Tenacity

At our last Spinner’s Guild meeting we had a yarn dyeing workshop. I took along some undyed sock yarn that I’d been saving, that was a blend of merino, angora and nylon.
I rarely buy yarn nowadays as I prefer to spin my own for bigger projects, but make an exception for sock yarn. Socks are often my travelling project – both car glove compartments hold an “emergency sock”- and a worthwhile sock yarn is a lot of worsted 3 or 4 ply spinning. I don’t think I’d have time to spin enough for my needs.

I’ve been seduced in the past by beautiful hand dyed skeins that knit up into unattractive, blotchy socks with colours pooling in strange blobs. I know that some knitters love this but it’s not for me. I like stripes or really long subtle colour changes.
With this in mind, I eschewed the wide choice of jewel colours on offer at the workshop and chose just pink and blue. I imagined stripes of pink blending subtly through a gentle indigo to a nice clear blue stripe. My resolve wavered a little as I looked at the beautiful blends that others were doing. In comparison mine looked a bit flat and boring.  It was okay, but I was feeling a little envious of the beautiful skeins that had started appearing on our Guild Facebook page.  The “gentle indigo” I was hoping for where the two colours blended came out puce.  Not my favourite colour by a long chalk.  I hung the skein in a tree to make it look more interesting for its photo shoot!

initialsock

 I decided to start knitting my socks before I gave my final verdict.  Not a success.  The stripes were one round wide, which made them look like a random mess, and the puce helpfully spiralled around the sock giving the only visible pattern.  It didn’t take much knitting for me to decide that Something Must Be Done.

initialsockknit

I ripped out the knitting and re-skeined the yarn.  This time, I made a much longer skein – I used two chairs either side of the length of our dining table.  This was 3 times the length of the original skein, so the theory was that my stripes would come out 3 rounds wide rather than a single round.

reskeining dyeingclingfilm

I mixed up some magenta dye and some blue dye and soaked the yarn in warm water again.  I then dipped an end in each colour and squidged the dye where the 2 colours met.  The package was then wrapped in clingfilm and microwaved for 8 minutes, turning the package over half way.  I was much happier with the colours after this – the original blue bits went either darker blue or purple, the original pink bits went either deeper pink or violet.  I finished by overdyeing the entire skein with a weaker magenta to blend all the colours a bit more (glad I used superwash yarn!).  Rather than a “flat” yarn, I ended up with a multi-tonal skein that would hopefully still give stripes, but with a bit more interest than before – and without the puce spiral.

skeincloseup

The proof is in the knitting.  I’ve finished one sock, but they’re not moving quickly as they’re rattling around in my handbag for when I have 5 minutes to kill.  I’m much happier with the yarn now, and so pleased I didn’t settle for the original dye job.  My favourite bit though is the heel – worked on half the stitches – a nice wide stripe – I’ll need to double the length of the skein again for my next attempt at dyeing.

The sock pattern is my standard one – 60 stitches on 2.5mm needles with a rounded toe (first toe decrease, k 4 rounds, dec, k 3 rounds, dec, k2 rounds, dec, k1 round, dec every round to end).  I use lovely Hiya Hiya needles which let me whizz around.  Did you notice my stitch marker in the earlier photo?  It’s a small piece of plastic drinking straw.  I always use these for stitch markers on socks.  I can never find stitch markers, and when I do they ping off and get lost all over the place.  Using bits of straw means I only need take a straw and scissors and I have as many stitch markers as I need.  It’s a top tip, not of my invention – I read it somewhere years ago and can’t remember where – thank you to whoever it was for saving me many frustrating hours excavating the sides of armchairs.

I think these will be socks for me.  Some of my socks are wearing quite thin now and will need to be either darned or frogged and the good bits re-knitted into something else.

Here’s the first sock knitted up

sock heel nofoot

I’m still spinning the onion yarn, but I think I’m on target, and I’ve been experimenting with contact dyeing silk with varying degrees of success.  I will save that for another day.

The gift that keeps on giving

After what will henceforth be known as the Great Buddleia Disappointment, I decided that my next natural dye experiment would use something sure to give me a result.  Enter the humble onion skin.

Onion skins are often referred to as the “beginner’s dye”, as it’s pretty tricky not to get a result.  My dye book catchily entitled Natural Dyes, Fast or Fugitive, (which is actually a cracking little book bursting at the seams with proper scientific research, rather than anecdotal hit-or-miss experiments) gives onion skins, even on alum mordanted wool, a light-fastness rating of 1 – dyes that faded rapidly after only one Standard Fading Period.  I’m not too worried by this – weld also has a 1 rating, and that’s been used for hundreds of years as a fail-safe dyestuff.   I imagine that anything I knit will mostly be worn either in the winter, when strong sunlight is but a distant dream, or after dark around the campfire on summer evenings.  Another consideration is that I achieved some fairly full-on colours, and I may be glad of a little fading.

So, to dye my wool, I used my usual method:  onion skins in tights; boiled up in the slow cooker; 1 tsp alum and 3/4 tsp cream of tartar dissolved in the dyebath; wetted, scoured fleece added;  whole lot simmered for an hour then left to cool.

I used a ratio of 2 parts skins : 1 part fleece by weight – in this case I started with 120g of onion skins and added 60g of fleece.  My first batch was a lovely rich orange – like the yolks of our grass-fed hens’ eggs.  I continued with another 60g fleece (keeping the package of skins in the dyebath all the time).  A slightly lighter orange this time.  In total this 120g of onion skins gave me 11 dyebaths, and dyed the fleece a spectrum from orange to a buttery yellow.  I added another teaspoon of alum / CofT every 3 baths or so.

Next, I moved on to red onion skins.  We don’t use red onions as much as yellow here, so my stock of red skins was sadly lacking.  As luck would have it, supermarket trays of red onions are awash with skins that have fallen off, and the staff in the vegetable section are more than happy for you to unburden them.  The added advantage of doing this is that my children now avoid accompanying me to the supermarket.  Apparently I “come across as a bit of a nutter”.  Bonus.  No campaigns for mascara and chocolate on my trips any more.

My first batch with a 2:1 dyebath came out brown.  Subsequent exhaust baths took me through several pleasing shades of green.  I got 5 baths from the red skins before the colour became too light for my purposes.

High on onion fumes, I then repeated the entire process with grey fleece.  The result here was lovely – tones of orangey-brown very reminiscent of Harris Tweed.  I will do the same with red skins on grey, and then call it a day.

It proved almost impossible to capture the colours inside, and the high winds we’ve been having here make taking outside photos of wisps of fleece a foolish quest, so here is a picture of the only skeins spun so far.

onion

I have a lot of onion dyed fleece.  Some might say too much.  But I have a plan.  An Onion Jumper.  A fairisle extravaganza using only onion dyed wool.  During the carding and spinning process I’ve been pondering on the design of this garment.

I toyed briefly with my daughter’s suggestion to knit pictures of onions.  The last time I took style advice from a child we ended up buying this sofa.

sofa1

I’ve lived with it (and with the impossibility of creating any sort of stylish room when this is the dominating feature) for 14 years now.  I have since made a conscious decision to disregard anything that a teenager thinks is “cool”.

Next, I played with some leafy designs.  The colours are certainly reminiscent of autumn leaves, but in the end I decided that this was a bit of a cliché, and might look a bit out of place out of season.

I think I have settled on this – the Donegal Celtic Spiral sweater by Alice Starmore.  The spiral design is a small nod to the onion-ey origins of the dye without being too pictorial.  I’ve also always loved this sweater, and have always planned to knit it someday.

I’d like to have the yarn ready to knit in time for lambing.  I help my parents every year which means that I spend long days and nights sitting in a caravan waiting for the ewes to get their act together.  I usually plan a decent knitting project for this “holiday”, and this should be just the ticket.  It’s a lot of yarn to spin, and I’m pretty busy with other life stuff at the moment, but I will try my best.  I’m trying to spin a colour a day, and I have 16 days ’til the Easter hols.  We’ll see.