Friday, 27 July 2018

Types of Silk Fabric for Plant Dyeing/Ecobundles

I used to buy silk fabric from Whaleys of Bradford and my Mum would cut and hem it into silk scarves for me. Now I have inherited her sewing machine, but sadly, not her skills.

Last month, my companion, Elinor Gotland, decided I had better take up the challenge and unbox the beast.
"Seriously, Beaut, all this good silk is wasted sitting in a bag. Get that machine out, how hard can it be?"
Half an hour later and I was frowning over the manual again.
"What's up now?"
"The bobbin's run out and I need to learn how to refill it."
Elinor came over to look at the diagrams.
"Fair play, your Mum did all the practice exercises in the instruction book, see how neatly she's filed her sewing samples. Very organised, bet that's a big help to you now."
"No it is not, it just makes me feel even more inadequate. I can't work out how to make this clever machine do simple stuff on easy fabric, let alone hem silk scarves with the special roller foot."
"To be honest, Beaut, you have mangled that cotton." She stroked the waiting silk. "In this life, some of us have finesse, others are better suited to a hard hat and steel toe caps." 
 "You're right. This is awful. I shall give up dyeing silk scarves." I headed out to walk the dog, leaving Elinor aghast. That sheep has a passion for silk, she is my biggest customer, though she's never paid for a scarf yet.

I came home to find a nice cup of tea and a biscuit waiting for me.
"Have you thought of buying ready hemmed silk scarves, at all, Beaut?"
"Well, I've seen them advertised quite cheaply online, only, remember that time I bought 10 metres of bargain silk jersey noil and spent days trying to wash the horrible sericin smell out of it? It's too dodgy to buy silk without handling it first."
"What if I could recommend a really well reviewed online retailer?"
"Like who?"
"Dharma Trading."
"I've heard of them, but they're in the USA. How daft is it to pay shipping and duty buying silk from America, when really, silk comes from China?"
"Perhaps you'd prefer to buy yourself a camel and set off down the Silk Road?"

Resistance was useless. Elinor guided me on a virtual tour of the Dharma website, revelling in all the choices of blank silk scarf sizes and types.
"OMG, they've got silk charmeuse, absolute heaven."
"I don't know what charmeuse is, but I can see it costs twice as much as Habotai."
Elinor sniffed weakness and plunged in.
"You love Habotai, you know it's good, these hemmed scarves aren't expensive, be a devil, click the button, buy a dozen."
"Habotai is good quality silk, I'll grant you, but Dharma don't say if theirs is light, medium or heavy weight. The scarf sizes are given in inches, then suddenly they seem to have gone metric - who knows what 8mm means?" 
"Mum knows? Small problem there."
"Eight momme. It's an imperial measure. 8mm means that 100 yards of the silk fabric weighs 8 pounds. I like to have frocks made in 8mm silk, call it medium weight, no-one can see your knickers through it." 
"Alright, I'll get a few of those."
"You'll need several sizes."
I bought five of two sizes of Habotai scarves and inevitably, ended up with some more in crepe de chine, silk satin and even two in silk charmeuse. The whole lot cost me £160 and another £31 in duty, though it was no more trouble than buying within the UK. My package arrived within the week and the courier took the duty payment at the front door. Totting up the cost including postage, habotai cost about £8 per scarf and the silk satin and silk charmeuse scarves were nearer £15 each.

Pulling them out of their bags, the quality of the scarf fabrics felt lovely and the hemming was faultless. They all survived scouring in the washing machine 30 degree wool cycle and cold mordanting in 10% alum by weight, without ill effect. Just as the dye garden came into full bloom in the heat wave, the scarves were ready to dye. If you would like to know the details of my method of using fresh dye plants for contact printing, have a look at this blog from last summer. In brief, I laid one wet scarf on a strip of baking parchment, arranged plants such as coreopsis tinctoria, weld, Dyers Chamomile and madder roots on top of it, then laid another wet scarf on top, sandwiching the plants, before rolling all the layers round a section of plastic drainpipe.
After tying them up with string, the rolls were simmered for an hour or so, left to cool in the pot overnight and dried out for several days before unrolling. Then they had a few more days to cure, a rinse in the sink and a wash in the machine wool cycle with a pH neutral detergent and a hot steam iron.

It's jolly difficult to take a photo that really shows up the differences, but here is a shot of a crepe de chine scarf on the left that was sandwiched together with the habotai scarf on the right. Crepe de chine has a matte surface and a granular texture, whereas habotai is fine, smooth and shining. I prefer the feel of habotai, though I was delighted with how crisply the prints had come out on the crepe. In real life, it is easier to see that the fine detail of the same plants shows better on the crepe de chine.

Here are another matching pair of habotai above and silk satin below. I think both scarves have printed equally well, but now I have seen and felt the silk satin, I know why you would pay twice as much, the finished scarf just looks better. One surface has a furry lustre almost like moleskin, a greater weight and sheen than habotai, it is rich and soft to handle, rather than slippery. Apparently, this is down to the particular weaving technique that makes satin.

Finally, charmeuse on the left versus habotai on the right. Oh, the charmeuse. I read that it has a lightweight satin weave, but the stuff Dharma sells looks and feels heavier than their silk satin and seems even more luxurious to me. Plus I think it has taken the plant prints as well as the crepe de chine did.

Here are some more from the next batch, dyed in a bath of silver birch bark to colour the edges pink. Charmeuse at the top, crepe in the middle and habotai at the bottom.

"Pleased with your online shopping, are you, Beaut?"
"Very much so, thanks Elinor. You'd better pick your favourite scarf now, I'll be selling them all at The Big Cheese Festival in Caerphilly tomorrow."
"Maybe not. The hot weather is due to break tonight and we're forecast thunderstorms and downpours all weekend."
"Hey ho, maybe the visitors will take shelter in the Craft Marquee."

Friday, 20 July 2018

Queen Anne's Lace Flower Dye on Wool

Queen Anne's Lace, Daucus carota or Wild Carrot is one of those seasonal plants with white umbrellas of flowers that appear by the wayside in summer. I have often seen pictures on blogs posted by natural dyers and of course, read about dyeing with it in Jenny Dean' s book, Wild Colour. For years, I have been exasperating my companion by interrupting our walks to examine tall stems with the right sort of white flowers, only to find the large leaves of yet another Hogweed plant or the divided leaf lobes of Cow Parsley. Last year, I really thought I had discovered exactly the right flowers and leaves, only the stems they were attached to were smooth and mottled, rather than green and hairy.

"Don't pick that if you want to keep body and soul together, Beaut." My companion held me back with a firm hoof.
"Elinor, I know you're keen to get down to the beach, but I'll only be a minute."
"You are not carrying those plants around, they're Poison Hemlock. Or if you do, you can pass me the picnic basketPlato wrote about how philosophically Socrates drank the cup of hemlock that condemned him to death, but I'm just a hedonist looking forward to a flask of tea by the sea."
"This is really hemlock?"
"Don't take my word for it. Go ahead and pick some. It's all very noble, you and Socrates, ready to cast off the things of the flesh, dyeing to seek the truth of the eternal, but personally, I'm with Bertrand Russell."
"What's he got to do with anything?"
"To paraphrase, he said 'I would never dye for my beliefs, because I might be wrong'."
I was appalled.
"Bloody hell, an accidental hemlock dye bath could have been the end of me. I'm not ready to die for a yellow I could get from lots of other plants, I'll play it safe, this foraging isn't worth the risk."

As we walked on, our conversation turned to the pleasures of the flesh and their relative dangers.
"What's in the sandwiches, then, Beaut?"
"Cheese and cucumber or egg and cress."
"Fair play, sounds better than sex."
"I suppose a hundred years ago, women would have thought the sandwich option was much less risky."
"What, you think enjoying their egg and cress was preferable to the chance of becoming an unmarried mother and getting sent away or locked up in a lunatic asylum?"
"Always so dramatic. I just meant that in the past, sex carried the risk of an unwanted pregnancy. The appeal of cheese and cucumber sandwiches could only have been enhanced by the absence of contraception."
"There were other methods before the Pill. Women could have had sex and then eaten their sandwiches with reasonable peace of mind. Herbal contraceptives have been around for thousands of years."
"So have leeches, but doctors don't recommend them any more. I'd imagine you'd be safer taking hormones."
"Plants full of female hormones grow all over the world. In the old herbal remedy books, the real purpose of their decoctions was often hidden behind the label 'emmenagogue' which means something taken to bring on a period."
"If plants had actually prevented pregnancies, surely women wouldn't have just forgotten how to use them."
"Hmm, well, think men and think religion. Emmenagogues wouldn't have been the sort of thing monks grew in the abbey herb garden and dispensed to the locals on demand. If you were twenty years younger and lived a thousand years ago, you might have gone looking for Queen Anne's Lace for very different reasons. Its flowers and seeds are full of hormones. Even today, people try using them like a Morning After Pill."

Fascinating stuff. I ordered a packet of Daucus carota seeds online. They were small with tiny spines on them and rather than chew a teaspoonful, I sowed them in a seed tray. Last autumn, although most of the garden went neglected, I did clear out a border in the front garden, where an attempt to grow Hopi Blue Corn had failed to produce one worthwhile cob.
The tray of seedlings got scuffled into the bare earth and were forgotten until this summer, when despite the drought, maybe because of it, Queen Anne's Lace has done wonderfully well. That border has thrived with no special attention, though the 'wild meadow' vibe may not be to everyone's taste.
Having watched the plants develop, I now understand that the unopened buds are pink, the characteristic single deep pink floret in each white flowerhead is most apparent when they first open and slowly fades to white like the rest of the flower, before the structure closes up into a cage around the seeds. The feature that identifies this plant most reliably is the elaborate collar of green spikes under each flower.

And now, the dye. I simmered 150g of flowerheads in water for an hour and left them overnight. Next day, indicator paper showed the dyebath was naturally acidic at pH 5. The colour of a sample of the dye in a jar looked wishy washy, deepening to yellow with the addition of enough soda ash to bring it up to pH 7 and to gold at pH 9.
Adding a teaspoon of soda ash to the main dye bath, I simmered three 10g lengths of merino and silk blend wool tops, mordanted with alum. The resulting yellow is shown at the top of the next picture. One length of the tops was modified by heating with iron solution (left) and another was modified with copper (right), neither radically shifted the original colour.

"Think your Queen Anne's Lace dye was worth it then, Beaut?"
"It's just yellow."
"Not better than a sensually rewarding spot of physical intimacy?"
"Possibly not. I think I enjoy the plant and its history and significance more than the dye colour. I'll be collecting seeds next month and I'm going to keep them in this dish."
"Ooo-er, fnah fnah, take my advice and stick to sandwiches."
"Bog off, Elinor. I'm going to sow more Queen Anne's Lace for next year."

Friday, 13 July 2018

Mordants in Solar Jars

"Are you just stuffing plain, dry Merino into those jars of flowers?"
"It'll be alright Elinor, calm down, I've done solar dyeing this way before."
"What, with no scouring and soaking and mordanting, you expect that wool to take up dye properly? You're off your trolley, Beaut." My companion turned away, settled her specs lower down her nose and resumed waving her hoof in time to unheard music.

"I put some dissolved alum in with the water in the jar, so the sun mordants the wool at the same time as releasing dye from the flowers. Great short cut, quick and easy, especially with all this hot weather." I waited for some appreciation of my cleverness, but Elinor was now absorbed in her own work. I pottered over. "What's that you're reading?"
Elinor pressed her lips together and shook her head.
"Stop distracting me, it's only a few weeks til the performance. Were you not listening when I told you I'd be singing a solo for the Tabernacl Choir? I'm learning the score with the Musical Director breathing down my neck. He's such a perfectionist."
"I know, he gives the tenors a really hard time. I'm a bit nervous myself, Ethel Smyth's Mass in D is a big challenge for all of us."
"Oh, you've got nothing to worry about, hidden up the back of the alto section, copying Gwyneth's every note. You relax, go back to your jars and waste good wool for lack of preparation, I shall be totally exposed to the public eye and ear doing my solo and I do not intend to be second rate. Unlike some." At which, she returned to her humming and hoof waving, frowning diabolically at any interruption, even when I just raised my eyebrows and mimed drinking a cup of tea. Stung by my companion's remarks, I wanted evidence to prove that taking short cuts wasn't spoiling my solar dyeing.

I scoured, soaked and mordanted two 10g portions of blended merino and silk tops with 10% alum and put them into two jars, one with a rusty nail to add iron, and filled the jars with water. Then I tore off two more 10g strips of the same tops, giving them no mordant or soak at all before putting them into another two jars, this time with 1g of dissolved alum added to the water as well as a rusty nail in one jar. Finally, twenty Dyers Chamomile flowers were put into each jar and all of them stood together on the shelf in the greenhouse. The dry tops floated up to the top of their jars, but I reckoned they should soon absorb some fluid and sink down.

The sun shone in the greatest heatwave Wales has experienced in decades. Two days later, the unprepared tops were still floating and athough the fluid in their jars was more yellow, it already looked as though the solar dyeing was working better on the premordanted fibres. My companion was still busy trilling away at her solo and I thought maybe I'd go and practice the fiddly bits of the fugue in the Credo.

Five days in and the situation looked even worse for the short cut jars, where the wool still floated pale above an even more yellow fluid. Time I learned all those Amens in the Gloria. After a week, the unprepared fibres at last seemed to be taking up some colour and I had hopes that the all in one mordant and dye jars would work fine in the long run. No harm in giving all the jars a good shake, just to mix things up.

Two solid weeks of hot sunshine and temperatures up to 27 degrees Centigrade are almost unheard of in Wales.
"Come out of that greenhouse, Beaut. You'll boil yourself alive." I started guiltily and stood in front of the jars as my companion sauntered in. "More solar dyeing is it? Something I ought to see, perhaps?" 
No getting away with this, I had to explain the experiment.
"Looks like the mordant in the water is holding the dye in your short cut jars."
"I think the wool in them looks just as yellow as the premordanted wool now though, Elinor."
"Really? Shall we have a look?"
Before I could protest, the jars had all been emptied out onto the lawn.

"Well, the wool has all gone yellow, Elinor."
"Mmm, but not equally yellow. The short cut jars have not worked as well, the dye is second rate. And your rusty nails haven't modified the colour much."
"Maybe they didn't have long enough to dissolve iron into the water. The wool went really green with rusty nails in those jars of Dyers Chamomile that got left for months. It might have helped if these jars had been left a bit longer."
"Best you tidy this lot up. I must dash. Mustn't keep the orchestra waiting." My companion headed off to another rehearsal, calling over her shoulder, "Don't leave those nails on the grass, they'll bugger up the lawn mower."

I have to conclude that all in one mordant and dye solar jars don't work as fast as ones with premordanted fibres. Unless I intend to wait for months to get this much solar heating into a jar in an average Welsh summer, the short cut method isn't really a short cut at all. Possibly, the results would be second rate how ever long I waited. Now they are dry, I can see that the silk fibres have dyed more strongly in the short cut jars, making a deeper contrast with the pale yellow wool and a good airing has promoted the saddening effect of iron from the rusty nails.

If the results aren't quite what I had hoped, at least in the meantime I've prepared thoroughly for the choir's big event this Sunday. I'm intrigued to know exactly what Elinor will be singing. There's Always the Sun?

Friday, 6 July 2018

Contact Dye Prints from Eucalyptus Leaves

Last April, I happened to see some bunches of eucalyptus on sale outside a florist shop. The owner explained that these were last stocks she expected to have until August, as the eucalyptus supply for the UK is grown in Madeira and Italy, where they leave the trees to grow new foliage for a few months after Easter. I bought one bunch of parvifolia, which is narrow leaved and another with pairs of rounded leaves, called cinerea.
I've read Australian bloggers describing hundreds of types of eucalyptus with widely differing dye potential, so I knew it would be a stab in the dark to have a go at dyeing with random species grown in the Northern Hemisphere. It does seem true that trees grown in the UK don't get enough sun to develop orange dye, as I only had green prints from a local eucalyptus. 

I finally got round to making contact dye bundles at the beginning of June, when a few weld plants had shot up flower spikes that wanted harvesting. None of the other garden dye plants were flowering, so I soaked some of the dried eucalyptus in hot water, to make the brittle leaves and stalks flexible, before laying them out on some fine wool fabric together with the weld spikes.
Some of the weld was was dipped in iron solution and some in copper. The fabric was laid out on a strip of greaseproof paper to stop dye going through the layers and another layer of alum mordanted wool was laid on top, sandwiching the plants. All the layers were rolled around a section of plastic drainpipe and bound with string before simmering for an hour or so in a dye bath of dried coreopsis. 
I left the bundle to soak overnight and dry out for a couple of days before unrolling, when I was astonished to see how well the two kinds of eucalyptus had printed on both the fabric above and the fabric below them. Once the two wool scarves had dried for a week and had a wash and iron, the eucalyptus prints still looked deep orange.

My companion, Elinor Gotland, trailed a dismissive hoof over the fabric.
"Why on earth aren't you using silk, Beaut? Strapped for cash this month?"
"Actually, Elinor, this fine wool gauze cost more per metre than Habotai. Anyway, I hardly have any left of the silk scarves that Mum hemmed for me."
"Well, her hard work is doing no-one any good sitting in a drawer. Get some silk out and use eucalyptus on it, can't go wrong with prints like these."
Privately, I had misgivings. I haven't used eucalyptus much, but past results on alum mordanted silk have been less spectacular. Following online discussions, I've noticed people often talk about adding rusty nails, spraying vinegar onto ecobundles and steaming them for several hours. I've found rust makes very black marks, almost burning holes in silk. Steaming isn't going to reach as high a temperature as boiling, maybe that stops the rust from being so savage. I may have a proper go at it eventually.

For the moment, I decided to try soaking some of the dried eucalyptus leaves for half an hour in plain hot water, some in hot water with vinegar and some in hot water with both vinegar and iron solution added, just to see if one might make better prints. This silk was folded in half lengthwise over the leaves together with some Dyers Chamomile flowers.
Of course, once I unwrapped it, I had no idea which leaves had been soaked in which jar. The prints were much paler than on wool and I reckon the darker, browner ones must have been soaked with iron, though there isn't a marked difference to show which had vinegar and which did not.
In the meantime, I had used the same three soaks for leaves rolled in a cotton shirt, mordanted with aluminium acetate. The prints they made are much dimmer than those on wool and far less dramatic than the colours from weld dipped in iron, coreopsis flowers or madder roots.
Again, I'd guess the darker eucalyptus prints with lots of little grey dots had had an iron soak. Hoping to get a clear idea of what was really happening, I made another roll with two wool scarves. This time, at the top end of the scarf sandwich, shown centrally in the photo, I put three cinerea leaves from a hot water soak, then three from hot water and vinegar, then three from hot water, vinegar and iron. After that, a circle of parvifolia leaves, with hot water from 12 o' clock to 4 o' clock, vinegar from 4 o' clock to 8 o'clock and vinegar with iron from 8 o'clock up to 12 o'clock. This roll was simmered in an afterbath of weld leaves with iron, to colour the borders.

I am not convinced that adding vinegar made any difference to the prints from either of these two types of eucalyptus leaf, whether on wool, silk or cotton. Adding iron made the paler prints on silk and cotton stand out more at the expense of saddening the colour, while on wool, any effect of iron appears marginal.
 "I still have plenty of dried eucalyptus leaves left and I think I'll save them for printing on wool, whatever you say, Elinor."
My companion judged the dye results by her own criteria and took command of the situation.
"I shall take care of this silk, since you don't appreciate it. It's what your mother would have wanted."