Sea Green and Sapphire

A blog about textiles and colour


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A Year’s Labour

Naturally dyed wool

This week there’s been a hint of spring in the air and we haven’t even had a storm for a whole week, which makes a nice change. In the garden it is starting to feel like the beginning of a new season. But before I get too enthusiastic about making plans for a new dyeing season, I want to take a moment to show you what I achieved last year.

I had many ambitious dyeing plans for 2013. I wanted to try some plant-based mordants like rhubarb leaves and willow, I wanted to try dyeing new fibres like silk and cotton. And there was a very long list of dye plants that I was going to grow and dye with. Well, as so often happens in life, it didn’t quite work that way. After a serious relapse with my ME/CFS in the spring, for a while it looked like I might not be well enough to do any dyeing at all.

But by July, I had picked up sufficiently to make my way back to the dyeing shed again. Even so, doing the dyeing process the usual way over a day or two was still too strenuous for me to manage, so instead, I broke it down into lots of smaller steps, and did each step on a different day. For example, normally you would pick your plant material, chop it and then proceed to simmer it straight away, but I wouldn’t have the stamina to do both of them on the same day. Instead, I would pick and chop the plan stuff, put it in a pot and cover it with water, then wait for few days before continuing. This way the process might have been frustratingly slow, but with this illness you just need to learn to be patient. It’s either that or not do anything at all…

So with some very careful planning and lots of self-discipline (to stop myself  over-enthusiastically overdoing things and flattening myself as a result) I managed to have a couple of reasonably good months of dyeing before the autumn arrived and my energy levels collapsed again.  In the end I did not get to try rhubarb or willow mordants, or cotton dyeing for that matter, but I did get to try silk and several different dye plants that I hadn’t worked with before: purple basil, cutch, annatto, Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), dahlia, tagetes, black hollyhock, Japanese indigo as well as my first mushroom dyeing experiments with Cortinarious semisanguineus. Some of these I have already written about, the others are still on the To-Do List waiting for a spare moment.

Naturally dyed Finnsheep top

A year’s worth of dyeing experiments. Finnsheep top, all in naturally dyed colours.

My plan was to focus was on experimenting with as many different dye plants as I possibly could, and try to see how many colours I could get from each one of them. I would vary the colours by trying different mordants (alum and copper) and different modifiers (iron, acid and alkaline baths). I was very much in a sampling mode, and to keep the costs (as well as my stash) under control, I didn’t dye anything in large quantities. For sampling I used small pre-felt squares as they are quick and economical to prepare.

As I was focusing on small quantities, I also thought it would be an ideal year to dye some embroidery threads. So I spent the spring when I was too unwell to do anything that requires lots of brain power making lots and lots of mini skeins in both silk and wool that during the summer got thrown into the dye pot along with my usual Finnsheep top. The woollen yarn was intended as a Christmas present for my dad, who likes using wool in his needlework projects.

Given that I was trying to produce lots of different colour variations on several different types of materials, I had to devise a good system for keeping track of what exactly I was doing (especially since my memory is like a sieve, and I easily lose my concentration if I get overtired). But after a few weeks of dyeing I had established a method that worked for me. After a dye bath had been prepared, I would divide it into two lots: one for alum mordanted materials and another for copper mordanted ones. Into each alum pot I would throw in 5 pre-felt squares, 5 skeins of silk in two different weights, two skeins of wool and some Finnsheep top. The copper pot would get the same except the top (I chose not to mordant my top with copper, as I wanted to keep the copper mordanting quantities as small as possible, as it is more toxic than alum).

Then, after dyeing, I would set aside one alum mordanted piece of each type of material, and then modify the rest using acid, alkaline, iron and copper. The copper samples would get the same treatment (except the copper modification which would obviously be pointless). As a result, for each dye, I would get 5 different shades from alum and 4 from copper, both in silk and wool. And obviously the dye bath could be re-used a few times, which would get you another lot of colours but in a lighter value. To keep track of all these different versions I use numbered and coloured pegs (having said that, I did lose track quite a few times and ended up with random colours that I had no idea of how they had been produced).

My bathroom after a typical dyeing day. I use plastic pegs as labels to keep track of my samples.

My bathroom after a typical dyeing day. I use plastic pegs as labels to keep track of my samples.

I decided against modifying my spinning wool in any way. This is because colours modified with acid and alkali are not always stable and they easily change in the wash. I know it is recommended that you use a pH neutral detergent, but I’ve never found a detergent so neutral it doesn’t affect the colours, especially the ones that have been modified with acid. To keep the acid-modified colours, you would need to rinse them with vinegar after every wash. But if you combine acid and alkaline colours in the same project, this obviously isn’t possible. When I spin wool,  I like blending different colours on my carder, so it would be waste of effort to create lots of tonal variation that you are just going to lose afterwards in a wash. Colours modified with iron are more stable, but I am slightly worried that if I combine iron-modified colours with plain alum ones, the residual iron might contaminate and sadden the alum colours (although I must say I have never tested if this really happens). But for all these reasons, I stuck to alum colours only with my spinning wool. It is always possible to use iron afterwards for specific projects if necessary.

Naturally Dyed Fibres

Another lot of dyeing results waiting to be photographed

After about two months of these experiments, I started getting a bit impatient and even bored of my method of trying one new dye plant after another. I seemed to be getting an endless amount of mustard yellows and golden browns – nothing wrong with these colours at all, but lets face it, there’s only so much you really need. And so I noticed my thinking was beginning to shift: I no longer wanted to tick off as many plants from my list as I possibly could, I felt that I had done enough of that. Rather than structure the process around plants, I realised it would be far more useful start focusing on colour families and the colour circle – blues, reds, yellows as well as all those colours that require over-dying like grassy greens and purples.

Wool yarn dyed for my dad's needlework projects

Wool yarn dyed for my dad’s needlework projects

But by the time my thinking had evolved to this point, it was late autumn, the weather was getting colder and wetter and it was not quite as much fun to hang around in the dyeing shed anymore. And my strength was beginning to diminish again, each dyeing session (especially the indigo ones) would leave flattened for days and I realised that it was probably best to stop for now and  wait for times when I have more stamina again.

naturally dyed blues, greens and yellows

Blues, greens and yellows (the greens are various yellows overdyed with indigo)

Muted tones

Muted tones

So all in all, it was a good year of dyeing and I learned lots. If and when I am well enough to start the process again, I will definitely be focusing on a smaller set of dye plants (perhaps those classic ones that are known to be colour-fast) and experimenting with producing more complex colours by over-dyeing. I already made a good start with over-dyeing yellows with indigo to produce bright greens, but learning to create purples with conchineal and indigo will be on my list too. And maybe I will get round to trying cotton dyeing too…

Embroidery Silks

Embroidery Silks

Embroidery silks in muted colours.  Many dyes turned out to be more muted in silk compared to wool (although in some cases it was quite the opposite - the silk picked up the colour much more strongly than wool).

Embroidery silks in muted colours.
Many dyes turned out to be more muted in silk compared to wool (although in some cases it was quite the opposite – the silk picked up the colour much more strongly than wool).

Indigo dyed blues and greens

Indigo dyed blues and greens on silk


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Please excuse me while I hibernate…

Blanket knitting

Because of my illness (ME/CFS), my life is quiet and slow at the best of times, but this winter is has pretty much ground to a halt. During these last few months most of my energy has gone into the boring stuff of everyday living – making sure there’s dinner at the table and clean clothes in the cupboard – leaving very little leftover energy for anything else. It’s been like trying to crawl through a desert, hoping that I manage to drag  myself into an oasis soon…

But I’m not saying this to complain, I’m just saying it because I feel a bit guilty about the very sluggish pace of this blog.  It’s definitely not that I’ve gone off blogging, or have nothing to write about. I just haven’t had the stamina to spend much time on the computer, either writing or even reading other people’s blogs.

But in the last few weeks I’ve felt a tiny tiny bit better, an improvement that may not be radical but feels very precious nevertheless, just enough to feel that I can start catching up with things again. And on this blog there’s certainly lots I need to catch up with: all those dyeing experiments in the autumn that I never got a chance to write about, stuff going on in the knitting and spinning fronts, all those hundreds of thoughts in my head that I keep thinking I must write about.

I know I should learn to write quick updates: a few thoughts, a few pictures – quick and easy – done. I’m afraid I’m not very good at it, once I start writing the flood gates open and before I know it, 1000 words later, I’ve managed to flatten myself completely and then need days to recover again.

But enough of that, I’m sure you’re here really to read about what’s been happening on the crafting front…

Well one thing I have managed to keep doing even during the last few months is knitting. It’s the one fun thing I manage to do on most days even if I have had to drop everything else that is not absolutely crucial. Complex projects have gone out of the window, but easy simple knitting I can do. Hence it’s been a good time to knit jumpers, ones that involve lots of stockinette stitch, you know going round and round, not having the think what needs to be done next.

One of my simple knitting projects is a patchwork style blanket. It was started in the autumn, when I got the usual autumnal urge for comfort knitting.

knitted patchwork blanket

I’m using some multi-coloured skeins from Araucania which I have had in my stash for a few years. They are a result of a moment of madness in a yarn sale (yes I’m sure you know how easily it happens…).  When I saw the colours I instantly thought they would make a great blanket, as many of the colours individually were not necessarily that great (I suspect that’s why there were on sale) but together form quite a nice autumnal and homely colour palette.

I’m using the sock yarn blanket method that I’ve used before. And like my sock yarn blanket (which currently is stuck in my UFO box, waiting for inspiration to strike) I suspect this too will be a multi-year project…

Knitted patchwork blanket in Araucania yarns

Then, as I already said, a lot of jumper knitting has been going on. I knitted myself a jumper from Knit By Numbers merino yarn in DK weight (from John Arbon Textiles) in a muted greeny grey colour.

Modified Mandel jumper

I had high hopes for the yarn – it’s beautifully soft, a real pleasure to knit with, and it comes in lots and lots of colours. I particularly like the fact that the colours are organised in hue families, in colour groups that contain several different values of the same colour, ranging from light to dark. For this reason the yarns makes an excellent candidate for all sorts of colour work.

However, as I have been wearing it, unfortunately it started pilling very badly almost instantly. Merino always seems to do that, but the best merino yarns (like Madelinetosh Vintage) actually stop pilling after a month or so, so it’s not necessarily a long term problem. As yet I don’t know if this one does so too, at the moment I’m not very optimistic.

For the pattern I  used a top-down saddle shoulder one called Mandel. Or more accurately, I started using this pattern but I ended up abandoning it after the yoke – the rest of the jumper I just made up as I went along.

Modified Mandel jumper

The problem I had with the pattern was that I really struggled with the fit: the shoulders ended up being too wide for me (although I used a size in the pattern that corresponded to my measurements exactly). I also found it very difficult to get the arm hole size right, the pattern instructions somehow just did not work for me. I knitted the arm hole/chest area a few times, but what I should have done is to unravel it completely and start from scratch. I didn’t do because I thought it would work out ok if I just modified the fit a little bit (yes I have learned my lesson now).  I also suspected that the side pleats that are part of the design would not suit me, so I abandoned them too.

Well, once I started wearing the jumper and it stretched a little bit, I soon discovered that a saddle shoulder pattern is very unflattering if the shoulder fit is not exactly spot on. That’s why no amount of modifications after the shoulder fit had been finalised was enough to rescue the project – the shoulders just look huge and boxy on me. I suspect I will end up frogging this one and re-knitting it using some other pattern.

Husband also wanted a jumper, a really warm and chunky one, and as it is not easy to find good really chunky jumpers in shops, I decided to be a good wife and knit one for him. But as this is still work in progress, I’ll write more about it in some future post…

Red Tweed jumper


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More Purple Basil Surprises

Some time ago I showed you the results of my purple basil experiments this summer. Well, that dye bath went quite a bit further and I was able to have several other experiments with it, all of which threw quite a few surprises into the process.

Given that purple basil seems to be better suited to dyeing silk than wool (wool just doesn’t seem to absorb much colour) I decided I won’t waste the dye on wool but try more experiments with silk instead. I had a dig around in my cupboards and found a cream coloured Thai silk scarf, a souvenir from a lovely holiday a long time ago. So in it went (after scouring and mordanting with alum), and after an hour of simmering, out it came very dark, almost black. As my hope had been a nice slate grey, a medium tone rather than a very dark shade, at first I kicked myself for not paying attention to dye rations and therefore for using way too much dye. Considering the scarf weighs only 45g one could have anticipated that not much dye is needed. A good lesson to learn, especially when dyeing finished items, rather than random amounts of economy wool…

But as I removed the scarf from the pot and the excess dye drained away, I realised the colour I had accidentally achieved was in fact truly beautiful, a sort of raven black: a very dark grey with a strong blue sheen or undercurrent to it.

And there were more surprises in store: as I washed the scarf, the alkalinity of the wash turned the colour into something else entirely: it was now a very dark jewel-like green, a regal green as my husband observed. It was a fantastic colour, but I wanted that raven blackish blue back so I soaked the scarf a vinegary water for a few hours.  I played around with different levels of acidity just to see how it affected the colour, and eventually, settled with a medium grey tone.

And once it dried, the grey in fact had a beautiful midnight-blue undertone and  a wonderful depth to it. The colour seems to change depending on the light, and it was very hard to capture the colour correctly on my camera, in the picture below it looks perhaps a bit lighter and bluer than it is in real life.

A Thai silk scarf, dyed midnight blue with purple basil

A Thai silk scarf, mordanted with alum and dyed mid-night blue with purple basil

Next I wanted to find out what would happen if I used the exhaust bath to dye some wool-silk blend yarn. After all, if wool gives you pale greyish green, and you get darker greys with silk, surely the result would be a nice heathery mixture of darker and lighter shades? Well, it didn’t quite work that way.

The skein I used was a mixture of 55% Blue Faced Leicester wool and 45% silk (undyed Decadence Heavy Lace yarn from the Stash Fine yarns). Unfortunately, the bit I didn’t really think through properly in advance was that the BFL wool was superwash, which absorbs colour differently compared to non-treated wool. So in the end both types of fibres absorbed the colour very strongly and I ended up with quite a darkish shade of medium grey.

As I thought this colour was a bit dull, I washed the skein and hoped it would turn a nice dark greeny grey, but no, it was still just a dull grey colour, just a little undercurrent of greenness in it. Then I tried a soak in vinegary water to try to turn it purple, but again, it wasn’t really co-operating, there was a slight change, but when dried, the colour had reverted to medium grey. And when, some time later, I photographed the skein, I noticed that in the outdoor light there was a distinct green tinge to it again, so I am now wondering if the colour shifts slightly even when dry. Obviously this is the colour it wants to be, so I left it for a moment (although I am still not too keen on it – it looks better on the picture than in real life – so I may give the skein a dip in an indigo vat next).

Another surprise dyeing result from purple basil

Another surprise dyeing result from purple basil

Even after all these experiments there was still quite a bit of dye in the bath left, so I decided to throw a bit more wool into the pot, but again there was a surprise in store. Rather than getting greenish grey, I just got plain straight-forward fawn, never the most exciting colour to get, but at least in this case there was the surprise factor, as I really don’t know why I suddenly started getting an entirely different colour compared to what had happened before. I even threw a few bits of silk fabric into the bath and they too came out more fawn than before, although it was more like a greyish fawn mixture, a bit like the colour of wood smoke. I’d love to know why this happened: was it that a particular pigment was now used up, or was it just the age of the dye bath, after all it had been stored, and occasionally simmered, for several weeks now?  I don’t know the answer to that, but I suppose it is just another reason why natural dyeing is such an endlessly fascinating subject.

fawn: a surprise result when dyeing alum-mordanted wool with purple basil

I certainly wasn’t expecting fawn…