Friday, 31 January 2014

January Blues - Woad Invictus

January always finds me at a very low ebb, fed up with dragging my carcass to the car before day breaks, only to find it dark again by the time I get home.  I spent time last summer precipitating woad pigment I had extracted from the plants in my garden.  Capturing some of that cerulean blue was an investment against just this kind of rainy day.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit, from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my precipitated woad.
Not knowing how much woad was stored, in advance, I soaked a wide array of yarn and fleece, undyed or disappointingly beige and ripe for a spot of experimental overdyeing.  I supposed that just stirring my precipitate into a little water would be the equivalent of making a paste with woad powder and I alkalinised it with dissolved soda ash, as per instructions which have worked out fine, before.
Instead of becoming a dark cloud, flooding from my jam jar into the dye bath water, the woad precipitated straight back down.  Trying to squish and stir it up, no amount of parboiling my arm in water at 50 degrees centigrade made a bit of difference.  I'd like to say that In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced or cried aloud.  In truth, I cannot hold a candle to William Ernest Henley.  
I did salvage some, by pouring the whole pot through a sieve, lined with a piece of silk.  Lots went down the plughole.  All that effort, growing and saving woad, to end like this. Under the bludgeonings of chance, I took the dog down the beach to scream with the seagulls.  The dog is deaf and quite unperturbed.  Home, much restored.

After I had flaked the dried woad back off the silk, I came across an article about making your own paint.  It described grinding mineral pigments together with linseed oil. Got some of that in the garage.  Woad paint seemed a better option than another attempt at dyeing. Mixed up, the colour was darkest indigo and the paint needed to be thinned with a fair bit of oil to go on smoothly with a brush.

At the end of January, it will be one year since my spinning wheel, Roger, rose from the flatpack.  I bought the barewood version of the Ashford Traveller with a vague idea of customising it.  Desperate as I was to get spinning, all he actually got was a rub down with beeswax wood balsam before going into service.  He gets another wipe and wax every time we finish a fleece, but also bears the stains of my liberal use of bicycle oil on his moving parts. Decoration with woad paint spirals would be a fine anniversary celebration. What I lack in artistic genius might be remedied with a potato print.  The carved carrots worked out rather well.
I sanded down an old bread board for a trial run.  The spiral prints weren't very crisp, but the principle seemed sound. When the paint dried, I discovered that the oil had just dumped a residue of woad powder on the surface. Touch it and it blurred.

Beyond this print of linseed oil 
Looms but the Horror of decay,
And yet the thought of spirals spoiled 
Finds me resigned to modern ways.

Bugger macrobiotic, wholemeal choices.  Time for a big blob of white acrylic paint.

Ha, finally fixed that woad.  Roger got two layers of a pale blue-gray shade.  Spirals are my favourite doodle.  Triple centres are a good symbol for spinning, one twist for the single, one for the ply and another for rolling yarn into a ball.  George Bain's The Methods of Construction is a brilliant book that enables anyone to fathom how to put patterns together. 

I practiced on paper, cut out a template, mixed a darker shade of woad paint and spent ages laboriously painting on a linked spiral design.  The brushwork is dodgy, but the process got hypnotic.  I did both sides and used up the rest of the paint on the bobbins.  It turns out spirals may have all sorts of symbolic significance, far removed from spinning.  Have a google, see for yourself.
Where do people get the effrontery to imagine they can pontificate on the meanings of spirals carved thousands of years ago? Might just as plausibly suggest that people then liked doodling too.  It is hideously annoying when supposition and guesswork is presented as fact. 

Ah, January, good job it is nearly over.

It matters not, how woad is fixed,
Though acrylic was not my ideal.
I am the master of this mix:

I am the painter of my wheel.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Preparing and Spinning Alpaca Fleece

I am the happy owner of two kinds of white alpaca fleece from TOFT. One bag of 650g raw fleece has a staple length varying from 5-12cm and a medium crimp, so it must be huacaya. The smaller bag has locks with more of a wave than a crimp, so I think it is the rarer type, called suri.  Both have incredibly fine fibres.  The Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook says the average micron count is in the mid 20s. It may be fleece, but alpaca is not actually wool at all.
The dirt on these locks is just dust.  No grease, no guard hairs, raw alpaca is dry and apparently, the fibres are hollow, which accounts for why it is so warm.  Everyone knows it is soft and luxurious.  I read that alpaca yarn drapes well, but that this can easily become sag and bag in knitted garments.
Let the Alpaca Tribulations commence.  Combing it works, but the roving gets quite wildly electric.  Annoying.  Hand carders control the fibres better, but there is still a big fuzz to roll into a rolag. Spinning these just naturally created very fine singles.  You'd imagine I would be proud of that, but after struggling with a small piece of lace knitting, I'm not keen to stockpile lace weight yarn.
In order to create a thicker yarn with more durability, I blended some Gotland fleece in with the alpaca and made a bit of double knitting weight yarn, two plied. Bit hairy, but very pretty greys.  Next, to improve bounce, alpaca was blended half and half with the coloured portion of some Jacob fleece I had from Huxtable Farm.  I navajo three plied this.  The yarn came out rather heavy with a hint of barber's pole effect, which I don't much admire.

Knitted up, the look of the Alpaca/Jacob blend pleased me more than the Gotland.  My limited experience suggests alpaca does not take a plant dye as well as wool.  

In any case, there is no dye I like as much as the shades of brown, grey and 'lilac' in a Jacob.

Here are 300g of washed Jacob fleece drying on my own invention - an electric blanket, wrapped round a block of polystyrene and covered in an old groundsheet. Originally, I made it for bringing on seedlings in the greenhouse.  
This photo shows the invention of Louet, a small drum carder called a Louet Junior.  When I bought it at the Spinning Rally last September, I did get tuition and made a batt of Dorset Poll. Back home, I have struggled to get anything half way decent out of it. The fleece needs to be grease free and can be fed in after fluffing out clean locks into a cloud, if you know what you are up to.
I read more about drumcarding and got a reasonable result flicking out the tips of locks with the dog brush and feeding them in to the licker in thin layers.  With 600g alpaca and 300g Jacob, I am aiming for 20g alpaca and 10g Jacob in every batt and reckon I should be able to make enough double knitting weight yarn for a big, soft, drape shape cardigan.  I want a more even blend than I got on the handcarders, but not so homogenised that I lose the variable Jacob tones.  The initial batt is being split down the middle and drafted, before going through the drum carder just one more time.
Each Mark 2 batt is pulled in half again and rolled up like a rolag, to spin semi woolen for extra body.
When spinning, I am sticking to medium twist as the staples are quite long. Using fairly loose twist while two plying should maximise the luxury soft feel.  Washing the yarn, there is no need for high heat to lift out lanolin.  The Jacob is clean and just a long soak in warm water with a little Fairy Liquid gets the dust out of the alpaca.  
Fulling yarn is another new process for me.  Alpaca is an exciting challenge, quality gear, and I want it to do it justice.  I am giving each wet skein a few sharp twangs between my hands, intended to set the twist, then thwacking it about like I was Harvey Smith at the Hickstead Derby.  This does fluff it up and doesn't make it felt the way I feared.

My favourite sheep colours modulated by pristine, white alpaca .  I name this yarn Banquo, a spectral version of the yarn I made with my first ever fleece, a Jacob X Texel from Huxtable Farm.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Making a Woven Willow Sheep Fleece Basket

Willow grows fast.  In 2002, I planted different coloured rods to grow a living willow dome for the kids to play in the back garden. Despite weaving ends in and pruning, by 2010, it had put half the garden in deep shade. Chopping the top off left this wildly intertwined enclosure. Each spring, the new growth is so vigorous that egg chair is quite private by summer.
Push the end of a freshly cut willow rod into the earth and chances are, it will take root.  I've used willow to make wigwams for climbing plants and found the wigwam in leaf before the sweet peas flowered.  Salix viminalis is a complete monster, the Golden Willow, salix alba x fragilis is slower growing.  Even so, a row of its cuttings planted a few years ago needed a hard winter pruning.  The colours of willow bark are beautiful in January.  First thoughts ran to trying it as a dye, but then I remembered the mystery object from Handspinning News.

The object turned out to be a willow basket for raw sheep fleece, possibly for warming the lanolin by the fireside before carding, possibly for gathering bits of loose fleece. Variously known as a crealagh, muirlag or ciarachan, discussions on Ravelry gave links to Woven Communities website, where there is a phototutorial called How to make a Mudag.   Some years ago, I tried willow weaving, following instructions in a book called Handmade Baskets by Susie Vaughan.  I've never made a frame basket, but with all this willow, what did I have to lose? I managed to tape four lengths into hoops and put them in a round trug to dry. Last Saturday, when I took them out, they stayed reasonably circular.  All the other lengths had been rolled in a towel and were sodden with rain.  This had made them much more flexible than when I cut them.

Even so, I had to split one of the thinnest twigs down the middle to make it bendy enough to wrap the cut ends of the hoop together when I took off the tape.  Not possible to tie a knot, so I put the thin end between the layers of the hoop and bound back over it, then pulled the thick end between the layers to wedge it tight. .
There is a diagram for the God's Eye on Woven Communities. To get a long enough, supple enough length for this, I peeled a thick layer of bark off one of the biggest sticks. To finish, the loose end was pulled through the last turn and woven against the adjacent rib as I made the body.  The God's Eye was a godsend when it came to fitting all the ribs.  In the picture of the real thing, a single in and out weave is used, which needs an odd number of uprights. Three ribs per quarter sat safely and looked good, adding or removing one just didn't work.
The God's Eyes were wide and firm enough to support the ribs under their own tension, when bent into place. 
Having sixteen ribs, I decided to weave with a pair of willow lengths twisting round each other in between each stake.  I don't know what this is called, but it is the basic technique shown in 'Handmade Baskets' and it does work for any number of ribs. Once I had made a start on both ends, I took the tape off and it held perfectly solid.  

By this point it was getting dark, my hands were aching and my feet freezing from sitting still, but I was most encouraged.  Completing the body, it was touch and go whether there would be enough lengths of willow.  To fill in the middle, I had to resort to using up weedy bits which were too short, really, or the thickest ones which didn't want to bend neatly.
By Sunday teatime, I had a finished object.  It is strong and can withstand maltreatment by those who have noticed its likeness to a rugby ball and think it funny to toss it round the kitchen while I squeak with alarmed outrage. The golden willow is bound to fade to brown and shrink a bit. The whole thing already has an amateur wonkiness, but I am chuffed.   

My own muirlag.  Time to find out whether carding warm wool is easier. I might try it out collecting bits off fleece off the moor next May. 

It certainly makes a better fireside ornament than wet boots.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Dyeing Wool and Alpaca with Mahonia Berries

A box of frozen mahonia berries has been lurking in the bottom drawer of my freezer, thanks to an autumn trading session with dyers on Ravelry.  The berries are reputed to give a purple dye, though I have been warned, more likely grey. Not a problem, I love grey, it's a very flattering colour.

Here's a photo of a mahonia bush, growing just down the road from me.  I noticed it because the bright yellow flowers have been dazzling against a dark green clump of holly.   I believe the berries ripen in autumn, certainly none there now. Wild, wet and windy last weekend, I had a snotty cold, was fed up with work and not looking forward to dismantling the Christmas decorations.  The house always looks so bleak without them, no more fairy lights dispelling the gloom of the long dark nights. A new dye project cheered up my packing away and cleaning.  I've not previously dyed anything with frozen material nor tried using any part of a Mahonia bush, so quite exciting stuff.  Plus, I wasn't just dyeing wool.
Among my many blessings, reasons to be cheerful and not a miserable old cow, is this fabulous box of alpaca.  Last summer, I entered a couple of patterns in a TOFT design competition for using up small amounts of yarn.  One was judged a runner up and this prize arrived just before Christmas - two kinds of alpaca fleece and a ball of alpaca yarn blended with silk.  So fine and soft and light. Alpaca is surely destined for lace knitting.  
The 50g ball is 230m long.  Searching lace knitwear, I found ete chic, a French pattern for a narrow summer scarf which required only 175m yarn.  Perfect, the lace band is only 12 stitches wide with an eight row repeat.  How far wrong could anyone go?

The brutal truth is that I am not destined to knit lace. At least half of the repeats in this band had to be unravelled.  It is a very good job that the end of each repeat is clearly defined by two cast off stitches.  If I had had to go back to the beginning every time I got it wrong, I'd be at it still.  Some of the yarn in this lace band ended up seriously mutilated, grey and sweaty.

The body of the scarf is plain sailing, garter stitch is surprisingly pretty in a fine yarn.  It really did only need 175m, so I still have some of my ball left over. When TOFT announce their competition results, I'll be looking to see how much yarn the winning project needs.  Til then, lacework can wait for bright sunshine to improve my temper and the visibility of fine twisted stitching.

The mahonia berries weighed 200g.  Jenny Dean's book, Wild Colour suggests an equal weight of fibre to berries.  Hoping for a deep purple/dark grey, I only used 100g fibre - the 40g alpaca scarf and two skeins of handspun wool, weighing 50g and 10g.  I washed the alpaca gently and scoured the wool vigorously then mordanted the lot with 10g alum. This was to be a one stop dye bath, extracting the dye from the berries at the same time as dyeing the fibre.  Wild Colour recommends simmering mahonia berries for 45 minutes maximum.  I poured all the berries into the water with the fibre and started to heat it up slowly.  No colour seemed to be showing when I peered at it.  Damn - forgot to crush the berries!   Not a problem, they were floating on the surface, swollen up like sultanas in brandy.  Great fun to squish, they popped like bubble wrap and obligingly sank down out of sight.  Lots of orangey colour started to swirl out, but a dye bath often looks different to the colour the fibre takes on.  In between carting boxes back up to the loft, frequent visits to check progress meant I kept the temperature almost exactly 90 degrees centigrade for precisely 40 minutes before turning off the heat and leaving the lot to soak overnight.

Oaths and imprecations unsuitable for a Sunday morning. Yet again, I have created beige. The wool has gone a warmer colour than the alpaca/silk mix, which is interesting to know, but hardly substitutes for even a temporary purple result.  Not so much as a lavender tint.  


Right, try soaking the little skein in a soda ash alkali after bath, see if it goes a soft green, like the book says. It did go greenish, but frankly, the contents of my hanky are more appetising. 

Some weekends, the nicest thing that happens is discovering a forgotten Toblerone while wiping down a bookshelf.

I've saved a few seeds from the frozen berries and put them in a pot of earth outside.  If any germinate, I'll have a handsome winter flowering plant.