Friday, 28 July 2017

Dyeing with Coreopsis - tinctoria and other species

I thought coreopsis tinctoria was a bomb proof dye plant to grow. This year, while seeds germinated rapidly indoors in March and the seedlings grew well in an unheated greenhouse, in April they were attacked by thrips and the majority had to be chucked out. 

In fear of losing my summer's dyeing, I overcame any ecofriendly scruples and sprayed bug killer everywhere, sowed more seed and transplanted the surviving seedlings into pots and ground inside the greenhouse, not wanting to lose any more in the unpredictable weather. The thrips turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as coreopsis tinctoria has adored extra warmth and protection from wind and rain, flowering weeks earlier than usual and currently, incredibly prolific. 

The whole plant is loaded with intense dye colour, even the leaves and stems print clearly, simply from being rolled up in mordanted cloth and simmered in a dye bath. This photo shows a coreopsis tinctoria print on cotton jersey mordanted with aluminium acetate. Actually, I'll show you the back of the T shirt and do a promotion - it will be for sale this weekend along with lots of plant dyed silk scarves and cotton and linen shirts, wool and silk yarns. Do come and see me doing a Rich & Strange stand in the Craft Tent by the castle at the Caerphilly Big Cheese Festival along with my mate BG, who can now be outed online as local artist, Catherine Pyves.
Well, I think 'weed it and reap' is funny.
Although the second sowing of coreopsis tinctoria did give me plenty of plants for the garden, back in my April panic, I also ordered from an online nursery a dozen plug plants of two other varieties, called Sunkiss and Early Sunrise. Rolling up their first flowers in ecobundles made no discernable prints, so I was not optimistic about these plants containing much dye. They are much shorter and sturdier than coreopsis tinctoria and thus, easier meat for the slugs. Most have survived, though I do confine myself to natural control methods for the evil gastropods. Mostly. 
During July these other coreopsis started flowering more heavily, an ideal month for trying them in solar jars. 
While coreopsis tinctoria flowers will flood a jar of water with dark colour within hours (jar on left), these two other varieties of coreopsis (jars on left) took a couple of weeks to leak much colour into the water. Their early flowers are still in those jars with some Beulah fleece, but last week, there were lots of flowers blooming and the jars did look promising.
A mixture of Sunkiss and Early Sunrise weighing 70g were simmered for an hour in a pot, then a 25g skein of alum mordanted wool yarn and 5g silk yarn were simmered for an hour and left overnight. In another pot, 40g of coreopsis tinctoria flowers were given the same simmering and the same weights of wool and silk yarns.
Two weeks ago, I blogged about this year's failures to get the expected orange dye out of coreopsis tinctoria flowers. The results of this dye session proved a nicer surprise. The vivid orange yarn on the left with the golden silk skein came from the Sunkiss and Early Sunrise bath. The more bronze orange on the far right skein of wool came from the coreopsis tinctoria bath and the silk in there had turned a green, not unlike the yarn from the previous coreopsis tinctoria bath which I guessed might have been contaminated with iron. Maybe that green simply comes from having too great a ratio of coreopsis tinctoria to fibre?

Anyway, I kept picking all the Early Sunrise and Sunkiss flowers and dyed another two skeins of wool and silk and then modified their orange colour by heating  one briefly in dilute copper solution (middle of photo) and the other dilute iron (left). I'm delighted with the colours and will definitely be saving seeds to sow again next year - only I suppose all three varieties might hybridise and who knows what will happen in my dye baths then?

Friday, 21 July 2017

Dyeing with Impatiens Balsamina - probably

A couple of years ago, I was sent some seeds marked Jewel Weed, as part of a dye plant seed swop with a lady in America. Looking up the name online I was delighted to read that Jewel Weed enjoys damp shade, since much of my garden provides exactly that. The large seeds were easy to handle and the great majority germinated quickly in March indoors in a seed tray, then grew on strongly in an unheated greenhouse. Sturdy little plants with nice red stems were planted out in May in a border overshadowed by a tree, which gets little direct sun and stays damp. To my surprise, in summer, pink and purple flowers appeared from the leaf axils.
They were not the exotic orange tubular blossoms I had been expecting and there wasn't enough plant material to make a decent dye bath. Rather than spreading out and flourishing, the plants grew upright and looked meager. Later in the season, I saved seeds from the pods which had formed along the stalks and cleared most from the border, making an autumn soup dye bath of the whole plants along with some spent coreopsis plants. This dyed some fleece a gingery orange, which is pretty much what I would have expected from the coreopsis alone. The plants I left growing proved tender, dying off as soon as the cold weather set in. 
Since then, I have sown a few plants each year just to keep the stock of seeds fresh, always in damp secluded spots. Other plants have much more appeal, so this year was shit or bust. A dozen seedlings enjoyed the best of the 2017 sun in a well manured border.
Casting about for plants ready to dye with as part of my Tour de Fleece with the DIY and Dye team, I decided these mystery plants looked at their prime. Now or never. I lopped off all the tops and larger side shoots, a harvest of fleshy plant material weighing over 750g. The whole lot was simmered for an hour or so in water and left overnight to cool.
Sampling the dye bath in three jam jars, I added vinegar to acidify the one on the left, which made it paler. Dissolved soda ash alkalinised the one on the right, turning it murky and dark. Rather than meddle with pH in the first instance, I added three 25g skeins of alum mordanted Beulah wool to the unmodified dye bath, simmered for an hour and soaked overnight.
Here are the results. From the ten to one weight ratio of plant to yarn, the middle skein shows the original colour from the dye bath, the one on the left was warmed through with copper solution after dyeing and the one on the right with iron. I like the colours, though they are hard to describe, a soft peachy ginger, a deeper goldish ginger and a green tinged mid brown. One of the DIY and Dye team suggested the plant looked like a balsam and with a bit more investigation online, I think this plant must be Impatiens Balsamina. Wikipedia says it is also known as Garden Jewel Weed, which would account for the original confusion. This video says that unlike the other impatiens species, balsamina needs to be planted in sun. My plants definitely did much better in sun, though I'm not convinced they have earned prime garden space, needing such a high ratio of plants for a modest dye result.
There is a lot more to learn before deciding. Going back next day to empty out the samples of dye from their jam jars, I was startled to see that the bit of wool I left to soak in the apparently darker, alkaline jar on the right, had hardly any colour, while the scrap in the acidified jar was more vivid than the neutral jar. 

If the plants regenerate enough for a second harvest, I think acidifying a whole dye bath will be the next experiment. Just to see what colour might come from the afterbath, I filled a cotton T shirt with bits of other dye plants, rolled it round a plastic pipe and tied it up with string, before simmering the bundle in the (probable) impatiens balsamina afterbath for a couple of hours. That bundle has been slowly drying out for several days, so that this morning, I could tell the cotton had been dyed a murky greenish yellow, most unlike the peachy ginger wool. The bundle ought to be left to dry completely, but it has been pouring with rain all day today, walking the dog was a miserable trudge and no way am I going to get out in the garden to do some overdue, essential weeding. This afternoon, I gave in to curiosity, unrolled the T shirt and emptied out the flattened plants. Their prints have come out really cleanly, this will be a great gardening T shirt, totally cheered me up.

I was looking up my old posts on onion dyeing for a friend earlier this week, which reminded me that painting iron solution onto freshly plant dyed, slightly damp cotton causes a colour change which lasts when the fabric has dried, even after washing and wearing repeatedly. This T shirt was at just the right stage of dampness for a little impromptu art. I put a plastic layer inside the shirt to stop the iron painting soaking through to the front and expressed myself on the back with a paint brush.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Coreopsis Tinctoria Dye, Modifying pH, Adding Iron and Copper

I first grew Coreopsis tinctoria plants and started dyeing with them in 2013 and I've been saving seed to grow them again every year since. I'm sure that when I started, the flowers were mostly yellow with deep red centres, just a few plants having petals entirely dark red. I tended to ear mark those to save seeds from, after discovering in 2014 that their dye seemed deeper. 
This summer's flowers appear to have larger red centres, with more raggedy edges and some have tiger spotting or little extra petals twisting out of their centres. I think these changes look rather fabulous and guess the plants have hybridised somehow. Botany is not my subject. There can be no reason to think their dye properties might have changed, though I have been half tempted to blame the flowers for some recent unplanned results.
Coreopsis tinctoria is a lovely annual dye plant. Buds bulge and burst open so profusely, it is hard to pick often enough to keep the plants from going to seed. Simmer an equal weight of fresh flowers with mordanted wool, silk or cotton to get orange/bronze colours. Fill a solar jar with flowers and mordanted wool and it will only take a few weeks warmth for the dye to be taken up.

Rediscovering a jar of coreopsis and merino which had been brewing rather longer, in fact, forgotten since last summer, I emptied it out onto the lawn.
"Ych y fi! Has the dog been sick?" My companion, Elinor Gotland, gave the contents of the jar a wide berth. Though the flowers had disintegrated, they hadn't gone smelly and the merino was absolutely fine after a couple of rinses.
Spinning along with the DIY and Dye team on Ravelry for this year's Tour de Fleece I thought dyeing my Beulah yarn a glorious orange like this would be a splendid result to show off. Hoping to impress, I used twice the weight of flowers to wool and knowing coreopsis dye is pH sensitive, I added enough dissolved soda ash to make the dye bath alkaline, about pH 8. 
"That yarn looks less of an orange, more of a raspberry and you look like you've been sucking a lemon, Beaut." 
"I must have overdone it with the alkali. "
"I'd say sour beats sweet with coreopsis dye." Elinor strolled blithely past the heaps of wool, leaving me sighing bitterly and soaking a length of the yarn in vinegar. It had little effect. 

Might as well pursue my original plan to modify one skein with a brief heating in iron solution - top of photo, and another in copper - middle of photo. I tested a pinch of the merino at the same time. None of the modified versions are a patch on the classic orange - bottom right.
Ah well, I thought, at least I have been spinning a steady ten rolags of Beulah wool every night and the coreopsis will have more flowers tomorrow. Simmering another two skeins in a new bath - AAAGGH .... NO - the result was worse still - greenish brown?? (see right of photo) Presumably I didn't scrub the pot well enough and it still had traces of iron in it. Enough to spoil the orange, at any rate. The pink skein in the photo had been dyed with birch bark and while I was modifying that to purple in a copper solution - far left of photo, I modified the second greenish coreopsis skein, turning it chestnut brown. What no fruity or nutty remarks? Where had Elinor got to? 
We didn't meet again til the evening. Coming in with my watering can, I found her sunning herself in the greenhouse.
"I noticed you'd taken another fall in your Tour de Fleece, Beaut, still, no bones broken are there? I've put some of the Beulah locks in this jar, mixed up with the latest coreopsis flowers. You can spin them another time. Come on, pick yourself up, pedal that wheel, get back on your bike. It's a rather fine view from arriere du peloton."
"Thanks, Elinor, you're a pal."
"Hmmm. Press on with the next stage and you might even win the beige jersey."

Friday, 7 July 2017

Dyeing Wool and Silk with Dyer's Chamomile Flowers

Several days of great heat in late June covered the Dyer's Chamomile plants in flowers and bared the bones of my companion, Elinor Gotland. Looking very chic with her fleece freshly shorn, that ewe lay out baking herself in the dye garden. I marvelled at her from the lurking spot where I perspired in the shade.
"You should keep your fleece like that. It's very slimming."
"I'd catch a chill, Beaut, soon as the wind blew. I have such a delicate constitution."
"Delicate? It's 30 degrees today - don't know how you can bear this heat. I can't remember when we last had weather like this in Wales." 

Dyer's Chamomile Anthemis tinctoria is said to thrive in poor soil with sharp drainage. I thought my plants did well enough in our cool, damp climate til I saw how they burst into action with some sunshine. That evening, the picked flowers weighed over 100g and while the heat lasted, I could gather as much again every two days. Three consecutive harvests were simmered for an hour, then left in the pot and reheated for another hour with a 50g skein of millspun merino yarn that had previously been mordanted with 10% alum. The wool was allowed to soak in the pot overnight, then a silk scarf, also mordanted with alum, was rolled up round other bits of fresh plants from the dye garden, tied up with string and simmered in the afterbath.

Wool and Silk dyed with Dyer's Chamomile Flowers
The colour from the first dye bath came out a beautiful sunshine yellow on both wool and silk.

Wool and Silk dyed with Dyer's Chamomile Flowers and Iron

The second bath had a splash of dissolved iron added, which sadden the dye to green. The red patterns on the silk were printed from fresh madder root.

Wool and Silk dyed with Dyer's Chamomile and Copper

The third dye pot had copper solution added to it. This made the wool turn a warm green, while the silk heated in the afterbath turned an old gold colour. That may have been affected by some orange seeping out from all the sprigs of coreopsis rolled inside the silk bundle, but it is such a gorgeous colour I shall be trying the same recipe again.

You can tell by the big pictures how pleased I am with these Dyer's Chamomile results. Amazing what a difference a bit of sunshine makes. Of course, the weather has been cloudy and cool since then and my companion has been shivering ostentatiously and clutching an old shawl about her shoulders.
"OK Elinor. You can choose yourself a silk scarf. Not the green one, though. Himself wants that."
"That man, wearing silk? Me oh my, Monty Don eat your heart out."

Hope we get some more sunshine in July.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Cultivating and Dyeing with Weld Plants

The Plant Dyes for All Seasons Calendar project for June is all about dyeing with weld plants sown in early spring. While I have previously had weld produce flower spikes in its first year, this year, my seedlings have only just grown big enough to be planted out. Picking enough leaves for a dye bath would likely kill the poor little things.  The March page of the calendar says to sprinkle weld seeds on a seed tray and add a dusting of compost on top (which I'm sure is how I've done it before.) I wrap my seed trays in cling film and stand them on the underfloor heating in the bathroom. As soon as seedlings start to appear, the tray goes out to the greenhouse, which has a tiny heater that I only turn on if there is a frost forecast. This year, while other dye plants sprouted and went out successfully, the weld tray sat there like the girl neither captain chooses for their netball team, bare of growth in both March and after a second sowing in April. I began to think something was wrong with my saved seeds, til I read a bit more about weld and discovered it needs light to germinate. I shouldn't have sprinkled compost on top and I should have put the tray up on a window sill.

In May, those barren trays left the bathroom for the greenhouse and over the next couple of weeks, weld seedlings finally appeared. In retrospect, I would have done better to advise sowing weld seeds in June or July, which is a much more reliable way of having  flower spikes ready for harvesting the following summer. Biennial plants don't really suit a one year calendar cycle.

My apologies to anyone following the calendar who has had disappointing results. Hope your weld has done better than mine.

Why did I choose weld for June instead of an annual dye plant? Last autumn, while writing the calendar, I was particularly thrilled with the contact prints made by weld spikes dipped in iron water. This picture shows the detailed pattern left by the curving tips of weld spikes with hundreds of tiny florets and the yellow/green prints of the individual strap like leaves. The other kind of plant shown is coreopsis, which gives a more bronze dye print. If you have got weld plants with flowering spikes, to make the clearest prints, roll them in a heavier weight fabric. Cotton and linen should be scoured by washing in detergent, then mordanted by boiling for an hour in aluminium acetate.
Ordinary Alum only works for animal fibres. Aluminium acetate is not cheap, but you only need 5% of the weight of the fabric and you can buy it from Wild Colours website. After mordanting, give the fabric a rinse in plain water, stretch it out flat and lay on top the plants you plan to print with. I dip the weld leaves and spikes into a jam jar of water, vinegar and rusty nails, as the iron turns the prints from yellow to yellow/green, so they show up better. This fabric came from a cut up dress, I put the matching piece on top, rolled the sandwiched layers round a piece of plastic downpipe, bound the bundle with string and simmered it for several hours, left them it the pot overnight then waited a week for the fabric to dry completely before unrolling it to wash and iron.

I do at least have dried weld spikes, saved from last summer. When all this sowing and growing goes well, one plant will respond to having its flower spike cut off by putting out lots of lateral growth from lower down. The laterals all grow their own flower spikes a week or so later and then develop more laterals themselves, so even one good plant can be very productive in terms of space in the dye garden. In order to follow the calendar along as best I could, I crumbled up these four bunches into a large pot of water and left them to ferment for a week. Little bubbles appeared on the surface.Though the smell wasn't quite as evil as I remembered, it isn't pleasant.
I heated the pot for an hour while himself was out of the house and took it back outside before he got home. Once the weld had been sieved out, the dye bath looked its usual cloudy, whiffy and unimpressive self. The natural pH was about 5, bringing it up to pH 8 by adding a teaspoon of soda ash deepened the colour slightly - see jar on right.
In my experience, fresh weld is a really potent dye source, turning wool bright yellow with only a long, cold soak. Dried weld is definitely weaker, though I haven't quantified by how much. Adding alum mordanted wool yarn, I warmed this dye bath below the boil for less than an hour and left the wool in the the pot overnight. This photo shows 100g of millspun merino. For the Tour de Fleece this year, I will be spinning and dyeing a Speckled Face Beulah fleece. Couldn't wait til Saturday to make a start, so here are three small skeins I spun this week, all dyed with weld, the first alum mordanted only, the second modified by a brief simmer with iron after dyeing and the third modified with copper. The photo doesn't do them justice, I have them on the desk beside me and the true colours are more vivid, greener in shade.

Weld dye on wool, alum mordant for all, middle skein modified with iron, right skein with copper.

Since both my trays of weld did germinate in the end, I have far more plants than I planned and should have absolutely masses of flower spikes next year. It comforts me to realise that so will anyone else who sowed weld this spring.

Friday, 23 June 2017

In the Footsteps of Sheep by Debbie Zawinski - Review

A signed copy of 'In the Footsteps of Sheep' by Debbie Zawinski came to me as an unexpected gift at such a fraught time in my family that I even forgot to send a thank you letter. Life has only really settled back toward normal recently and as is the way of things, instead of relaxing and enjoying the headspace, I've been irritable and uptight. In my hands, even the finest merino and softest silk have been spun into stringency. After a couple of abortive attempts to begin new projects, I went digging through bags of unfinished knitting and rediscovered this book.  

In The Footsteps Of Sheep, Debbie Zawinski journeys to the places in Scotland most native to its indigenous breeds of sheep. Often free camping in remote spots, she forages for bits of fleece that the sheep have shed about the countryside, then packs up her gear and walks on next day, spinning the wool into yarn using only a stick. Engaged by the immediacy and honesty of her writing, I was wrong to assume that this kind of enterprise would make a worthy, but soporific bedtime read. Morning found me waking late, walking the dog and talking with my companion, Elinor Gotland, enthusing over the whole notion and keen to try it myself. 

"That Debbie sounds like a nutter to me, Beaut." 
My companion gave up objecting and found herself a sheltered spot for a smoke on the headland while the dog hunted rabbits and I scrambled about in the gorse and brambles, collecting whatever wool had not been blown away by gale force winds.
"On the contrary, my dear Gotland." I plumped myself down beside her and started to pick the thorns out of a handful of fibres. "Debbie Zawinski has kept exactly the clarity of purpose I have lost. Once upon a time, my heart's desire was to spin fleece from local sheep and knit in natural colours."
"Fair play, you did try. I remember the Huxtable jumper - so thick and heavy you could hardly move. And the Welsh Mountain - what a rainbow of canary stained cable that was. Then there was a Blue Texel. Didn't you turn it into bath mats in the end?"
"Hmm, well, me wearing a handspun, native wool jumper has plainly turned into an abandoned dream. I've been running astray, shopping for indie dyed, mill processed luxury fibres, forgetting why I started spinning in the first place. Look at this wool, rain washed, imbued with local character." I held it out to show her and yelped as a couple of gorse spines stabbed into my thumb.

Elinor examined my salvaged fleece as we walked on. She turned to me.
"Imbued with your very own DNA. You've got blood on it now. Will you listen if I tell you you're going astray again? Think about it. This month, Gethin the shearer is working himself into the ground and your friend Mary will give you as much Speckled Face Beulah shearling fleece as you want. Here you are, wasting time on kempy old crap off the back end of some random crossbred ewe." 
"In Scotland, they call these bits of wool 'henty lags'. Come on, I'm going down the beach to find a driftwood stick to learn to spin with."

Spinning on a stick is simple, portable, satisfying fun. There are so many things I enjoyed about the book. The little maps showing routes taken on ferries, buses and of course, on foot. The evocative pictures of places and people, Shetland, Hebridean, Scottish Blackface, Boreray, Soay, North Country Cheviot, North Ronaldsay, Castlemilk Moorit, Cheviot and Bowmont sheep. The best thing of all is Debbie Zawinski's style. OK, she is earnest in her heartfelt responses to landscapes and her fascination with the creatures which inhabit them, yet her courage and determination to travel among them is never cast in heroic mould. Speeding across the sea on a small ferry to St Kilda 'is a symphony of sound and motion, almost a ballet; rhythmic, hypnotic. I catch myself dozing, head lolling backwards and mouth hanging open; hopefully no one has noticed.' Time after time, I caught myself smiling in recognition and fellow feeling.
At Spinning Camp last week, I read a chapter aloud. 'Here on this desolate and rugged chunk of metamorphic rock with thousands of clangourous sea birds for companions live a flock of feral sheep; the Boreray sheep." Spinners fell silent hearing Debbie's daring plans to collect fleece from Boreray island, all of us could empathise with her fears as she was told she would have to swim or climb the last part of the approach. My copy of the book was handed round and added to several wish lists.

Finding no valve in my air mattress and spending the first night in my tent turning in a rotisserie of pain on the cold, hard ground, reminded me that however much I might like to identify with Debbie's self sufficiency and back to basics willingness to physically involve herself with both living and spinning in the wild, I lack her steel. Laying aside my driftwood stick and henty lags, after shopping for a new air mattress, I did spin a substantial amount of a Black Welsh Mountain lamb's fleece.

Each chapter of the book ends with a knitting pattern 'ten pairs of very different socks, each geared to the perceived needs of the recipient, the particular characteristics of the fleece I was working with and inspiration from their attendant story'. All look beautiful and have directions for sizing and making up with commercially available yarns.

Temporarily forswearing beaded lace shawls, reading the book at camp renewed my motivation to complete a pair of toe up Speckled Face Beulah socks, part dyed with yellow cosmos, which have been occupying my best circular needle since well before Christmas. Intending to finish with a flourish by copying the cable turnover given in the kilt sock pattern, I overestimated my powers once again. Simply switching to cable pulled the cuff in far too tight for the human foot to pass through. Still, here are my primitive socks, finished in ordinary ribbing and here am I, content with ordinary Welsh fleece and working toward a Black Welsh Mountain and plant dyed Beulah handspun jumper. Whether that turns out well or not, I thank Debbie Zawinski for reconnecting me with the significance of homegrown handspun. 

In The Footsteps of Sheep
by Debbie Zawinski
Published by Schoolhouse Press
printed in the USA
April 2015

Edited to add - I hear you can buy direct from the author here and have a signed copy :)