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2019 Calendar - Twelve Months of Plant Dyes Now On Sale

Friday, 27 April 2018

Metal Mordants and Modifiers on Plant Dyed Wool


"Will you look what you're doing with that wool, you're splashing water all over me."
My companion, grabbed a tea towel to wipe the screen of her beloved mobile phone while I carried on slopping wet yarn from one bowl to another.
"I think that was mordant solution, Elinor."
"Have a care, Beaut, my insurance won't cover damage by toxic waste."
"For goodness sake, there isn't enough alum left in here to pickle a gherkin. This is the third time I've reused the solution and I'm just about to pour it away." I squeezed out a skein from the rinse water and twanged the loop to straighten the yarn. Elinor dodged away from another shower of droplets.
"Well, you must have started with pounds of alum to mordant all that wool. Why aren't you using your home made jars of iron and copper solution and being more ecofriendly?"
"Hark at you, Mrs Organic, glued to the internet all day."
Elinor sat back down at a safer distance and reopened her device.
"I am doing the crossword in The Guardian Digital Edition. Which means I no longer buy a daily newspaper and I'm saving trees."

Mordanting wool with iron and copper involves heating up dilute solutions in pots, consuming more energy if less time than a cold soak in alum mordant for 24 hours. A few years ago, I tried premordanting yarn by pouring a glug from my jar of rusty nails into one pot of water and a glug from my jar of copper piping into another. Having no idea how much iron and copper had dissolved into my home made water and vinegar mixture, I guessed I'd overdone it when the iron mordanted yarn turned strongly orange and the copper mordanted yarn turned quite green. Though I wasn't wildly excited with the dull brown results of dyeing the iron and copper premordanted wool with comfrey or with meadowsweet, both plants only give muted colours whatever the mordant.


Referring back to Wild Colours by Jenny Dean, I read that as mordanting solutions, iron and copper should both be used at 2% the weight of the wool. In order to be sure how much metal I was adding, I followed the instructions and dissolved 15g of ferrous sulphate and 15g of copper sulphate with 150ml hot water in two jam jars. 
Knowing 10ml of either solution would contain 1g of metal, I added 20ml to two pots of water, each containing 100g shetland wool yarn. I heated the one with iron for 15 minutes then rinsed the wool thoroughly in four changes of water. Once dried, the yarn was pale orange and the water still looked a rusty colour.
Jenny says to add white vinegar to enable wool to absorb copper, then to heat it for an hour before rinsing. Once rinsed and dried, the wool had turned pale green and the water in the pot had cleared leaving no trace of blue.
All this took place a few weeks ago, when the weather had just started to warm up and the slugs had awoken from their winter torpor and begun to feast upon my daffodils. Deadheading what was left, I picked 250g fresh, if rather wilted and chewed daffodil flowers which I soaked overnight then simmered for half an hour in water with a teaspoon of soda ash to get the pH up to 8. I added five 25g skeins of shetland yarn, one mordanted with copper and one with iron, two mordanted with alum and one with no premordant at all. Here is how they looked straight out of the dye pot, in that order starting with copper on the left.


My biggest surprise was how well the unmordanted skein (right) had dyed - previously, wool without a mordant has picked up only the palest colour from daffodils. The copper and iron mordanted wool both looked dingy shades of brown. Four of these skeins hung out to dry, cured for a few days, then had a good rinse. 

Dividing the remaining alum mordanted skein into two, I modified the colour of one part by heating it in the leftover copper bath and the other part in the iron bath. I'd forgotten that the added vinegar had made the copper bath acidic, which brought the yarn's pH down from alkali and immediately robbed it of much colour.



Once dried, the alum mordanted daffodil dye (left) was not half as yellow as I've had in other years. When used as premordants the iron and copper made the yellow dye into shades of brown, while when used as modifiers on the smaller skeins of alum premordanted yarn, I had a dim orangey beige from iron and a grey green from copper (though more green than the photo shows). Not what I've had when I've modified daffodil dye before, confusing and rather discouraging results. All things considered, this attempt to explore the difference between premordanting and modifying plant dyed yarn with iron and copper turned out poorly, though there is undoubtedly a big difference in the effect both metals have when used in the two different ways. 

Last week, the weather turned gloriously warm and the roadsides sprung wild with bright dandelion flowers. It only took me 20 minutes to gather over 500g, the right weight for the five to one, plant to wool ratio which I wanted in order to repeat the same experiment with another 100g shetland yarn. The sudden summer heat may be the reason that this year, I had a far brighter yellow from dandelion flowers on alum mordanted yarn (top centre). Previously, in cooler Springs, it has been much more of a dim and greenish shade. The iron mordant came out brown (left), but modifying some alum mordanted yarn with iron gave an entirely different olive green. The copper mordanted yarn turned a more golden version of yellow while the copper modified alum mordanted yarn came out lime green. Much more in line with previous modified dandelion dye experiments.



My companion and I sat on the patio drinking Pimms, her doing the crossword and me admiring my dandelion yarn and enjoying the foretaste of summer heat.
"This is the life, hey, Elinor?"
"Global warming is hardly something to celebrate, Beaut." She looked up, waved her hoof at an unseasonable wasp zooming in on the fruit slices in the jug, then frowned at me. "After all the sunshine, that grass needs cutting." As the wasp buzzed around her head, Elinor stood up and stepped backwards into a terracotta pot. "Not to mention how late you've left it to get these pots planted up." Jinking around the patio with an enraged wasp following her, she finally put down her phone and looked about for a more suitable weapon.
I sipped my Pimms.
"Bet you wish you'd bought a real newspaper now."

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.