Friday 9 May 2014

Dyeing Wool with Hawthorn Flowers and Leaves

"I'm bringing in the May!" I carolled cheerily, carrying home branches of fragrant, blossoming hawthorn at the start of May Bank Holiday weekend.  Elinor Gotland looked at me over the top of her glasses.
"There's me thinking it was Labour Day." She went back to reading The Guardian.  As I left the room, I could hear her humming The Red Flag. Elinor has become somewhat sardonic.  A recent incident made me wonder if she might be homesick.

I bought a load of needlepunch prefelt merino sheets at Wonderwool, thinking they were undyed felt, not what they are, which is really an open preformed base for wet felting onto.  Inspired by a rug I saw at the show, I intended to dye some woollen felt gentle yellows and greens, with a view to making my own rug.  Nothing too lairy, soft underfoot and easy on the eye.  When I weighed up what I had bought, there was 1.7kg prefelted wool.  Same weight as those curtains I just struggled with.  

Now I know, it makes life much easier if you reduce the bulk into manageable portions before giving it a soak in the bath, then cold mordanting for a couple of days with 10% alum. While I was cutting it up, Elinor started rolling around on the prefelt, specs off and hooves aloft.
"It's the smell, Beaut.  Takes me back."  Saying which, she abandoned herself to her wriggling.

Hawthorn is listed in Jenny Dean's book, Wild Colour, as having the muted yellow and green shades I was aiming at for the rug. While dyeing, I planned to work on felting the prefelt tighter.  Hawthorn flowers have to be simmered for several hours.  It seemed unlikely such pristine white blossoms would give much colour, but the book is right.  This bath of only 25g gave a golden yellow to a 25g strip of medium weight felt.

The leaves and twigs were chopped up into a net bag, jumped up and down on to break them up, then simmered for a hour or so.  I put in two big pieces of thick prefelt, two of grey Nowegian wool prefelt and one strip of medium weight.  Though the total weight ratio of plant to wool was pretty much one to one, as recommended, I'll admit the result was not striking.

"Don't want to piss on your firework, Beaut, but you can buy lovely felt, any colour you like.  Or better still, a new rug"
"Wait and see, Elinor.  I am going to add copper to the dye bath, put some of the felt back on the heat for half an hour and that will turn it a lovely green."
I have had copper piping steeping in vinegar water for months.  It looked a really powerful verdigris green.  I added 20ml. No change. I upped the heat and added another 40ml. Oh horror, the felt was not going green, but beige.

It was also looking less, rather than more felted.
"Right dog's dinner, that. Doesn't even smell like Merino anymore."
I took a deep breath. 

Calm, calm, calm.

"Elinor, are you perhaps missing the flock?"
"Like a dose of scrapie, I am."  She grinned.  "Make us a cup of tea, Beaut.  I've had a touch of the scours, stressing out after that fiasco in Cardiff.  Have to keep well hydrated."
"I just thought, when you so enjoyed the woolly smell of the felt ..."
"Not wool, the Merino smell."
"You particularly like Merino?"
"I've not met many of them, but there was one I was very fond of.  Bruce, his name was.  Bruce Merino."
A slug of sloe gin in that tea, then.

"You were saying, about Bruce Merino ..."
"Yes, I suppose I was.  Lush tea, Beaut. Bruce came over with the shearers one year. Lovely boys, those Australians, if short on their please and thank yous.  One minute I was chatting with the girls by the fence, next thing I was on my back, stark naked.  Good hands, see."
"You mean you were shorn?"
"What did you think I meant?  Like I said, they were lovely boys, not like some in their oversized Wellingtons.  Anyway, I got to my feet, feeling all light without my fleece.  I may have frisked about, just to get acclimatised.  Up waltzes Bruce, more front than Margate.  'Get your coat, Sheila.  You've pulled.'  I'd have given him the brush off, but he was dazzling.  You could go snowblind looking at Bruce.  Hell of a boy."
A silence fell.  I didn't want to pry.
"Right, I am going to give that prefelt the shock of its life.  The rinses will be hot then cold and highly agitated.  For the grand finale, an alkaline afterbath with soda ash.  That'll bring the colour up."

Elinor watched as I soaked my jeans and scalded my hands, splashing prefelt from one bucket to  the other.
"That doing the trick, is it Beaut?"
"Well, it's better than it was."
"Bung it in the tumble drier and make us another cup of tea, there's a love.  You don't want to overdo it or you'll end up like Bruce." 

The tumble drier it was.
"So, what happened to Bruce?"
"Autumn came.  Soon as the east wind blew, he was off to work.  Happy days.  He had a blue raddle and where he couldn't get that powder was nobody's business." Elinor has a very earthy chuckle.  "He was a workaholic, though, Beaut.  Never known a ram like him, on the job, day and night.  He didn't eat properly, he hardly slept, that beautiful fleece was falling off him in lumps.  In the end, they had to take him away.  It was for the best." She stubbed out her cigarette with some finality.  "Is that your tumble drier beeping?".

From the left, hawthorn flowers on the small strip, hawthorn twigs and leaves on the next, the brighter yellow is hawthorn twigs and leaves with an alkali afterbath, then two grey strips.  The first grey had the same process as the brighter yellow, the second had both a copper afterbath and an alkali soak, like the beige strip on the end.  All had an alum mordant beforehand and ended up fairly well felted.
In close up:


  1. Hey Elinor, you'd better watch her - you'll come out a really funny colour one of these days! (But at least it won't be beige!!)

    1. "Hiya, love. I've spiked her guns, no amateurs are experimenting on me. Duw, to think how many hours I spent in hair and make up, going blonde for 'Ewe Only Live Twice'. I could fancy a bouffant French coiffure, mind."

    2. I'll book you in for one!

  2. Fran, I do believe you have missed your calling! A writer of children's books...all about sheep, handsome Australian shearers, wool dyeing, and tea parties...what could be more loverly? ( I want that book...)

    1. Bless you, Pallas. Sadly, Elinor refuses to work with children.