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.

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Everywhere but home

Last week was half term week here so we’ve been racing around the country.
First up was some time in Somerset where we helped my parents manage some of their land – felling diseased trees and chopping back hedgerows. I also managed to have a bit of a forage for some (potential) dye plants.
I’m interested in the possibility of using mushrooms for dyeing. The information I have (from books and the web) is mainly from USA or Scandinavia. I’d like to explore the potential of our native mushrooms. I haven’t chosen the right time of year to indulge in this new obsession: mushrooms are at their most abundant in Autumn, but there were still some specimens to gather.
I haven’t had chance yet to do anything more than photograph, pick, and take spore prints of my harvest, and I don’t think I’ve got enough of any species to do anything but the tiniest sample run, but my enthusiasm is high, and I will get onto testing my haul as soon as I can.

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I’m particularly excited about this next one – it was such a surprise to find this bright cobalt blue growing on some dead wood.

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think it’s pulcherricium caeruleum (now Terana caerulea) and if it is I think it’s quite rare in this country.  There wasn’t very much of it, but as I rescued it from the bonfire pile I don’t feel bad for taking a sample.

There was also masses of lichen on fallen wood.  It’s really important to gather lichen responsibly – I’d never pick it from trees or scrape it from stone.  Here, it was again going to go on the fire, and so was also fair game.  I gathered a fair quantity of Evernia prunastri which I will put to soak in a 50/50 solution of water and ammonia and try, yet again, to get some of the red dye it produces to attach to some wool.  I know it can be done, but I’ve not got more than a dirty, fleshy pink so far.

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Home for an evening, then it was off to London.  We caught up with friends and family, and did a bit of shopping.  My children don’t share my aversion to shopping as a recreational activity, and there was birthday money to be spent.

I introduced my girls to the wonders of Foyles, whilst feeling a bit sad that my old stomping ground has become a shadow of its former self.

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I also browsed the Liberty haberdashery department and was cheered to see a table groaning with independent sewing patterns.  I bought the tie kit by Sew Over It, which I’ve been looking at for a while.

tiekitbox

I imagine I could probably draft a tie pattern myself, but this will answer a few pressing questions (which weight of domette should I use?, what is domette anyway?, how do I get that cute little triangle of lining to look neat?).  On reflection, those questions probably show that I couldn’t, in fact, draft a tie pattern myself!

The kit cost £15, and contains absolutely everything needed: fabric; lining fabric; domette; paper pattern; a full spool of sewing thread; instructions; and even a little sewing kit with a hand needle.

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If the first tie looks good, and is not too much of a nightmare to sew, I’ve got a stash of cream silk that I could try a bit of contact printing on.  Could this be Christmas sorted in February?  Unlikely.  I can think of only 2 men on my list who would be even vaguely pleased to receive a handmade, hand printed  tie.  I live with Philistines.

For my train knitting, I took a fairisle glove for my outbound journey.  This is a fairly complex pattern, changing colours on almost every round, and consequently not ideal for knitting in a confined area.  On the way home I decided on an impulse buy at the train station.  I bought a copy of “Simply Knitting” magazine, lured by the kit on the front for a penguin soft toy.  The sealed package said “kit includes everything you need!”.

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This is what it actually contained

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That’s it!  4 cardboard spools of thread.  I needed to add:  needles; darning needle; stuffing and tweezers.  As luck would have it, I happened to have the correct size needles with me, and had enough knitting to be getting on with without needing the stuffing at this stage.  It was a sharp contrast though to the tie kit.  I don’t know what I’ll do with a stuffed penguin.  The back of the “kit” does warn me that there is not only a “strangulation hazard”, but also both a “choking” and an “entanglement” hazard.  It was almost worth the £4.99 magazine price for the frisson of danger that this afforded me.  Almost.

Saturday was guild day.  I’m a member of the Wiltshire Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers.  We had a dyeing workshop.  The saga of my sock yarn is worthy of another post I feel.

So, the half term holiday drew to a close.  I’m back at work this week, and glad of the rest!

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.

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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.

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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