Friday, 27 January 2017

Dyeing Wool with Crab Apple Bark

The crab apple tree is susceptible to fungus and also, puppy attack. My uncle told me the bark tastes sweet, which may be why the dog ate it. I never noticed what she had been up to, until the poor crab apple barely blossomed last spring. Then I saw most of the bark low down on the trunk had been scratched and chewed away. When the tree finally died and was cut down in autumn, I peeled a pile of the wood and kept half a bucket full of bark soaking in water. I've had good dye colours from pruned branches in previous years.

That bucket has been sat in the garage for months. The Plant Dyes Calendar project for February is bark dye, so it seemed opportune for me to make an early start with Crab Apple. Hoping the mould on the surface wouldn't matter, I added more water and simmered the lot for an hour. Various sources all say bark dye comes out clearer if you don't boil it. 

Despite my care, the actual dye fluid looked cloudy. The bark must have fermented well, because the pH had dropped to 4. Though I can't remember the original weight of bark, I sieved out a fair amount and decided the dye looked strong enough to try dyeing 300g wool. One 100g skein was premordanted with 10% alum and the other two were left unmordanted, all were soaked overnight before simmering for one hour in the crab apple bark dye bath and leaving to cool overnight. The picture shows how they looked while still damp next morning, the alum mordanted skein more yellow and the unmordanted skeins beige.

Another three 100g skeins went into the afterbath for a one hour simmer. The alum mordanted one came out a paler goldy yellow, the unmordanted ones paler pinky beige, no real surprises there. My two alum mordanted skeins from the first and second batch had a good rinse and spin and were hung up to dry while I got on with the more exciting part - modifying the colour of the unmordanted ones with iron and copper. Half the remaining dye bath was poured into another pot. Adding a splosh of fluid from a rusty jam jar of iron had an instant darkening effect. 

Adding copper water to the other half of the dye bath seemed rather to reduce its depth of colour - this photo shows the original dye afterbath on the left, iron in the middle and copper on the right.

Bits of copper pipe have been sitting in this jar of water and vinegar for years. Although I top it up occasionally, the strong blue suggests there is plenty of copper in the solution. Well, anyway, time to see what would happen. Into both modified dye baths went one skein from the first dye batch and one skein from the second batch for 20 minutes heating.

After rinsing and drying, here are all six skeins. From the far right working backwards to the left - alum premordant from first and second batch, iron modified from first and second batch (slightly more green than the grey this camera shows), copper modified from first and second batch. The ginger colour shows the copper modifier was effective. I remember getting much more green from iron modification when I used this Crab Apple tree bark before, but then, I didn't ferment it half so long and probably pruned living wood in late winter, not dead wood in Autumn. 

Good to confirm that bark dyes are as I remembered - much more interesting to modify than their initial beige suggests. The results do harmonise comfortably, too. This bulky thick and thin yarn has been sitting in a bag waiting for a purpose for a long time. Though it is lovely and soft, the wool is too weighty to dye much of it with flower dyes at any one time, too liable to pill to make hardwearing clothes or cushions. I am knitting it up into a lap blanket and even working with this wool is keeping me warm these cold evenings.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Dyes from Red Onion Skins on Wool, Cotton and Silk

Though their own visible colour is a rather gorgeous purple, red onion skins are generally reported to give dull results when used for dyeing. None too thrilled by the dye results pictured out there on the internet, I've stuck to dyeing with the brown type of onion skins. However, having written an onion dye project for January in the Plant Dyes for All Seasons 2017 Calendar, I thought it was high time I checked the red skins out myself. With a mere 14g saved up in a paper bag, a small trial was all I planned. I made up a 10g skein of laceweight merino, cut a square of cotton from one of himself's old shirts, salvaged a little offcut of jersey silk and put them in a bowl of water to soak while I simmered the red skins for an hour in one of my casserole pots.  

The following day, I sieved out the skins. Though the dye bath looked an alluring deep red, I wasn't fooled. Dye baths that look red are sneaky buggers, I've never had red wool come out of anything but madder root dye, though I have had yellow, green and even blue from the wine red baths you get from simmering hollyhock flowers. My unmordanted samples were simmered for an hour and left in the dyebath overnight. Sure enough, no red to see next morning - here is what the results looked like.

The merino wool was an unremarkable brown, but the strip of jersey silk had taken on a rather lush shade of purple brown and how on earth did that cotton come out green, which is brighter in real life than my camera shows? I tried dyeing a number of small pieces of this cotton in the afterbath and they came out in a series of pale green to deeper green, depending on how long they had been simmered for. One more very successful rummage in a practically empty tray of red onions at the supermarket got me a massive 48g of red onion skins, enough for a proper dye project in my large dye pot. The thrill of this adventure dissipated as I pulled a lovely 50g of expensive silk jersey out of the simmering dye bath by degrees, revealing a gradient of plain brown, a colour much like the wool skeins. 

Later, a nice white cotton T shirt simmered in the afterbath just turned beige. I was sure it wasn't because of overheating the dyebath - my usual conclusion when I get an unexpectedly dull result. I had been scrupulous about monitoring the temperature for an exact hour of simmering. Where had that purple hue on the silk gone, why wasn't the T shirt green? Wondering if the green effect had something to do with the type of cotton, I guessed the previous cotton might have been mercerised.

Making a little test bath with a further 10g of red onion skins in a kitchen saucepan, I dyed small skeins of organic cotton yarn, mercerised cotton crochet thread, a strip of cotton T Shirt, a snippet of calico and another piece of the cotton shirt I had cut the original samples from. All of them came out red-brown, except the cotton shirt sample, which came out of the strong dyebath khaki green.

Well, this suggested the green did have something to do with that specific cotton shirt, but I don't know what. After my salutory experience with brown onions skins, which seem to dye best when boiled, I boiled up this red onion afterbath for a good long while with tiny skeins of laceweight merino wool yarn, bits of alum mordanted silk and short lengths of cotton yarn. Actually, I forgot I had left the gas on and damn nearly boiled the saucepan dry.

Boiling cleared the colour from the dye bath and put deep colour into the wool and pale colour into the silk, while the cotton came out with hardly any dye at all. Once again, not what I expected. I thought that silk took up dye best and would have been most strongly coloured and I can only suppose the wool sucked dye back out of the cotton.

Attempting to get some clarity through a standard set of experiments, I got my proper dye pans out to reheat these samples with alkali, which deepened the brown wool and turned the pinkish silk a shiny khaki, then iron and copper solutions, which darkened the colour, copper more so than iron. In the picture, the bottom skein is the unmodified original.

Scrubbing out my dye pots afterwards, I thought how stained they had got over the years. Then light dawned - that disappointing brown jersey silk colour had been simmered in a dye pot quite probably contaminated with residual iron from a previous dye session. Once I had collected another 80g red onion skins, I simmered them in a big cooking pot that has never been used for dyeing, as I am satisfied that onions are definitely food safe. 

Dyeing another piece of jersey silk, as I pulled out a little more from the simmering dye bath at frequent intervals, a gradient appeared that initially looked pink, deepening to red, with no sign of purple. As it cured over a few days, the colour on the silk shifted toward brown. Because it was a richer red shade than the first brown silk, shown on the right of this photo, I think that pot probably did have a bit of iron left in it. 

Dyeing a cotton shirt in the afterbath of the clean red onion skin pot, I got a khaki result, rather than the greens I had first time round.
Where did that purple and green go? Maybe the first small trial batch of onion skins came from a different kind of red onion. No way I can find out, the supermarket price tags always say simply 'Red Onions'. At any rate, onion skin dyeing has brightened a dark season. Here is a glamour shot, brown onion skin results on the left, red on the right. Change and decay, in all around I see. With no mordant, I wonder - how long will onion colours abide with me?

Friday, 13 January 2017

Dyes from Brown Onion Skins on Wool, Silk and Cotton.

Many thanks to everyone who bought a Plant Dyes for All Seasons Calendar. Since the January project is dyeing with onion skins, I thought I had better have another go at it myself, just in case any customers emailed me to ask for advice. Since the New Year, every time I have passed the supermarket, I've bought one onion, stuffing into the bag with it all the other loose skins from the onion tray. The self service check out is a great way of avoiding curious questions. However, questions there are. A friend of mine started a 'Dyes for All 2017' discussion thread on the UK Spinners Group on Ravelry - here. The Ravelry website has free membership, do come and join the group, no calendar purchase necessary. Anyway, first I was anxious I might have to be the calendar thread's 'expert', then as people arrived, I was delighted to find I'd be learning stuff from other dyers.

Part of the onion skin dye project I wrote for January was intended to demonstrate that plant dyes are taken up differently by different fibres. This is a photo of the test run I did before writing the calendar, deep orange silk at the front, golden wool in the middle and more muted cotton at the back. They were all dyed together in one pot. I hadn't actually appreciated that these colour differences depend, at least in part, on the fact that each kind of fibre takes up the dye at a different rate. Light dawned when BatOutOfHell posted on the Dyes for All thread 'I have found out the hard way that if you put silk in a dyebath with other fibres, the silk is greedy and sucks up the dye quickly leaving less for the other fibres. Cotton on the other hand likes a long slow dye bath and “sips” up the dye slowly.'

When I read this, I had just simmered 66g of brown onion skins for an hour and left them to cool overnight. Next morning, after sieving out the skins by pouring the bath through a colander into a bucket, I found I had 8.5 litres of deep orange dye bath. Ready for dyeing, a total of 72g materials had been soaked overnight -  two small skeins of laceweight merino wool, a piece of cotton fabric and a much bigger tubular section of silk jersey. None of these needed any mordant, as onion is a substantive dye. Vexing myself with some maths, I calculated that a fair share of the dye bath for one of the 5g skeins of wool would be nearly 600ml.

Working in a kitchen with the door shut against freezing winds, it is very comforting to know your steaming dyebath is nontoxic. Onion skin soup is supposed to be superhealthy - unless you are a dog. What is more, cooking skins don't smell anything like as much as the layers of onion flesh inside would. Anyway, I had no worries about using one of my ordinary small saucepans for this experiment. 

Putting one skein in the small pan with 600ml of the dye bath, all the other materials went in the main pot together, to fight over the available dye. Though it doesn't show up well in photos, the separate skein definitely took on a deeper colour that the one that was in together with the silk. The difference was most obvious while the two skeins were wet.

This is an important factor to understand. As BatOutOfHell said, to make fair colour comparisons, each type of fibre needs to be dyed separately with the same ratio of of dye to its weight. While it was dyeing, I put a wire loop through the tubular piece of silk, hooked it onto the cooker hood and hitched the fabric out of the dye bath, bit by bit. There was already a peachy colour on the silk after five minutes warming, more fabric was pulled up at 20 and 40 minutes and more again when I turned the gas off at 60 minutes and left the bath to cool overnight. It does seem that whatever their depth, there is also a qualitative difference in the colours on the different fibres.

While this wasn't a controlled experiment on the speed of dye uptake, you can see by the gradations of colour on the silk that it really does pay to leave things to soak in the dye bath overnight. The last section is much deeper than any of the parts that came out of the dye bath before and up to the end of the heating process.

Though it wasn't part of the calendar project, I thought I'd also double check the effect of modifying the colours. Three more unmordanted merino wool laceweight 5g skeins were simmered for an hour in the onion afterbath. As the plain bottom skein shows, there was still plenty of colour in there. The middle skein was then modified by heating briefly with iron solution, which turned it deep green, just as expected. The top skein was modified with copper solution, which only dulled it down.

So far, so very satisfactory. I got onto Ravelry, posted some photos (with much relief that my dyeing had turned out well) and caught up with other conversations on the Dyes for All thread. Does it matter if you boil the dye bath? People thought not. Now I have read and believed from experience that some plant dyes will be ruined by overheating. In fact, on the January page, I wrote about the difference between simmering and boiling and specified simmering for this project, thinking it was a sound principle and good practice for any dyer. Before chipping in with an opinion, I decided to illustrate the point, pretty confident the following test would be a felted beige disaster. 

I weighed out 5g brown onion skins and boiled the life out of them for an hour. Next day I sieved out the flaccid skins, put in a 5g skein of merino and boiled that too. Imagine my shock at discovering firstly, the yarn was perfectly alright and secondly, the colour on it was gloriously rich. Boiling had practically cleared all the colour from the dyebath. Must be a mistake, probably my scales had been inaccurate - they aren't great at the level of one or two grams. I weighed out 50g of onion skins and boiled the lot. Made a 50g ball of white Rowan Pure Wool into a skein, gave it only a couple of hours to soak and then boiled it in the dye bath. In this picture, the original simmered skein is on the left, the boiled skeins are on the right, all three had a one to one weight ratio with onion skins and one hour heating. The only conclusion I can draw is that, as far as brown onion skins are concerned, boiling improves the uptake of dye - substantially.

So, back to the Dyes for All thread to eat humble pie. Reading through the calendar projects, wondering what other humiliations I had laid up for myself, cold horror swept through me when I got to the October project. Oak galls do dye wool pinkish, but they are used as a mordant for cotton and linen, not wool and silk, as I have written. I am very sorry to have misinformed people. I do hope your onion skin dyes come out well.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Dried Buddleia Flower Dye - What Not To Do

I only started pruning back the buddleia in December - not entirely through neglect, I wanted enough long branches to make a structure for this year's Christmas Birdarium. The dried up flowerheads had stayed intact, adding considerably to the overall effect.

I was showing off photos of the Birdarium on Ravelry when a friend suggested using the buddleia flowers to make a dye bath. Though it seemed unlikely that these dessicated remains would have much dye in them, I checked out Jenny Dean's results.
Her bright yellows and greens persuaded me to get outdoors and finish pruning all the buddleia, despite pervasive freezing fog. The total weight of cold, damp seedheads came to about 600g. Crammed into a big pot, they were left to simmer while I took the dog out.
When I got back an hour or so later, the kitchen was a smelly sauna. The steaming pot didn't have an awful stink, just a powerfully plant-derived aroma with unfamiliar notes. Flinging open the back door, all those warnings about dyeing in a well-ventilated area came back to me rather too late. We usually live with the back door open and I hadn't even thought to put the extractor fan on. Hey ho, nobody died and when I sieved out the buddleia next day, the remaining bath did have a significant golden brown colour to it. Two 30g skeins of handspun Polwarth yarn, premordanted with 10% alum, had a gentle simmer and an overnight soak. After the wool had dried, the result of this 10 to 1 ratio of buddleia flower to fibre weight was a pale yellowish beige. Checking the pH, I found the bath was quite acid, but soaking a bit of the yarn in an alkaline solution made no difference to its depth or shade. Adding iron to the dyebath and briefly simmering one of the skeins again only modified its colour to pale greenish beige.

As I was downloading photos of these disappointing results, the computer made a strange new buzzing sound. A telephone icon popped up and one click revealed Elinor, waving gaily at me from the screen.
"Hiya, Beaut. Happy New Year!"
"Happy New Year, Elinor. Ooo, this is weird, seeing you just as if you were at home. Where are you really?"
"Still in London. We found this artisan bakery, perfect for all day breakfasts." The image on my computer wheeled round to show her friends, the Blewe Belles, packed round a wooden table, swigging tea and eating buns.
"They look happy."
"You don't. What's the matter, 2017 not treating you well?"
"Oh, I dyed yarn beige again. Overheated the dye bath, that might have destroyed the dye molecules and anyway, it was probably far too late in the season to be harvesting buddleia. Hope it isn't going to be a beige year."
Elinor frowned.
"Beige? Wrong word and wrong attitude, Fran. Get with the times. Beauty is all in the eye and the ear of the hipster." 
Elinor started footling about with the phone and my view was obscured by her hoof. "Call it sepia yarn, Beaut. Call it honest, real and retro. Here in the capital, taupe, tea and biscuit are old school authentic. Hold on, I'm sending you one of the latest shots from our portfolio."