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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.


  1. I find variegated threads much more interesting, more natural and infinitely beautiful to work with in my embroidery. Solid is over-rated :)

    1. I am coming round to agreeing with you. Striving for even dye results is a bit like trying to spin an even yarn - the journey is more important than the destination.

  2. what's wrong with semi-solid? a good few indie dyers take high prices for theirs, so why wouldn't yours sell? I have to admit that silk is a pain to prepare though - I had quite a few battles with silk bricks - trying to get them thoroughly wet - but not totally destroyed in the process! that's probably why I like hankies so much. I just use them to "wipe" spills and get lovely results in the process... never smooth yarn though, that's the downside if you're looking for smooth and even embroidery yarns... still, can't win them all - and I find there's a use for everything.

    1. Good question. I just need to market them as unique and special :)

  3. Oh wow! That shawl is just so beautiful <3

    1. Thanks - I was very pleased with it in the end.

  4. Zomg! You will be the on-fleekest at the fair! Randoms everywhere will be drooling on those semisolids #jealous #iknowiam #facepalm