Friday, 27 November 2015

Making Christmas Fairies with Wool Roving

"I believe in fairies!"
"That doesn't surprise me at all, Beaut.  I've seen your CND badge."  Unwilling to be drawn back into the nuclear deterrent debate, I carried on.
"No, I believe in their fantastic fiscal powers.  I put some in the shop at £7.50 each and I've got a commission to make four more. Commercial magic."

My companion finished her tea.
"So you've joined in the festive exploitation with a fairy production line."
"Oh, don't be rotten, I'm really thrilled to have a product that sells.  I can drum card mixed batts of all the leftover wool scraps, so the costs are pretty low."
Elinor swept aside a fairy skirt and climbed down from the dresser.
"Much as I'd like to revel in the anticipation of an extravagant Christmas shopping trip, I just wonder.  Given your craft track record.  How long do these take to make?"
"OK, the first one did take all afternoon, but I've got the knack now and can knock one up in less than an hour."
"We won't be shopping in Harrods then."

I found the instructions for making fairies out of wool roving on this blog, Echoes of a Dream, for which, many thanks.  The only innovation I really added was an extra length of pipe cleaner going down from the head, which means you can adjust and hold the flight shape of the final fairy body, rather than having them just hang straight down.  Of course, they can be made to come out fatter or thinner, depending on the bulk of wool roving you use for the body, taller or tiny, according to the length you tear off the bump and brown if you use naturally coloured wool.  For the dress, I think blended fibres have a better effect than solid colours, a nice bit of silk looks pretty in the skirt. 
These fairies are fun to do , just lightly needlefelted and it is easy to add on embellishments.

Wensleydale wool locks make lustrous hair, though it's a fiddle and you need a firm ball inside the head to to needlefelt them into. 

"Whoopdedoo, Elinor, I took five fairies to the Christmas Fayre and sold them all, people said they were lovely!  Look at tiny Tinkerbell, in her solar light glass jar."

"Conforming to societal norms of prepubertal beauty just adds to the pressures on the young and the older woman, Beaut.  Say hello to my Fairy Godmother, then wave your magic menopausal wand at the pot and pour some tea into these cups." 

Friday, 20 November 2015

A Second Try at Dyeing Wool with Hopi Sunflower Seeds

Ah, Wovember.  I had such plans, well vague ones, definitely totally sheepy, though.  This year, there is a secret prize of the utmost woolly kind for one participant in the WOOL-ALONG.  With so many kinds of raw fleece in my stash, (Speckled Face Beulah from my friend Mary's flock surely would have impressed the judges) how on earth have I ended up spinning and knitting superwash merino tops?  This sad tale really began last year, with the terrible theft of my  Hopi Sunflower seeds.
This summer, the flowers were planted centre stage, well away from any walls. 
"Squirrels will never get at the Hopi sunflower seeds there, hey, Elinor?"
"Don't get too cocky, that dog has already chewed up one plant. And there's the birds, they love the seeds."  My baleful companion never was enthused by garden dye projects.  "For all you know, the garden will be visited by a troupe of acrobatic hamsters."  While Elinor still hadn't quite forgiven my refusal to cough up for a teak steamer sunlounger, an improvised cushion of wool tops was proving tolerable.  Madam has a soft spot for merino.  It reminds her of her old flame, Bruce.
Their canes bent over one windy night and had to be tied back up with string guy ropes, but the squirrels didn't get the Hopi seedheads and nor did any other garden wildlfe.  I popped out all the seeds from the first head to ripen and saved them in a paper bag. The others were left to dry out in the greenhouse, same as last year.  I expected them to be fine stored like that, ready for further experiments this winter, when there won't be much fun to be had with fresh dye materials.  
It has been a damp autumn.  Imagine my horror, right at the beginning of November, when I found most of the seedheads had gone mouldy.  It was now or never, ditch or dye. What wool did I have already scoured and mordanted?  Only the last of the merino tops.
I simmered well over 300g of seeds, damp weight, keeping the temperature low, about 60 degrees centigrade, for half an hour.  This time, I remembered to put them all in a net bag, pulling it out of the pot next day to leave a deep magenta dye bath.  The pH was already slightly acid, possibly in consequence of a little mouldy fermentation.  A small portion went into a pan with dissolved soda ash, just to double check
what an alkaline environment would do.  The rest was divided into two big pots, one with added vinegar to bring the pH down to 4. Although the wool in the alkaline bath looked grey, when I took it out, there was no colour in the fibres at all.  After two goes at this, I think I can conclude that Hopi sunflower seed dye molecules need an acid environment to become fixed on wool. The merino in the two more and
less acid baths took up a deep maroon red after a short simmer.  However, as I rinsed it in plain water, diluting the acid, the colour shifted to grey.  This photo shows reddish grey persisting from the more acid bath on the left, grey from the less acid bath in the middle, and on the right, dark red on the wool I dyed with last year's seeds, which, now I think about it, never did get a proper rinse. Soaking a bit of grey wool in vinegar changed it back to red. Magic. On the up side, while highly pH sensitive, I think Hopi red is quite lightfast, as the dark red merino hasn't changed noticeably since it was dyed last spring. 
Now the Hopi Indian recipe book says they got blues and purples from sunflower seeds, using native alum as a mordant.  Just to see if that native alum might have included some iron or copper, I tried adding some of each to the leftover dye baths.  Putting in a bit more merino, iron deepened the grey, copper gave an unexpected gold. It was now a whole week into November and Elinor had planted herself very firmly on my last nest of merino.  Time to call the experiments to a halt.  Drum carding a mixture of all the Hopi dye results looked fab to me. Spinning the little batt up into a two ply sample,  I expected the colours would all shift to grey as soon as the yarn was soaked with water. It actually kept a reasonable red variegation,  I had to card the whole lot anyway and

making a gradient added interest, however impermanent. This is how things looked before and after carding...
and after spinning, washing and fulling.  OK, I cheated a bit and added a splash of vinegar to the water soaking the redder skein.  
"I shan't be snooty about superwash merino any more, now I can see what you like about it. Mmm, it was a dream to card and makes wonderfully soft and squashy yarn."
"Not evenly spun though, is it, Beaut?  Bet you don't show that off on Ravelry."
"I have added character to the wool, Elinor, the irregularity won't show much when it's knitted into a lovely cabled beanie.  A hat that won't itch. Himself will be surprised."
"Good job your yarn is too dark and not round bodied enough for these cables to show up.  You've got the pattern wrong already."
After a couple of false starts, I made up my own pattern, using the honeycomb and mock honeycomb stitches shown in Margaret Radcliffe's Color Knitting Guide.  
I haven't dared wash and block this hat for fear of losing the variegated red.  I console myself that grey is a beautiful colour, always been one of my favourites.  The pattern needs a bit of tweaking.  If you scroll down the Wovember website, you can read an article I saw on November 16th about the Doulton Flock.  Something new every day, I have my name down for a fleece next summer and I do visit the Doulton Ravelry forum, yet I never noticed you can now get millspun Border Leicester yarn.  In this month celebrating wool, I felt it only natural and appropriate to buy a few skeins.   I'll be spending the rest of Wovember knitting an improved version of this hat pattern in 100% Doulton wool, 100% grey.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Needlefelting a Christmas Tree Bauble

"Is that all you've done, the whole afternoon?"
"Lovely, isn't it?"
"Mmm.  How we shall enjoy seeing the tree decorated - for Christmas 2016."
Needlefelting is thoroughly therapeutic.  Some people do those adult colouring in books to chill out.  I was feeling perfectly tranquil after a couple of hours stabbing away at one felted wool ball, til my companion, Elinor Gotland, pointed out the flaw in my master plan for a retail sales empire.  It had taken a fair amount of time just to experiment with different kinds of fleece for making the initial felted balls.  The Easy DIY Drier Balls instructions are indeed easy, but the results vary according to the fibre.  I am now able to advise you that if you knot
a handful of fine merino or alpaca into the end of a pair of tights and put it through the hottest cycle on your washing machine, the ball will be almost impossible to cut loose.  Do the same with a handful of Black Welsh Mountain sheep's fleece and it will felt into a soft ball, bearing a happy resemblance to plum pudding. Try wrapping silk fibres round a core of wool and they barely felt at all.  
Recalling the dense felting tendency of a mixed batt of fleece I got ages ago, I thought I would try felting lumps of that. The washing machine produced good, solid wool balls, nice and rustic.
"Look, Elinor.  With a loop of linen thread to hang them from, these are a pleasure to needlefelt into Christmas decorations."
"Best you share the joy, Beaut."
Which seemed a good idea.

If you bought one of these felted balls as part of a Christmas Kit at Crafts by the Sea, here is how I needlefelted the prototype.  First off, the felting needle is barbed and very sharp.  Go slowly til you get the knack of keeping your fingers out of the way.  If you get really keen and want to buy more felting needles, I got these from Adelaide Walker.

The yarn is handspun, two ply, which means you can pull it apart into two separate threads, called singles.  While any yarn can be needlefelted, handspun singles are much easier to fix on than many millspun yarns.  Lay the end of a single across the felted ball and jab it a few times.  This pushes some of the fibres into the ball and starts to felt it on.  Curve the single around the ball in deep bends, ending up by felting it back
over your starting point.  Now use short lengths to add curved side branches at about six points. Don't worry if it looks like a dog's dinner, the trick with needle felting is to persevere.  If you really hate the look of something you've done, it is easy to pull it back off. The coloured fluff is called wool tops.  The fibres are all aligned and the best way to take out a little portion, is to pull just the tips of the fibres at one end.  Use the felting needle to stab in some red
fibres to the end of one of your side branches on the felted ball. Swirl the wool in a circle and needle it in.  You can leave it quite fluffy and textural or jab it on firmly with lots of stabs.  Now choose a smaller amount of another colour to fill in the centre.  Use the dark yarn single to outline the flower, then add a couple of inner lines.  I like to think mine were Charles Rennie Mackintosh roses.
 A flower for every stem and a pair of leaves for every flower, not a problem if they overlap, add more if you fancy or do fewer.  Enjoy.

After Christmas, the ball could become a pincushion or sharp ear ring stems could be poked into it to keep them safe.  One thing, it definitely won't get broken.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Making a Picture from an Oak Leaf Contact Print

Having failed to get leaf prints from dry oak leaves so far this autumn, I picked up some more colourful, leathery, freshly fallen ones and had another go at repeating the contact dye process.   Being short on good silk and optimism, I used a section of cheap tubular noil silk jersey that has been in the back of the cupboard because it still smells faintly of cerecin.
This time the leaves printed really well.  I laid the cloth out damp to admire.
"That's a muddy old colour."  My companion, Elinor Gotland, wrinkled her nose and stepped back.  "Ych y fi, Beaut!  Planning to wear it out on a date with a fishmonger?"  
Just to head off another diatribe on the foolishness of buying anything but pure habotai silk, I jumped in fast.
"That smell will fade once it's dried out. Actually, Elinor, I think the fuzziness of noil jersey has a more autumnal effect than a fine silk print.  The whole thing almost looks like a tree to me."  
Following which thought, I made a frame out of old copper piping with shiny new right angle bends and stretched the tubular silk jersey over it, backed with an old wool blanket.
"Look, Elinor, I've sewed a dry oak 
gall on down the bottom and made it into a picture."
"Take my advice, Beaut, leave art to the artists."
"Joseph Beuys said everyone is an artist."
"Mmm, well, Andrew Graham-Dixon said not everyone should exhibit.  Anyway, contact dye prints come down to chance, they aren't artistic expression." 
"Now I've needlefelted on a gall wasp.  I wonder what that could possibly represent?"
Gall wasps are really almost too small to see as they hover under the oak trees.  They don't sting and their tiny nasal song is somehow soothing, not annoying, like a gnat's. Standing in the woods, I was wondering what they could be saying to each other, but looking on the web, all I found was the explanation that bigger insects flap their wings more slowly giving a lower pitched buzz, so presumably, the gall wasp's particular sound is just a function of very tiny wings beating fast.

Talking with gall wasps remains impossible for me, though through the logic of an interweb search, I did find an article on what insects perceive as they fly. When I saw the flight diagram, I didn't need to read what this behaviour signified, the pattern communicated enough. So here's my picture, it's called Language 1:  Gall Wasp.
"All about sex, is it, Beaut?"
"Romance, actually, Elinor."
"You'll be doing tragedy next, I expect. How about Lady Macmoth? 'Out, out, brief candle!'"