Friday, 23 February 2018

Dyeing Yarn in a Semisolid Colour

By early last summer, I had cracked the best method of preparing fine Mulberry silk yarn for plant dyeing. Silk fibres tend to resist a thorough wetting. Though time consuming, I found it paid to divide a whole 100g hank into 50m skeins right at the start, as this meant no single bulk of fibre could stick together, excluding water, mordant or dye from the yarn in the middle. For the same reason, the four cotton ties on each little skein needed to be loose. While beginning to wet the silk, adding a small squirt of washing up liquid to a big bath of warm water helped to lift off a cloud of dressing. After 24 hours, I would squeeze out the skeins, refill the bath with clean water and leave them for three more days, then change the water and give them another three days. Trial and error suggest it takes about a week for water to penetrate completely through smooth, tightly spun and plied silk fibres . After all that soaking, I could add 10% by weight of alum, dissolved in hot water, to a final cold bath and leave the skeins for 24 hours, knowing that simply swirling them around on a couple of occasions would result in evenly mordanted yarn. The process transformed each of the original 100g hanks into 19 generous 50m skeins. For weeks through the summer, I kept them soaking in a bowl of plain water, taking a few out as and when another flower dye bath was ready. Achieving even, solid colours made me proud of my professional results and happy to be selling them at craft shows.

Even the best preparation does not mean you can be casual about the dye process. If plant material is left in the dye bath rather than being sieved out for the actual dyeing phase, while the resulting colour is likely to be deeper, it may also be splotchy, that is, perceptibly darker in the places where a flower has been pressed right up against the fibre. This problem is most evident when dyeing yarn in a solar jar, which has no room for plant material and yarn to move about. At a time when my mind was preoccupied with other stuff, the skeins in this photo went into large aluminium dye pots. While they could float freely, they never did get simmered or swirled around. They were completely abandoned, sitting outdoors for months in pots of slowly fermenting Dyer's Chamomile flowers. The warmth of late summer was all the heating they ever got. Lucky for me that Dyer's Chamomile doesn't go rotten or smell evil, lucky that silk can withstand prolonged immersion even in dye baths with copper and iron modifiers, but in truth, after I finally emptied the pots onto the compost heap, fished out the silk and rinsed it, I didn't feel lucky. 

My companion, Elinor Gotland (star of stage and screen), has been having her portfolio updated by a London photographer, fresh out of Art School, but highly recommended by her agent.  When she returned, I was hoping for a bit of sympathy.
"Oh Elinor, look at my silk skeins. All that effort wasted on an uneven, amateurish dye job. I can't sell these."
Putting one hoof on her hip, she rolled up her eyes.
"You are soooo white bread. Chill baby doll, semisolid is sick."
"What? Like vomit? With carrot chunks?"
"No, window-licker, semisolid is awesome sauce."
I stared at her, wondering what they put in the tea on the Great Western train service these days. Then Elinor gave up sucking in her cheeks while simultaneously pouting with her mouth half open.
"Just crochet it into a shawl, Beaut. And stick the kettle on."

There are few things I enjoy more than making shawls and returning to a favourite pattern is ever a balm to a troubled soul. This must be my fourth 'Over the Willamette' and it doesn't get old. In fact, I name this small version, crocheted with a fine hook
'Fleek Neckerchief.'

I might even save myself the hassle of all that scouring and soaking and just splosh the next lot of silk yarn straight in to a mordant bath for 24 hours before dyeing. The result will not be uneven crap, it will be a semisolid colourway, which is ill shit. Or so I'm told.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Dyeing Wool with Dried Japanese Indigo Leaves

Rather to my surprise, I have found Japanese Indigo plants grow well outdoors in South Wales. They do have a sheltered, fairly sunny spot in my garden and their border is raised a couple of inches out of the wet clay with plenty of sheep manure dug in. I also have more plants in grow bags in the greenhouse. It is worth giving them the space because not only do the plants mature earlier, I think each harvest gives a greater amount of indigo dye, weight for weight of fresh leaves, compared with the outdoor plants.

On the downside, under glass, Japanese Indigo needs to be fed and watered regularly. My greenhouse has been neglected since last August, so this is how it looked in January. Oh, the shame of that idle watering can next to a desiccated crop. I went out there one bright, cold day, intending to clear out the dead bodies and ended up spending the whole afternoon just picking off the dried leaves. My companion, Elinor Gotland, came out to investigate.
"Duw, I'd have thought you'd have the whole greenhouse cleaned up by now. It's getting dark, the dog wants a walk and himself's dinner isn't started. What have you been playing at?"
"These leaves look blue, almost a turquoise colour. I've heard of people drying indigo leaves on purpose, to dye with later. Maybe something might be salvaged from this lot."
"Cut your losses, Beaut, repentance always comes too late. Now come indoors and put the kettle on." And thus, my bag of 100g dried Japanese Indigo leaves sat in the kitchen, abandoned for a second time.
I am still not finished in the greenhouse, in fact, last week, when I could have got back out there, I spent a day dyeing with dried indigo leaves.
First, I boiled them for twenty minutes in a big pot of water, inside a bag made from net curtains.
Elinor was appalled.
"That pot is far too hot, Beaut, everyone knows you mustn't heat indigo over 55 degrees Centigrade, it destroys the pigment."
"I found this really excellent blog by Deb McClintock, it was John Marshall who translated a recipe from the Japanese and told her to boil the dried leaves."
Elinor looked at the steaming bag of soggy leaves and the dark brown water they had left in the pot.
"Looks like a giant teabag, only no-one wants to drink greenhouse grime. Brew us some proper tea or go down the garden and hose the rest of the muck off the glass, don't waste your time washing dead leaves."
"Deb says to discard this water. I might put 50g of alum mordanted Cheviot wool in there, give it a simmer, see what happens."
"Then I'll make my own tea, thanks very much. Can't trust you not to stick a bit of wool in my cup."

The next step is to extract the indigo from the boiled mush. Like Deb, I started with about 100g of leaves, so I followed her instructions exactly, measured out two litres of water and dissolved 4g of soda ash and 6g of thiourea dioxide in two jam jars of hot water, poured them in to the pot, added the bag of leaves and turned up the gas.
"Boiling again! And you're stirring the pot, surely you know you mustn't stir indigo after adding the deoxygenating agent. Did you whisk it up first?"
"No, Elinor, no whisking, no waiting, this dye vat is singing to me as it bubbles - breaking all the rules and damn the consequences."

I stood there stirring and endured twenty minutes of her droning on about the folly of flogging a dead Indigo plant and me hardly being cut out for wild rebellion and her expectations of tears before bedtime. Then there was blue. Tipping the first, deep yellow extraction bath into a separate pot, a froth of indigo bloomed on the surface and as I pressed it inside the colander, I saw the net bag of leaves had been dyed pale blue. Much encouraged, I repeated the extraction process two more times with 2g soda ash and 3g thiourea dioxide. Pouring the third two litre extraction into the collecting pot, I checked the temperature and the pH of the final vat. Seventy five degrees Centigrade and pH8. Far too hot and not alkali enough - if I were playing by the normal rules.

"So, what are you going to try dyeing? An old T shirt?"
"In for a penny, in for a pound, Elinor. I've divided up and soaked 200g wool tops from John Arbon. I've had it for ages, I think it's Captain Poldarles - Polwarth and Merino D'Arles blend."
"Now I know you've lost the plot. That wool is legendarily soft and dreamy to spin. Only it won't be after you've felted it in that hideous death pot of hot alkali. Last time you dipped merino tops in an indigo vat, the wool was ruined, completely matted."
I stood my ground.
"Last time, I pegged the tops out on the line on a windy day and gave each piece repeated dips. This time, every 25g portion will have one five minute dip and then lie flat to air through. If you don't agitate me, I won't agitate the wool fibres and everything will work out fine."
And it did. Elinor went off in a huff to do lunch with her agent while I worked my way through dipping all eight 25g portions of Captain Poldarles in the vat, getting a series of successively paler blue dyes as the indigo was used up.

That evening, I soaked them with a splash of vinegar to neutralise the alkali, gave them another rinse and a spin dry and left them on a rack. 

Thanks to Deb McClintock, my Japanese Indigo plants did not die in vain, they dyed in a glorious cause. Deb was right about the first rinse bath too. I should have discarded it.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Goldenrod Plant Dye on Wool and Silk

Goldenrod, or Solidago, has a great reputation among dyers  for producing a strong, lightfast yellow dye. The plants are said to thrive in full sun with sharp drainage, which may well be why I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to grow it in heavy clay in damp South Wales. 

My neighbours have one of the smaller species thriving in the cracks of their concrete path, but even in a raised border with added grit, I have had no luck. I had to stop and stare when I came across great swathes of a huge species of Goldenrod last August, not in a garden but on muddy, rough ground by a railway line . You might think the photo above is shown sideways - it isn't, there had been a rainstorm and though these Goldenrod plants would have been five feet tall, they were bowed over with the weight of their wet flowers. The poor, battered giants were growing in South East England, where summers are generally more dry and sunny.

At the time, I was not only away from home, but also occupied with more important stuff. Even so, I couldn't pass up the chance to pick up a few Goldenrod flowers knocked down by the rain. When I got back to Wales, I stuffed them in a large pot and simmered them, but I've no idea what weight  I collected or how long the plant material festered in the pot before I had time and energy to sieve it out and examine the dye bath. Oh, actually, looking at the dates on the two photos above, I can say they were taken 12 days apart.
I can also derive from looking at the second photo that the neglected dye bath turned out to be acidic - see the strip of pH paper next to the central jam jar? I put vinegar in the sample on the left, which made it even more acid and paler, soda ash in the jar on the right made it more alkali and deeper yellow. The photo jogs my memory, I think I put enough soda ash in the main dye bath to get it just above neutral pH before adding some yarn and simmering again to see how it would dye.

I rediscovered that yarn only lately, stored in a plastic bag. The total weight is 250g. I recognise the two types well enough, the three little skeins on the left are mulberry silk, the three on the right are Texere chunky 100% wool. All would have been mordanted with 10% alum by weight before dyeing.

Judging by the look of them, I'd say the yellow is the pure result of dyeing with Goldenrod only, the middle colour was probably modified after dyeing by a brief heating in a dilute bath of copper acetate and the green would be Goldenrod modified with iron. The silk is prettier than the photo suggests, paler than the wool, almost iridescent. All the skeins still look a desirable colour after spending six months in a plastic bag in a box under the bed, not a bad result from one bunch of flowers, good enough to make me think I should have another try at growing Goldenrod in my dye garden this year.

Presently the ground is far too cold and sodden to permit much gardening and I am spending the long, dark evenings knitting by the fire. Trawling through the Ravelry pattern database for a project that called for a modest amount of sturdy, chunky wool yarn, I was delighted to find these Cadeautje slippers by Ysolda Teague. Maybe the best little present you could get in February.

The slippers are made with thrums - short lengths of unspun wool fibres worked in with the knitted yarn to pad and insulate the fabric. I've fancied trying thrums since I saw someone making thrummed mittens at Wonderwool and felt how cosy they were inside. Merino, Blue Faced Leicester or Shetland are the types of wool tops recommended for thrumming. Stroking the fibres and trying out the colours of several unlabelled bumps lurking at the back of my drawer, I decided to go with the red, which I think must be Devonia from John Arbon.

The soles of the slippers are knitted flat with thrums, then the top of the slipper encloses them by picking up stitches all around the edge and working on circular needles. The construction of the foot works out most pleasingly neat, there is a wide range of shoe size options given in the pattern and the size 7 fits my feet nicely.

Rather than stop with the short ankle cuff given in the pattern, I modified it to make a split on the outside of each leg and carried on knitting and thrumming til my Goldenrod dyed yarn ran out. I made fat thrums and used up at least 150g of wool tops, spinning up my last 50g to make enough yarn to border the split with button holes and finish with an i-cord bind off.

I name these tall slippers 'Goldenrod Beauts'. So warm to wear and such a pleasurable knit, I'll definitely be using this pattern again.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Felting Wool and Silk and a Rope onto Soap

"It's been chaos in here for weeks, Beaut." My companion, Elinor Gotland, picked her way between heaps of boxes, only to trip over the flex of the hoover.
"I am checking over my stash, changing the moth papers and clearing out the attic." Determined not to be interrupted again, I thought fortune had smiled on us both when Elinor noseplanted unharmed into a pile of batts of wool. I never imagined that her fall would plunge me down yet another crafting rabbithole. 

Getting back up, Elinor opened her mouth to complain, changed her mind and repeated her spectacular bounce onto one of the batts.
"Ooo, this pink is squooshy. Must be merino wool, can't be one of your native sheep breeds all covered in mouldy beige plant dyes."
"No, that batt is not my own work, as you so tactfully point out. Don't know where I bought it, didn't even know I had it. Which is exactly the point of having a sort out."
"Don't ram it back in the bag, let's do something with it. Something romantic for Valentine's Day."
I took no more notice of her romping about making skittish pink merino suggestions, just carried on digging out forgotten bags of raw fleece which I really ought to wash and process. It's a terrible thing when such a prospect becomes disheartening. At least there was no sign of moths. A large bar of lavender soap had been perfuming the air with its own natural moth deterrent ever since the unspeakable moth affliction of last May. It still had a faint lavender scent, though its surface looked a bit dried out. 
"Dust it off and put it by the sink, Beaut, it'll be fine. Better still, why don't you felt some of this merino round it?" 

My stern resolve and my deep reservations about wet felting all dissolved in the froth of Elinor's enthusiasm for this video tutorial. The edges of our soap bar were rounded off with a vegetable peeler and the whole thing was swaddled in a section of the pink merino batt.
I put it into the toe of some nylon tights before wetting it, as the wool was inclined to unwrap itself. Once wetted and squeezed to flatten the fibres against the soap, the covering seemed to be holding together after just a few minutes brisk rubbing between my hands. Couldn't resist taking it out to see.

Amazing. My past experience of wet felting has been hours of struggle for dodgy results. Though the lady on the video says it takes half an hour, another ten minutes of soapy massage, interspersed with plunges from the hot tap into a bowl of cold water, felted the merino firmly and tightly onto the soap. Great fun, I wanted to make another one straight away. Unfortunately, our shower contained only a bottle of shower gel and our sinks have those pump dispensers for handwash.

"Well, Beaut, I was going to give you this nice little tin of lavender soap, planning for your future moth protection."
"Ooo, great tin, just right for keeping stitch markers in. Give us the soap."
I had it wrapped up in a section from another batt, tucked into the nylon tights and under the tap before Elinor could ask to have a go at felting. The fresh soap lathered up richly.
Although the wool fibres in this batt seemed like merino, they initially formed a looser jacket which wrinkled around the soap. It didn't take much more than ten minutes to felt tightly, yet by the time I was satisfied, the bar of soap had diminished considerably in size. Both felted soaps dried out after a couple of hours on the radiator.

The lady in the video tutorial warns you to take care when needlefelting wool designs onto the soap as the needles snap easily and she is not wrong. I probably should have sat up to the table and concentrated, rather than stabbing at soap on my lap while watching telly and chatting.
"These woolly bars feel so nice. Why ever did I stop using soap?"
"Convenience, Beaut. Bars of soap are much cheaper as well as more ecofriendly, but you and the rest of the Western world would rather buy endless plastic bottles of gel than scrub out a slimey soap dish."

Next day, I toured half a dozen supermarkets and pound shops and everywhere I found half a dozen shelves of bottles of gel to every one displaying soap bars. All the retail outlets carried much the same big brands, most 100g bars cost less than 50p each. I found one organic soap made in the UK for £3.30 and the fancy shop in town with all the scented candles had Mother Earth chamomile soap at £2.95.  Even the man himself got involved and very sweetly bought me three 200g bars of luxury jasmine soap in Sainsburys. That evening, I spun singles from the two merino batts and also some lovely merino/silk roving, then I Navajo three plied them into chunky yarn.

"You can't knit anything worth having out of those little lengths of wool."
"I've had a fresh idea, Elinor, all sparkling and hygienic. Abolish the slimey dish issue by hanging up the soap on a rope."
"It's been done before, you know, Beaut. Hate to piss on your firework, but the soap always slides off the rope long before it gets used up. Anyway, your drill bits aren't nearly long enough to go through a bar of soap from end to end." 
"No drilling needed, my sceptical friend. I'll show you what I mean tomorrow."

"Not really rope, though, is it? I'll admit the wool yarn you've tied round the soap ought to felt into the covering, but it's too skinny to be strong as rope."
"Ok, I shall just add a bit more twist by running the yarn back through the spinning wheel onto a bobbin, then navajo three ply it again."
I loved the look of my heavy, twice plied yarn, but Elinor wasn't convinced.
"Thick yarn will stick up and make big ridges under the felt cover."
"Oh, fuss, fuss, fuss. If I make a loop in the middle and tie a knot, I can unply the two loose ends of yarn back into four thin parts and tie the soap up in those. I'm going to felt the special organic soap in merino and silk roving."
"Silk won't felt. This will all go horribly wrong, Beaut."

It didn't go wrong, it went brilliantly right - the silk incorporated itself into the felted merino in textured lumps and ridges. Here are my organic British soap and the Mother Earth chamomile soap. I've been using a merino/silk felted Pears soap in the shower this week and the surface is lovely - gently exfoliating. I chose Pears because it is a hard soap and I thought I'd lose less of it during the felting. However, it does take a bit of rubbing to work up much of a lather when you actually want to wash. I think in future, I will choose softer, nicer  soaps and take them out of the packet to dry their surface off for a day or so before felting.

Though I'd rather have a gentler and softer soap in the shower, it is still quite handy to be able to hang the bar of Pears off the tap by the sink. No slimey soap dish there, either.

Spread the love in time for Valentine's day. I mind our local co-operative shop, Crafts by the Sea, on Fridays between 10.30am and 2pm. If you would like to make your own felted soap on a rope, leave a message here to let us know when you are coming and you can drop in and join me for an hour's informal workshop any Friday,  Cost £5, bring your own soap or better still, buy one of Julie's lovely organic honey soaps from the village shop.