Saturday 11 April 2020

Young Dye Plant Seedlings

"Wonderful weather for the Bank Holiday." My companion, Elinor Gotland peered into the trays of seedlings that had been carried outdoors to enjoy a day of direct sunshine. "I think your coreopsis could do with a drop of water."
"Hmmm. The Impatiens balsamina seedlings are still damp but it's done them no good, they've all flopped anyway. Looks pretty terminal to me. I think their stalks grew too leggy by the window indoors to cope without a greenhouse. Even in this warm weather." I slid my glasses back up my sweaty nose to focus on the other trays. "No sign at all of the woad germinating. Possibly two miniscule weld plants are sprouting. Or maybe they're weeds."
"Ooo, you've got more than half a dozen Japanese Indigo coming up. That's good isn't it?"

"Not sure where I can grow Japanese Indigo plants if they do survive. When I tried to dig a hole in the garden to put that clematis in, I found a solid foot of builders' rubble two inches below ground. Not exactly a cool moist root run."
Elinor sighed. "The very thought is dehydrating. Get the kettle on, Beaut."
"Fancy a walk?"  Elinor finished the Diabolical Sudoku and put her newspaper down.
"Suppose the dog needs an airing." 
"You could do with some sunshine too, you mouldy old Grouch Bag. Dig your sandals out and let's go and enjoy the lambs in the fields and Spring just bursting up everywhere."
"I'd gladly wear the usual woolly jumper, hat, scarf, coat and bring an umbrella if we didn't have Lockdown. Spring ought to mean going to Wonderwool, shopping for fibre, meeting all my friends and eating cake and I'm just sad that none of that will be happening."

"Chocolate cake! Crack on with the baking Beaut, it's practically Easter." Elinor dumped a bag of shopping on the kitchen floor. "Got all the ingredients for you. Did I mention I've gone Vegan?"
Including avocados in both the sponge and the icing had strangely contrary effects. Far from being cooked in 25 minutes, the cake mix stayed gloopy in the middle for over an hour, by which time the frosting seemed to have solidified. Luckily, it softened up again in an improvised Bain Marie over the broccoli soup. 
I yelped as the tea towel slipped off a hot cake tin when at last I could turn the sponges out.
"Couldn't you just have bought some custard creams, Elinor? They're vegan."
"Never." She looked at me severely over her specs. "The palm oil in them is not sustainably sourced."
"Heaven forbid you should eat an unethical biscuit." 

"No animals were harmed in the making of this chocolate cake." said my companion with great satisfaction.
Sucking the burn on my thumb, I reflected that this was not entirely true. 
Happy Easter Everyone 

Saturday 4 April 2020

Free Woad, Weld and Other Dye Plant Seeds

Free Woad, Weld, Madder, Coreopsis Tinctoria, Japanese Indigo and Impatiens Balsamina Seeds

Now all gone, thanks everybody 
Small envelopes of dye plant seeds saved from my garden last autumn are available for free with free postage, because I shan't be taking them to talks and workshops this spring and would be delighted to find them good homes. UK only, offer ends when the seeds run out.
I practically choked on my tea when I saw the envelopes. "However did you find those dye plant seeds?"
My companion, Elinor Gotland just smiled and shrugged.
"Perseverance, Beaut. With all those stacks of boxes you've got piled up, I knew it was odds on there'd a few seeds saved in one of them."

I moved house last winter. 
Truth be told, I have still not entirely unpacked and was not in the least prepared for visitors. In practice, the whole virus crisis has caused me only the most minor of inconveniences. When Elinor appeared on my new doorstep, masked and gowned in sterile whites, my first thought was that himself must have dropped off another loo roll. Then the swathed shape swanned indoors demanding tea.
"You wouldn't believe what a journey I've had. Eerie, the quiet on the streets, absolute nightmare finding a cab across Paris to the Eurostar. Feels like I just caught the last freedom moped out of Nowhere City."

Brushing aside COVID -19 precautions as not applicable to sheep, my companion gave me a hug and ensconced herself in the spare room. Next morning she returned home from Asda with a clanking bag of shopping and a sack of seed compost.
"Life's little essentials for me and a gift for you, Beaut. Probably not peat free, but fair play, needs must. Still reusing those old plastic seed trays?"
"Well, that's very kind but I'm not really organised for gardening, Elinor. I mean, there's no greenhouse here, just a north facing yard. In any case, I didn't buy a 2020 biodynamic calendar and I've no idea when the moon will be right."
Elinor tipped the woad seeds into a jar of water.
"Give the silicles 24 hours to soak, isn't that what you used to do? We can sow your seeds tomorrow."
Next day I did find some small seed trays, filled them with damp compost and sure enough, the little yellow woad seeds were easy to strip out of the middle of their sodden silicles. It didn't take long to lay a dozen out in a grid, cover them with a dusting of compost, press it down to get them in good contact with the soil, then label and wrap the tray in clingfilm.

Once in the swing of it, I carried on sprinkling trays with Coreopsis tinctoria, Impatiens balsamina and Japanese Indigo, none of which need to be soaked in advance and even remembered that weld seeds need maximum light and should be surface sown without any top covering of compost. 

Looking at the filled trays, my cheery mood evaporated.
"Oh hell and damnation, Elinor. The only room in this house that gets much direct sun hasn't any windowsills." 
"What a good job you've got all those boxes. Shove them over to the light, right up against the wall, don't stand there like a lemon."
That was five days ago and things seem to be working out. The Coreopsis sprouted after three days and this morning, when I turned the tray in which seedlings are already stretching for the light, I noticed that the Impatiens seeds are also germinating. A whole new dye plant garden remains a long way off, but as a start, I think this is good enough.

Friday 2 August 2019

A Trial of Dyeing with Dock Leaves

As I paused to collect an armful of dock leaves, my companion, Elinor Gotland sighed.
"Why on earth bring home weeds when you've a whole garden full of dye plant flowers that need picking?"
"Well, I know pretty much what colours I'll get from my own plants and I fancied trying something new."
"You're such an adrenaline junky, Beaut. Couldn't you go bungee jumping instead of spoiling any more yarn?"
"This isn't just some random impulse, it's a cunning plan. Dock leaves could save me a lot of time and effort. In Jenny Dean's book 'Wild Colour', she says dock leaves fix yellow colours onto wool with no mordant." I snapped off one last spike and turned toward home. "Think about it, Elinor, dock is a plentiful wild dye plant so no time spent sowing, watering and tending to it and what's more, no time spent preparing fibres before dyeing them. Quick and easy."
"Yellow with no mordant? You're sure? All sounds that bit too good to be true."
"Well, I'm going to test these dock leaves out on some wool yarn. I'll try dyeing one unmordanted skein and one mordanted with 10% alum, see if there's any difference."

I simmered 400g of dock leaves in 10 litres of water and left them to cool overnight. When the leaves were sieved out next day, the dye (central sample) looked a very decent yellow. Testing with pH indicator strips showed it had become naturally acidic, adding vinegar to make the sample on the left more acidic made little apparent difference, while adding soda ash to make the sample on the right alkaline deepened the colour to a strong bronze.
"Feast your mistrustful eyes on that, Ms Gotland. Looks like a pretty good dye bath to me."
My companion glanced up from the crossword.
"Handsome is as handsome does, Beaut."

Two 100g skeins of wool went into the 400g dock leaf dye bath and were simmered for an hour and left overnight. Neither came out yellow. The one that had previously been mordanted with alum looked just a little browner, but if Elinor caught sight of this undeniably beige yarn, I was going to have to eat crow.
I put both skeins in an alkali rinse, hoping it would bring up the colour and it did shift them to a more golden beige. When one was further modified by heating it in an iron solution it turned a dark khaki green.
My companion wandered over.
"That's a lot of fuss you're going to with that quick and easy dock leaf dye, Beaut."
"Oh" I said airily "I've dyed loads of this yarn with yellow dye plants already. What I really needed was a bit of contrast colour."
One granny square pattern in heavy wool yarn on a 6mm hook was a quick and easy way to make a substantial footrest. The inside is stuffed with a considerable weight of failed experiments on yarn and fabric. 
I name this pouffe 'Crouching Crochet, Hidden Beige'.

Friday 5 July 2019

A Coloured Romney Fleece to Spin

A trip to the Somerset Guild Fleece Fair was the highlight of this year's June Spinning Camp. After a week of rainy days and nights spent listening to the tent flap around me like a washing machine, Saturday dawned fine and full of promise. My last set of clean clothes had remained presentable, even the complicated journey along the lanes across the levels went without a single wrong turn, arriving at Hatch Beauchamp just as the Fair opened. Two friends on the inside, experienced Guild members both, had promised to keep a look out for the perfect grey fleece while the farmers were setting out their stands. As the doors opened, they steered me straight towards it.

Back at home, I looked up from unrolling my Romney on the lawn.
"That one's a beauty, but it wasn't the best fleece there, was it Beaut?"
"How did you work that out, Elinor?"
My companion shrugged.
"Call it intuition. You look one plastic toy short of a Happy Meal."
True enough, even as I arrived at the Ashbury Romney's stand, somebody else had got her purse out and was paying for the exact fleece my friends had pointed out. No matter, the farmer, Philip Prouse, had plenty of other gorgeous specimens for me to choose from.
Surveying my new purchase, I picked off a few wisps of hay.
"I was entirely satisfied when I found this beautiful clean, soft, variegated grey, shearling coloured Romney sheep fleece and it looks just as good now as I when I stashed it in the car boot." 
"So what's eating you?"
I sighed.
"After I bought it, I met another friend from camp who had a stand in the marquee. She'd nipped into the hall before the show actually opened and bought an even finer, absolutely amazing silvery grey Romney. It was under her table and she showed me."
My companion roared with laughter.
"Don't let the green eyed monster steal your joy, Beaut."

Soon as my sleeping bag was rinsed and drying on the line, I set to skirting the edges of the fleece. It's a shame the darkest colours are always on the shorter leg and belly wool which gets most matted, but this big fleece had few second cuts and no weak points in open locks with a staple of from 10 to 15cm.
Lustre gleamed along the even crimp. I'd have been happy to spin this fleece with no preparation, just picking apart the freshly shorn locks. Still, having a couple of weeks in hand before the Tour de Fleece, though I hadn't got a suint vat fermented, I decided to set one up for the summer by soaking the Romney for a week in a 90 litre container of cold water.
After one more day having a second rinse in fresh water then a couple of days drying out, the fleece had lost most of its dirt and much of its smell, though a moderate amount of lanolin remained. Though the colour variegations could be split into many shades of grey, I divided it into three broad categories. There was never any real doubt in my mind, there would be no combing or carding the wool, this fleece was begging to be spun from the lock.
Just a few bounces with the flicker was enough to open the tips and butts of the locks. With a small pile of locks prepared, I tried four options, results shown on the card below, described left to right.
Spinning from the fold longdraw, pointing my finger at the orifice of the spinning wheel and pulling backwards was the quickest process, though spinning from the fold short forward draw, with my finger at right angles to the orifice, gave a smoother and more even yarn. Spinning from the butts or the tips produced yarns somewhere in the middle.

I spun samples in fingering weight and chunky to compare. 
"The worsted effect from spinning forward from the fold works well at any weight of yarn, but I think I'd best spin chunky three ply for a thick jacket. This Romney is lovely, but not quite next to the skin soft for knitting the thin cardi I had in mind." 
I heaved a sigh and my companion looked stern.
"Old Green Eyes, stop pining for that fleece you didn't buy. Make a friend of this one."
I've taken Elinor's advice. And I've used the fingering weight Romney sample to make her a friend with green eyes. 

Saturday 29 June 2019

Dyeing with Weld Plants

A week ago I stood a tray of weld seeds in full sun on the greenhouse shelf because I'd decided long hours of daylight would germinate the seeds fast. No sign of life today, but no surprise because I found the compost dry as a Ryvita. My companion, Elinor Gotland, called from her deckchair on the lawn.
"Were you right about a bit of sunshine getting your weld seeds started then, Beaut?"
A full ten minutes watering the greenhouse had left me gasping in the humidity. I staggered out and veered across the lawn, attempting to dodge the question
"What a dramatic change this heat is from all the cool weather we've had." I reached the dye garden and stood there dripping sweat and trying to look nonchalant. "Rain then sun has really suited the weld plants, just look how many new flowers have grown." 

Since its main flowering spike was cut two weeks ago, my biggest weld plant has sprouted over a dozen lateral flower spikes. Quite an impressive effort.

That first main spike weighed 125g and has gone on to dye an even more impressive 250g wool yarn. Every batch of plant dye turns out a little differently, but since this one went particularly well, it seems a good point to record my current method.
I have found the strongest dye comes from chopping the plant material into large chunks and leaving it to ferment in cold water for at least three days, preferably a week. The water becomes faintly cloudy, slight frothy and properly stinky. Simmered for an hour, the dye bath looks only pale yellow and will test acidic at about pH 4 if you have indicator paper. 
Adding enough dissolved soda ash to bring the pH up to neutral 7 will turn a weld dye bath deeper yellow and I think leaving the plant material in the pot while dyeing also adds to the strength of colour. Starting with 125g weld, I first added two 50g skeins of wool yarn mordanted with 10% alum, simmered them for an hour and left them to cool overnight. Next day, they were a deep golden yellow, more like the colour from Dyer's Chamomile than the acid yellow I usually get from weld. I heated one skein with some dissolved iron to sadden the yellow to green and repeated the whole process with another two skeins, which went a more typically lime yellow. A last 50g skein was simmered soaked for a few days while I was away from home and even that turned primrose yellow.

"I think the first flower spikes give the strongest dye, Elinor. As they've given me plenty of dyed yarn, do you think I should do some contact printing with this second lot or just cut the spikes and hang them up to dry?"
"Best you let those flowers set seed, Beaut. Somehow I suspect you need to sow another weld seed tray."

Friday 21 June 2019

Cultivating Weld Plants for Dye

I walked out into the garden thinking this could be the perfect day for sowing weld seeds and as I reached the greenhouse, my companion jumped up in delight. The miserable June weather has forced her to move her deckchair inside and while the interior of the new greenhouse does provide an exclusive orangery ambiance, mobile phone reception is so dodgy that the poor soul often has to trek back to the house to order her tea and biscuits.
"Feeling parched and peckish again, Elinor?" 
A gust brought rain in through the greenhouse door and mud splattered the gravel as I dumped down half a sack of sodden seed compost. My companion shuddered and stepped back.
"Do shut the door - if you care nothing for me, at least spare a thought for your chilli peppers. I can't think why you're bringing in compost, Beaut. This weather might feel like April but it's far too late to be sowing seeds."
I wiped my hands on my jeans and the rain off my specs.
"The summer solstice is upon us. Weld seeds germinate best with lots of light and since this is the longest day of the year, it must surely be a good time to start sowing next year's weld plants."

I usually sow all my dye plant seeds in March. The seed trays sit on the underfloor heating in the bathroom and within a matter of days, tiny shoots appear and off they go, out to the greenhouse to grow on. Weld is the only plant with delayed germination. I've found that even when seeds are sprinkled on the surface of the compost with no earth or vermiculite on top, they remain inert until they get not only warmth but really decent light. Still, sooner or later, weld seedlings do appear in the March sown trays and although officially a biennial, with an early start, most of the plants will flower the same summer. 

This year's March sown weld plants are presently modest clumps of leaves, half of which have put up flowering spikes about 40cm high. They'll grow bigger and when I cut the main spikes, plenty more will shoot from the lower leaf axils. A few young weld plants won't flower, they'll just remain as low rosettes of leaves. Next spring, those will grow into plants 1.5m tall which start flowering by the end of May.

Weld flower spikes provide a great weight of material and thus a better harvest of luteolin dye than picking individual leaves from young clumps. Spikes are also simple to hang up in bunches to dry and dried weld leaves store their strong yellow dye for at least five years. Once they have finished flowering, the weld plants die. Since the second year plants grow so much bigger and generate ten times as much material as those that flower in their first year, it has become clear to me that though you have to wait longer, it's altogether more productive to cultivate weld as a true biennial. I've tried sowing fresh seed in September, straight from the last of the weld spikes, but once again, have found germination is uncertain. Maybe that's because the plant has been forced to go on flowering unusually long because I've picked spikes til the end of August and by September, the light levels are diminishing with the season. Left unpicked, early weld flower spikes would be setting seed already which would be scattered by the wind around the summer solstice. 
So theoretically, I reckon today could be the ideal time to sow weld. Even if there's little sunshine, we do have have long hours of daylight. Next week it's due to get warmer and I'll try to remember to put up another photo of that seed tray. See how long it takes the seeds to germinate.

Friday 14 June 2019

Dyeing with Dried Indigo Leaves Again

Since salvaging dye from the neglected Japanese Indigo plants of 2017 proved such an unexpected success, I felt much less pressure to use all of last summer's harvest in fresh vats. Following Deb McClintock's method, whenever I had a surplus, I cut stems and tied them in bunches to dry in the greenhouse. 

These have been stored in big paper bags under the spare bed. When I saw a beautiful pale blue shawl on a display at Wonderwool, I bought the pattern, thinking to myself I could recreate that colour using the dried indigo. Also, what a great excuse to buy some silk blend yarn to catch the light and show off the complex cabled border pattern. 
Once I dragged the first bag out and started to crumble the leaves off the stems, what appeared to be a large volume of dried indigo soon shrunk down to a modest net bag full weighing 200g.

Even so, that was twice as much as I had before. Once again, I followed John Marshall's instructions as described in Deb's blog, just doubling all the quantities. Previously I had dyed 200g wool tops with 100g dried leaves, so I expected a strong blue on my first 100g skein of yarn and a medium blue on the next and intended to dye a pale blue skein last. In practice, it took three dips each for two skeins to reach two shades of mid blue. Possibly the weight of dried indigo was deceptive, because I did leave lots of small stems in with the leaves. I exhausted the vat with a bit of wool blanket and have saved my other skein of fancy yarn for another time.

The dyed yarn is knitting up with stitch definition just as nice as I hoped and though this pattern takes all my concentration, it's a pleasure to make. Here's a link to an online source, Ravelry  of course, the designer is Helen Kennedy and it's called Closer to the Edge.