Friday, 26 May 2017

Leaf Hammer Prints Overdyed with Iron and Meadowsweet

Last year, I tried hammer printing leaves onto mordanted silk and then dyeing the fabric with iron solution added to a plant dye bath. The pretty green prints on white silk turned into much more drab, dark shapes on a tea coloured background. However, these did not wash off the fabric. Fetching them out of the drawer twelve months later, while leaf prints I simply hammered onto calico had faded to pale brown, I found the iron dyed hammer leaf prints on silk hadn't changed at all.


Hammer leaf prints are the project for May in the Plant Dye Calendar. Seeing as the trees are now well covered in leaves, I collected a few different kinds, picked some more from garden plants and set a board on a low wall on the patio, to give myself a steady surface to work on. It was a warm day and hammering on the kitchen table makes it shudder and reverberate, which can make prints come out with blurred double edges. First I experimented on a test piece of off cut curtain fabric, to find out which leaves went squashy and shapeless under the hammer and which kinds were too dry to leave much of a mark.
My companion, Elinor Gotland, pushed her shades up to her forehead and sat up on her sun lounger.
"Are you nearly done with that hammering?"
"I haven't even started on the main project yet. I am going to use the offcuts to embellish BG's new curtains with leaf printed borders."
"I'm not being funny, Beaut, but curtains will get full sun. Crap choice for your fast fading hammer leaf prints. Dye a nice, quiet ecobundle and let an exhausted ewe have her siesta in peace." She let her shades slide back down and settled back saying pointedly "Some of us have been doing our bit for democracy."
To be fair, Elinor has thrown herself into the current election frenzy. Less knocking on doors and canvassing than sitting up until all hours watching TV, so far as I can tell.


Unwilling to listen to another analysis of the political situation, I ignored her complaints, though hammering leaves quickly became wearisome to me too. Two strips of  the linen/cotton blend curtain fabric which had been mordanted with aluminium acetate were thumped until leaf juices squished up to the surface of the old cotton sheet I laid over them. Once I took away the cotton and peeled off the flattened leaves, the curtain strips did look pretty. Though I knew the colours would be lost, it kept me going to discover red acer leaves printed pink and I was pleased with the wiggly pattern from a sprig of fennel.



Usually, I would soak fabric well before dyeing it. Afraid this might lift off the prints, I plunged my two leaf printed strips straight into a dye bath I had made by simmering a bunch of dried meadowsweet plant tops, with a splosh of dissolved iron added in and a teaspoon of soda ash to alkalinise the bath and bring up the meadowsweet's colour. The pot was simmered for an hour or so and left to cool overnight.


When I pulled out the fabric next morning, I could barely make out the leaf prints. Once the strips were hung up, as the sun shone through the drying fabric, it showed all the prints were still there, though ferns and birch leaves, which had been less juicy, were not as clear to see as hardy geraniums and fennel. That afternoon I rinsed the strips very gently and found I could clear the worst of the iron residue without removing the prints.
"Strong and stable? I thought not."
Elinor launched into the kitchen, all guns blazing, while the front door slammed shut.
"Bit soon to say, really." I was taken aback. The curtain prints are just an experiment, which my friend BG is happy to take part in. Such venom seemed an over-reaction to putting up with one afternoon of hammering. Elinor had her hooves on her hips and an alarmingly truculent air.
"Well, if his party leader had the courage to take part in a TV debate, we'd learn soon enough about her strength and stability. I told that stupid man what he could do with his leaflets, but he ran away out the gate. It seems we shall have to recycle these ourselves."
As she chucked a handful of flyers into the fire basket, I realised Elinor had just buttonholed one of the local activists who had foolishly tried posting a few election policy papers through our letterbox. 


Happily for me, she was off to a meeting in Cardiff that night, on fire to address Welsh Labour's deficiencies in health and education. Fluffing her fleece in front of the mirror, she simpered at her reflection, murmuring to herself with relish,
"Carwyn has this coming. No-one can heckle like a stand-up comic. Bye, Beaut, don't wait up!" 
The meadowsweet dye dried out to a pale olive green with the leaf prints visible in a deeper shade. Once the fabric was ironed and pinned out, I had a restful time watching the BBC coverage of Chelsea Flower Show while hemming curtains and sewing on their new embellishments. 




Friday, 19 May 2017

Needlefelting Wool and Silk Mermaids

I have been gambling on a frost free May this year. My most advanced young plants are already braving the weather out in the dye garden and another load of seedlings are hardening off on the patio. This week we have had plenty of rain after a very dry spell, so next week should be perfect for gardening. Poised on the brink of summer.

"Fancy going down the beach for a swim, Elinor?"
My companion gathered her shawl around her shoulders.
"You want to die of hypothermia? My core temperature is dangerously low as it is. Five minutes of sunshine and you've turned off the central heating, packed away your long underwear and planted out the geraniums. Far too soon, Beaut."
Just to get her blood circulating, we walked the dog on the dunes, coming home with a few gnarly lumps of driftwood.
"Himself will have a fit if you try to hide those in the garage. He's just reorganised all his bike stuff, I think he even had the hoover out there."
"Have no fear, Elinor, these are going straight up to the craft room. This week, I shall be mostly making mermaids."


The idea of modifying basic wool fairy making into a mermaid shape had occurred to me before, though I hadn't worked out all the details. I started with the usual strip of white merino tops, tied with a thread at the centre. Rather than twisting a pipe cleaner round the felted ball of wool that forms the core of the head, I used a 20 gauge green florists wire, which is strong, but flexible enough to bend easily. Twirling a thin length of white roving to cover the pipecleaner arms, I had to go back and add an extra layer, since the mermaid wouldn't be wearing a dress and her bare arms looked weedy. The white merino was then folded in half over the head and tied at the neck with another thread.
Thinking the nude shoulders and torso might look scrawny, I added a shorter, second layer of white wool with a hole pushed through, to drop over the head in place of the usual dress. For the tail, a section of merino/silk blend in blues and purples was laid flat with a strong thread across it two thirds of the way up.

The top third of the coloured wool was folded over the thread and the mermaid placed face down with the thread at waist level. Tying the thread firmly at the small of her back brought the coloured tops round her circumference and allowed me to stretch and fluff the lower coloured fibres in towards the midline ready to start needlefelting her tail.
Despite intensive stabbing at her torso with the needle to compress the fibres tightly, this mermaid ended up with a fine pair of shoulders.
"Not much in the way of tits, though, Beaut. How's a girl supposed to lure sailors onto the rocks if you don't give her the right equipment?"

"Beauty comes in many forms. She'd be very successful modelling a Spring Collection in Paris."
"Not with no legs, she wouldn't."


Agreeing that the androgenous look might be better suited to the catwalk, my next mermaid was given no extra layer over her shoulders. Instead, a strip of white tops was knotted round the florist wire then flipped up and wound around the upper arms to add substance where it was needed.


Making the tail narrow down before flaring into fins also proved a challenge. Tying it with silk or ribbon spoiled the sleek shape. Twisting the entire bulk of fibre, then needlefelting into the spiral gave a better effect. The lowest section was easy to open out and divide into two fins which could be needlefelted flat.
This mermaid also got a padded bikini top, needlefelted separately before fitting it onto her chest. Sewing a bead into her cleavage cinched the centre down for a considerably more buxom result.
Once long ringlets of Black Wensleydale wool locks had been needlefelted onto her head, the first mermaid's torso was mostly concealed. Drilling two holes through a piece of driftwood, the florists wire was passed through and twisted firmly to fix her in a sitting position, followed by some glue to keep her hand and tail and a few decorations in place. 
"Doesn't look very chirpy, does she?"
"She is a pensive mermaid, Elinor. Fathoms deep in thought."
"Probably wondering where her boobs are."

The other mermaid cheerfully adopted a more confident pose.

Since it had started raining again, Elinor left me to walk the dog while she offered her personal assistance with a smidge of extra wool for one of the new arrivals.
"There we are then, feeling better now? Buck up, girl, accentuate the positive."

Then the mermaids began to sing and within moments, Elinor was fast asleep.


Friday, 12 May 2017

Making Leaf Contact Prints with an Iron Blanket

The arcana of the ecoprinters seem Byzantine to the facebook observer. The images they post of leaf and flower prints on silks and cottons are lovely to admire while drinking tea in front of the computer, understanding the comments exchanged below requires a bit of prior knowledge. Researching the nature of the 'iron blanket' or carrier cloth, such a thing is variously described online. Typically, it is cotton fabric that has been wrapped round pieces of rusty iron and soaked in a solution of vinegar and water for a few weeks. Some mention using paper towels to carry iron onto their fabric. I decided surely paper would go soggy and fall apart during a long soak, maybe I could take a shortcut and simply soak my piece of old cotton sheet for a couple of hours in a diluted bowl of some iron solution I have been keeping in a jar. While I have no idea how much iron was absorbed into my iron blanket (the off white fabric in the first photo), the experts aren't precise about theirs either. I suppose they had to try out what would work for them and this would just be my first trial.
Anyway, to my understanding, once created, an iron blanket the same size as the fabric you want to dye is laid flat on a non permeable sheet, such as plastic or greaseproof paper. In these photos, you can just see the edges of my greaseproof paper, aka baking parchment, lying underneath the iron blanket. The first photo shows just the iron blanket with a selection of leaves with interesting shapes, which I hoped might prevent iron from reaching the silk scarf I laid on top, giving a resist pattern. The second photo shows the silk scarf with leaves of brambles, hardy geraniums and new shoots of lycestra laid face up on top, plus a scattering of dried coreopsis and chamomile flowers, to add a bit of colour.

Rolled around a section of plastic downpipe and tied up with string, the bundle was simmered in plain water for a couple of hours, left to cool overnight, then dried for a day. Steaming seems to be the standard method, but I haven't got to grips with sorting out a trivet to hold up the bundle and the lids for my dye pots are not remotely tight fitting.

At the grand unrolling I could see at once that my iron blanket had worked. Bramble and hardy geranium leaves seem to hold iron to print their own shapes in grey on cloth and they had definitely attracted iron from the iron blanket. The random selection of leaves I had picked from the garden hoping for resist patterns had actually left pale colours.
The aquilegia leaf made the best resist effect. The cotton iron blanket is lying on the left, with the silk peeled away from it to the right of the photo. Other leaves left subtly coloured shadow shapes rather than giving any dramatic resist effects. The photo below shows a faint fern print on the washed and ironed scarf.






Though the geranium and bramble leaves had made iron prints, and the flowers had added bronze and yellowy green splotches, the general impression is muted. Even printing throughout the roll, more professional than my usual iron soaked string results, yet neither as wild a palimpsest as my original method gives, nor as crisp and clear and rich as the photos on facebook.


Lately, some beautiful green ecoprints of horse chestnut leaves have been shown online, described as being made using an iron blanket on wool. This week, seeing the horse chestnut trees in flower, I picked leaves to try making some myself, using two pieces of wool gauze. One print would be made by sandwiching leaves between the wool and an iron blanket on greaseproof paper, the other would use my old method of simply rolling the wool up round the leaves and tying it with string that had been soaked in iron solution. The first was sprayed with white vinegar, a method frequently mentioned on the facebook group, then it was simmered in water. 
The second was heated in a plant dye bath made by simmering a bunch of dried meadowsweet, with a teaspoon of soda ash to alkalinise it. I expected an olive green background from meadowsweet and iron, rather surprised to see that gingery colour when I pulled it out of the dye bath this morning and stood it in the sun to dry. The mystery of the iron blanket bundle is, of course, hidden by its greaseproof paper wrapping. Today is Wednesday. I shall be strong and leave them both til Friday before unrolling.

Hmmpf, sigh. You may as well stop reading here. The mystery of the clearcut, deep green chestnut leaf print has not been resolved. 


This morning I unrolled my meadowsweet and alkali bath bundle, which had dulled down near to the expected olive green overall colour while drying out. There were wiggly iron string prints, nice red marks from some bits of fresh madder root, the vaguest of pale green stamps from the chestnut leaves and a modest print from a young bracken frond. Even the hardy geranium leaves hadn't grabbed enough iron to make a decent print.
How about the iron blanket and vinegar bundle?
Only marginally better colour from horse chestnut leaves. Bugger all prints from acer leaves and cotinus, though these are often shown used to great effect on the photos on facebook. 
Maybe I should try steaming the bundles, or pay for one of those online courses. Or just wait til my proper dye plants have grown this summer.

Time for a bacon sandwich and a day of planting out in the garden. Perhaps I'll do some embroidery on these this evening, while the cloth is still ridged by the leaf skeletons.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Moths Which Eat Wool - a Tragedy

Tineola bisselliella copied from Wikipedia
A small insect fluttered into my face, startling me half off the chair I was standing on to reach into the back of the cupboard above the wardrobe. My companion, Elinor Gotland, let out a bleat of alarm.
"A moth, a moth!" She backed off sharpish as it settled on the floor. "Away! The foul fiend follows me!"
"Calm down, Elinor. Moths are bigger than that, they have brown wings with patterns. That insect's nothing to get upset about."
She stepped closer and bent toward it.
"Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again."
The little thing was translucent and drab, it did not look much like the creatures that flap around lampshades or immolate themselves in candles. As I fetched out a small drawstring bag of wool - one of several remnants of whole fleeces I have spun in years gone by and not wanted to throw away, just in case I might want them one day - a few more fluttering things circled back into the darkness of the cupboard. Elinor took the bag from my horrified hand. She looked grave.
"The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let's see. Come, if it is nothing I shall not need spectacles."

Once the bag was untied, we found the fleece inside was littered with little dried white papery cases and a fine black grit. Deeply revolting evidence of the life cycle of the clothes moth.
"I'll get a bin bag and throw the whole lot out at once."
"Good plan, Beaut." Elinor lifted her chin, waved a hoof and declaimed "Upon such sacrifices, the gods themselves throw incense." 
The rest of the day was spent hoovering every crack in the woodwork and splashing lavender oil on the shelves. Although they are called clothes moths, the ones in my cupboard hadn't touched the clothes in the wardrobe below, or eaten the carpet or curtains. They definitely preferred the bags of sheep fleece and the less thoroughly the wool had been washed, the more infested it was. Though there was no sign of damage to clothes, I took the opportunity to clear out the wardrobe of things that hadn't been worn in years. With the windows wide to the north wind and all the cupboard doors open, both the bedroom and I felt cleansed.
"Not such a catastrophe after all, eh Elinor? Time for a cup of tea, I think." My companion was not to be jollied along.
"Not a catastrophe, no, Beaut. This is a tragedy."
"Oh, go on, the moths only ate a few leftover bits of fleece, nothing special."
"A catastrophe strikes out of the blue. The bitterness of this tragedy is that, as usual, you have brought it upon yourself. Poorly washed, inadequately packaged and left undisturbed in the dark, that wool was bound to attract moths some day. The battle is not over, mark my words." Elinor shivered theatrically. "Take heed o' the foul fiend; empty that hoover bag: keep thy knitwear fresh; relax not; forget not to change the moth papers in six months; set not thy sweet heart on spinning in the grease. Elinor's acold."

Over the past four years, I have spun a fair number of fleeces into yarn, only never quite as many as I have bought. Those that didn't inspire me to start some new project straightaway got hidden in pillow cases under the spare bed. I made a card index of them last year and the process did curb my fleece shopping habit temporarily. Though I knew I shouldn't do it, when I saw a beautiful Blue Texel for a bargain price at Wonderwool last weekend, I succumbed once again. No prizes for guessing what I found when I looked under the spare bed.


Elinor and himself came home to find Bedlam on the blasted heath, the mattress upturned, every slat taken off the bedframe, the duvet and sheets drying on the line and me going full blast with the vacuum cleaner.
"Suck, hoover, and crack your pump! rage! suck! You flysprays and detergents, spout Till you have drenched our spare room, drowned the moths!"
Elinor put a hoof on my arm.
"Could'st thou save nothing, Beaut? Would'st thou give the bin men all?"
"Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are a ewe of stone. Had I your tongue and hooves, I'd use them so That heaven's vault should crack. My fleeces are ruined forever."
Himself gathered up their remains and headed back downstairs.
"I'll take these bags down the skip for you, shall I, love?" 
Meantime, disturbing some moths that had taken cover behind the books on the shelf, my vacuum cleaner hose swung desperately in their wake.
"Do poor Fran some charity, whom the foul fiend vexes." I shook off Elinor's grip on my arm. "There could I suck one up - and there again - and there!" 
My companion switched off the power at the plug and spoke softly into the sudden silence.
"Yet have I ventured to come seek you out And bring you where both tea and toast is ready. Come downstairs, Beaut. These moths will turn us all to fools and madwomen."
"Peace, Elinor!" I brandished the hose of the hoover toward her. "Come not between the dragon and her wrath."

No heap gives shelter, no place That guard and most unusual vigilance Does not attend moth massacre. Whiles insects may have escaped, I will preserve my stash of yarn; and am bethought To make the cleanest and most spotless store That ever calamity, that appetite of moths, Brought near to ruin. That's something yet! Slovenly I nothing am. 
This week, I have mended my grubby and cluttered ways. No more piles of abandoned projects in corners nor yarn displayed in open baskets - they now contain only dyed tops within sealed plastic bags. I had no idea how much handspun yarn I had accumulated until it was all bagged up and formed into an orderly queue, each bag spending 24 hours in the freezer. Though the balls and skeins looked unblemished, this precaution was intended to kill any hidden moth larvae that might possibly be lurking inside them. Before it had a chance to defrost, the wool went straight into clear plastic boxes with lids, which are now sitting on open shelves where the light can get in. Every box has its own moth paper.
My companion gazed around the room.
"Fair play, Beaut, it is unnaturally tidy in here. I'll buy you some lavender soap to put under the bed. Good moth deterrent because the smell lasts for ages. As long as you keep an eye out for trouble, I'd say the worst is over."
"And worse it may be yet. The worst is not, So long as we can say 'This is the worst.'" I muttered grimly. "How can I ever be sure there are no moths still sneaking about?"
"Ah, now what you need is a 'Modd y Ffyca'. An old Welshman taught me this. Fetch some of that raw Blue Texel fleece."
"But I've vacuum sealed it in a plastic sack."
"Nothing can be made out of nothing." 
Putting the unwashed locks in a black box, she propped the lid open with a stick and shoved the whole thing under the bed. "If there are any moths about, they'll nest here. Just check the box every week and you'll know." 
"Gosh, thanks Elinor. All I have to do now is defrost the freezer and I can get back to spinning. You've been so brave about your own fleece, with all those moths about. What would I do without you?"
"You'll have to manage by yourself tomorrow, Beaut. I'm off for a cold spa treatment then a wash, set and blow dry."