Friday, 31 July 2015

Dyeing Wool with Rose Mallow Flowers

Some plants are thriving in this exceptionally wet July.  I have never seen so much meadowsweet, which generally confines itrself to ditches and damper verges.  I grew some rose mallow plants from seed this spring and they have all done well, especially this one, which gets the most light, though no-one would say, full sun. Jenny Dean and Rita Buchanan both write that pink and maroon dyes can be had from rose mallow petals, advising minimum heating and long soaks in the dye bath.  Altogether a rosy prospect. Enough to get me out in the rain collecting every open flower, only lingering to rub the blackfly off the madder, which is really enjoying all the sheep manure I mixed into the earth in that big barrel, behind the mallow.
Not a vast haul of plant material, but since these are perennial plants, there should be more and more flowers in future years. Heated very gently, to about 60 degrees, the petals lost their colour leaving a pale yellow dye bath.  Being as this was just a test run, I only added 15g of merino tops, premordanted with 10% alum, heated the pot up to 60 degrees again and left it alone.

The fibres turned a silvery blue green.  Next day, it was still raining.  Alkalinising the water with soda ash made the dye bath look much stronger, but not a hint of pink, the wool just changed to yellow.  Adding iron and vinegar turned it beige.  My companion, Elinor Gotland, joined me in my gloomy inspection of the results.
"Is this all you've got done while I've been away?  I thought now you'd retired, the house would be full of colour, spinning, yarn. How did you get on in the Tour de Fleece?"
"Well, actually, I crashed out in the early stages.  Did a bit of knitting when the puppy was asleep."

Elinor followed me out to the greenhouse, where we discovered none of the tomatoes had ripened yet.  I sighed.
"Why must you climb up on the vines?"
"Same reason you've put your spinning wheel on the dining table, Beaut.  A bored puppy is a dangerous beast."
"I'll be so glad when we can go out walking, rain or shine.  I'm going stir crazy at home and so is she."
"When all the world is wet, Beaut,
And all tomatoes green;
And every dye a beige, Beaut,
Wait for the pup's vaccine.
Then no more chewed up plants, Beaut,
It's down the dunes away.
Young blood must have its course, Beaut,
And every dog her day."

Friday, 24 July 2015

Dyeing Wool with Pink Hollyhock Flowers

Harvesting dye plant flowers for storing is best done on a dry day, but we simply haven't had many of those this month.  At least it saves time watering the garden pots. These pink hollyhocks grow in a raised border with plenty of manure and have responded to the wet conditions with multiple flowering spikes, lower blossoms going over as higher ones unfurl.  My past experiments with maroon hollyhocks suggested that the range of colours the petals contain may be much diminished by freezing and also that red varieties, when dried, give yellowy green dyes. Plants from seeds I sowed two years ago had a serious savaging by slugs early in their lives and the pots got mixed up in a rescue mission, so I've had to wait til now to find out what colour the survivors would be.  This week, there seemed to be plenty of pink to collect, so I squidged about in the rain, gathered eighty soggy, spent flowers and decided to use them fresh.   I just simmered them gently til the colour had leached out, producing a rosy pink dye bath.
Hoping these salmony pink flowers might contain numerous constituent types of dye molecule which might give a series of colours,  I added just 15g of merino tops, mordanted with 10% alum, brought the temperature up to about
60 degrees centigrade, let the bath cool, then repeated the process two more times with another couple of small quantities of merino.  The first sample was greeny yellow, the second sample yellowy green and third, just a paler version somewhere between the two.  These pink flowers do not seem to have such complex colour constituents as the maroon ones.  Then I remembered that hollyhock dyes are very sensitive to pH, the previous
red flower dye going brown with acid and green with alkali.  The remaining dye bath tested as pH neutral and adding half a teaspoon of dissolved soda ash caused an immediate and obvious colour shift from pale pink to green. Putting some of the merino from each of the original samples back into the dye pot for half an hour of reheating, I expected their colour to become greener and stronger. Alkali did brighten up the
weaker second and third samples, but not as strikingly as I recalled happening before and I was not ecstatic at the prospect of spinning up these samples. Adding some iron water to the dye bath, I heated it up one last time with another piece of the three pH neutral portions.  All of them turned deep green.  Very nice. This could be worth trying as a background for contact dye on some extortionately expensive wool gauze I have tucked away.  I went back out on yet another rainy afternoon to salvage the next lot of
spent pink hollyhock flowers and added them to the same pot along with the woolen fabric, rolled up round coreopsis and dyers chamomile flowers with hardy geranium leaves.  The wool fabric is not as green and did not take such a detailed impression of the plants as silk, but the effect is pleasing.

Pleasing, but not exhilarating.  It gets hard to look on the bright side while dark clouds perpetually cover the July sky.  Particularly when the slugs have ravaged the woad leaves, black fly cluster on the stems of madder and chamomile and a bored puppy just bit one of the Hopi sunflower plants down to a stump.  My companion, Elinor Gotland chose this moment of carnage for her return from Montreal.

Steering well clear of the dog, she headed upstairs to unpack.
"Cheer up, Beaut.  I've brought you back some instant sunshine.  Maple syrup.  In the morning, we're making waffles."

Friday, 17 July 2015

Achillea Plant Dye on Wool

It has been raining solidly for days. The garden is turning into a quagmire and the taller plants have fallen over under the weight of water - I always mean to put stakes for them to grow through, but rarely remember. The big yellow flowers are on a single plant of Achillea Coronation Gold. 

This is a huge variety of comon yarrow, a plant I have dyed with before. Cutting back the prostrated stems near their base produced over a kilogram of plant material. Even if not as powerful as yarrow, I decided such a big quantity ought to contain some dye colour. Just then, my companion, Elinor Gotland, telephoned home from Montreal. Having established that it was also raining there, we got to the real point of her call.
"Did you get that dog then?  Has it chewed up your knitting yet?" 
"I have called our puppy Yarrow, because her fur is golden brown, just like the dye I got from yarrow plants.  Wait til you see her, she is so pretty."
"Handsome is as handsome does, Beaut."
A long silence spanned the continents.
"Are you having a good time at the Fantasia Film Festival?  What have you been to see?"
"A horror film called 'Bridgend'."
"Now, that was uncalled for.  You used to seem happy enough here."
"No, you numpty.  There's a new film based on all those hangings."
"Is that our only claim to fame?  Who would make a film about that?"
"Danish director, British cast.  That girl off 'Skins' is playing the lead."
"So, why travel half way round the world to see it?"  
"I might be interested in advising on the Hollywood remake."
"Or you might be scared of the puppy."

It seems we lost our connection at that point.  I got on with chopping the Achillea up and simmering it for an hour, before sieving out the plant material through a colander. The dye bath looked brassy orange. I put in 200g of chunky yarn, which turned a pale butter yellow after an hour simmering below the boil.  Jenny Dean and Rita Buchanan both say in their books that yarrow dye is only slightly sensitive to pH changes,
so I wasn't expecting much when I tested two samples of the paler yellow dye afterbath.  The jar on the right has the unaltered dye, which had a pH on the acid side of neutral.  Adding enough dissolved soda ash to bring the pH up to 11 caused the dye in the jar on the left to go a much deeper colour. In order to add a variegated shade to the wool, I suspended the skein from the towel rail so that half was above the water level and added
soda ash to the dye bath,before heating it up again.  I got a bit distracted and accidentally let the pot boil, but once it had cooled down, the wool that had been in the alkali bath was a much brighter, richer shade. Jenny Dean also writes that yarrow will dye wool green with an iron modifier, so for a final flourish, I added a glug of iron water from the rusty nail jar and suspended the skein again so that half the original yellow and half the alkali yellow sections were back in the warm dye bath.  Just half an hour soaking, no more risking another boil, and the colour had been shifted to a greenish beige, better once rinsed and dried.

None of the colours look anything like the golden brown I remember from dyeing with common yarrow, certainly they're not like the colour of the dog's fur.  Anyway, it's too late to think of a new name, she already comes when I call 'Yarrow'.  And even if I don't.  It is certainly novel, if a little inconvenient, to have such an interest taken in everything I do.

Now, would that puppy chew anything woolly?
I was about to ring and reassure Elinor that Yarrow was quite harmless, when I noticed a dark and muddy pit had mysteriously appeared just below her hammock.   Perhaps I'll leave mentioning that til she gets home.  I'm sure she will be back soon.  The likes of J-Lo and Brad Pitt are not going to fancy being filmed outside the kebab shop on Nolton Street on a Friday night.  Far too scarey. 

Friday, 10 July 2015

Triangle Loom Weaving

This is a proper triangle loom.  I first saw such a thing at last September's Spinning Camp and hurried home inspired to make one myself. Weaving on it was most satisfying, though mine wasn't a functional version for producing cloth.  

I was lent this one to weave the Portland yarn I spun while camping in June.  Using the triangle loom, the long colour changes in the humbug skeins mean that the warp comes up in sections of different colours, symmetrically mirrored by changes in the weft, as it crosses itself creating a variegated warp.  I see the result as a primitive version of tartan, though better informed weavers might not.

The yarn itself was not ideally suited to the job, being semi-woollen spun and not washed before weaving.  Sitting in a camping field on a windy evening, with the warp threads
catching on each other and fuzzing up as the weft was slid across to the other side, I was gritting my teeth, hanging on to the triangle loom on my lap and begining to think this a much mistaken effort.  Only the interest of finding that pattern emerging kept me weaving one more row, just to see.  Once I got home to more comfortable circumstances, I had the hang of it and finished quickly.  When the first triangle of fabric was hooked off the loom, I was so pleased I started the next
one straightaway.  The humbug yarn ran out just before I finished the second, but since by its nature, it harmonises with all the other skeins, I completed the triangle with parts of another two colours. Next, I used the skein of beige, and since I hadn't troubled to clean the drum carder between batts, that yarn had spun up with some more subtle colour changes giving another interesting weave pattern.  Finally, a fourth triangle
with a uniformly yellow yarn, which I am pretty certain was dyed with an afterbath of Dyer's Chamomile.
The four woven triangles were crocheted together along their long sides to make two squares, then round the outside for a couple of rows to give some depth before being put together to make a cushion cover.
Himself was very complimentary, liked the firm stuffing with waste wool and remarked we could do with two for the sofa.  Which set me thinking how much work
another cushion would be - buy the fleece, wash the fleece, mordant the fleece, grow the plants, pick the plants, simmer the dye baths, dye and dry the fleece, make the batts, spin the yarn, weave the triangles and crochet them up - don't think I could calculate how many woman hours that cushion represents.  Heaven help me if I had to furnish the house from scratch.  And what a disaster if some accident should befall my creation.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Preparing and Spinning a Portland Sheep Fleece

One year ago, at the Weald and Downland Rare and Traditional Breed Show, I bought a Portland fleece. They are quite small sheep and the fleeces on sale weighed about 1.5kg, with a staple length of about 8cm. The one I had was finer than most, open and quite soft to handle.
Seeing that the crimp was not defined throughout, I guessed Portland would be a Down type wool, it seemed to me to have much in common with the Dorset Poll I had spun the year before. Just like the Dorset, Portland was not inclined to felt.  Stuffed loosely into a pillow case, it went through the wool cycle in my washing machine, then straight into the bath to soak for 24 hours 
in 10% by weight alum solution. Once it had dried, this fleece formed my supply of ready mordanted fibre for plant dye experiments and leftover afterbaths.   Last summer's blogs featured portions of Portland fleece in many shades of yellow, orange, pink, grey and of course, beige.  But what to do with the various small quantities, including many frankly unattractive results? Apart from being multicoloured,
even the most good tempered fleece is no longer at its best after simmering in dye baths, then spending a winter compacted into a sack under the bed. While clearing out, I was half ready to chuck the lot on the compost heap, so taking the Portland to Spinning Camp was a last resort.
"Go on then, Beaut.  You go and ask your spinning friends to come and have a look at it.  I'll just stop here, do my knitting and keep an eye on things."  
My companion, Elinor Gotland, was more concerned not to let other commodities preserved from past summers go to waste.

Thanks to friends, I learned to use a fleece picker, which rapidly pulled apart even the most matted locks of wool.  As they emerged in a fluffed up state, handfuls were munched up by a David Barnett drum carder and turned into batts.  I made no attempt to pick out the neps, only put the fibres once through the carder, and didn't bother cleaning it in between colours. In one long morning of manic activity, the whole fleece was transformed into a great pile of batts and in the process, I started to untangle my own wooly thinking about changes I am making. Though far           from being smoothly aligned, 
the rough batts still made the dyed fibres look far more interesting. Even the grey stuff had greenish tones and variations. Suddenly, I was keen to spin it all up and excited about the outcome. Tearing the batts into strips and rolling up sections into a form of rolag, I stuck to practising backward drafting and letting in the twist to make lumpy, semi-woolen singles. A day and a half of furious pedalling on Roger, my 
Ashford Traveller spinning wheel, turned the Portland fleece into skeins of bulky two ply yarn and also soothed some of my jitteriness, though probably, the good company and the damson gin had more significant effects. My favourite skeins are the 'humbug' ones, a mixture including a strip from every batt in each single, randomly plied.  Yet another inspiring idea from a very clever friend. 
Back home from camp, I sat in the garden admiring the fruits of my labours, while Elinor went to inspect our damson tree.  I called to her, across the lawn.
"When I bought this fleece, the lady at the show told me that according to folklore, the Portland breed started in the sixteenth century with Spanish sheep, rescued from the wreck of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel."
"Implausible, Beaut.  There were a couple of sea battles off Portland Bill, but the Armada was really defeated by the weather.  Those ships were blown off course round Scotland and driven onto rocks on the east coast of Ireland."  She sniffed distainfully. "Your damsons are still tiny green things, nowhere near ripe."  
Elinor disappeared off indoors for a moody, post camp flake out.  It must have done her good, as she emerged with a new surge of vitality.  Next day, instead of staying up on the headland to read her book and have a smoke, she actually climbed down the rocks to the beach, where I was treated to a virtuoso re-enactment of 'The Perils of Paloma, Piscatorial Progenitor of the Portlands.'