Friday, 25 March 2016

Spinning Cashmere and Trying Out a Blending Board

Wonderwool Wales is only a matter of weeks away.  The moment the doors were opened on the 2015 show,  I brutally elbowed off slower moving spinners in my hurry to buy Qaria cashmere from Mandacrafts stall. Recently, I realised that if I didn't pluck up the gumption to spin it soon, it was going to be very hard to justify realising my dreams of a 2016 splurge on qiviut.  

Not long after I brought the cashmere home in triumph, my companion, Elinor Gotland, came across the bags while nosing through my stash. 
"I'm not being funny, Beaut, but look at the staple length.  How can you spin that?"
"Manda advised longdraw."
"Hardly your strong suit.  Especially with a maximum 15:1 ratio on your wheel.  You'll be pedalling harder than Geraint Thomas up the Pyrenees, to put in enough twist to hold these tiny fibres together."
"Well, I'll just keep it in a bowl to admire while I practice on some short stapled Ryeland. Whatever happens, I'll consider my money well spent, supporting such a worthwhile social enterprise. The least I can do, compared to Manda, she went all the way to Kabul to show the Afghani women how to spin cashmere finely.  Look, you can see her in the first picture on this page.  How intrepid is that?"
"Mmm.  Nice outfit she's got on.  Of course," she said, airily, "I have done a bit of spinning in Kabul myself."  I turned from the computer screen to look at her, eyes popping.  Elinor hurried on.  "Oh, it was just a stopover on a long haul flight.  I met such handsome, charming Afghani goats, two brothers, Ezat and Nadir.  So hospitable, they'd give you the coat off their backs.  Literally."

Over the summer, I managed to hide the disappointing yarn I spun longdraw from small rolags of coloured Ryeland.  Harder to conceal the hash I made of fitting a fast flyer to an old Ashford Traditional wheel I had refurbished.
"Oh, you've forced it on willy nilly and now the littlest whorl has cracked."
"I know!  And I don't understand all the ratios and drive band stuff and I can't get the damn thing to spin right and I think I'll go to bed.  OK?"
"Ooo, someone slid down the learning curve." said Elinor.  Exit, pursued by a bear.

Giving up on skinny rolags and high wheel ratios, for this Spring's return to the attack, I returned to Roger, my faithful workhorse Ashford Traveller and I did spin two 25g singles of white cashmere by teasing fibres out from the cloud, centimetre by centimetre, and pedalling like the clappers.  I cannot pretend this was a wildly rewarding experience.  I finished the second at spinning camp, a couple of weeks ago, where a very kind soul allowed me to use her e-spinner, which simply flew, plying those fine singles together with adequate twist.  Another spinner tactfully pointed out a fundamental flaw in my plying action and the result was 50g fingering weight cashmere yarn, not as lofty as I'd like, nor as even, but ready to knit.

Recovering from a cold and still feeling grim, regretfully, all I had brought for the rest of the weekend's spinning was another bag of cashmere and some silk. Sampling half a dozen flavours of fruit gin lifted my spirits considerably, as did the fantastic food and good company.  Coming to my resue, one spinner lent me her blending board and another just gave me 100g of Down-type wool tops, setting me up for a happy day making pulags, our
name for those fibre sausages, half way between a cotton puni and a hand carded rolag.  First, weigh and divide the fibre into 10g portions.  Each of mine had 2.5g cashmere, 2.5g silk and 5g wool tops.  Laying on the tops and trapping the tips with the flat of the hand, you pull back the bulk of the fibre to stretch out a thin layer on the tines of the carding cloth. Next, a layer of silk went on in
random stripes, then the short stapled cashmere was rubbed acoss the cloth, depositing a haze of fibres with occasional clumps.  A flicker is used to smooth the three layers down, its teeth aligned with the tines, rather than locking with them.  Building up layers is repetitve, but soothing. Once 10g fibres have been applied, you swing the board round so its short edge faces you, trap the loose ends between two
sticks and roll up, not too tightly, gently lifting the sheet of fibres away from the board by levering up with your thumbs.  Slide out one stick, then the other and there is a finished pulag.  Immensely satisfying, much admired and compared to silver birch branches, I was still glad to come to the end of my fibre, it having taken best part of the day to complete 21 pulags.

Spinners do like to chortle, even before the fruit gin comes out.  This group now has a Ravelry Forum called The Pulag Archipelago. Come and look, better join us soon, before someone implements those suggestions for a stringent entrance exam, as Elinor Gotland has set herself up as team disciplinarian.

Finally, a real beauty shot.  Speckled Face Beulah twins, born this morning and already bouncing.  The ewe is a first time mum, gave birth with no trouble and must be giving her lambs good energy-packed milk.  See how proud she looks? What a girl.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Dyes from a Fresh Madder Root Afterbath

Having amalgamated several sources of information in my attempt to get the best reds out of my first proper harvest of madder root, I had dyed a modest 100g fibre and was left with a slightly whiffy, week old pot containing 500g of no longer so fresh, macerated roots.  Probably rather less, considering how many tiny bits were now embedded in the dyed fibres.The dyebath still looked deep red, under a thin crust of slime.  

Now to discover what colour could be got out. The pot was simmered at 60 degrees Centigrade for an hour, the first heat it had had applied, bar its sojourn on the underfloor heating.  All those rooty bits were then strained out by pouring the bath through an old tee shirt lining a big colander.  Sitting on the side I had a Changeling shawl, knitted using up small amounts of luxury hand spun - camel, qiviut and alpaca, plus some palest grey/fawn Corriedale X Gotland lamb and a lovely white Romney.  While all Boo Knits patterns come out shapely, I was disappointed with my finished object, particularly after all that fine spinning of fancy fibres.  The camel colour just looked out of place among the others, so I mordanted the whole thing with alum and put it
in this dye bath with a few locks of Lincoln Long Wool and a clump of Exmoorino fleece, total weight 130g.  Another simmer for an hour at 60 degrees and a few anxious days of waiting for the slow uptake of madder colour from the dye bath.  Blocking always transforms lace knitting.  Even taking that into account, when looking at the two photos, I think the gamble paid off.  While I consider wearing pink is strictly for high summer with a suntan, you can only really see it on the narrow sections that were originally white, while the camel yarn dyed a pleasing dusty rose.  The Exmoorino fleece took up plenty of pink and looks a bit yucky, the Lincoln locks stayed paler and a tad more sophisticated.

Meanwhile, the roots scraped off the tee shirt went into a pot of fresh water for a daring second simmer, perilously close to the boil at 80 degrees Centigrade, with several elderly limes chopped up and bobbing in the brew.  Jenny Dean suggests
adding citric acid to an exhausted madder dye bath to extract a final range of tangerine and orange colours and the limes were intended to acidify mine.  Sieved out again, the roots at last found exhausted repose upon the compost heap.  Alum mordanted Merino tops, Exmoorino  and Lincoln locks and a short length of combed silk were simmered at 80 degrees and left to soak for a week, picking up rather different colours, depending on the fibre. I dyed another silk
scarf in this bath.  It looked quite orange when it came out, but ironing seemed to smooth and compress the fibres in such a way as to make them look more pink.  Here it is, next to the one from the very first dyebath.  
Meanwhile, another experiment was underway with a third silk scarf in the remnant of the second, pink bath.  Still too early in the season for much in the way of fresh flowers, so I used dried ones saved from last summer 
with some tired lookng winter leaves off the alpine strawberry plants, rolled up as a contact dye bundle which was simmered with iron water soaked string to tie it up.  That Turkey Red is, I believe, created by mordanting fibres with iron before madder dyeing.  In this case, the silk picked up pink while simmering, which shifted toward

brown during a further 24 hour soak.  The March leaf prints only came out as faint traces of iron outlines with no colour of their own and dried flowers don't give a proper petal print, still, it was great to have sunshine to cure the first ecobundle of 2016.  I was all by myself delivering triplet lambs this morning, the third got stuck, but all is well and the sun shines on them, me, the world.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Dyeing Wool and Silk with Fresh Madder Roots

Three years ago, I planted madder seeds. Lately, the new green shoots of 2016 came up through the earth, persuading me it was near enough Spring to start to dig.
Three years ago, I also started this blog. Waiting for the madder plants to grow big enough roots to harvest for red dye has only taken patience, the blog has been a great deal of work in pursuit of more nebulous ends. This third anniversary has me pondering whether all that time blogging has   
been well spent.  What does it mean to have 150,000 page views?  I might say oh, I just enjoy the writing process and benefit from keeping records, but I'd certainly be gutted if people stopped reading, so thanks very much everyone for that. Appreciation in the virtual world has affected real life choices, most notably, last summer, dropping the day job in favour of hand spinning and plant dyes.  Discovering all these roots under the madder plants warmed my heart with gladness and it's just as well I feel such personal satisfaction, since as a small time sole trader, I have barely managed to cover my craft material costs through hundreds and hundreds of hours of work.  I thought I understood in advance that money was not what 
this new life was about, but I was skilled and senior in my old job and the first six months of early retirement provided some difficult reality checks. I'm slowly getting my head around salvaging some self worth while doing what I want for no-one but myself and not being terribly good at it.  Nor efficiently organised. The morning is half gone, here I am in my pyjamas making a second cup of coffee and emptying the ashtray, digressing despite half a dozen things on the day's to do list and madder root dye to write about.
So, with three plants divided and replanted, the precious roots were washed and picked over.  I've heard that dark bark on the thicker roots gives brown tones to the dye, so I spent an age picking and rubbing it 
off before chopping them up.  Half a bucket full of fresh roots shrunk down to half a bowl full of bits, weighing just over 500g.  Jenny Dean's Wild Colour book says the orange shades can be cleared by pouring boiling water on the roots and leaving it for two minutes, twice.  The drained fluid looked tawny brown.  Teresinha's Wild Colours website advises using a food processor  to liquidise the roots in water, a handful at a time.
Mine did not break down well, the result was more minestrone than mash.  I dissolved a teaspoon of calcium carbonate in hot water, stirred it in and checked the pH.  Slightly acid, so in went enough dissolved soda ash to get the pH up to 8.  Various sources agree that the best reds are obtained by gentle heat over the course of days.  I left the main pot, the bowl of hot rinse water and a pan of boiled bark scrapings on the underfloor heating in the bathroom for 24 hours before adding alum mordanted merino roving, silk hankies and a silk scarf.  Each day, I pulled another length of the silk scarf up from the main dye bath and took out a piece of merino.
The total weight of these fibres was about 100g to the 500g fresh roots.  From the top left, merino in the hot root rinse water went strongly scarlet red, so there was plenty of red dye loosed by that brief boiling water soak, on top of stripping out the orange tones. The dye from the bark scrapings alone came out browner, but still a decent scarlet-ish red, I shan't fret too much about cleaning older roots next time.  On the bottom row, wool in the main bath was a purer red, deepening in colour over five days, the last portion becoming a proper blood red.  The silk hankies were amazingly hard to wet, all the thicker parts stayed white, taking up no dye during over a week's immersion. I've since been told by an expert that silk hankies need a fortnight to presoak before dyeing.  The silk scarf came out with glorious gradations of madder red, according to how long each part was left to soak in the madder bath.

Next, I shall be writing about a week spent teasing more colours out of madder root afterbaths.
Time is the greatest luxury.  I spend a lot of mine walking the dog, putting together a blog post, spinning, dyeing or just having a fag and staring into space.  

On reflection, this seems to me a very good life.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Trying to Spin Art Yarn

Clearing the garden borders at the end of last November, the weather had been so mild, there was still a bit of life in the coreopsis stems and even a few flowers.  As the days darkened, I fancied a last go at contact dye printing on a strip of coarse wool fabric.  See the paint brush on that table?  You may have noticed I've been coming over all artistic since I retired.  It is such a luxury to have time to arse about with bits and pieces.
Neglecting the routine garden jobs in favour of yet more self indulgence, I laid out the coreopsis and some oak leaves, then dobbed on some fermented evernia prunastri, splotches of copper solution, a couple of rusty nails and some Hopi sunflower seeds, rolled the whole thing round a length of plastic drainpipe, tied it up with string and put it to simmer in a dye bath of all the last odds and sods still surviving in the
dye garden.  The pipe was a bit tall for the pot, but what the hell, I left the whole thing to cool, turned the bundle upside down and simmered it again.  By the time the rolled wool had had a week or so to dry out, Christmas was upon me and I had to stop being silly and spoiled and get back to family friendly function.  Got a head of steam up which carried me through a January spent reorganising cupboards and cataloging the incremental growth of my fibre stash, efforts frequently punctuated by escapes to the dunes to walk the dog.  The marram grass had been stretched flat by the onshore winter winds, even the stiffer stalks of dried out flowering plants were permanently stuck on a wonk.
Laying out the contact printed wool fabric, ready for wind inspired needlefelting, all that organising of stash meant I could readily pull out a palette of handspun yarn in natural sheep colours and plant dyes.  What is more, since form here trumped function, it turned out crappy, underplied, lumpy old handspinning would
needlefelt to better effect than my more recent, evenly twisted products. 
"You see, Elinor," I mused during one of our walks, "I was spinning art yarn all along, destiny never intended my wool to become socks."
"Bullshit, Beaut. Proper art yarn is a riot of colour and texture and art is intentional, not  
some random shoddy spinning and dingey plant dyed cock ups."
"Ah, but the old yarn was just for the top half of what I'm making. The whole thing is more about roots, Ygddrasill and Norns.  The important bit will be spinning the earth.  I am going to learn core spinning and make real art yarn."
"Beaut, my inner Norn foretells this yarn will end up a right bouquet of barbed wire."
People on youtube make their skills look everso simple. Much encouraged by this video, I selected locks for colour and texture. No problem for a woman with a card index of her fleece cupboards to find Black Welsh Mountain, unknown Down-type grey fleece, Manx Loaghtan and some Welsh crossbreed.  Using a cone of carpet wool for the core, I had a go at spinning 'funky and cool' yarn from the locks.
It wasn't quite as easy as it looked.   The locks were strangulated by the carpet wool rather than wrapped around it and once threaded through the holes I had drilled in the homemade picture frame, the yarn was much too skinny and far too white to represent earth.
Back to the computer for another youtube search.  More typically, core spinning technique starts with fibre in the form of a batt. The teeth of the Louet Junior Drum Carder disgorged for me a rough batt of the same fleeces with less white and a greater proportion of Black Welsh Mountain. Drafted out, I managed to wrap the carded wool round a thinner core yarn by spinning slowly on the 5:1 ratio on my  Ashford Traveller Wheel.  It was a considerable struggle to pedal BG's Indian Spinner to Navajo three ply the core spun single.  Despite its huge orifice, loose bits of wool kept getting stuck on the flyer hooks and this wheel is really heavy to restart.  My companion pottered into the sitting room, drawn by my grunts of dismay and shrieks of frustration.
"Sounds more like ladies' tennis than spinning in here, Beaut."
"I'm getting the knack, actually, Elinor, but I just realised all the Black Welsh Mountain has made this wool too dark for my picture, since I screwed on that light driftwood."

"Gotta suffer for your art yarn. Get that grey fleece back out and go and mix another batt."

I spun art yarn of a sort, glad I only needed a short length.  Now, the unveiling of my finished object.

"Not being funny, Beaut, but that Norn looks much like another one of your fairies to me. Knitting is she? Always thought Norns and Fates were more into weaving."
"This Norn is a small business Norn, not one of the brand leaders. Like Fafnir the dragon said, 
'Of many births the Norns must be, Nor one in race they were; Some to gods, others to elves are kin'."

"Well, your art yarn spun up sturdy, I'll give it that. What's all this gubbins doing on the Norn's knitting?"
"Don't climb on my art, you Philistine. That 'gubbins' represents small but vital things that get lost.  Coins and keys and rings."
"They're very grubby.  This thimble is all broken."
"Mmmm.  Good, isn't it?  I bought them off a metal detectorist."
"You want your head read, Beaut. So, were these lost things found or stolen by your elf-type Norn?  Will their owners ever get them back?"
"Hard to tell if she's benevolent or malevolent.    Go on, I dare you to ask her."
Turns out even a seasoned ewe of the demi-monde can still look shocked. Afterwards, Elinor tried to explain.
"Doesn't sound so awful when you hear it from me, just the way she said it, totally cool, not dropping a stitch.  'Frankly my dear, I couldn't give a damn.'"

Feeling bad about the dare, I poured a good slug of sloe gin into Elinor's teacup.  Really, I suppose I should have pointed out the sign showing the knitting Norn was another kind of Belle Dame sans Merci. 

I think I shall call this work 'Gone'.