Category Archives: dyeing

woolful, edinyarnfest and the craft sessions

I’d like to send out a massive thank you to everyone who has left a comment here- and on Instagram, Twitter and, of course, in person!- in support and encouragement of our move overseas… It has meant a huge amount to me and I’ll be carrying you all with me when we head off at the end of January. Gee, the world certainly feels like a small place with the whole SM circus, doesn’t it?!

Just a few updates: if you haven’t already twigged to the joys of Ashley Yousling’s Woolful podcast, you need to check it out. This super smart and resourceful young woman is changing the way many of us see the yarn that we knit with and the fibre craft community that we are part of by opening up fascinating conversations with fibre people; from small scale to commercial, she’s talking to those involved in producing fibre (spinners, dyers, shearers, yarn companies…) and to those who use it (designers, craftspeople, artists…). I think these conversations will continue in yarn shops, at kitchen tables, in colleges and at fibre events around the world…  A new episode is released each Tuesday and I was thrilled and very honoured to talk to Ashley as part of this week’s episode, mostly about natural dyeing and dye plants but our conversation meandered through many areas of fibre love! You can find all the eps over at Wooful. Oh, and Ashley and her family is also building a fibre mill in Idaho- I can’t wait to see what comes out of that place!

I mentioned in my last post that I am building up a stock of colourwork cowls to take with me to Scotland-  well, I’ve signed up for a booth at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival in mid-March! It’ll be my first time selling my work in this kind of setting and I’m excited and a little anxious at the same time… But, at the very least, I’m looking at it as a great chance to meet and connect with the local knitting community. So, as well as packing up the house and catching up with loved ones, I’m going to have a busy 6 weeks of making!

And, lastly, it was bittersweet teaching my very last Melbourne class at Sunspun this week. It was great to finally run Fibre and Yarn 101, which was inspired by years of questions from customers about how to choose the best yarn for a project and why some yarn substitutions just don’t seem to work. I think my students left with a clearer picture of how different natural fibres behave and why different types of processing result in very different yarns and how to anticipate and work with that. But I’m really not sure whether there’ll be much opportunity for teaching in Scotland- perhaps natural dyeing will be the way to go, as teaching knitting there feels like teaching my grandmother to suck eggs! I’ll just have to wait and see and, in the meantime, will be so happy to take lots of classes to soak up as much of the local knowledge and tradition. But I wanted to let you know that I will be returning in September to teach at the Craft Sessions. It’s such a beautiful event that I don’t want to miss it and it also gives me a chance to bring back and share techniques and skills picked up over there. And, of course, to spend time with my family and friends. So it won’t be that long between cups of tea!

So that’s all my news for now. Have a lovely weekend!

purple carrot revisited

I recently dyed with purple carrots for the third time and got such different results from the first and second times that it got me reflecting on the variables that might have led to those differences… which I thought some of you dyers might have some thoughts on or just find it interesting. Can you see what I mean?

Varying results

Varying results

The two balls to the bottom right were my first experiment; this is Shetland yarn reclaimed from a jumper, mordanted with alum and cream of tartar and dyed with a bottle of out-of-date organic purple carrot juice someone was throwing out. I thought I’d have a try so I topped the pan up with warm water, added the yarns and slowly raised the temperature to around 70C, held it there for around 45 minutes. I loved the dusty pinks it produced…

Heat-dyed

Heat-dyed

Then I moved on to fresh carrots, the ones that aren’t just purple on the outside (they don’t give you any real colour) but that are purple-black all the way though. I put them through the juicer and then added the pulp back into the juice and divided it in half; it seems that juicy materials like berries, vegetables and soft roots give clearer colours without too much heat so I had an idea that solar dyeing might be a good approach to take. I divided the goopey juice in half and put half in a saucepan with a skein of organic merino yarn, again mordanted in alum and CT, slowly raised the temperature to around 70C and held it there for around 45 minutes. The first skein in the photo below was the result of heating: mauve- grey.

I then poured the rest into a big glass jar with a skein of the same and another of reclaimed wool/ angora, added enough warm water to cover the yarn and left the jar in the sun on my black compost bin for two weeks. Over that time, we had a few days around 25C but plenty of overcast days so the jar wouldn’t have got super hot. The second and third skeins were the result of solar dyeing: bright purple and mauve!

First solar dye

First solar dye

And then, recently, I rediscovered some old purple carrots that I’d bought to have a play with but had never gotten around to using; despite being a few months old, they were still fine, just a little hairy! Like before, I juiced and recombined them and repeated the solar process but, this time, left the juice outside for a week before I added silk fabrics, wool/ silk yarn and white and grey yarn (as always, mordanted with alum and CT). I then left the jar for a week, with similar temperatures to last time.

After one hour immersed in the liquid, the silk velvet looked crazy pink:

An hour after adding fibre to the jar

An hour after adding fibre to the jar

The silk fabrics and yarn were all a beautiful dusty pink after a week but the white and grey wool picked up NO DYE AT ALL! What is that about?!

Second solar dye

Second solar dye

I know that certain dyes have affinities with particular fibres but I’ve never seen wool not pick up any colour where silk has. And, from the first solar dye, I know that wool will pick up purple carrot. The fibres were all mordanted together. So, to me, the only variables are the silk and the fact that the fibres weren’t added straight to the jar. Is it possible that the silk absorbed the dye compounds so quickly that the wool didn’t have a chance? Seems unlikely to me… So could the week between processing and adding the fibres be the reason? It makes me want to dig out my chemistry books and find out what could possibly affect the structure of the dye compounds to lead to this?

I’d love to hear any thoughts!

And, next time, I want to try to capture that hot pink before it softens!

In the meantime, if you’re inspired to try your hand at dyeing with plants, I have a couple of classes coming up at the Handmakers Factory, an introduction to natural dyeing on October 11 and a collaborative class on indigo and shibori on November 15- I’ll be teaching the indigo component, showing how to establish and maintain an indigo vat, which Rosalind Slade will then use for her class on shibori. You can find out more over at Handmakers!

dyeing with soursob, argyle apple and chlorophyll

Hello! It’s been ages since I’ve posted here about dyeing… it’s been a really busy few months and we spent most of our end-of-year break painting our house, so neither dyeing nor writing about it have had much of a look-in… I’ve also got into the habit of posting photos on Instagram, which is so quick that I’ve realized it’s made the idea of writing an actual blog post overwhelming so I need to get back into the habit.

I ran another class on natural dyes in December, this time for the Handmakers Factory at the lovely Ink and Spindle studio in Kensington. I think I’ve said here before that I don’t consider myself a natural teacher but I feel really passionate about the need for good classes and skill-sharing so I push myself to get better at it. But I think perhaps that my love for plants and colour managed to override my nerves- teaching this class was an absolute joy!

This time, I included some basic sample sheets that participants could attach their samples to- it’s always so hard to remember what they are and how they were dyed so I thought it would be useful. Each one relates to a particular dye plant that we used on the day.

The first plant we dyed with was Oxalis pes-caprae (Soursob or Sourgrass), which is a widespread weed in Melbourne. I realize I need to start taking photos of the dye plants I use as an ID tool for the blog and classes but Soursob is small herb with a clover-like leaf and bright acid-yellow bell-shaped flowers in spring. I collected about 500gm of flowers in spring and then froze them for the classes I had later in the year (I find I get the same results with fresh or frozen flowers).

We poured hot water over about 2 handfuls of flowers and left them to soak for an hour while we did other things- heating  flowers too high or for too long can destroy or alter the dye compounds. We then strained the flowers out and placed the dyebath onto the stove on low and added two sets of samples of alum-mordanted yarn (wool, wool/ silk and bamboo) and fabric (silk velvet, silk, coarse cotton and unbleached linen). We left them to heat for around 45 minutes and then took them off to cool. We then removed the fibers, put one set aside, added some washing soda to the dyebath (which changed the pH to alkaline and instantly turned from yellow to bright orange) and replaced the other set back into the bath. You can clearly see the difference in colours achieved from the different fibre types and pHs; interestingly, this plant seems to have more of an affinity with protein fibres, like silk and wool, whereas the cellulose fibres (especially the cotton) didn’t take up as much colour.

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Soursob

Next up, we used Eucalyptus cinerea (Argyle Apple), which is found though the south-east of Australia and is often used as a landscape tree in streets. It yields far better colour when heated and cooled multiple times so I took it into the studio already soaked and heated over several days to maximize the depth of dye we could achieve. We simply brought it up to about 80C, then added a set of alum-mordanted yarn and fabrics and a piece of iron-mordanted yarn and took it off the heat to sit for 2 hours. I would have liked to keep it in the heat but my second stove refused to work on the day so we had to juggle pots! The dark brown yarn at the top right was iron-mordanted and took up colour very differently to the same yarn mordanted with alum.

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Eucalyptus cinerea

And we used chlorophyll as our last dye, as I wanted to demonstrate dyeing with a weed (Soursob), an indigenous landscape plant (Argyle Apple) and a vegetable and I couldn’t get hold of my favourite purple carrot (more on recent experiments with that next time). I sacrificed some of the chlorophyll extract from wonderful French natural dye house Renaissance Dyeing that I’ve been hoarding since my lovely friend Mel gave me a pack of them.  It’s produced from organically grown spinach and nettles and was very simple to work with, giving us lovely, soft green, that most elusive of colours when it comes to natural dyes!

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Chlorophyll

As I said, it was such a joy to teach this class and I think everyone got a lot of confidence to get out and try dyeing with natural materials, which is mostly what people need, as it’s actually pretty simple! If you are keen to learn about the process in a hands-on session, I have some classes coming up at the Handmakers Factory, the first one at the beginning of February- you can find all the details here. I’m also playing with the idea of running a class on how to get 25 (or more) colours from one dyebath, so let me know if that sounds like something you’d be keen to do.

iran: textiles

One of a series of photo-based posts documenting a trip that my mum and I recently took to Iran. My excitement at being in that beautiful country meant that I sometimes missed the details in our guides talks, so apologies for any incorrect info or mislabeling of photos! Also, I took my old Pentax K100d with me but was unable to get more memory for it so had to use a low-quality format- I hope that doesn’t stop you from seeing the beauty that I saw everywhere…

While in Tehran, we visited the national carpet museum which houses the largest collection of Persian carpets found in Iran and possibly the world. The building was designed by the last queen of Iran, Farah Diba Pahlavi, and its flanked facade not only resembles a carpet loom but also creates shade in summer, helping to regulate the internal temperature to protect the carpets.

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Carpet museum, Tehran, designed to resemble a carpet loom

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Carpet loom

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Traditional dyestuffs

It was wonderful to see samples of the dyestuffs traditionally used to dye yarns used in Persian carpets. Some of them were familiar, such as indigo, madder and cochineal, although I would have given a lot to learn the secrets of the incredibly sophisticated Iranian dyers responsible for extracting such a wide range of colours and shades from them. There were others, such as black curd or mud and unripe grapes, that I’m keen to try when the opportunity presents itself…

I learned a little about the history and tradition of Persian carpets; there are two major types, the tribal carpet and the city carpet. Tribal carpets are those woven by nomads and inhabitants of small rural villages. They are made of medium-to-coarse wool on a cotton or wool base and some, such as kilims, have a flat surface, rather than a pile formed by knots. Tribal carpets are generally considered inferior in quality to the ones made in the cities, but the materials, such as the wool and dyes used, are often of excellent quality and can result in a beautiful carpet. Because they’re often made in fairly primitive conditions, tribal carpets are not always perfectly symmetrical and often display subtle colour variations that give them a wonderful depth. The dyes used in tribal rugs are still mainly natural vegetable dyes, which adds value for the producer.

City carpets are made in workshops in towns and cities across Iran and are made from fine wool and silk on a wool or cotton base. They may contain up to 160 knots per cm2, creating a super fine pile with incredible texture and luminosity. Even excellent-quality city carpets include intentional imperfections- the old Persian proverb that says “a Persian rug is perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise” stems from the religious belief that God is the only perfect being and that attempting absolute perfection would be claiming the position of the Almighty. These imperfections are what give these carpets their character and authenticity.

Tribal carpets tend to have geometric designs with little detail and a limited palette of a few bright colors, while city carpets usually have more detailed, curvilinear or pictorial designs and more variation and subtlety of color. Designs are very regional, so an expert can can usually determine the origin of a rug  by analyzing the design.

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Early Tree of Life silk carpet

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Wool floral silk city carpet from Kerman, 1792

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Detail, pictorial carpet

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Detail, pictorial carpet

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Stunning city rug

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Geometric patterning resembling the fruit from a maple

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Detail of wool carpet with beautiful naive animals and plants

Despite the finesse and sophistication of the city carpets, my very favourite carpet in the museum was this incredible tribal carpet… it depicts the Persian pairi-daeza or garden, built around the central water channels and acting as an oasis for plants and birds, life of all kinds. The shades from madder and indigo are beautiful and the delicacy of the patternwork is completely captivating…

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Stunning tribal rug reflecting the Persian garden or paradise

It is said that Iranians are born on carpets, live on carpets and die on carpets. I would have loved to be invited into some homes to see carpets in a domestic setting but we witnessed their central role in many other aspects of Iranian life during our travels…

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Carpet in the Shah’s summer palace, northern Tehran

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Tribal rugs airing, Golestan Palce, Tehran

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A good use for a carpet!

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Carpets left upside-down on garden seats, awaiting evening visitors

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Carpets in the Pink Mosque, Shiraz

As a knitter, I always hope to see some evidence of a local knitting culture wherever I go… on this trip, however, I wasn’t expecting to see much- and indeed I didn’t! This must have been partly to do with the time of year but really, knitting is not part of the Iranian textile culture. Communities that raise sheep and other fibre-producing animals tend to develop either weaving, knitting or felting as a way of using that fibre to keep warm, and Iran took the weaving path… However, on our last day in Iran, we visited Jolfa, the Armenian quarter of Esfahan and, there, my prayers were answered! Over 150,000 Armenians fleeing persecution from the Ottoman Empire were moved here by force by Shah Abbasi in 1606; they were famous for being skillful craftsmen and it was hoped that they would further add to the beauty of the Persian empire. In the Armenian Vank cathedral, I saw this beautiful crocheted alter cloth…

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Fine crocheted altar cloth

And then in the museum, very fine colourwork knitted socks! Just when I really needed another knitters’ arm to squeeze in excitement, I realized that Mum (who incidentally knits beautiful socks and, it turned out later, had missed these beauties!) had already left the building. So I soaked up the beauty on my own…

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Fine silk knitted socks, 19th century Armenia

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Very fine, knitted socks, Armenia

I found the museum a very moving place. It holds relics of a time past and a people hugely changed since this earlier group of Armenians fled their homelands. Amongst its treasures are a historic printing press and the first book printed in Iran, Christian vestments, prayer books, chalices and other sacramental artifacts, tapestries, embroidery and carpets and an extensive display of photographs, maps, and Turkish documents related to the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Turkey.

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Fine woven silk

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Armenian knotted wool carpet

I hoped that I’d find some fabric to bring home as a memento of our trip but it wasn’t until Esfahan, where our guide took us to a block-printing workshop, that I found my treasured piece. It is an old and very fine piece of cotton that has been block-printed and hand-painted in the kalamkari style that fused Indian and Persian techniques and design and used indigo, madder and other natural dyes.

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Block-printed cotton

I pored over many beautiful pieces but this one really spoke to me… it wasn’t as perfectly printed as some of the others and there’s quite a lot going on in it- almost too much… but I think that’s what I like about it. Perhaps the person who made it was still learning to balance design elements- or perhaps was just very enthusiastic! But I mostly chose it because it encompasses so many of the symbols and imagery that I saw in the Persian art that we saw (whether tilework, carpet-weaving, painting or other) and so acts as a lovely reminder of our trip.

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Pomegranate, representing fertility

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Peacock, symbolizing royalty

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Tiger and gazelle, perhaps symbolizing the victory of spring over winter- and look at the tigers lush eyelashes!

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Mountain, reminds me of our travels alongside the Zagros

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Twirling vines, representing nature and growth

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Cypress, representing immortality

It’s such a joy to look at it as I work in my room- so many happy memories!

madder, mordants and modifiers

I’ve been experimenting with plant dyes for a while but still feel a bit in the dark when it comes to the effects of pH on plant pigments… Lots of experts allude to the importance of pH in their books and blogs but it seems there is very little detail about it… so I decided to follow an experiment outlined by Jenny Dean in her wonderful dyers bible, Wild Colour (so worth getting your hands on if you’re at all tempted to try dyeing with plants!) which displays the effects of not only pH modifiers but also pre-and-postmordanting.

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Madder in post-treatment groups; none, acid, alkaline, copper, iron

Mordanting is also pretty new to me; I’ve been pre-mordanting yarn with alum and cream of tartar (that is, treating yarn before dyeing) with good results but I feel quite ambivalent about introducing salts and metals, such as copper and iron, and other substances like ammonia into my dyebaths or as post-treatments… I know I can learn more about the potential colours held by a plant if I use them but I’ve been asking myself to what length I’ll go for that knowledge… it is a really personal question and I’m still working out how I feel about the potential environmental cost of my experiments and so I generally avoid using anything other than alum… but I thought it was important to temporarily put aside my ethics for this comprehensive experiment, hoping it would prove enlightening!

To prepare the dyebath, I put 250gm dried madder root (1:1 ratio of madder to fibre) in a large jar, covered with boiling water and set the jar in the sun for 2 weeks to soften the woody roots. I then poured off the soaking water (as madder releases its yellow and orange pigments first and the more desirable red pigments only later) and repeated the process, soaking the roots for another week. I then chopped the madder as finely as possible to maximise surface area, placed it in my large, heavy-bottomed dye pot, covered with warm water and then slowly heated it to 65C for one hour. I left the pot to cool overnight and then heated and held it at 65C for another hour the next day. Phew, it was finally ready for the fibre!

In preparation for dyeing, I wound 25 10gm skeins of 5-ply Polwarth yarn from local producer Wendy Dennis (which I’m discovering takes dye really well, almost as well as superwash which soaks up everything but often has trouble holding colour because of the stripping involved in its production!) and set aside 5 skeins. The other 20 were treated as follows: 5 premordanted in 10% alum, 5 in 2% copper solution, 5 in 2% iron solution and 5 in rhubarb leaf decoction.

Premordanted yarn; rhubarb, copper, iron, alum

Premordanted yarn; rhubarb, copper, iron, alum

All skeins were labelled with a letter from A to Y which indicated their pre-treatment, written on a square of heat-proof plastic (like a milk container) with a permanent marker- this is essential as it becomes impossible to keep track of what is what later!

While still damp from their pre-treaments, I then added the 25 skeins to the dye bath and slowly brought the temperature to 65C for 2 hours and then left the bath to cool overnight. Actually, it was meant to be overnight… but life got busy and I didn’t get back to the pot until a week later! No problem though- wool fibres are designed to withstand permanently damp conditions over long winters!

I removed one skein from each premordant group and hung the 5 to dry with no further treatment.

* I’ve been trying to photograph these for days but the low levels of light combined with the reds make it super hard to capture the colours accurately! The samples are all less orange than they look and there is quite a lot more contrast between the different groups than appears in the group photos. See the top photo for a clearer picture of the contrasts!

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No post-treatment; premordanted with none, alum, copper, iron, rhubarb

One from each group was placed in a glass bowl with hot water and 100ml of vinegar and left to sit for 15 minutes- the vinegar brought the pH of the water down from 5 to 3, forming an acidic bath, which tends to bring out the orange tones in reds.

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Acid post-treatment; premordanted with none, alum, copper, iron, rhubarb

One from each group was placed in a glass bowl with warm water and 50gm of washing soda and then 50ml of ammonia and left to sit for 15 minutes- the washing soda took the pH to 7 (still in the neutral zone and wasn’t high enough to change the colours of the yarn) whereas the ammonia brought the pH of the water up from 5 to 9, forming an alkaline bath, which usually makes colours pinker in tones.

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Alkaline post-treatment; premordanted in none, alum, copper, iron, rhubarb

One from each group was placed in a pot with warm water and 1gm copper dissolved in water and then held below simmering for 15 minutes- copper makes colours greener or browner in tone and often helps to make colours more permanent.

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Copper post-treatment; premordanted in none, alum, copper, iron, rhubarb

One from each group was placed in a pot with warm water and 1gm iron dissolved in water and then held below simmering for 5 minutes- iron makes colours darker and more sombre in tone and often helps to make colours more permanent.

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Iron post-treatment; premordanted with none, alum, copper, iron, rhubarb

So… lots observed in this experiment:

– Pre-mordanting with copper and iron leads to much stronger colours than modifiying with them after the dye-bath.

– I was surprised that the alum-mordanted skeins turned out a darker, rusty orange than the non-mordanted skeins- Jenny Dean finds the opposite.

– The copper-mordanted and iron-mordanted skeins dyed about as dark as each other, the copper a dark aubergine and the iron a tobacco brown. In the photos outlining this experiment in Deans book, the copper looks much darker.

– The rhubarb-mordanted skeins dyed very similarly to the non-mordanted skeins- I used very fresh, new leaves so will try tougher, older leaves next time as they may hold more oxalic acid, the mordanting compound.

– The acid post-treatment skeins ended up only slightly more orange than those which had no post-treatment- I think this is because my water is naturally acidic.

– As stated by many dye experts, the alkaline post-treatment is the way to go for red tones!

– I expected all the skeins in the copper and iron post-treatment groups to end up much darker than they did… perhaps I didn’t use enough in the baths.

And my thoughts on modifiers and mordants after the experiment? Vinegar I’m fine with using but ammonia is pretty strong so I’m going to try to work out how much washing soda I need to add to take my water to alkaline, as well as capturing rainwater to see how that affects pH. I definitely saw first hand the increased range of colours attained with copper and iron so I’m going to try the methods outlined in Harvesting Colour for using scrap materials to make mordants. I didn’t use them here as I wanted to be exact with quantities but it feels like a much better option than buying powders!

It seems like I ended up with a very seventies palette! I feel like I should be weaving a shagpile wall hanging with them ; ) There are some beauties though…and it is wonderful to have more confidence in extracting the tones that appeal to me.

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Rhubarb/ none, alum/ none, alum/ alkaline, rhubarb/ alkaline/ copper/ alkaline, iron/ alkaline

As for all the little 10gm skeins, I’ll be using some of them for colourwork and passing the rest on. I thought I might hold my first giveaway on this little blog! So leave me a comment if you are interested and I’ll draw it next week- after I show my dye teacher the results!

PS These are silk/wool and angora yarns that I put in afterwards to exhaust the bath… I used an alkaline post-treatment for those pink-salmon tones and think I like it better than the others!

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Exhausting the bath; wool/ silk and wool/ angora with alkaline post-treatment