Did you miss me?

Ahem – 9 months or so – that’s pretty poor.  So, new year, new start, and, most importantly, a new laptop – this should mean it doesn’t take me 12 hours to actually get any post online.

I’m going to jump right in with what I’m doing right here, right now, and then maybe trawl back through some finished stuff from 2015 later on to catch up.

Remember the Onion Jumper?  14 shades of yellow, 15 shades of brown and green – dyed with yellow and red onion skins.  I made a start on the knitting during lambing last April, and then put it away to work on other projects… the kiss of death to anything.  Anyway, after the Christmas gift knitting craziness, I always feel the need to work on something just for me, and so I picked it up again at the beginning of this month.  I’m not very good at writing notes (no surprise there then!), so did spend some time trying to remember a few vital details, such as the needle size (3.25mm) and the colour changes (every round for the yellow, every 3 rounds for the green).  I suppose I never really intend to leave a project languishing for this long and of course always feel I’ll certainly remember what I was doing.

Since restarting, I’ve knitted the body from the bottom to the armpits, and I’ve started on the sleeves. onion bodyOh man – the sleeves!  Really starting to regret changing the colours every round for these.  I’m spit splicing all the ends, and that is a lot of splicing!  I’m knitting both sleeves at the same time on 2 circular needles.  Despite having painted the ends of one needle with red nail polish, I’m still beginning many rounds with the wrong needle and having to re-jig everything.  I suppose with the colour changes, the pattern (centred, so not starting at the beginning of the repeat), the sleeve increases, and the constant “help” from our puppy (a post in itself), it’s just too much for my old brain to cope with!  So, I’m finding the sleeves s.l.o.w., and can’t wait to get onto joining the arms and the body for the yoke.onion both sleeveI passed the half way mark last night, so some progress I guess.

I decided when I restarted this project that I’d work it as a raglan.  I completed a couple of top down raglans over Christmas and I like the shape.  It would have made more sense to knit this top down too, but I didn’t.  This meant working out how long I wanted the sleeves, then counting back so that both the colour repeat and the pattern repeat for the sleeves end at the same spot as on the body.   Only time will  tell if the maths has worked!

My hope is that the fairisle pattern will look good with the raglan decreases – I haven’t done any sort of swatching for this, so I’ll have to wait and see on that too.  I could have worked the original pattern as written of course.  Or I could have spun two big balls of yarn with long colour graduations to save all the splicing.  Or I could have knitted the jumper top down.  Any or all of these would have made this knit much easier!  Having got to the stage where I almost always spin with a project in mind, I really should make an effort to design my knitting before I cast on!  The destination would be more predictable, although the journey may not be quite as exciting.

Okay, this didn’t take too long to write.  I’ll show some of my Christmas knits next time.  Maybe it won’t take me another 9 months!

 

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.

Talking to the Fail Whale

My kids went through a phase of saying this – the flip side being “Swimming with the Salmon of Success”.

This is a sorry tale of the tribulations of natural dyeing.

Buoyed up by my success with sage I rifled through my dried plant matter and found some foraged buddleia blooms from last summer.  I collected them from a hedgerow bush when the flowers were brown and crispy and useless to all but a middle-aged woman with slightly fringe interests.  The flowers in bloom were a mid purple.

Jenny Dean got this  from dried buddleia, but I do believe she has Magical Powers.

I followed the same method as for the sage.  The dye liquor was a golden yellow, I added alum and put 50g wetted fleece in the slow cooker, and waited for the magic to work.

budliquor

No Salmon of Success swam through my dyepot this fateful day.  I got a bit of yellow – rather like I hadn’t washed the fleece properly.

budfleece

Top: Buddleia dyed fleece Bottom: Undyed fleece for comparison!

 I tried reheating.  I tried leaving the fleece in the cooling dye bath overnight. Nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  In fact, the photo above looks better than it actually is.

 I’ll try again another day when this years’ flowers have blossomed – I am not good at embracing failure.

 My plan for my next dye is a dead cert.  I’ll keep you posted 😉

Sage Advice

I feel like I’ve been spinning and knitting shades of brown for months.  Coupled with the bleak, cold winter weather, I’m craving a bit of colour in my life.

The depths of winter is not the ideal time to forage for natural dye material, but, in an uncharacteristically foresighted fashion, I managed to save and dry some plant matter in the summer when everything was growing rampantly, for just this eventuality.

I have a common sage bush (salvia officinalis) in my herb patch that seems to thrive on neglect (my favourite type of plant).  I hack it back several times a year in an attempt to shed some light on the weedy Rosemary that’s planted next to it.  There is a limit to how much sage anyone can incorporate into their diet, but it seems a bit of a waste just to compost these prunings.  In the autumn I bunched up a load of sage branches and hung them up to dry (people have generally stopped commenting on the nature and variety of organic matter in various states of preservation or decay in my house).  It was this dried sage that I turned to in my hour of need.  I’d had a decent result with fresh leaves in the summer, and so I was hopeful of a worthwhile result.

I weighed out 50g of the dried sage (mostly leaves, but a few stalks) and put it all into the leg of some laddered tights.  I have two teenage daughters and consequently an infinite supply of laddered tights – they’re very useful, though possibly not in the quantity that they accumulate in this house.

Sage

Sage dye bath

The tights package then went into my dyeing slow cooker, was covered with cold tap water and left on high for an hour or so, then turned to low for another couple of hours.  The water turned a brownish yellow, and after squeezing the cooked leaves out, the plant material was removed.

Natural dyes need a mordant in order to fix to the fibre.  I decided to go for “simultaneous mordanting”  by adding about a teaspoon of alum to the dye bath and giving it a stir. I would’ve added some cream of tartar too as this is supposed to help the take up of the alum, but I couldn’t locate my store of it at the crucial moment.

 

Dye liquor

Dye liquor

I used 50g of white Kerry Hill fleece that had been scoured and carded, and then soaked in hot tap water til it was fully wetted.  Switching the slow cooker on to high again, I gradually raised the temperature to 87°c – this isn’t a magic number – it’s just what the slow cooker seems to heat up to.  The fleece simmered at this temperature for a couple of hours and was then left to cool a bit in the pot before being rinsed, first in plain water, then in slightly soapy water.

The result?  Quite a nice greenish yellow, hard to describe and photograph accurately.  I wouldn’t want an entire jumper this colour but I think it will make a welcome addition to a fairisle project or two.  The exhaust bath yielded a paler yellow, again with undertones of green.

Sage dyed Kerry Hill primary

I spun up and Navajo plied just a single rolag of each for wash-fastness and light-fastness tests, and we must now all wait, on tenterhooks, for the results.

Bottom:  first dye bath, Top:  1st exhaust

Bottom: first dye bath, Top: 1st exhaust