Friday, 29 March 2019

Red Onion Skin Dye Colours Modified with Alkali

"The onion skin bag turned out alright, didn't it Beaut? No need for all that doom and gloom." 
drank my tea and admired its colours, all warm and autumnal in the Spring sunshine.
"Oh, I always thought I'd get there in the end." 
My companion lit her cigarette and blew smoke rings into the green air.
"You didn't look too confident to me. Only a couple of days ago, I recall you sobbing and moaning and threatening to fall upon your own knitting needles."
"Well, it was a struggle. I'm not sure I'd try this method again."
In the absence of a long colour change yarn, I had decided to knit entrelac using a load of 25g skeins I'd dyed with brown onion skins and red onion skins. My intention was to work each square to give the appearance of one colour weaving under and over the next. Which meant an awful lot of ends to sew in.
Instead of casting on for the entrelac, where I've found it hard to make the initial edge sufficiently loose, my other great idea was to knit a strip of cable to become the gusset and the handle. Then I began by picking up stitches for the entrelac from one side . First problem was over-enthusiastically making too many starting triangles and having to unpick the edges of the top ones back off the gusset.
Second problem was the lumpiness of joining entrelac cast off triangles along the bottom edge, which I did by picking up a stitch from the gusset at the end of alternate rows and purling three together, instead of two. Third problem was making the joins of each triangle along the opposite side equal in length to the cast on triangles - it should have been straightforward, picking up one stitch from every other row of the gusset, only somehow, it wasn't, and had to be frogged and reknitted, repeatedly holding the two sides together to check they were equal.
Knitting the front of the bag, it was easier to copy the spacing. I planned an i-cord edging to finish the entrelac panels and for once in my life, I did knit and edge a swatch, which was intended to become an inside pocket. In the wash, the i-cord shrunk more than entrelac, so I learnt to pick up nine stitches across each of my eight stitch triangles and add three stitches for going round corners.

A more unexpected lesson of felting the swatch was finding out how significantly the colours of the red onion dyes would shift when washed with colour washing powder. I know washing powder is alkaline, but when felting, I prefer to use it even with plant dyes because I believe the roughening caused by alkali helps wool fibres felt better than simple hot water and friction. However, I didn't anticipate much colour change. Previous experimentation with soaking brown onion dyed fibres in alkali solution hadn't modified the colours perceptibly. As you can see from the photo above, unlike the brown, the dyes from red onion skins did all shift toward yellow once the bag was exposed to alkaline washing powder.  Most obviously, the green wool, used for the i-cord edging, which had been alum mordanted before dyeing, had turned a rich orange yellow and the unmordanted, deep chocolate yarns had become more red. The various shades of ginger yarn, which had been dyed with brown onion skins, did not change nearly so much. Two kinds of onion, two kinds of dye.
"Mmm, I love the bag lining. Feels like suede."
"It's a remnant of that fabric Mum used to upholster my armchair. There's still some left. I might try another experiment with entrelac, see if I can knit a bag in a ball shape. Like that time when I accidentally joined the wrong edges of the squares together and the fabric curved round."
My companion explored the handbag, emerging from the inside pocket like a young marsupial.
"Like childbirth really, isn't it?" 
Thinking of kangaroos and joeys, I failed to make the right connection.
 Elinor waved a hoof. 
"Making up knitted bag patterns, Beaut. You forget all the pain soon as you have it on your arm."

Friday, 22 March 2019

Dyeing with Dried Madder Root

A shoe box full of dried madder has long awaited its moment of glory.
"Ooh, Elinor, it must be over a year since I dug these roots upI'm so pleased they haven't gone mouldy. Some gorgeous red yarn will really liven up my knitting."
"Fair play, Beaut, can't fault your optimism. Just bear in mind the last few madder vats. Considering your track record, I expect you'll end up moaning over balls of orangey brown wool."
Conveniently ignoring my companion and a store of less successful muddy orange fibres, I pulled out the best leftovers from my past madder dye sessions. Proof that blood red was possible, if not probable.
New shoots are already coming up from the plants in the garden, so I could as well have dug up some fresh material. I hoped my stored supplies would work better, since I've read that the dye gets stronger once roots have been dried out,. With 100g of yarn to dye, I decided 150g dried root would be a generous amount and guarantee me a strong red ... if I could get the method right.
My experience suggests that breaking down the roots at the beginning does help release their dye. Though I've spent ages slicing and macerating fresh roots, when I put these desiccated bits into a blender with the blade for chopping nuts, they buzzed down to a gritty powder within seconds. Which was great, til I remembered they hadn't been scalded yet.
Madder contains other dye colours as well as the red alizarin. Pouring boiling water on the roots and leaving them to soak for a few minutes quickly releases a considerable amount of dye. Since more of this is yellow than red, scalding can clear some of the orange tones. Sadly, if I'd decanted the fluid I'd poured over my buzzed up madder, I think I'd have lost half the powder.
I understand that alizarin red isn't easily soluble in water, so even though I hadn't managed to remove any of the yellow dye, I hoped leaving this bowlful on the underfloor heating in the bathroom for 24 hours before dyeing would at least get a better percentage of the red out of the roots and into the water. Next day, my dye bath looked dark brown.
It is said that bran will take brown dye out of a madder bath, so I put some rolled oats in a gauze bag and dropped them in the pot. Then I stirred up calcium carbonate in hot water and added that, since hard water is supposed to improve the red. Finally, I added enough soda ash to raise the pH to 8.
Alkaline conditions favour redness. The sample of the dye bath on the left is alkaline and I thought the acidic sample on the right did look less red, more scarlet. My best results so far have come from slow dyeing over five days without much heat, but I have also had disappointing results with the slow method, so heat and time aren't absolute factors. Anyway, I didn't want to hang about.
Adding warm water to the pot to float the first 50g skein of wool, I heated it on the gas to about 50 degrees Centigrade for an hour and left it to soak overnight. Next day, the pH had dropped back to neutral, probably because the roots were still fermenting in the bath. This yarn started out as a long colour change from white through grey and brown.

The white parts of the wool had become reddish, but not powerfully so. I think I actually prefer the brighter tone on the second skein, shown on the right, which was dyed in the afterbath under acidic conditions (I put a lemon in). Overdyeing madder red onto the brown and grey parts of the yarn does seem to have added interest, but the overall result is quite muted. All in all, despite my best efforts, I haven't achieved the rich blood red or bright scarlet I hoped for.

My companion joined me in the green house, where I was stolidly planting more madder seeds. She raised an eyebrow. 
"It'll be years before you get to reap what you're sowing in those pots."
"It'll be years before I've tried out all the different madder dye methods." I sighed. "Best guesses aren't getting me the best results, but there are so many variables to consider, I hardly know where to begin. Never mind when I shall reap these roots, the Grim Reaper may come for me before I manage to get all the elements just right." 
My companion chortled to herself, which I thought rather unkind.
"Talking of the Grim Reaper, this'll cheer you up, Beaut. They call my friend, Cleopatra Jones, 'The Quim Reaper'. She's a beautician, marvellous knack around the bikini area."

Friday, 15 March 2019

Spinning Shetland Wool Tops

My companion watched me stuff all my yarn back into hiding. Few balls were made of really tough, durable fibres and none of them had a long colour change. I knew that really, I'd just been checking. I sighed.
"How is it that I never own exactly the yarn I need?"
"Face it, Beaut, you're addicted to knitting those entrelac bags. No quick fix, if you want to make another one, you'll have to spin some of this wool first." 
Turning to my fleece stash, plenty of the raw wool looked hard wearing enough to become a bag, but I'd failed to get it washed while the sun shone last summer. I did find four bumps of combed Shetland wool tops in natural colours. Being coarser than I'd expected when I bought them online, these had been facing an uncertain future from under the bed.
Shetland sheep grow a wonderful range of coloured fleece and the tops were intended for making cosy thrums, only the hat I made with them turned out really itchy. On closer inspection, the white wool looked and felt considerably finer and softer than the other colours, the dark chocolate being next softest while the faun and grey felt properly hairy. OK for a bag though.

Spinning on a high ratio, I spun short forward draw with high twist, aiming for a dense, smooth yarn. After spinning a 20cm portion of one colour of tops, I tore off a short piece of another and blended it roughly with the first, just by splitting and drafting the two between my hands. The resulting single had the sort of long colour change I so enjoy knitting as entrelac.
It wasn't until I had chain plied the first bobbin that I noticed I'd also spun a long weight change. Watching the Six Nations Rugby on telly, it wasn't the exciting moments of the games that had affected my drafting, so much as the different qualities of the four Shetland tops. The coarser fibres had tended to run more thickly through my fingers and once three plied, that effect had been trebled.
The white sections of the yarn had turned out about double knitting weight, while the faun and grey were nearer aran. Even when paying greater attention while spinning the next bobbin, consciously aiming to draft all the colours equally, this intrinsic tendency of the fibres to do their own thing proved surprisingly hard to correct. After spinning four 50g skeins of irregular weight yarn, I was still fighting the tide.
"I've had it with spinning this Shetland, Elinor. I'm going to start knitting. There's enough yarn here for a small bag in sepia shades. Call it a rustic clutch."
"Which sounds like the last dance at the village hall, only less fun. You've been craving the thrill of entrelac colour play, don't give up now, mordant that yarn and make it fabulous."

I'm not sure how spectacular an uneven, natural coloured, tightly spun Shetland yarn can become, but I'm giving it my best shot. Never say dye.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Spinning a Durable, Long Colour Change Yarn from an Indie Dyed Braid

"This craft room looks like a bomb site, Beaut." 
My companion, Elinor Entrelac Gotland, stood in the doorway with a cup of tea in her outstretched hoof. Sitting back on my heels to reach for the cup, I managed to spill tea on a heap of plant dyed fleece. I winced and my companion shrugged. 
"To be honest, those colours look mouldy anyway. Tea could only improve them."
"Well, it's not the right wool to take on the Cronkhill spinning weekend. I want to spin tough yarn to make a firmly shaped bag and that Down type fleece would be too bouncy and elastic. This coreopsis-dyed Polwarth is a great colour, but much too soft." I opened another box and pulled out a handful of corkscrew locks. "If I combed some Wensleydale it would be strong and smooth, only this isn't dyed yet and I want to spin a long colour change yarn."
"How about these?" Elinor profferred two 100g braids of fibre dyed by HilltopCloud. I read the label.
"Oooh, perfect. A blend of Romney wool, silk and linen, all smooth, durable fibres and I love the colours. Is this what you'll be spinning at Cronkhill?"
"You can have it. I'm not coming, Beaut. Got a better offer."
I clutched the gorgeous braids of fibre, both delighted and baffled. What could be better than a weekend away with friends, spinning, drinking Damson Gin and nosing round Shrewsbury? Elinor started humming Calon Lan.
"Go on then, tell me."
"I've been given a ticket for the Six Nations Rugby. This Saturday, I'll be rubbing shoulders with Sam Warburton in the South Stand Lounge at the Principality Stadium, drinking champagne and watching Wales v England." 
I wasn't sure Elinor would be tall enough to rub shoulders with any of the players, but she was chuffed to bits and so was I. 

While the crowd were singing Hymns and Arias in Cardiff, I was sitting in an English farmhouse spinning short forward draw with high twist, drafting to and fro across the top of the braid to make my single transition as slowly as possible from one colour to the next. Chain plied with equally high twist, the yarn turned out smooth and as hard and inelastic as string. Although only aran weight, the grist was so high that 50g fibre made only 56m yarn. Somewhat to my chagrin, despite best efforts, the colour changes in the yarn were of only moderate length and muddier than the braid. On the upside, news of a convincing victory for Wales had me bouncing on the sofa, discommoding adjacent spinners.
It took my companion several days to recover from emotional exhaustion brought on by the rugby. Once she had her voice back, she asked to see what I'd done with her braids.
"Fair play, Beaut, that yarn is harder than JPR Williams. There'll be years of wear in that."
Knitted on 3.5mm needles to create a tight fabric, I think the six stitch squares of entrelac have given the best possible definition to the colour changes.
Using two inch jute upholstery webbing and the same construction method as for the first bag, yarn spun from the second braid was knitted into covers for the brim and the handles. I knew the bag was a success when I found Elinor packing it with her overnight things to fly up to Edinburgh. I'm led to believe that she's been invited to sing Ar Hyd Y Nos at tomorrow's game with the troubadour of Wales, Max Boyce.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Belt and Braces Knitted Bag Construction

Like the daffodils, already flowering in this unseasonably warm February, my companion, Elinor Gotland, has decided Spring is upon us. Fuelled by a couple of episodes of Marie Kondo, the Spring Cleaning Urge has galvanised her into radical action and none of my wardrobe is safe.
"Is that battered old cardigan really 'sparking joy' for you, Beaut?"
I picked at a sleeve.
"Well, I don't feel joyful about the felting and pilling on the cuffs, but I am really fond of this one."
Elinor was not so easily to be thwarted. She intends to take a full bag of my clothes to the charity shop.
"Consider, would you dream of wearing that cardigan outside the home or are you just wasting cupboard space on an item of limited function for foolish nostalgia?"  
I hugged my droopy knitwear round me.
"This is precious. And vintage. I remember buying the yarn in the 1990's at Liberty's and it cost me an absolute fortune. Back in the day, I'd never seen knitting wool like it, quite irresistibly gorgeous. I think the yarn must have been Noro and I think maybe it can still be salvaged."

Once the collar and cuffs had been cut away, the body of the cardigan unravelled quite readily into about 450g of aran single ply yarn, looking like a loose blend of wool and silk in a long colour change. 
My companion positively snarled when she caught me heading upstairs to tuck it away in my yarn stash.
"Surely storing a cardigan as balls of wool must be a step up on folding your Tee shirts really small?" 
Elinor dragged the charity bag into the hall.
"Use it or lose it, Beaut."

With plant dye baths, I find it jolly difficult to achieve slow transitions of dye on yarn. A vague idea of using a long colour change to knit entrelac, as suggested in Margaret Radcliffe's book, The Essential Guide to Colour Knitting Techniques, has been on the back burner of my mind for some years. On a wet Saturday afternoon, I took the book off the shelf and read through the instructions.
"Looks a bit fiddly to do. Have you ever tried this, Elinor?"
My companion was bolt upright on the sofa, transfixed by the rugby. She turned to me as they reset the scrum.
"Entrelac is my middle name. Get a backbone, you'll be fine."
Casting on 60 stitches on 4mm needles, I followed the instructions to create six 10 stitch base triangles and spent happy hours rapt in the pleasure of seeing what colour would appear next and how it would play with the adjacent sections. Entrelac is satisfyingly interesting knitting, holding my attention just enough, but not too much to critically appraise controversial decisions in several successive Six Nations Rugby games. 
"Referee! Knock on!" 
My companion bounced on the sofa as George North charged up the field. 
Like the French team, I'd have done better to start with a game plan and stick to it. When more than half the yarn was used up, I still had no idea what to do with my piece of entrelac fabric, 52cm wide and now 45cm long. Time to finish with a top row of triangles.

Folding it in half, crocheting the long edges together and tucking in the corners to create a squat, oblong box shape, I decided that with a wide brim on top, the piece could become a bag. Casting on 20 provisional stitches and knitting a strip in stocking stitch, when it was just a little shorter than the total distance around the top of the bag, I joined the two ends with a three needle bind off.

"I doubt you washed that cardigan very often." My companion watched the dirty water swirl away after the two knitted pieces had had a thorough scrub. I heaved a sigh as I laid them out flat to dry.
"The strip for the brim has curled up and though I hoped hot water would tighten up the entrelac, it seems to have got looser. Hey ho, lining the bag with some of Mum's leftover upholstery material might firm up the construction."
"What about folding some of this jute upholstery webbing inside the brim piece? That'll uncurl your knitted strip."
Two inch herringbone webbing fitted perfectly inside the folded circle of knitting I'd made for the brim, forming a stiff belt from which to suspend the entrelac bag. To give the bag shape, I sewed another length of webbing against the seams on the short sides and tacked it to every junction of entrelac squares across the base, folding each end of the strip over the belt for the brim.
A third length travelled up from under the base webbing, crossing outside the brim, looping over to form a handle, passing back down under the base and coming up on the other side to loop over as the second handle and finishing under the base. Wherever they touched, the strips of webbing were sewn against each other, except where the handles crossed the brim.
It took an unconscionable number of pins to hold the lining against the brim, the brim against the top of the entrelac and the knitted strip over the brim, but once everything was in place, a single circuit of running stitch sewn with button thread through the lower edge of the brim webbing held all these elements securely together. Next day, I was due to travel up to Edinburgh to visit my daughter. Desperate to find a project to keep me entertained on the journey, my companion watched me scuffle about, madly rejecting patterns and casting aside unsuitable skeins of yarn.
"Calm down, Beaut. Why not take the entrelac bag with you as hand luggage and use up the last of your recycled yarn knitting covers for the handles while you're away? You could even use the buttons off the old cardigan to reinforce the handles flat against the brim."
Sounds improbable, but this plan worked perfectly well.
When crocheted inside a ten stitch wide strip of knitting, the webbing didn't so much roll as crumple into a tube shape, but the handles are both sturdy and comfortable to hold. I even had enough time and yarn to knit pockets for inside to hold my purse and phone. 
This could become my basic construction method for all sorts of knitted bags, upholstery webbing making them strong and giving them shape without needing to felt the knitting. All in all, I'm very pleased to have recycled something old and learned something new.
E.E.G. Elinor Entrelac Gotland. I never would have guessed.