For much of the past year I’ve been spending alot of time learning and experimenting with plant based dyes. What has really excited me has been learning about the colours that are within the landscape that I live in. This is so closely related to the Norfolk Horn project. I want the colours I use to be related to its place and its history. Before this I had only ever used acid dyes – I think I wrote about this in a very early post – like many I hadn’t used plant based dyes because I thought they were time consuming, not very light fast, drab and not particularly environmentally freindly when you look at the chemicals used as mordants and modifiers. Never say never. The Norfolk Horn project was the catalyst that got me thinking.
One of the classic books on the subject is A Dyers Manual by Jill Goodwin. Jill was incredibly knowledgeable and very well respected. Her book is a classic text on the subject. It was, and continues to be an inspiration to dyers since it was first published in 1982. It has been the one book that I have kept going back to. In particular the section on woad. Ian Howard of Woad -Inc recomended Jills work to me when I started my journey with woad. Sadly, Jill died in 2013 aged 95. Like many of us, whilst we will be very familiar with her through her writing we have no real idea about her. There is so little. So it was with some amazement that I stumbled across this little peice of tv gold on the East Anglian Film Archive :
These are my first ever attempts at dying with natural dyes. I have to say I really like the results.
I’ve been feeling the first twitches of wanting to learn more about dyeing with natural dyes for a while but have resisted the urge. As if I don’t have enough to do. But its been creeping into my conciousness. On Sunday I went on a natural dyeing workshop with Janet Major and the Norfolk Smallholders training group.
For the workshop we had to bring along 60g pre-mordanted fibre and a plant dye bath of our own making. Of course I used Norfolk Horn. I had a 50g ball of Kentwell Halls 4-ply (gifted me by the lovely Erica Eckles) and some of my own hand spun lace weight.
I have been saving up onion skins all year and had accumulated quite a lot, about 500g of mostly white onion but also a few redskins and some garlic as well as the stalky plaits. This seemed to be the perfect opportunity to make use of them.
I’m not good at preparation – I’m working on it – I only started prepping for the workshop 3 days before. Ooops, supposed to soak dye material for a few days. Not enough time. I figured that if I made the skins into smaller bits a larger surface area would get more chance of getting the dye out in a shorter time. I blitzed them in the food processor with plenty of water. I put the chopped up mush in a slow cooker that I use for dyeing. Topping up with more water to the maximum fill level. Brought it to the boil and left to simmer for about an hour. I left it to cool overnight and strained off the liquid the following day. Smelt pleasantly of rhubarb.
The mordant, Alum, on the other hand, proved to be a bit trickier. I do not recommend trying to source a chemical of any kind on the high street the day you need it. I thought it would be relatively easy to get on the high street. That was a mistake. Chemists and Pharmacies are not what they used to be – the folks at my local Lloyds pharmacy blinked looked at me strangely and gave me that ‘uh oh! I’ve got a live one!’ look before saying ‘What was that Alan? Nooo, never ‘eard of it. No we don’t do that’. I got pretty much the same response in Boots and in the local hardware store. If I was more organised I would have bought some on-line weeks ago. But that would make me a whole different person and would not be nearly as exciting or fun.
I have a copy of Jenny Deans ‘Wild Colour’ and in it I remembered reading about using Rhubarb leaves to make a mordant. This appealed to me as I have limited (no) income at the moment and it also makes use of something that is usually discarded. I had a pleasant walk up to the village allotments. Whilst I was there I er herm cough cough ‘borrowed’ some leaves. Not the stalks, as that would be theft and a bad thing. But I eased my conscience with the knowledge that no one was going to miss a leaf or two. I gathered 1kg leaves. Jenny Dean writes that 500g of mordant should treat up to 1 kg fibres. So I had more than enough. I heartily recommend both the book and Jennys blog here: Jenny Dean
The leaves were chopped and put into the slow cooker. Again topping up to maximum fill level. Bring to the boil and cooked for an hour. Left to cool in the pan overnight then strained out the liquid.
To mordant the fibres (already scoured, clean and damp) pop the fibres into the mordant solution bring the liquid up to simmer and cook for half an hour or so. Leave to cool, then rinse. It did colour the fibres a gingernuty yellow:
The all the pre-mordanted skeins were dyed in the onion dye bath for about an hour. Then we experimented with modifiers. I choose iron and copper. The copper didn’t have a strong effect but did enriched the colour to a vibrant gingernut. The iron on the other hand did. I used a small amount (5ml) on one and a larger amount (15ml) on another. it really darkened the brown taking out the gingery tones.
The final skein I dipped in an indigo dye bath for one minute. I knew it would be a khaki type green given the gingery base:
I was surprised that the different fibres took the dye differently. My own handspun was paler and more golden than the millspun. What struck me most was the intensity of the colours achieved. When it comes to colour I’m not a pastel wishy washy person. Colour needs to sing. I think this may be one of the myths’ that has kept me from experimenting with plant dyes. The outcome of this experiment has definitely encouraged me to do more.
I’m waiting for some alum and will repeat using that as a mordant for the same dye bath. I want to know if the rhubarb mordant had an influence on the colours I achieved. I also want to test the colour fastness so I’ve left these little beauties on the table in the workshop. I will let you know the results when I get round to it.
So there you are, six different shades from the same dye bath using materials that I have to hand. Whats not to like…
So, I’ve been working on the Wasted? thing. In the first post I had drum carded the fibre into something that looked like it could be useable. It was lumpy and bumpy and less than perfect. Adopting the philosophy of true beauty and harmony comes from working with what you have and not how everyone thinks it ought to be I decided to roll with those neps and bumps.
I space dyed the batts with brown, orange and grey leaving quite abit undyded. After dyeing, I ransacked my ‘bling’ box pulling out some dyed silk neps in turquoise, shocking pink and orange.
The batts had already been through the carder three times prior to dyeing but dyeing had compacted the fibre a bit plus I wanted to blend the blend the colours and add in the silk neps. Plus the really chunky woolly bits were standing out so I could pick them out as I carded (or not depending on how lazy or bored I got). Carding again also meant I could pull off the batt as rolags (or should I call ’em fauxlags to suit the pedants?).
The woolly chunks show up well don’t they.
I decided to pull of the batt as rolags because the fibre was so choppy and was quite short staples. Drum carder rolags are quite tight compared with those from hand carders. I like this as it puts a bit of tension on the draught. I like to spin with a relatively high tension. No particular reason other than its what I prefer. I like to see the crimp and the fibres pulled nice and straight. Heres a couple of pictures of the singles, the first as it was spun the second on the bobbin:
The lumpy thick and thin nature is quite obvious. It was spun long draw – sort of some bits I went short worsted. It was a real joy to spin. I just let it do its thing. Some bits draughted smooth and relatively thin. Other bits clogged in the rolag and draughted chunky and bumpy and thick. I only pulled off neps if they offended me but mostly I ignored them. I really didn’t do much quality control at all. It was fast and fun.
And here it is plied:
Isn’t it lovely. Not my hands though, definitely not lovely. I had been in the veg patch planting broad beans (too soon?) and went straight in to the workshop to get the plying done so excited was I to see how it was going to turn out.
The final stage was finishing the yarn. As this yarn was intentionally neppy and would have loose bits that will pill or fall off I decided that it would need to be fulled to some degree. Yes. It needed a bit of felting. On purpose. And how do we felt wool. 1 heat. 2 soap. 3. Agitation. 4 Temperature shock. So two bowls. One seriously hot with some non foamy detergent (I use wool wash, but baby shampoo has been recommended) and the other nice and cold. Plunged the skein in the hot soapy water and gave it a jolly good thrashing. Pulled it out gently squeezing it and then throwing it into the cold bowl for a swish and rinse. Repeat. You need to watch your yarn like a hawk. Blink and you will miss the point where fulling becomes felting and you end up with a very lovely very thick dreadlock rather than the fully integrated lovely soft usable yarn you were aiming for. I only did this twice before I felt the fibres begin to lock together. a quick spin dry and hang and hey presto Isn’t she lovely:
I’ve just finished knitting up a sample:
Its super soft and very textured. Ought to have used bigger needles to really let it fluff up and show off its best bits. I think it looks its best in simple stocking stitch. So please with the outcome. I have had a rummage in the workshop . This one is Hebridean carded with silk neps ( I very nearly ruined it by over fulling it so it is not as soft as it was and i regret that a bit):
And this one is some castle milk Moorit and Shetland with some soy silk fibres:
the lumpy bits tended to spin out of the yarn in this one. Not my favourite.
I hope this has inspired you to dig out your ‘waste’ and have a go. If you do I would love to know how you did it and to see the results.
It’s taken a year in the making but it’s finally complete. The Robins Pincushion project is done. Spun for Spinzilla, knitted for Wovember, covering me up on the sofa whilst binge watching too much crappy TV in December/January/and or February.
As you may well be aware, I love walking my local woods and fields. On one of these walks I became completely obsessed with the Robins Pincushions that were infesting the wild dog roses. These amazing galls are caused by a gall wasp (Diplolepis rosae) which induces the most gorgeous distortion of an unopened leaf axillary on field roses or dog roses.
They have a spectacular appearance. All wild wind spun sugar in colours running from
gold through rose to brilliant scarlet reds and on to rusty dried blood reds and browns.
Unsurprising these common galls have a rich dense folk lore attached to them. The Robin referred to here is the Woodland sprite Robin Goodfellow aka the mischievous and malicious Puck, he of Midsummer night’s Dream fame. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he is a jolly trickster who loves nothing better to “change shape, mislead travellers, spoil milk, frighten young girls and trip up venerable old dames”. He may also be a derivation of the great Norse Trickster Loki. Although you wouldn’t think that from Cecily Mary Barkers 1928 very lovely and whimsical autumn fairy print:
From a technical stand point this was quite a taxing work. I knew it had to be circular, I also knew that it needed a colour graduation from the centre out changing from golds through greens, onto reds and finally to rusty reddy browns. The pattern structure also needed to spiral out from a dense and textured centre gradually become looser and lacier as it spiralled outwards. And points. It had to have pointy bits.
Never one to shy away from a technical challenge I wanted to make a 2-ply yarn rather than my usual low twist single. This was going to bring some major headaches on how to dye up the fibre so it would spin into two roughly equal singles that, when plied would match (or mostly match) colourwise.
The dyeing was solved by space dyeing four carded batts of Romney (each wieghing 65 g giving a total of 260g fibre). These were laid butted up together in two strips (each two batts long). The dyes were then painted on in series across both batts: Each strip was then rolled up in a cling film sausage and streamed. These were hand carded in two roughly matching series of rolags to spin long draw:
All this was done in preparation for spinning up the yarn for Spinzilla (you get credit for plying hence the two ply…er herm…embarrassed cough). Spinzilla equals spinning fast. Not very beautifully. But fast. Very fast. My wheel blurred like a time machine. The yarn turned out thicker than intended, close to a double knit rather than my usual 4-ply. The total came to 767 meters.
I knew I wanted to use the great Zimmermans Pi circular shawl template as the starting point. But didn’t really have any fast and firm ideas for the textural and lace patterns. So I knitted up the lace patterns on the fly without much planning or forethought. The consequence to this (very lazy) approach was that it certainly lived up to its namesake and was a tricky testing thing indeed. But that’s my own fault for not planning ahead but just rolling with where it wanted to go.
Starting with a 6mm circular needle and plain garter stitch for the first few sections. Then moss stitch for the next 12 rows. Changing up needle size to 8mm. For the following 24 rows I used pattern no 48 in Leili Reimann’s Pitilised Koekirjad.
I hadn’t a clue for the following sections. The lace patterns I thought I wanted to use didn’t knit up well. So after much frogging and faffing I altered the original pattern (I turned it upside down and changed the starting row to give a distinctive flower on a stem).
The final band a lace pattern I made up. Which just about used up most of my yarn. To get the open lacey edge I cast off using a crochet cast off. Miraculously I had exactly the right amount of yarn. So maybe Puck smiled on me in the end.
Have you noticed how glorious, vibrant and just darned wonderful the autumn colours are this year? We have spent a very happy few days in Edale with the gathered clan blown in from the four corners (actually it was just the two sets, east and west but four sounds more poetic). The autumn was well ahead of home. The colours in the leaves were stunning. The most amazingly vibrant chartreuses, rusts, golds, greens and purples. The leaves seem to be especially vibrant this year. Aside from the mild damp days causing the intensity of colour, does it also mean something predictive for winter?
Sadly my rubbish camera failed to pick up the colours in their most amazing glory. The best I could get was this view taken from our bedroom window:
On a quick walk up hill and down dale we came across the cutest of sheep:
Absolutely no idea what breed they are. But in a Galaxy far far away in a few millennia I have my suspicions they may just evolve to become Ewoks. If you do know the breed please put me out of my misery and let me know. Aside from the fact there were sheep everywhere. EVERYWHERE! Got me thinking again about the history of wool in East Anglia and the lack thereof these days. A reading project for the list.
I was compelled (propelled?) to get in the workshop when I got home. Those leaves just had to come out in a dye job:
I’m working on a shawl for my sisters birthday. She loves red. I’ve just dyed up some gorgeous alpaca fibre. I was supposed to be going for a deep vibrant blood red. Hmmm. Pictures come out pink rather than the salmony red it actually is but you get my point I think. Clearly I messed up! I got my fibre weight wrong – serves me right for not paying attention – which completely messed up my ratios! Oh yes, I’m one of those tedious people who takes the scientific approach to dye stuffs. No longer do I slap in about this much dye for about that much of fibre and see what happens (although I do still do this sometimes because it’s fun).
What I’m talking about specifically in this case is Depth of Shade (DoS). DoS is the intensity of the desired colour you want your fibre. Strong and vibrant or something more pastel or somewhere in between? The main thing is the more dye you use the higher the DoS. So DoS is determined by the ratio of dye to fibre (I’ll do the maths stuff in a bit).
DoS is always talked about in terms of percentages so strong and vibrant will be a higher % and the more pastel you want to go the lower %. The highest DoS is 3%. A good bright colour is generally about 2% DoS. Pastels are achieved at about 0.5% or lower. Here’s my bible when it comes to DoS (ref: Deb Menz’s Color in Spinning Interweave 2005 – awesome reference book):
0.1% pale pastel
0.2% medium pastel
0.5% deep pastel
0.75% light medium
1.5% deep medium
3% very deep (intense)
But, some dyes do not exhaust themselves at >2% DoS (exhaust means when all the dye has been taken up by the fibre and the water is clear, turquoise never seems to exhaust whatever I do, magenta is another one). This means that some dyes can be used at lower % to achieve the desired colour depth. This is good to know, because, if you are like me and like to be as economical in my endeavours as possible (I won’t say cheap) it means that armed with this knowledge this saves on wasting precious dye powder and wasted water/heat and time rinsing out said precious dye down the drain from your gorgeously dyed fibre. And flushing toxic material down the drain is a no no never! Sadly there are no short cuts to knowledge with this one it will have to come with experience of the particular dyes you use (note to self: this is why we keep notes and samples).
I hope that helps? On to the science bit – you can go now if this isn’t going to interest you…
So Dos is determined by the ratio of dye to fibre in grammes or oz. So we can say that 3% DoS = 0.03g dye per 1g fibre. Alternatively, and this is the more likely scenario. “I want to dye Xg of fibre to X% DoS how much dye do I need?” You can work this out by:
Dye weight = % DoS x weight of fibre
For example, I’ve got 25g of fibre and I want a good deep red so I’m going to want a 2% DoS:
0.02 * 25g = 0.5g of dye So 0.5g of dye will produce 2% DoS on 25g of fibre. Y
ou will probably be asking how do I do this with spoons, the answer is you don’t if you want to repeat yourself and have good consistent results. I use scales for most of my dyeing. The reason is that different dyes have different densities – this is why some dye colours fill up their packaging containers more than others – you aren’t being cheated it’s just that some dyes are ‘heavier’ than others. With a spoon this means that your measurements will be off – a teaspoon of dye X will be heavier (i.e. it will contain more dye powder in a volume based measure like a teaspoon) than a teaspoon of dye y which is less dense… Put another way one teaspoon of dye X will weigh more than one teaspoon of dye Y.
I should stop now. I’ll come back to this in another post. But, you ask, what about the unred fibre, I’m going to spin it up and then dye it again, this time making sure I got my measurements right. I will let you know how it goes.