Friday, 28 June 2013

Making Weld Dye from the Plant to the Wool

Weld appears in all the dye books, usually commended as giving a good clear yellow and being one of the most light fast plant dyes.  Though it is described as a wild plant, I've not seen any round here, despite keeping pictures in my bag for reference when walking the dog. She's pretty slow these days and glad of a little sit down, so I have plenty of time to check the hedgerows.  No luck last summer, so I sowed my own.  In this picture, the weld plants are the tall spikes in front of the purple chive flowers.  If you see any locally, grab them.  Books list dozens of sources of yellow. This dye plant is not just one among the many, it is a total power house, Olympic champion, packs a punch like Katie Taylor.

The Latin name is Ruseda luteola, after the luteolin pigment it contains.  Weld grows from seed as a biennial.  Past gardening experience has showed me that if you can get biennial seeds to germinate in trays in the late summer, then plant them in the garden in early autumn, the following spring they often behave as if they were in their second year and flower for you very nicely.  Strictly speaking, you are supposed to sow these seeds in spring and not transplant them, because they have a tap root.  Still, here's one of mine in March, looking small and battered after the winter. 
As you can see from the top photo, my patch of autumn sown weld plants has now shot up flowering spikes.  Harvesting instructions conflict.  One book suggests picking leaves off the first year rosettes, Jenny Dean advises taking the flowering spikes, some blogs show enormous plants with multiple side shoots.  This paper studies dye yield from weld grown in Italy. The conclusion I drew from it was that if I left the plants to grow longer, although I would have a bigger weight of plant material, the concentration of dye in it would be lower. So, last week, I chopped off the leading spikes with the tiny flowers just coming, leaving the lower part of the plant to carry on putting up side shoots, just as Jenny Dean advises.

There are a multitude of methods described for extracting dye, ranging from just scalding fresh chopped leaves with boiling water and leaving them to soak, to fermenting them for a week, then boiling for an hour.  People don't always specify if they are using fresh or dried material.  I split the difference, giving 40g of my fresh leaves two days in cold water, then half an hour simmer.  A piffly little quantity in the colander for an equal weight of wool, mordanted with Alum and Cream of Tartar.  The consensus seemed to be that a one to one ratio is enough. The rest of my spikes were hung up to dry.  One major objective of this summer's season is to preserve material for winter projects.  The second objective is to have a fair idea of what colours to expect. The third is to know how quickly they will fade.

The soaked leaves did not flood the water with colour and even the simmer did not produce much apparent dye.  I ummed and aahed about putting in a whole 40g of wool, then went for it, leaving the bag of leaves in the bath.  

After 24 hours cold soak, the first skein was an astonishingly bright yellow - far left.  I put in another 40g skein, this time I brought the bath up to a simmer, left it overnight and next day, skein two was strongly yellow.  Same again with skein three - far right - and that little handful of 40g chopped fresh leaves and stalk still gave significant colour.  Given this power, the 350g bunch I have drying should give a strong yellow to 1kg of wool.  I have never seen anything so strong as this before.

No real need to bring up the yellow with an alkali afterbath, but just to see what would happen, I put a bit of each skein in water with half a teaspoon of soda ash for half an hour.  Dizzyingly vivid!

Weld may even predate woad as a dye plant.  It is certainly easier to get the colour out of it.  These results guarantee it several square feet of earth in my garden.  Nine days after cutting the main spikes, the side shoots are almost in flower and ready to be cut again.  There could even be a third lot to come.  So long as the dried leaves work half as well, I shall have sunshine in the depths of winter.

Afterword mid July

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       I found wild weld! 
Not locally, but on an industrial estate I happened to be walking through.  It certainly does cope with poor soil, though these plants are shorter and smaller than mine on the veg patch.  I had read weld likes freshly turned earth, and saw it had grown on the bald patches by a new building, but was not among the established verges of wild plants nearby.  In future, I shall try looking around building sites and road works.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Roo's Button Adjustable Cowl/Scarf Pattern

My brother Roo is a proud member of the Zulu Nation, but feels comparatively short on tribal costume. Since a northern European heritage does mean sunburn, he was very happy to have a T shirt I dyed with woad for him last time he was home.  In KwaZulu-Natal, knitwear may not be as useful.  Still, having about 200m of Jacob hand spun, also dyed with woad, I decided to make him a small scarf.  
Perfect for those nippy July evenings on the beach.

Reading the May edition of Handspinning News I saw Mary Keenan's free pattern for a Crazy Cowl, ideal for uneven hanspun wool and knitted all in button holes, with a button to fasten it wherever you like.  A brilliant idea, which I have her permission to copy in crochet.  I will now point out with considerable pride that a couple of my projects have also been featured. While the offspring tell me 50 pageviews in a day is not 'going viral', I claim small bacterial zit status on the blogosphere.  One day, Wool Tribulations will go carbuncular! 

Crochet is a very straightforward way to create something full of potential buttonholes.  This is the first time I have made up a crochet pattern more complex than rows of double crochet. Anyone skilled could look at this bit of crochet and see how it was done, easy, no need for a pattern. For those like me, who tend to get mixed up when turning and lose or gain a stitch, I have made a clean copy of my final chart for the whole repeat square.  Also, spot the deliberate mistake, I got it wrong with the starting square in the photo. Look closely and you will see the treble mesh goes one row too many in the first block.  By the time I had unravelled several unworkable false starts and was happy with the width and balance of structure and spaces, I could not be arsed to start again.
This chart should make squares, in which the 'button holes' - clear squares outlined in pen on the chart - will match up when you match the two ends at right angles. 

For Roo's Cowl, I used a 4mm crochet hook.  I am now making another from the natural lilac coloured part of the same Jacob fleece with a 7mm hook and the fabric feels softer as well as being wider and looser.

Chain 29 stitches, chain one more for the turn, then *double crochet into each of the 29 stitches. Turn, chain 5, then treble crochet into the third stitch on the base line and the following two.  Chain two, miss two stitches, treble crochet into the next three, repeat to the end, when one treble crochet goes into the last stitch. 
Chain one, turn and double crochet into each of the 29 stitches.  Repeat this row once.  
Chain 4, missing one stitch, treble crochet into the second stitch on the base line. Chain one and treble crochet into the second stitch away until you reach the end.  Repeat this row once.
Chain one, turn and double crochet into each of the 29 stitches.  Repeat this row once.
Chain 4, missing one stitch, treble crochet into the second on the base line. Chain one and treble crochet into the second stitch away until you reach the end.  Repeat this row twice.
Chain one, turn and double crochet into each of the 29 stitches.  Repeat this row once.
Chain 4, missing one stitch, treble crochet into the second on the base line. Chain one and treble crochet into the second stitch away until you reach the end.  Repeat this row once.
Chain one, turn and double crochet into each of the 29 stitches.  Repeat from *

This is the basic square pattern.  I had enough wool to make eight repeats and the dimensions were 15cm (6 inches) wide and 123cm (4 feet) long.  The lilac Jacob one on the 7mm hook is 20 cm (8 inches) wide and will continue growing til the ball of wool runs out. 

Finish by working one more row of double crochet along the top, then come down the side putting two double crochet stitches around each treble post and one double crochet in the hole between  each double row of double crochet stitches.  Across the bottom putting one double crochet into each of the 29 chain, the back up the other side in the same way as the first side.  
Wash and dry flat.  Sew a button onto the double crochet just below the first and last button hole on the first two pattern blocks - four buttons. 

Elinor models two buttoned up options

Pictured left, put the centre of the scarf under your chin, bring the end with buttons over one shoulder, then the other end over the other shoulder and button it at right angles to make a point.  Above, button the top and bottom ends together to make a loop and double it over your head.
Belle channels tribal style - Celtic Hound. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

Dyeing with Young Bracken Shoots

Sheep don't eat bracken.  I seem to be its only local predator. 

The Latin name is Pteridium Aquilinum.  I read it has been around for over 55 million years and is classed as a noxious weed in Great Britain. Vigorous and invasive, it can be cut to the ground twice a year and still thrive.  There are recipes for cooking the new shoots or fiddleheads, but the sheep are not daft.  Bracken dominates miles of moorland because of its toxicity to other plants and animals.

On the plus side, it makes pretty good compost, some butterflies like it and I still think it's beautiful.  The bracken here seems to have sprung out of the ground in the last fortnight and the wool is rising.  The weak link between last year's growth and the new wool is letting the old fleece fall off the unshorn sheep on the moor in tatty lumps.  

Jenny Dean's book Wild Colour says bracken dye is yellow from new shoots, going to olive green in mature plants.  Last July, I got a brilliant zingy lime green.  This year, I intend to try a bracken dye bath every month through the summer.

Whatever the shade, bracken is a fugitive dye.  

Last summer,  I made a striped bag with wool dyed with comfrey, nettles and bracken.  As you can see, all the green and gold shades are now so muted as to be barely visible except in the sunshine. I still use the bag all the time, but only the handles dyed with red onion skin have kept much colour.

Since I can go at it like a prehistoric monster with no ecological qualms at all, I shall be trying to get the strongest, fastest colours from bracken by using a ratio of 10/1 plant weight to wool weight.  I picked 1.5kg bracken on Thursday, soaked it through Friday, simmered it for two hours on Saturday and left the pot to cool with the bag of plant material still inside.  I soaked four skeins of total weight 150g overnight, and on Sunday, put them into the dye bath.  Three are texere wool 
and one is another of my practices at blending Gotland and Jacob.  All were mordanted with alum and Cream of Tartar.  I brought them up to 90 degrees centigrade over the course of an hour, simmered for over two hours and left them in the pot for another 24 hours.  This is my best shot at capturing a fugitive dye. 

And the colour was  ...

Maybe it is a concentrated yellow.
An alkali afterbath made the skein at the back slightly greenish.

 I shall tie a bit on a card in the window and see how fast daylight makes it fade to palest beige. 
Not too downhearted, these herbal dyes don't have the eye catching blaze of synthetics, but even the drab ones can be remarkably flattering to wear.  If you spot a predatory dinosaur on the moor in a brownish cardigan, it could be me.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Making a Needlefelt Decorated Felted Clutch

I was on annual leave last week and volunteered to test a mystery crochet and needlefelt pattern written by Briana Olsen, a designer on the Ravelry website. She has made it available for free, here is the link

She said it was going to be small and simple and it is.  Just as well for me, as anything more advanced than double crochet stitch has to be looked up in the book.  What with this project and doing the Macrame style owls, I have got quite hooked on crochet - oooo, why did I not resist that pun? 

The clutch comes in two sizes.  I made the larger one with the skein of wool I dyed with lichen.  If you read my post The Trouble with Lichen, you'll understand why I chose this bit of wool for a project involving a hot wash.  The smaller one was crocheted from the remainder of my ball of handspun Gotland.

After a machine wash at 95 degrees centigrade with some towels, both the clutches felted well.
The Pure New Wool from Texere shrank about 20%. The stitch pattern is still visible, but the wool is properly matted. The Gotland, which is known for its willingness to felt, had shrunk by 40%, becoming really thick.  If you are choosing a remainder from your stash to make this, the larger clutch took just over 30g, which was about 61 metres or 66 yards. Pick 100% wool and do not use one that has had the Superwash treatment.  If you buy wool specially and it says on the ball band what kind of sheep it came from, I know Zwartbles and Gotland felt brilliantly, Jacob felts ok, angora is hell and I have been told Merino and Suffolk don't felt well either. Blacker Yarns sell wool spun from specific sheep breeds.

Decorating the clutch is great fun, up to you to choose how.  I thought the larger, lichen dyed clutch looked a bit like a hay bale and decided to put a mouse on it.  Just cut a slit and sew on a button, to get your bearings.  If you want to needle felt, here is how I did it.

You will need a barbed felting needle and a dense sponge pad.  The supermarkets have those foam tennis balls for little kids, a pack of three only costs 75p at the moment (centre top).  Cut one in half to make a small pad that will fit inside the clutch.  I think most wool types and embroidery silks can be needle felted on if you keep poking the needle through them long enough.  I have been spinning a Jacob fleece (unwashed locks centre bottom, skeins on left), so I just unravelled a bit of wool and combed it out to recreate 'roving'. Roving can be bought in all sorts of outlets.  Hilltop Cloud sells the most gorgeously desirable hand dyed roving.  If you wanted to make animal pictures like the mouse, the natural sheep colours are ideal.  There is a pack of small quantities of nine different fleeces for only £8.

Now have a look at a book or online images for a picture to copy.  Get a small tuft of roving and curl it into the shape you need for the main body.  Poke the needle through it, into the sponge pad behind, until it is firmly fixed. Once you have the basic shape, add on wisps of coloured roving to copy the picture.  Stab the needle through as often as it takes to fix each layer.
It is even easier to make the flowers.  I had some leftover Jacob handspun dyed yellow with daffodils and green with daffodils plus copper afterbath (right of upper picture).  I unravelled the two ply back into singles, laid it on and needle felted.  The flowers are just little circles of the yellow wool.
My friend BG decorated the smaller clutch with some roving left over from another of her projects, using the same technique.  She just made up the pattern as she went along and as ever, it has turned out balanced, harmonious and classy.
I shall call this clutch The Rat Bag.  It is now customised with a felted double crochet cord handle.  My littlest niece will be three years old next week.  This will make a change from the usual birthday cardigan.  

If I were three years old, what would I like to find inside?  Sweets, I expect. No change there, then.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Making Woad Dye from the Plant to the Wool.

Stars hide your fires; let not light see my blue and deep desires.  Simmer fresh green woad leaves to give brown, cabbage smelling water.  Add a bit of eye of newt and something of toad. Dip pretty much anything into the greeny yellow depths. Take it out and it will turn blue.

When it works, woad dyeing is fantastical.  However, it has happened that after a long morning of processing a dye bath, I have sat there with a cup of tea, staring at a greyish bit of wool, willing it to change colour.  Eventually, the tea has grown cold and I have had to be led away, a walking shadow.  Magical thinking is not enough, even Macbeth's witches had to get the recipe right.  
Unfortunately, not only are there several distinct methods of making a woad dye bath, all sets of instructions for the phases of any single method differ in basics like timings and quantities.  Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.  On Bank Holiday Monday, it was a great relief to discover my notes from last year, still on the shelf.  What follows is my version of the chemical method.  It is a pared down, simplest and quickest possible amalgam of all that I have read.  

Step one is to prepare the wool or fabric or anything else you want to dye.  No mordant is needed, but the material has to be thoroughly wetted - preferably soaked overnight.  I had a skein of white Jacob fleece I had spun, which weighed 70g and was about 200m long.  I made it into a long loop and secured it with loose cotton ties at four points.

Next, cut your woad leaves.  Best to do it in the morning, because this is going to take best part of the day.  They can't be kept in the freezer until you have a bigger collection. However few fresh leaves you have, be bloody, bold and resolute - go for it.  The recipes call for a kilogram weight, but I have never had more than 600g at one time and last Monday, I had a magnificent haul of only 300g. While the amount of dye for a given weight of leaves is said to vary by season and plant vigour, most instructions suggest a ratio of four times the weight of leaves to the weight of wool.  I was well pleased to have just over four times the weight of the 70g of wool I wanted to dye.  
It is generally recommended that first year plants are sown in March and harvested in July and August.  I germinated seeds late last summer and overwintered some outdoors and a few in a tub in the greenhouse. The latter have been desperately trying to flower and were clearly hating pot life.  I decided to cut them down to the base and though the plants are still small, I also took the biggest leaves from the ones on the veg patch.  The potted woad roots have been replanted out in the garden.

You can extract the dye and keep it long term, if you want to accumulate enough to dye a bigger weight of wool in one go. There are excellent dye extraction instructions on and much more authoritative information on woad, its history, chemistry and methods of dyeing.  If you don't have woad plants, you can buy powdered woad and all the other chemicals needed on this site.  

Fill a 10 litre pan about half full of water and turn the heat up high to bring it up to 90 degrees centigrade. Chop or tear the leaves, rinse off the dirt and leave them to drain.  

When the water is up to temperature, turn off the gas, put in the leaves and leave them for 10 minutes, with a lid on to keep the heat in. Now you need to cool the dye fast.  Have a sink full of cold water ready, put ice cubes in, if you have them.  Lift the pan into the sink and stir steadily, letting the cold water all round it leach away the heat.  My thin pan comes down to 50 degrees centigrade in a few minutes, but a heavier pan might be more of a challenge to cool within five minutes.

Pour the contents of the pan through the colander into a bucket and squeeze the leaves to get out as much fluid as you can. Smells of cabbage and 50 degrees is still hot, so wear rubber gloves. 

Pour the brown water back from the bucket into the pan. This dye has to be alkaline.  Dissolve a large teaspoon of soda ash in hot water and pour it in.  The excitement begins as the dye bath darkens, a borrower of the night.  Next, get an electric whisk and stand there whisking for ten minutes. My Mum was visiting and it was really nice to have her do all the hard work.  The bath is supposed to get frothy, although ours didn't on Monday. You might see bits of blue on the whisk or the sides of the pan. This is woad blue, but because it is oxygenated, it won't lock on to things and is easy to wipe off.  A little water clears us of this deed.

Woad blue is light fast.  If you overdye it with a yellow plant dye, the wool goes green.  On a school trip to the Musee Cluny, donkey's years ago, I remember admiring The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, but wondering why they had embroidered the grass such a blueish colour.  Now I know that in the centuries since it was made, the yellow plant dye that made the blue into green has faded, but the woad is still going strong.

In order to get a blue woad dye to lock on permanently, you have to deoxygenate it. Once something soaked in almost colourless, deoxygenated woad is exposed to the air, the woad oxygenates, bonding to the thing while turning blue.  The chemical method  for deoxygenation uses thiourea dioxide powder, also known as Spectralite, sprinkled on the surface. For this small dye bath, I used two big teaspoons full, generosity seems to pay off.  Keep the pan at about 45 - 50 degrees.  Double, double, toil and trouble, some say you have to keep the temperature steady for a couple of hours using a bain marie method, which means boiling the kettle over and over again.  I find you don't need to wait longer than half an hour and it works just as well if you keep the temperature steady by leaving the lid on and turning on the heat low for a minute or two if it goes below 45 degrees.  When the dye bath turns a translucent yellowish green, it is about ready.  

Before it goes in, soak the wool in the hottest water you can get out of the tap, so it won't chill the dye bath.  To avoid reoxygenating the woad by accident, DO NOT STIR. Slide the wool in and out, trying not to splash or drip.  On a last minute impulse, I put in some wooden buttons too.  Because I hadn't soaked them, they floated. After 10 minutes or so,  pull the things out of the dye bath.

I wasn't confident I would get much colour out of these leaves, being so early in the season and so few.  Who would have thought the old potted woad to have had so much blue in it? Usually, I get paler shades than this.  I intended to try for a spectrum of blues, but the first dip gave such a strong blue, that dipping just the far end of the loop for another ten minutes didn't result in a much deeper colour change when I aired it again. The dye bath strength always diminishes as dye is used up, so second dips never do double the initial colour and third dips produce even paler additions of colour.
I put the whole loop in for the third dip, and there was still enough woad in there to dye the white end pale blue.  A rinse in plain water and hang it up to dry.  

The buttons were too dry to get much woad on board while the dye bath was strong, but I left them in during the later two dips and they slowly submerged. At the end, they had picked up a nice blue, though uneven and pale.  Next time, I'll soak everything beforehand. 

When the hurlyburly was done, all we had to show for it was a ball of blue wool.  Good day though, and thanks for all your help, Mum.