooded back off of it. Usually, if things are left to cure for a few days, relatively little colour is lost on rinsing.
"That rinse water's going to take a while to run clear, Beaut." Elinor sipped her tea. "Doesn't look like the fabric was properly soaked before dyeing."
This was not a great day in the life of Rushworth. Watching another load of dye disappear down the plughole, cutting my losses, I put all the material in the washing machine, then the tumble dryer. That last skein of wool had come out of the bath a very pale version of the first, but in between dyeing the two, much of the colour from the dye bath seemed to have sat on the fabric, rather than fixing to it.


I liked the pink anyway.
"If I add up all the weight of this wool and fabric together with the 480g of yarn I dyed before, that kilogramme of silver birch bark has dyed 1.26 kg of fibres."
Elinor looked at me under her specs.
"Really? You call this last skein of wool 'dyed'?"
"It might look nice in some colourwork."
"It might look nice if it had some colour. So might some of the cotton if you had soaked it thoroughly before dyeing and left it in the pot overnight, instead of rushing about, too cocky by half."
"Hmm, well, I suppose."
I gathered up the fabric and turned to go indoors.
Elinor called after me.
"Let's say, one kilogramme of birch bark could dye one kilogramme of fibres. If you did it properly."

Friday, 23 March 2018

Silver Birch Bark Dye at Acid, Neutral and Alkali pH


Last month we had some serious storms. On a blowy Sunday, himself and I took the dog out and found a fallen silver birch tree. I was well pleased, took my penknife out and started peeling a branch, himself soon got bored and walked on with the dog. 


I went back next day to strip another branch and ended up with a whole kilogram of fresh bark which I shared out between three pots and left to soak for a week. Bark dyes are sensitive to changes in pH and shifting the dye bath pH to alkali is recommended to improve the colour. Unfortunately, alkali does not improve wool fibres, it weakens them and makes them feel rougher.
This seemed a good opportunity to test out how much or how little alkali would get the best results from silver birch bark dye. I dissolved a heaped teaspoonful of soda ash in hot water and added it to one of the three pots of soaking bark peelings, before leaving them all to ferment. The following day, the fluid in the alkaline pot was already much darker.


Snow fell, so I brought the frozen pots indoors. After a week, I tested the contents with Universal Indicator papersFermentation had made the two plain pots become acidic, testing at about pH 5. The third pot was still strongly alkaline at pH 9.


I added enough soda ash to bring one of the acidic pots up to neutral pH 7 and simmered them all for an hour before taking out samples to look at the dye bath colours and to double check that the pH had remained the same. The photo shows samples of baths at pH 5, 7 and 9. The deep colour in the alkaline jar looked by far the most promising.
In the meantime, I had been shopping on eBay, looking for some durable chunky wool yarn at a decent price. I was well pleased with my five 100g skeins of British wool from woolbothy. As advertised, they were not smoochy soft, being worsted spun they were sleek and a little stiff, handling more like cotton, but well structured and neither rough nor hairy.
I divided them into ten 50g skeins, gave them a hot soak with detergent to lift off the dressing, then a couple of plain water rinses. No mordant is needed for bark dyes. Three skeins went into each pot for an hour of simmering, then I took one skein out of each pot and boiled the rest, to see whether keeping bark dyes simmering below the boil really mattered.

Here are the results, rinsed in plain water after drying out for a couple of days. In the front row, the skeins that had about an hour simmering, in the back row, the skeins that had a further boil and stayed overnight in the dye pot. On the left, the acidic pH 5 skeins, in the middle, the neutral pH 7 skeins and on the right, the alkaline pH 9 skeins. This is a good strong wool yarn, acid had made the beige skeins smoother while the deep brown yarn from the alkali bath felt slightly roughened, a little squeaky, but still nice enough to handle. All the wool was puffier and softer after washing, dyeing and rinsing than it had been when I first bought it. My conclusions - it is definitely worth testing pH and getting an acidic, fermented bark bath up to neutral before dyeing, but going for a strong alkali is counterproductive, unless you like brown or you are dyeing plant rather than animal fibres. The colours are deeper after boiling and longer steeping, I'd say keeping below the boil isn't critical, though I like the pink from the pH neutral simmer best and I would hesitate to boil a wool that was prone to felting, such as merino. 


Having two of each of the deeper dyed skeins, I decided to modify them with copper as I like that better on silver birch than modifying with iron. The final three skeins were heated in a new pot of water with a slug of homemade copper acetate solution - just offcuts of copper piping left in a mixture of water and vinegar. This one has been quietly dissolving all winter and currently has a strong blue.

The copper modified skeins from each pH dye bath are shown in the back row of this picture. Six small skeins of silk were dyed together with the wool and they are shown on top of the front six skeins of wool.


One last and rather important test before embarking on a multicoloured project. I knitted a swatch with three rows of each colour and put it through a 30 degree wool wash cycle in the washing machine using a handwash liquid detergent that is pH neutral. Happily, thorough washing had no ill effects, the colours that had been dyed at different pH stayed just as they were.




Outdoor photography gives a truer impression of the pinkness of birch bark dye. Plus it was fun to tit about with wool in the woods now the days aren't quite so cold.