Friday, 28 October 2016

Dyeing Silk Yarn with Madder Roots and Knitting a Lace Shawl

"Ooo Elinor, I've been invited to join in the Boo Knits October Mystery Knitalong!  The secret shawl pattern is called Taboo and it needs 100g lace weight silk yarn.  I'm going to dye this skein specially, to get a totally taboo effect." I nudged her elbow and she looked up from doing The Times crossword. "I'm planning a madder root blood colour. Slightly sinister and highly alluring, redolent of transgressive passion with a hint of murder. What colours do you think would be good for the variegated contrast section?"
My companion pushed her specs back up her nose.
"Red, is it?" She gave me a withering look. "Do bear in mind that hardly any sexual practices are still restricted by today's social customs and murder is illegal. A rather stronger prohibition than a taboo. Hmmm, for your totally taboo effect, we have to consider what really is socially unacceptable these days."  Elinor tapped the end of her pencil on the table.  "I suggest nicotine yellow with turd brown variations, redolent of the transgressions of the smoker who walks her dog without carrying poo bags."
"Oh, that's no good at all, I want this shawl to conjure up the dark forbidden, not pinch-mouthed disapproval.  Stop being such a miserable pedant and dream up a major drama for me."
"To be honest, Beaut, the only big taboo we've got left is asking people what they earn and nowadays, a monster is a woman who farts in public."  She frowned at her crossword.  "Tell me when you've decided what colour that would be."
Leaving my companion to her cruciverbal efforts, I reverted to less literal interpretations of taboo. Remembering how unevenly dye penetrated the silk hankies I put in my first proper madder root bath, this silk lace was soaked in plain water for two weeks before having 24 hours to cold mordant in a solution of 10g alum and was then kept wet til my dye bath was ready.

Changes to my original madder dye method included skipping any attempt to macerate the chopped roots in the blender, since they hadn't seemed to break down much, tying them inside the leg of some nylon tights, to avoid having to pick out a myriad of bits after dyeing and applying very gentle direct heat to the pot for half an hour, hoping to improve dye release, as the underfloor heating in the bathroom wasn't needed in August.  Otherwise, I dug up a madder plant from the same patch of the garden, went through the same routine keeping to the same pH, added calcium carbonate as before and waited five days. One of those changes to the method was counterproductive. No blood red, this time.

Even after checking the pH, massaging the bag of roots and reheating gently with the silk in the pot, you can see that once rinsed and dried, the final ball of silk yarn is a peachy shadow of the red I got on silk hankies the first time round.
"Call it 'Fresh Flesh', with a nod toward cannibalism, Beaut." My companion had come outside to join me checking the dyed silk in natural light.
"I see you took my advice about the smoker with no poo bags."
"The variegated bit was dyed with Dyers Chamomile before I put most of the length of the skein into the initial hot water rinse of the madder roots.  I thought I would pull a bit more silk out of the rinse water every day and get progressive shades from yellow to scarlet. Looks more like all the dye got taken up on the first day, because I can't see much of a gradient.  Anyway, it's not turd brown, it's dark ginger."  I sighed gloomily.  "I'm not even sure the two skeins are going to look good together.  Too late to do anything else now, Clue One of the pattern gets released tomorrow and I'll have to knit like the clappers to keep up with the crowd."

The body of the Taboo shawl turned out to have lace patterning, got to concentrate hard from the very start, no mindless garter stitch rows.  All those repetitions eventually fixed in my subconscious, alerting me quickly to errors, so I finished the first section on time, without major crises.

Clue Two brought in new patterns for the contrast yarn.
"Might look alright after all.  Not really Concept Taboo, though."
"It's all in the name, Beaut. You could call those colours 'Old Blood Seeping from Dead Fatty Tissues'. A Zombie dinner."
"You can take your morbid anatomy and stuff it up a pumpkin, Elinor."

In Clue Three the beads came into play.  I thought gold ones would echo the yellow in the variegation colours, but being clear glass, not opaque, the peachy yarn showed through, dimming their impact.
"Gold medals for Fu Yuanhui talking about her periods at the Olympics?"
"OK, Elinor, better to break that daft taboo than take up necrophagia."

The final Clue included heavily beaded rows and a tight picot bind off, which I did in the variegated colour, as I had plenty left of my 20g skein.  Some of the group were demon knitters, way faster than me.  It has been fascinating to see how all their choices of colours and beads have worked out.  Although far behind the leaders by now, I finished this week and have decided I do like my colours, even if pink and ginger aren't going to get me an ASBO. The Taboo pattern is another beauty, clearly laid out with the written instructions I prefer, as well as charts, leading you safely through the maze of stitches to a glorious finish.  I do enjoy the way blocking reveals intricate lace only at the very end of a project.  Knitting with laceweight silk was no more difficult than wool, it slips easily and doesn't split, giving a strong, smooth and wonderfully drapey luxury fabric.

"Think I might call this shawl 'Hannibal'."
"As in Lecter?  Or because it took as much effort as getting an elephant over the Alps?" 
"Buzz off, before I fit you with a mask.  Then we'll have some Silence of the Lambs."

Friday, 21 October 2016

Spinning and Knitting a Braid of Dyed Zwartbles Wool and Silk

Past experience of spinning two raw Zwartbles sheep fleeces would never have inclined me to blend them with silk and certainly not to dye the dark brown locks. I thought its warm, natural colour was the best thing about Zwartbles, the tough, springy texture set me to making rugs, crocheting bags and, got to admit it, lining plant hanging baskets.  
Admiring a photo of a handspun hat, knitted in deep blues with a fabulous shift and gleam, I went looking for the source of the original braid of fibre at Hilltop Cloud online shop.  Not seeing anything like the photo, I assumed the colourway was all sold out. Even when specifically directed to the hand dyed 75% Zwartbles and 25% Tussah silk, I found it hard to imagine how a braid like this could spin up into navy shades.
Of course, I had to buy some, just to find out.  The first surprise was how soft it felt. Buying Zwartbles from a discerning supplier makes a world of difference. Taking into account the quarter of it that is silk, nonetheless, though the cleaning and combing process had not eliminated a recognisably Zwartbles type of body and bounce, I'd guess the sheep or lambs this fibre came from must have had finer fleece than I've handled before. Splitting the braid into two 50g pieces, I did my best to tear the first section lengthways into equal halves, hoping to keep the colours together when plying. Spinning fairly finely at a 15/1 ratio on my Ashford Traveller seemed effortless, most confidence inspiring.  Though the blend is not homogenous, a single could be drafted out smoothly, working back and forth across the top edge using short forward draw, whether I hit a silky part or a woolly part. Enjoying myself and keen to see the plied effect, I had the first 50g skein of heavy fingering weight yarn finished in just a couple of evenings.

All that shiny purple and green was still there in the yarn, just muted by drafting the bright silk together with the dark Zwartbles, and somehow, the dominant colour was blue, though not navy.  The Zwartbles itself had taken up the dyes, though I've not seen this done, I believe acid dyes are applied directly to segments of the blended braid. When you look closely, the dark wool is also varied in hue.

Lots of electric blue dye coloured the water when I had given my finished yarn a bath and a couple of rinses.  Better give it one more long soak.  My companion, Elinor Gotland, found me using the time to trawl through all the hat patterns on Ravelry.
"Late supper tonight, is it, Beaut?  My stomach thinks my throat's been cut."
"Give me another minute. I know I've spotted some really interesting shaped hats in the patterns library before. Very distinctive.  I'll know soon as I see one."
"Woolly Wormhead."
"You can cook your own dinner if you're going to be rude."
"Search 'Woolly Wormhead'. Bet that's the designer you're after."
"Ooo, it is, too.  Six whole pages of her hats."  Elinor sighed.
"Filter the search for fingering weight yarn and you'll be done in no time."
Ten minutes later she was back.
"I'm not being funny, but himself has come over all faint with hunger.  He'll come down on the floor like a ton of bricks, if you don't get a move on."
I decided not to tell her the hat I really wanted was supposed to be made in double knitting wool.  Just pressed that button to buy 'Tucked' and tried not to think about the current sterling exchange rate.

This hat ought to be knitted in what must be a tight fabric, using 3.25mm needles and dk yarn.  I could get the correct stitch count on a tension gauge swatch using 3.5mm needles with my rather thinner handspun, though no doubt the effect is not what was intended. Thinking I could run up a hat in a couple of evenings and frog it if it didn't work out, I set off in cheerfully cavalier fashion.  A week later I was still at it.  Those funky ridge tubes are not intrinsically difficult to knit, but they do take a while.  Sustained by the excitement of seeing the next band of colour appear in another ridge, I pressed on with knitting my Tucked, despite unkind remarks from my companion about tea cosies and a secret anxiety that the finished dimensions would make an odd shape of any human head.

I'm delighted with the yarn.  In the finished object, the knitted colours have turned out very much like the subtle navy of that hat I admired on Ravelry and the Zwartbles/silk blend is smooth, soft and comfortable to wear against the skin.  I shall have to rethink my attitude towards Zwartbles and try some blending of fibres and dyeing on coloured fleece myself. The construction of the pattern worked out brilliantly, good fit, great shape. I shall definitely be knitting more of Woolly Wormhead's hats this winter. 

I'm calling this one 'Petrol Head'.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Needlefelting Halloween Witches with Stripey Socks

Black Llama fibre is silky when it lies in locks, rather wild and fuzzy when needlefelted.  The fibres must be quite scaley, because it does needlefelt quickly and securely, even when blended with silk, which I find a devil to stick onto to anything with a felting needle.  Last summer, I was very kindly given a bundle of black llama, specially for making Halloween witches.  This prototype was put together using the same method I learned for making wool fairies.  One of the fiddliest bits is getting a thin strip of roving to wrap smoothly round the pipecleaner to make the hands and arms smooth and neat.  Having knocked out quite a few fairies in the past year, I think the best technique is to twirl the pipe cleaner itself, rather than trying to wrap the roving round it.  
Just hold the fibre against the side of the pipe cleaner with light tension and use your other thumb to roll the pipe cleaner, letting the fibre wrap in a slight diagonal so it covers the length of the pipe cleaner, little by little. Witches need legs if they are to ride broomsticks. After covering two pipe cleaners with red wool roving, adding yellow on a steeper, open diagonal, gave a smashing stripey sock effect.  
It is a great deal easier to complete the legs before starting on the main construction.  The far end of the pipe cleaner was wrapped in black wool, the tip was bent up and wrapped some more to make boots with yellow laces sewn on.  My companion, Elinor Gotland, remarked that the witches she knew would have chosen stiletto heels.  

Mine definitely prefer Doc Martens.  Elinor also insisted that witches have long legs. Admittedly, the first witch I made had legs on the stumpy side. The next was positively arachnoid.

Trying to make the total length from the top of the head to the heels in a ratio of 3 to 2 with the span of the arms gave the best proportions. If you're not bothering with legs, it seems to me a witch looks most dramatic in a really elongated frock. Time to show that small, but perfectly formed, grey sheep how I was getting on.

Elinor took a critical look at the latest arrivals.
"Well, Beaut, this one isn't shy about showing her petticoat."
"Oh, Harriet is hurrying to the Halloween party at Crafts by the Sea.  The big end went on her broom, so she kicked up her skirt, hung onto her hat and ran for it." Smiling in a superior fashion, I continued "What a good job she wasn't wearing stilettos."
"A party?"  Elinor shot towards the door.  Neatly deflecting my point about appropriate footwear, she called back over her shoulder 
"Kick up your heels, these hooves were made for dancing. Come on girls, follow me!"

If you can't get to the craft shop and would like to have a witch at your Halloween party, they are £12.50 plus p+p, order by emailing me at

Friday, 7 October 2016

Contact Printing with Dye Plants onto Canvas

When dye plant flowers and leaves are rolled in fine silk, their colours penetrate through the fabric while it simmers, so an intense colour, such as the deep orange of a coreopsis flower will appear in a repeating pattern, a little paler on each overlying layer of the roll. Dye plant prints on rolled up silk scarves form a palimpsest of all the leaves and flowers within the roll. Experimenting on cotton shirts, I found the thicker weave prevented dye from an individual leaf or flower from seeping through much more than one layer, so once unrolled, a print looked nearer to the original lay out of the plants, less complex, more controllable.  
Well, controllable in principle.  In practice, a heavy linen shirt I dyed contact prints on earlier this year ended up with lovely sharp images of coreopsis sprigs and madder root - if you were looking at the inside of the shirt.  Rather than wear it inside out, I cut sections of the best bits and put them in picture frames, thinking the linen weave looked much like an artist's canvas.

Reading up on this, I learned that canvas is a strong, coarse, unbleached cloth made from plant fibres such as hemp and flax, so it is much the same sort of fabric as linen, only heavier still.  Turning some stored fleece out of an old canvas shopping bag, though it was a bit grubby and one of the seams had split, I decided to wash and mend it purely because it was a plain bag with no printed logo, just natural coloured canvas.  That was early last August, when I had a wealth of fresh dye plant material to pick and a pot of aluminium acetate solution left over from mordanting those shirts. When I have measured out 10% of the weight of wool or silk to make an alum mordant, only half the alum in the pot gets used up, so I can successfully mordant half as much fibre again, using the same solution.  Turned out the same applied to my 5% of aluminium acetate for mordanting the weight of the cotton shirts - simmering the used solution again with one canvas bag in the pot mordanted it perfectly well.

In order to get contact prints that would show best on the outside of the bag, I turned it inside out and put madder roots and flowering dye plants inside - coreopsis, yellow cosmos, dyers chamomile and side shoots of weld.  The bag was rolled around a section of plastic down pipe and tied up with string that had been soaked in iron solution.

Simmered for an hour or two, dangling from the cooker hood into an afterbath of yellow cosmos with alkali, to make the lowest section a rich terracotta, the roll was then turned the other way up, simmered in an afterbath of chamomile and left to soak overnight. Once the sodden canvas had dried out in the sun, it could be unrolled and turned back the right way out.

Though the fabric wouldn't steam iron smoothly, even after a good rinse and a run through the washing machine, the plants had printed strongly and fairly cleanly onto the canvas.  I knew this was definitely a big bag success when my daughter promptly packed it to take away on a trip to Amsterdam.  I bought some more plain canvas bags, mordanted them and went into production, dyeing three at once.  In the process, I've had another lesson rammed home.  People write that you have to wait til plant contact prints have 'cured' and some say ecobundles should be left for weeks. 
Not being good at waiting, the bag on the left was unrolled and rinsed while still damp, just so I could show off to a visitor.  Next to it is a bag which was allowed to dry out completely before unrolling.  I have become somewhat more patient since spotting the difference.

Now the dye plants are being allowed to run to seed, the nights are finally growing cooler and if I don't use up the last Japanese Indigo plants sharpish, there won't be any blue left in them. One last project from September. Curtain fabric, 20% linen and 80% cotton, proved heavy enough to keep contact plant dyes pretty much exactly where the plants were laid, with only minimal
bleeding through layers when rolled, yet was soft enough to take precise prints and also iron nice and flat afterwards. Dipping side shoots of weld into a jar of iron solution made them print clear greens instead of yellow.  I used this fabric to re-cover an old Lloyd Loom trunk for himself's birthday. Now it holds all the cycling paraphernalia he had cluttering up the house.