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.


  1. every time I read "hopi+dye" - I remember my failed attempts at growing the dyestuff, that would in theory form the basics... hopi corn - grew nicely, until we had a summer storm a few years back, which flattened everything and broke the long stalks:( hopi amaranth sprouted very well - and was in turn finished off by some greedy slugs - maybe in their hope to change colour??? hopi beans were eaten in the ground before they had the chance to sprout - I think I won't try anything else "hopi" and work with the usual stuff I can grow and/or pick over here:) but the colours look good - and the hat is nice, too! happy knitting - for the new yarn - and don't forget to show the results:)
    have a good weekend!


    1. Ah, dye gardening, the stuff of heartbreak. The path of wisdom is to decide to grow only local, 'native', tried and trusted plants, but I stray from that path time and again. Waiting eagerly for my new yarn - haven't even seen it yet and I'm just wondering about overdyeing ...