Friday, 23 September 2016

Manx Loaghtan Handspun Wool Cushion

My first visit to Wonderwool Wales in 2013 proved to be a weekend of the highest excitement.  New to spinning, it was there that I began wading through the shallows toward the depths of my ignorance.  I shudder, now, to think how I used to refer to all yarn, from alpaca to acrylic, as 'wool'.  Staggering towards the exit on Sunday afternoon, a trader packing up raw fleece offered me half price on her remaining Manx Loaghtan. Since these rare breed sheep are small and primitive, their fleeces only weigh a couple of kilos.  A big, strong girl like me could surely manage to carry home one more bag. The deal was done, what a bargain, beautiful, unusual, gingery brown wool.
Off to my first spinning camp a couple of months later, I didn't want to put anything coarse or crappy on the swop table, so I left the Welsh Mountain fleeces at home and steeled myself to offer up half my washed Manx Loaghtan.  Couldn't understand why it was still there at the end of the camp.  Mystifying.
Put away against the day when I became a better spinner, it was a pleasant surprise to rediscover the other half of the fleece, still in a pillow case in the loft.  Looking at things positively, I have definitely become a better judge of fleece than I was back then.  

Manx Loaghtan locks typically have a widely varied staple length. This one also had a break in the staple, about 2cm up. Matted, felted areas were probably not all due to my washing technique, as they were worst on the chest and shoulder. Oh cringe, no wonder no-one had wanted the other half from the swop table.

"Take it straight to the compost heap, Beaut.  That's what I'd do."
My companion, Elinor Gotland, is a ewe of ruthless purpose.  I hugged the full pillow case to my chest.
"But I spent ages washing this fleece."
"Cut your losses and spin something worth spending time on.  That's real wisdom, knowing when to stop."  
Some lessons I have yet to take to heart.
"Look at the pretty colour, though, feel how soft the fibre is."  I passed Elinor one of the nicer locks.  "Like cafe au lait, pale and frothy on the top."  I sat down at the wheel and started drafting out a thick single, straight from the fleece.  "I just want to try spinning Manx Loaghtan, it's such an ancient breed, saved from extinction on the Isle of Man. Even the ewes have those curious horns and long legs.  The breeders' website says they are remarkably athletic sheep.  'Good quality stock fencing not less than 1.1m high is essential.'"  Elinor snorted.
"Minx could have hurdled that, no trouble at all."
"A wild Loaghtan I met in Paris, danced the cancan in a cabaret, marvellous at high kicks.  So talented, such a shame - she's another one who never learned when to stop." 
"How's that?"
"One night, she tossed her head and went one grande battement too far - got her horns caught in the chandelier and brought the house down.  Literally."

It didn't take long to spin up half that small fleece and Navajo ply a lumpy yarn.  Without any combing or carding, the pale tips of the locks remained intact, stippling the brindled brown.  There was enough wool to knit up into a stocking stitch cushion which matches the sofa rather well. Manx Loaghtan fibre is uncommonly fine, not what you'd imagine from a so-called primitive breed.  When the time comes to stop and sit down, we now have a very comfy cushion.

Friday, 16 September 2016

An Attempt at Making a Fresh Indigo Leaf Ferrous Vat for Batik Dyeing

My friend BG gave me a batik kit last Christmas. Trouble is, the instructions online say batik wax starts melting at less than 50 degrees Centigrade and the plant dyes I like using need a long simmer to fix their colours onto cloth. Recently, I read that a ferrous indigo vat works at 21 degrees and dyes cotton and linen really deep blues with short dips.  It is supposed to be quick to set up and stay active for a couple of weeks, no need to keep reheating the dye pot or rushing to dip more stuff in order to exhaust every particle of indigo within one session.  All in all, it sounded well worth trying to make a ferrous vat with some of the Japanese Indigo plants which are currently ready for harvest in the garden.

The instructions I found start with powdered indigo, which you first hydrate in a small amount of water.  To extract indigo from fresh leaves, I give them 24 hours to steep in hot tap water, with the pot surrounded by a sink full of hot water, which can be renewed a couple of times to keep the temperature up. After the contents of this pot had been poured through a colander and the wilted leaves wrung out, though I had a bucket full of promisingly blue
liquid, past experience of dyeing with Japanese Indigo Leaf vats deoxygenated with spectralite suggested there would be less in that bucket than the 20g of powdered indigo specified in the recipe.  Guessing, optimistically, that I might have as much as 15g of indigo, the 3:2:1 ratio meant
adding 45g calcium hydoxide and 30g of ferrous sulphate.  A further problem was temperature.  My bucket having only 15 litres capacity and being nearly full already, there was no chance of adding gallons of boiling water, so I poured the extracted indigo back into the pot and heated it to the usual working temperature of 50 degrees centigrade then returned it to the bucket.  Though the average ambient temperature in
Wales is considerably less than 21 degrees, I had had a rather wizard wheeze.  Grass cuttings generate a steady heat as they start to compost, so standing the bucket in a bag of freshly mown grass would keep it warm for quite a while, even if the nights got cold. Pouring in the dissolved iron and the lime, I stirred the mix, covered the bucket and let it stew for half an hour.  I bet you are thinking this hodge podge of approximations is
never going to work, because by this point, I had my doubts.  It was almost shocking to see that coppery film and bloom of bubbles showing deoxygenation was really happening, even though the pH was at the maximum my testing strips can indicate.  Past experiments have shown that keeping the vat at pH 9 works best, but at least I wasn't planning to put any wool or silk in there.

BG and I had previously melted some wax granules in an old saucepan and got out paint brushes and the Tjantjing thing for applying a batik resist.  First, we each tried designs on the back of old cotton shirts.  Keeping the wax temperature right turns out to be critical to success.  Too cool and it just sits on the surface of the fabric instead of penetrating through, too hot and it pours out of the Tjantjing into a puddle instead
of a line.  Brushing wax on using leaves for a template, you have to be quick and light handed, or the leaf gets welded on.  Next, we tried out designs on a thicker curtain fabric, 80% cotton and 20% linen.  The looser weave soaked up wax more readily, but by the end of the afternoon, I had despaired of ever keeping the wax temperature right without buying one of those electric heated pans.

When I slid the soaked cotton pieces into the ferrous indigo bucket, green sludge swirled up. Pulling them out after ten minutes, the cotton was coated with slime. Graham Keegan writes that immediate rinsing will not remove the indigo, so I plunged the cotton in a bucket of fresh water, hung it up and watched hopefully.  It did go blue, but not very blue, even after several dips.  The cotton/linen mix fabric
took up the indigo better, though I had secretly been hoping for a more dramatic, midnight blue result.  A few days later, I came back to the vat and found the green sediment had settled further down and it was still working well enough to dye cotton pale blue.  A week later, no heat was left in the grass cuttings and no indigo was fixing.  Trying to work out how to 'sharpen' the vat, which was not only cold, but possibly too
green, I stood the bucket in the sun and chucked in an unknown amount of iron in the form of an old jam jar of water with rusty nails.  This did get it blooming a bit, though it only dyed things pale blue.  Enough - I poured the lot down the drain, resolving to add less lime in future for a lower pH and to keep an eye out for a larger, narrower, deeper bucket.

My companion, The Entertainer, Elinor Gotland, arrived home while I was putting the pieces of dyed cotton and linen into boiling water. 
"Hiya, Beaut." She peered dubiously into the pot.  "Hope that's not our dinner.  Poor Cow, you've lost the plot, gone Up the Junction, stuck here at home."
I bridled.
"It's you who's had a dose of social realism, not me. While you've been off filming yet another Alfie remake in grubby old London, I have been practising the exotic Indonesian art of batik."
"Starring in your own domestic drama.  The Homeliness of the Wrong Resistance Dyer."
"What's wrong with my batik resist?"
"There's an awful lot of wax floating up.  Did you scrape off the cloth first?"
"Umm, no."
"Plenty of time for me to catch up with my enormous pile of fan mail before tea, then. Wax is a bugger to get rid of."
I concentrated on scooping off as much of the wax as possible to make Room At The Top of the water.  Fast as I wiped the ladle, cooling wax congealed back onto it. Beeswax everywhere with never A Taste Of Honey.  Despite clearing masses of the stuff, the boiled cloth still felt waxy.  A second pot of boiling water was needed.  Then I tried rinsing all the fabric with a bit of detergent, particularly the cotton pieces seemed to retain a greasy residue, long after the cotton and linen mix looked clean.

Eventually, I turned from the sink, wringing out the last cloth.
"I never realised this whole batik technique would be such a performance.  Thank goodness that wax has finally gone."
Elinor was busy slipping signed photos into envelopes.  She glanced up.
"Gone, is it?  What wax is not still lining those pots is probably settling about half way round your U bend."
Oh, Look Back in Anger, what a grim kitchen sink drama.  If anyone out there has some slightly more helpful advice than Elinor's, I'd be glad to hear it.  Unless I can formulate a better plan, I'm not sure I'd try a ferrous indigo vat or the batik technique again.  At least, not til time has mellowed the memory of this attempt.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Superbulky Linen Stitch Knitted Bag

Before I started spinning, I often used to buy superbulky yarn.  I like big, squashy knitwear and I also like quick results.  While it is much cheaper to spin your own, the yarn I made recently was not just more uneven, but much denser than most millspun fat yarn.  While 100% wool is generally less squashy than blends and synthetic fibres, my handspun also tends to have more grist.  The maths is in this interesting post on the subject, all I really understand is that differences in grist can be assessed by measuring the weight per metre of yarn, when the yarns you are comparing have the same thickness, or wraps per inch. Higher grist means heavier, more wool fibres per metre, grist is increased by a worsted spinning style and a greater amount of twist. Some day, I may become able to calculate the amount of wool fibre I will need to spin the actual number of metres a project requires, but this was not that day.
As so often happens, I came at this project in reverse, with 105m superbulky yarn handspun from half a small fleece.  It looked like lots of wool to me.  Three strands spiralled together were 9mm wide, so using great big 9mm needles, there would surely be enough to knit a cushion cover. 
To make best effect of the naturally varied greys and the indigo dyed end of the skein, I consulted the chapter on multicoloured yarn in my favourite guru, Margaret Radcliffe's Guide to Color Knitting. Linen stitch looked good in the illustration and dead simple to do.

Cast on any odd number of stitches, in my case, 39.  
Row 1 is the right side, knit 1, and keep repeating (slip 1 with the yarn in front, knit 1) to the end of the row.  
Row 2 is the wrong side, knit 1 purl 1 and keep repeating (slip 1 with yarn behind, purl 1) til you knit the last stitch.
Repeat these two rows til you run out of wool.
Running out of wool happened while my piece was still too short to fold over into a decent sized cushion.  In practice, all the slipped stitches mean you knit two rows to gain the height you would usually gain from knitting one row and the linen stitch fabric is appreciably thicker than stocking stitch.  The pattern looked nice, anyway.  I decided to carry on regardless and make it into a bag.

Having started with a provisional cast on, I assumed grafting the last row to the first would be straightforward, if I just unravelled one stitch at a time from the cast on.  I won't try that again - nightmare bodge job in linen stitch, I'd have had a better finish from joining an ordinary cast on and cast off row. Lucky the thick knit hides a multitude of errors.  With the top of the tube of knitting folded back and the bottom sewn up, the proportions were ok for a bag. Sewn folded over into strips, the outside leg seams from my son's old black jeans made two padded handles, just threaded between the dense stitches, repurposing a jeans back pocket was an easy way of making an inside bag pocket and a small denim bird got sewn on to remind the bag carrier to keep the side without the dodgy graft facing outward. 

Embellishing a bag, it can be difficult to know when to stop. A rational woman can go insane with a pot of beads in front of her, but hey, less is more.
I name this bag 'Blackbird Singing the Blues'.  
It was a present for someone who coped admirably with hard stuff. 

Friday, 2 September 2016

Blue Texel Blues

For someone trying to use up stash, I have a terrible record of impulse buying.  Well, if you had sat all day demonstrating spinning, right next to the fleece competition at a local show, would you be able to resist a little private judging for an imaginary Spinners' Choice award?  My favourite
fleece was only small and amazingly soft for a Blue Texel.  It surprised me to hear that the ewe it came from was already several years old, but I could have guessed Gethin had shorn that sheep, because there were hardly any second cuts. The staple length was fairly uniform at about 8cm, typical disorganised fine crimp giving the locks plenty of stretch and bounce.  Beautifully open blanket, no cotting, minimal dirt, lovely varied greys with only limited fawn or brown areas (and a blue farmer's mark), it was my idea of perfection. Although this fleece took no rosette from the real judge, I spent a happy half hour explaining to the farmer why I thought it was such a cracker for hand spinning and worth far more than you'd get from the Wool Marketing Board, which pays even less than normal rates for coloured fleece. We agreed breeding sheep for their wool has been much neglected. Then I bought it.

This is where my Rhapsody in Blue Texel changes key and plays those flat, blue notes.  After a brief spell of gloating over its quality, fully confirmed when laid out on the lawn, I piled half the fleece into two pillow cases and put them in the machine on a wool wash cycle. Last time I did this with a Blue Texel fleece, it came out fine.  Instead of experience paying off with a handy short cut toward sitting down to spin this gem, I spent all afternoon trying to wrench out matted bundles of damp locks, before giving up and stumping off to cook the tea and grieve over my own cavalier stupidity.  I didn't kick myself black and blue. I have a companion called Elinor, who does that for me.

"Every fleece is different, Beaut. Haven't  I told you a hundred times, proper preparation prevents piss poor performance? Look at these locks, ruined by impatience and laziness."
"I thought this Blue Texel would at least have broadly the same character as that big fleece I had before."
"One Blue Texel is no more the same as all Blue Texels than one coffee cake is the same as all coffee cakes."
"It is if you buy cake in the supermarket."
"So go and buy yarn from the shops."  
Ooo, sting, no answer for that.  Peeling potatoes in the censorious silence, I cast about for a new conversational gambit.
"Heaven knows why the geneticists called the breed 'Blue Texel'.  The website says that 'Blue' is the name for the colour pattern and also describes the colour of the flank wool - have you ever seen any real blue on a Blue Texel?"

Elinor sat back and smiled a wicked smile.
"When I was guest starring with a repertory theatre company in Holland, I remember finding blue on Tycho Texel's flanks."
"Who's Tycho?"
"Big Dutch Texel, real Moody Blue artist, used to slap paint onto canvas and just slide about on it. His fleece was always caked in acrylics, his flanks were a rainbow and he never bothered going to the shearer for a trim."  She stopped pulling at the matted fleece and I hastened over to stuff it away out of sight.  "That ram was a restless rogue. Lived in Amsterdam for years, but wouldn't go to the Van Gogh Museum because the queues were too long.  His brother Bram was a different type altogether, a True Blue, he would wait outside the stage door of De Balie til the small hours of the morning, just to walk me home. Absolute sweetheart."
"How romantic.  How come your play finished so late?"
"Oh, Tycho used to pop into my dressing room for a little drink after the show."
Her smile did not suggest he went there to be scolded for impatience.

Even the British Olympic success could not ease my Blue Texel blues.  The man himself and Elinor sat glued to the cycling, periodically disturbing the dog by bouncing up and down on the sofa, wild with appreciation of Sir Bradley and his gang.  Neither of them noticed as I had a little play with some of the remaining, unwashed Texel fleece.  It had been ages since I spun yarn in the grease. This was lovely, soft, 
open fibre to spin, just drafted out so easily straight from the blanket into a thick single. Working with a fair amount of twist on the 15:1 ratio on the jumbo flyer of my Ashford Traveller, I had filled a whole bobbin in less time than it took them to celebrate a couple more Gold Medals.  I am now the proud owner of a nearly new Country Spinner Mark 2, infinitely easier to treadle than an Indian Spinner, though I haven't really sussed out the gears yet.  Navajo plying directly from each full jumbo bobbin on the Traveller straight into the great orifice of the Country Spinner, in a couple of evenings, I had the all the remaining unwashed fleece spun into a high grist superbulky yarn, wound on the one massive Country bobbin.  At which point, Elinor noticed what I had been up to. Yes, I am terminally impatient and yes, I did really enjoy it and no, I have no idea what I'll do with this yarn.  After giving it a cold soak overnight in a bucket and a hot detergent wash and three rinses, I succumbed to another impulse and hung one end of it in a Japanese Indigo Leaf Dye Vat. 
Behold, my Blue Blue Texel yarn, 105 metres long and 5 wraps per inch. 

Friday, 26 August 2016

Growing Madder and Madder Root Contact Prints on Cotton Fabric

Eighteen months ago, I germinated a big handful of saved madder seeds. Some seedlings were planted out in garden borders and pretty much disappeared.   Could be the ground was too wet last winter, because my usual suspects, the slugs, have little taste for madder. Other seedlings had an arid time after being transplanted into a large wooden barrel, because the hose doesn't stretch that far. Despite dry spells, they have grown plenty of foliage, I'll just have to wait another year or so to see how the roots are doing. Quite a few more seedlings have survived cramped into one litre pots, putting out the odd tendril of leaves while sitting neglected round the back of the greenhouse.  
"Mariana plants, these are, not madder."  My companion cradled a fresh green spray and looked up at me reproachfully.  "With blackest moss these madder-pots Are thickly crusted, one and all - listen, Beaut, you can hear them moaning - 'Our life is dreary, Fran potteth us not on,' they said.  'We are aweary, we are aweary, we wish that we were dead!'"
"Oh, don't bleat on, Elinor, I might find room in the raised borders this autumn, but I reckon madder won't survive a Welsh winter in heavy clay soil." 
So, the Mariana madders do get an occasional visit from a small grey ewe of poetic bent, a squirt from the hose when I remember and once in a while, the dog investigates the area and carries off a plastic pot to chew.  I find an abandoned madder plant decorating the lawn, howl with rage, feel bad about them all lurking untended, then repot the latest casualty.
One potful got badly injured, tossed about til hardly any compost still clung to it.  Rinsed under the hose, there were many fine, fibrous roots and a modest system of thicker ones.  Far too little for a proper madder vat and only orange colours, rather than the deeper red and brown of an older, bigger plant.  At the time, I was about to have another go at contact dyeing with coreopsis.  An old cotton shirt had had its worn
collar and cuffs cut off and been mordanted with alum acetate.  On its right front, I laid out coreopsis flowers and leaves in the form of a plant and put the madder root in the root position, below, with a couple of hardy geranium leaves. The left front of the shirt was laid over the right and the double layer of cotton was rolled up around a section of downpipe.  The shirt sleeves were laid over the roll and the whole lot was tied up with string which had been soaked in iron solution. 
 A dye bath of about 100g fresh coreopsis flowers had already been simmered to release the dye molecules.  No need to bother sieving them out, as this dye work was never intended to come out evenly coloured.

I did make sure to keep the temperature lower than usual, around 60 degrees Centigrade, for the hour of simmering the pot again with the shirt roll in it, because I've read madder root dyes go brown at too high a temperature.  I know the red takes time to soak into wool, so I left the shirt in the pot overnight, gave it another hour at a low simmer and another day to soak before leaving the roll to dry out.
Elinor and I sat watching himself trying on his funky, upcycled shirt.
"Doesn't he look like a flower power hipster?  That madder root did print a good blood red."
"A hipster who's just had a nasty accident with his nipple rings."

Comments like that account for the delightful harmony in my home.  I left himself muttering darkly about getting halters and muzzles for sheep and Elinor shrieking "Oooo, you bondage freak!", while I put a couple more mordanted cotton and linen shirts in to soak.  After several contact dye trials with fresh madder root, I have found that just the one simmer and overnight soak is enough to get a strong red print, though it is important to let the roll dry out completely over the course of several days. After unrolling, being in too much of a hurry to wash and iron the shirt definitely takes a great deal of the initial colour out and reusing the roots for another dye print is disappointing. Though they remain perfectly intact and still look red, madder roots only give a pale pink print the second time around.

Friday, 19 August 2016

More Dyeing with Yellow Cosmos Flowers on Wool, Cotton and Silk

Yellow Cosmos really enjoys full sun.  For a couple of years, I've been sowing a few seeds, just to keep my stock of plants going, really. Never had enough flowers to do much dyeing and frankly, not that excited by having another source of yellow.  This year, having planted out my seedlings in a better site and paid more attention to cutting all the flowers every few days, August has provided a bonanza of bloomage, mostly bright yellow, some strongly orange.  In 2014, I blogged about my first trial, when I saw how washing dyed wool in an alkaline detergent shifted the yellow toward red.  This summer, weighing and saving flowers in a temporary solar jar has set me up nicely for a bit of further experimentation.
Half a dozen plants have provided about 70g of fresh flowers each week and are still covered in buds, though the two in terracotta pots are always thirsty and droop alarmingly if I neglect to water them.  Pouring some fluid out of the solar jar of saved petals into a jam jar with soda ash, confirmed that alkali deepens the dyebath from cloudy yellow to orange. Simmering the whole week's harvest with another teaspoon of soda ash made a dye bath of rich
terracotta.  After an hour simmering and an overnight soak, a skein of about 50g handspun Speckled Face Beulah woolen yarn turned terracotta orange and there was enough power left in the afterbath to dye another 20g skein a browner terracotta shade, once a slug of iron solution was added in.
Pursuing a revived interest in dyeing plant fibres, I mordanted a cotton T shirt weighing 100g with alum acetate, ready for the following week's supply of 70g yellow cosmos. The T shirt was rolled up with some sprigs of coreopsis and a few weld leaves, tied tightly with string that had been soaked in iron solution, then put into an alkaline bath of yellow cosmos to simmer for an hour or two, soak overnight and dry out.

Once unrolled, it seemed a fabulous orange.  After rinsing and a standard 30 degree machine wash with colour powder, the cotton had faded to a soft terracotta, still with deeper contact prints from the coreopsis and yellow from the weld leaves.  In future, I'll use a pH neutral detergent and a wool wash cycle.

While I was admiring this week's unmodified yellow cosmos dye result, my companion, Elinor Gotland, happened to return from another little jaunt to the Mediterranean.  Lost in thought, I jumped when she patted me on the shoulder.
"Hiya, Beaut.  Still hanging around in the garden, titting about with plants, is it?" 
"Just enjoying this big skein, dyed without any mucking about with the pH, that orange one had an alkali bath and the reddish brown had added iron. All from about one to one ratio of fresh yellow cosmos flowers to weight of wool."
"You really should get out more."  
"While you totted up air miles, I have been travelling in the realms of gold."
Elinor rolled her eyes.
"Hardly an Homeric Odyssey."
"Why don't you join me for my next epic adventure - walking the dog in the fields?"
Elinor quite enjoyed our stroll, making tableaux vivants from Keats' Ode to the golden season. She posed as 'soft-lifted by the winnowing wind', I thought 'hefty chum of the harvest mouse'. Happily, she has now developed a greater appreciation of the yellow cosmos. Never did she breathe its pure serene, Til she saw the silk scarf gleaming brown and gold. Then like stout Cortes, when with eagle eyes, He stared at the Pacific, she looked at me with a wild surmise, 
not quite Silent, on a pot plant in the garden.
"Is this a contact dye from one of your yellow cosmos baths?  Fair play, that old gold background colour on the silk may have been worth the journey."
"I like to think I've come a fair way in the last few years."
"Indeed. Take courage from that thought, Beaut.  See if you can you make it as far as the kettle without getting a nose bleed."