Friday, 31 August 2018

Berry Dyes, Wash and Light Fastness Tested

"I can't remember a year when the blackberries ripened so early. And there are still plenty more to come. Lovely ones, too." 
My companion barely spared them a glance, having other fruit in mind. I watched her pick her way up a branch of blackthorn, sheer madness, but you have to admire that kind of commitment to sloe gin. 
"Mind your fleece on those thorns, Elinor."
She waved a hoof and chucked a ripe sloe into the basket.
"Who dares, wins, Beaut."
I suppose I'm just as fanatical about plant dyeing, though I decided long ago that the only purpose for picking fruit should be with a view to eating it.

Early experience of berry dyes left me soured with the bitterness of pretty pink knitting gone beige by Christmas. At this time of year, Pinterest is simply laden down with fabulous pictures of berry dyed yarn. Planning to make some berry robb, I went back to check the recipe on a blog I wrote five years ago, when the disappointment was still fresh. My companion joined me and we were soon scanning the latest berry dye images to arrive on the computer. 
"It's such a shame. Those colours are going to fade, no matter what they say online."
Elinor looked at my purple stained fingers.
"To be fair, Beaut, most of your dyework was pretty crap, back in the day. Go on, have another go, I'll even give you some sloes, there's plenty left over."
I had to wonder, was I wrong to condemn berry dyes out of hand? Could all these people really be wasting their time? This year of all years, it wouldn't be such a big deal to do a proper trial, trying to avoid beginner's mistakes.

One thing I've learned is the most effective way to mordant fibres is by heating them for an hour in a 10% alum solution. Dyers have been using alum for several thousand years. Another way to improve colour depth and fastness is to use lots of plant material to weight of fibre. With this in mind, I simmered 200g fruit for each 10g sample, a ratio of 20:1. I decided to dye wool and silk blend fibre tops and my test subjects were blackberries, elderberries and sloes, (since Elinor was offering, though of course, sloes are stone fruit, rather than berries.)
The simmer to extract the dye was kept well below the boil, as I have found high temperatures can destroy some natural blues. Purple might be the result of a mixture of red and blue dye molecules, so a cooler dye bath ought to give berries the best chance. After mashing the stewed fruit in my three pots, leaving it to cool and sieving out the juice, I gently heated the samples for an hour and left them to cool in their pots for 24 hours. Another major error I used to make was whipping wool out of the pot pronto, just to see what colour it had gone.
I now realise that during a long soak, fibres are able take up considerably more colour than they absorb during the initial simmering phase. To avoid bleaching out fresh dye, my samples were dried out of direct sunlight and to avoid washing out any as yet unfixed colour, they were left without being rinsed. I did tease out a portion of the fibres from each sample to spin a little skein of yarn.
These are my glamour shots of the results, purple from blackberries, pink from sloes, with the elderberries giving a colour somewhere in between. All the pictures were taken a couple of days after dyeing.

To test lightfastness, I wrapped a few turns of each dyed yarn around some white card, slid half of the card inside a fold of black card to exclude light and taped it against the skylight for a week. It was a wet, grey week, with no sunny days at all. In the meantime, I tested wash fastness by wetfelting some of the dyed fibres around a soap. Here's a link to the method, it involved about fifteen minutes of rubbing the wetted fibres against a bar of Dove soap with half a dozen plunges from hot to cold water. To my surprise, I didn't see any colour wash out of the fibre, there was no pink discoloration of the lather or rinse water.

Sadly, this is how my felted soap turned out. Sloe pink had turned beige, elderberry went brownish, only blackberry held much purple.

"There you go, see, the blackberry dye is alright." My companion has become relentlessly cheerful. Suspecting the sloe gin might already be going into her tea, I sighed, smiled and added an extra stripe of blackberry round my felted soap.

Given the lousy weather we have been having, lightfastness was not by any means an extreme test. After a week, this is how the card looked, shown together with the little skeins of yarn, which had been kept in a drawer. The effect of light exposure was similar to washing.

"I'll have to use that soap up quickly, Elinor. Now the sun is shining through the bathroom window, it will soon go completely beige."
"Oh, don't be so negative, just bathe by candlelight. Anyway, it's all your own fault for not adding any vinegar to the dye bath. Everybody says that fixes berry dyes." 
"Now I know you've been on the gin. VINEGAR IS NOT A MORDANT!!!!!"
"Chill out, Beaut, my body is a temple. While I'm waiting for those sloes to ferment, I've taken up yoga again. Don't stress over lightfastness, rejoice in nature, join me in a sun salutation. Ooo, you've gone all red in the face."

I took the dog for a walk and had a think about things. Acidity does change some plant dye colours, quite a few of them are sensitive to pH.  I do know vinegar isn't going to fix natural dyes onto fibres, but it might affect how they look. I put vinegar and water into one jam jar and dissolved a little soda ash in another, to make an alkaline modifier.

Small samples of the dyed fibres were left to soak for twenty minutes in each jar. Once they had dried, I laid them out, vinegar acidic soak on the left, unmodified fibres in the middle and soda ash alkaline soak on the right. I don't think the vinegar deepened the colour perceptibly. Berries are naturally acidic, it gives them flavour. On a guess, the berry dye bath was already acidic. Washing the fibres with soap while wet felting probably reduced the pH toward neutral and that was why the colours dimmed so quickly, even though no dye appeared to rinse out. Alkali did indeed shift the colour, look at that green, much the same modification as with pink hollyhock dye.

"See, Elinor. More acidity didn't even alter the berry dye colours. All those people putting instructions online about adding vinegar really are sending each other on a hiding to nowhere."
I got out my camera and showed her a couple of photos. "It's all a matter of what you choose to share, a well staged first impression or an evaluation under test conditions."

"Life's an illusion, Beaut. Live the dream. By the way, did you remember to add salt to the dye bath?"

Friday, 24 August 2018

Dyeing Wool with Hemp Agrimony

Madeleine Jude recommended I grow Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). As you will read in this link, she used the flowering tops to dye yarn a strong yellow green. I was particularly interested when, in conversation on a Ravelry forum, she told me that unlike many dye plants, Hemp Agrimony likes damp conditions and copes with shade. Wonderful plant for a garden in Wales. I sowed a packet of seeds last Spring and the young plants did indeed thrive. I watered them regularly during the unusually hot weather in July and they grew about two feet tall and actually flowered this month.
Earlier this summer, I found plenty of hemp agrimony plants growing wild along my regular dog walking route. What is more, lurking round the back of the greenhouse in my own garden, I already had a mature plant, which grew about eight feet tall and fell over before I spotted it. Never let it be said I am too tidy a gardener. 
Once I was aware of all these established plants, I saw them flowering much earlier than my newly grown ones. In the heat of July, I was able to stuff a jar with flowering tops, which solar dyed some wool fibres vivid yellow, a colour much like Madeleine Jude's yarn. Which made me very pleased to have grown my own and a bit surprised that the plant isn't better known. There is little or no information about dyeing with hemp agrimony either online or in my books. Further exploration seemed well warranted.

Last week, I cut 300g tops from my young flowering plants and simmered them for an hour. The dye bath looked pale yellow (centre jar), adding vinegar made it go pale pink (left), while adding soda ash to make the dye alkali deepened the yellow (right).
Rummaging for some test fibres, I found three 50g skeins of Cheviot wool yarn which I mordanted with alum ages ago. Madeleine used a 1:1 ratio in her dye pot, this was a 2:1 plant to fibre ratio. The skeins were soaked and simmered for an hour and left in the dye overnight, but next day, their colour was dimmer than I had hoped.
I gave one skein a rinse then a soak in water with a little dissolved soda ash and its colour did brighten somewhat. Not as good as Madeleine's, but in retrospect, I now remember that this yarn does not pick up plant dyes particularly wellThe two remaining skeins were heated again, one with copper and the other with iron solution (see below, right and left). 
Next year, I'll definitely be dyeing some nicer yarn. Now I appreciate how big they grow, I'd better move my young hemp agrimony plants to give them more space. Probably, as older plants, they will flower earlier and maybe that will also help in getting stronger dye colours in future.

Finally, one of those eeeek!!! moments. I asked himself to uproot the huge plant and clear the area behind the greenhouse. Major event next month, the old greenhouse will not have to be patched up again this winter, it is coming down before it falls down. Thanks very much, Mum, I have decided to squander my inheritance on a state of the art greenhouse of considerable size, beauty and style. 

Sod's Law, the same evening the big agrimony came out, I saw a fascinating snippet on Gardener's World. Last week's programme showed a group of women from Asia with a shared allotment in the UK where they grew hemp agrimony especially in order to dye fabric a purple blue with the seeds. Astonishing - I've sent an email to the BBC and if they ever do put me in touch with the group to ask about their method, I'll be having a go at that next year.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Dyeing Wool and Silk with Deep Pink Hollyhocks

Last year, I planted half a dozen Double Maroon Hollyhocks and never saw a flower. It was a damp spring, the leaves succumbed to rust fungus and by June all the flower spikes had been completely destroyed. This year, expecting the worst and hoping for the best, I bought just a couple of young plants, put them out in a new location and watched with high anticipation as they flourished in the heat wave. Oh yes, soon I'd have the fun of dyeing this sequence of blues again. Only my lovely, healthy plants weren't Double Maroons after all. In July, the flowers opened to show deep pink rather than dark red petals. I was quite peeved and said as much to my companion, Elinor Gotland.

"Curse that garden centre and its staff of  gibbering bloody chimpanzees, more interested in servicing the tearoom than labelling their plant pots correctly. Now I'll have no blues again this year, just mouldy yellows and greens. A pox on those unbotanical idiots and their slapdash, carrot cake ways."
"Fair play, I'd torch the place, Beaut."

It's a great comfort to have a sympathetic friend. 
As the first pink hollyhock flowers passed their prime, I stuffed them into a jar of water with a length of alum mordanted tops. Might as well see what solar dyeing would do. The water turned an impressive purple, but I didn't get overly excited.

Reds and pinks are fickle flowers, promising much and giving little. Geraniums make a beautiful dye bath. Couldn't resist trying them again this year and as before, the bright red water in the jar soon faded to tea colour, leaving me with a bit of brown wool. The purple jar of hollyhocks had at least stayed colourful.
"Hey, Elinor, come and look at this. My hollyhock dyed wool has gone all stripey." 
After a few weeks in the sun, the colour in the jar of pink hollyhocks wasn't half as dull as I'd expected. I tipped out the flowers onto the compost heap and laid the tops out to dry.
"I've had splodgy, uneven colours out of solar jars before, but I've never seen anything dyed in stripes. Must have been visited by the fairies."
"It wasn't wool tops you put in there, muppet, that's wool with silk fibres blended in. If you ask me, it's the wool that dyed greeny yellow and the silk has gone pinkish. I'm not gonna lie, they both look crap."
I wasn't so sure.

By this time, a fair pile of flowers had fallen from the hollyhock plants. Heating them to hand hot in a pot of water made another purple pink dye bath. I've read about safflower dyes, where you have to go through a number of steps, dyeing wool to clear the yellow pigment, changing the dye bath pH and using cotton to pick up pink pigment before changing the pH again to release it into silk. Wondering if the wool had been a necessary adjunct to dyeing silk a hollyhock pink, I divided the dye bath into two pots and put a strip of silk fabric into each then added some mordanted fleece to the larger pot.

After gently heating them for an hour and leaving the pots overnight, I found the wool had come out a dingy beige together with pale purple silk, whereas the silk heated alone had taken up more dye and come out deeper purple. So the wool wasn't clearing any yellow colour, seems to me that the same dye simply comes out a different colour on silk.

I thought I'd play about with the pH anyway. Putting two samples of the dye bath into jars, I added vinegar to acidify one jar, which promptly turned brown/green, then used soda ash to alkalinise the other, which went deep pink. Soaking one end of the paler silk strip in each jar, after ten minutes, the ends had changed to green and deeper purple.

My companion came outdoors to find me getting busy with two paint brushes. 
"I'm using vinegar and soda ash to paint this silk with a green vine and purple flowers. Only it hasn't come off how I wanted."
"I've told you before, leave art to the artists. Stick to what you're good at and put the kettle on, Beaut."
Elinor has a thing about silk and from the speed she swathed herself in this lot, I suspect she rather liked the colours after all. One way or another, I don't think I'll get to keep these pink hollyhock dyes for long. So fragile and fugitive, I daren't rinse the silk, even ironing it seemed to dim the colours. Still, it's been altogether more interesting than I expected. 

Tea in the garden was considerably more artistic than my companion expected. I just bought a new tea set in Llandeilo. It's called 'Everyone looked up to Lisa' and it was made by Lindy Martin. I can't tell you how much I love it.
"One lump or two, then, Elinor?"

Friday, 10 August 2018

Attempts at Dyeing with Marigold Flowers

I used to grow pot marigolds as companion plants for tomatoes and I was sure that some years ago, I'd got a good orange dye colour from them. Only that was before I started keeping a blog, so I couldn't check. This spring, I sowed a couple of packets of marigold seeds.By June,the plants had big flowers with multiple layers of petals.

Here is a photo of one flower, laid on alum mordanted wool fabric in the middle of a circle of eucalyptus leaves. 

So many petals and such a bright orange, I thought these marigolds would easily be able to dye the thin layer of wool fabric underneath them. After rolling and tying up the fabric and simmering it for an hour, then leaving it to cure for a few days, I found the eucalyptus leaves had printed beautifully, but there were no marks at all on the wool to show where the marigolds had been. Still, hey ho, very few plants have a sufficiently intense dye concentration for contact printing. With my expectations downgraded and the sun blazing the whole way through July, it didn't seem too much to ask that a solar jar full of marigolds would dye a measly 10g of alum mordanted wool and silk fibre.

Not a lot of joy to be had from the jar by August, was there?.

Somewhat baffled, I thought it might help to have a proper look at the dye. No shortage of new flowers blooming and the sun still shining, so last week, I simmered a big basketful of marigolds in a pot of water. After sieving out the flowers, the remaining fluid looked, well, just like water - see the sample in the jar on the left? When I added some dissolved soda ash to the jar on the right, it turned bright yellow, convincing me there was actually dye in the dye bath. Big smile, I reckoned that all this time, my miserable results had been down to having the wrong pH for marigold dyeing. Haha - I put several teaspoons of soda ash into the pot and added a mere 10g of wool before simmering it in the alkaline dye for an hour. This time, the fibres turned a marginally deeper yellow than the wool from the solar jar. I'm disappointed. According to the book, marigolds should be able to dye their own weight of fibre a strong greenish yellow. Probably I've been growing the wrong species. No more casual picking up of seed packets with pretty pictures in the garden centre.  Next year, I shall be buying the old classic pot marigold, Calendula officinalis. Though the ones in the garden do look lovely.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Dyeing Wool with Hazel Bark and Hazel Leaves

Over twenty years ago, a corkscrew hazel (Corylus contorta) arrived in the post as a free gift with an order of seeds.  Though it has grown much bigger than expected and makes the whole area dry and shady, I value the drama it lends to the garden in winter, when straight yellow catkins hang down from the twisted branches like a Japanese woodcut. Once the leaves appear, I prefer not to look too closely, their warping and curling seems somehow diseased. I'd guess it must be a plant virus that causes the knotted growth of the main tree, because straight stems with normal hazel leaves have to be pruned off the bole every year to show the old, gnarly trunks. After himself had cleared the base of the tree this summer, I thought I would try dyeing some leftover wool skeins with hazel bark and leaves.

100g bark was peeled off cut branches and left soaking in a bucket of water for over a week, then simmered for an hour in a pot. As seems usual with bark, fermentation made the resulting orange dyebath acidic, testing at pH 5 with indicator paper. Adding soda ash to bring the pH up to neutral then alkaline deepened the colour almost to black. Three 25g skeins of unmordanted Shetland wool yarn were simmered for an hour with the bark and left overnight. One was taken out and soda ash was added to the pot before reheating the remaining skeins at neutral pH, then the secomd skein was taken out and the last was reheated with more soda ash added to give it an alkaline pH.

After curing for a few days, the three skeins were rinsed, dried and inspected.
"Creating beige again, Beaut?"
"Three shades of beige, Elinor. The pale one is from the acid dye bath, the middle one is from the neutral and the darker one was heated in the alkali bath."
"Only another 47 shades of beige and you might be onto something."
A whole bucket full of leaves soaked for ages before I got round to giving them a simmer. Even so, they all had to be sieved out through a colander before I could discern whether the dye bath had developed any colour at all. Just a tinge of yellow in the sample, more convincing once I had added soda ash to the dye in a couple of extra jam jars. Putting a good teaspoon of soda ash in the pot, I simmered three small skeins of wool yarn, previously mordanted with 10% alum. The larger skein came out to dry then I divided the dye bath into two, added copper solution to one half and iron to the other and heated the two smaller skeins for twenty minutes, one in each pot, before rinsing them.

 A lot of hazel leaves on a little wool dyed it an orangey beige, copper modification shifted the colour toward green. My companion leaped upon the iron modified skein.

"Woo-hoo, beat me on the bottom with The Garden magazine, at last, a shade of grey."
"Good job you enjoy seeing me suffer. This isn't a range of colours I'm on fire to dye again, next time the hazel needs pruning."
"Never mind, Beaut. You love an exercise in masochism." 
"I do not."
I might get into Sadism, though.