Sea Green and Sapphire

A blog about a love of colour, addiction to fabrics and joy of crafting…


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


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


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…


Dorset Buttons

Dorset buttons in naturally dyed colours

Some years ago I read Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Burning Bright, about a family from Dorset who earned their living by making buttons. Tracy Chevalier’s books are always a good read, but I was particularly intrigued by the buttons, as they were made by sewing, using just small metal rings and sewing thread as raw ingredients. I wondered about the technique and wanted to know what they’d look like, so it went on my mental list of things to look up further, one day, when I have a spare moment.

Needless to say I never got round to doing that, but this October, the Online Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers ran a workshop on Dorset Buttons, and I immediately knew it was my chance to find out more. Not that I needed another project right at this moment, but sometimes a little random diversion is just good for you. And since most of my crafty projects normally take weeks or months (or years, as the case may be), it was almost a novelty to make something quick and relatively easy for change.

So here’s what I learned:

Making buttons was a significant cottage industry in the county of Dorset (in the South West of England) for two hundred years, from the 17th to the 19th century. Hundreds of families were involved, although they did not work as individual businesses, but made buttons for a company that supplied them with raw materials. They were not paid in cash, but in goods (to stop them being able to set up their own independent businesses), but it was nevertheless popular work as it was less strenuous than farm labouring and it could be done at home.  There were a few different designs that were made, and the best buttons were exported to other countries.

Another interesting thing that came up in the workshop was that there were other regions in the UK that had their own button making industries too, each with their own distinctive styles: there were Macclesfield buttons, Blandford buttons, Yorkshire buttons, all handmade by sewing.

As with so many other traditional crafts, it was the industrial revolution that brought this cottage industry into a gradual decline. In the Great Exhibition of 1851 a button making machine was introduced and after that hand-made buttons just could not compete.

If want to know more, you can find out about the history of Dorset buttons here.

The cartwheel was one of the most popular designs. Here is my first attempt, made with a 20mm brass ring and sock yarn.

The cartwheel was one of the most popular designs. Here is my first attempt, made with a 20mm brass ring and sock yarn.

To  make these buttons, you just need a needle, thread and some sort of a ring – any ring will do, but it needs to be a closed one, so no gaps. I bought a packet of 20mm soldered brass jump rings from eBay to practise with. Perhaps the most iconic design is the cartwheel and it is surprisingly easy to make, a tutorial can be found here. I also bought a little pattern booklet written by Marion Howitt.

I made my first button with some sock yarn from my stash. I found the only hard thing about making these buttons is to make them symmetrical, to make the spokes of the cartwheel stay in right in the centre, but it did not take many goes to get the hang of it. And once you have mastered the basic technique, it is very easy to come up with your own variations.

Although many people in the workshop were producing very pretty buttons using colourful and variegated yarns, and adding beads as embellishments, I decided to keep things as simple as possible. The designs of these buttons are beautiful anyway, they don’t need anything extra, I felt. So I decided to use some silk embroidery thread in very muted colours that I have been dyeing this summer using natural dyes. They allowed the designs shine without the distraction of bright colours and colour changes.

I made my buttons on 20mm brass rings and used silk embroidery thread that I have been dyeing with naturla dyes this summer.

I made my buttons on 20mm brass rings and used silk embroidery thread that I have been dyeing with natural dyes this summer. Some of these are “proper” designs, others are just my own variations on the cartwheel theme.

After basic button making,  the next challenge in the workshop was to make some Dorset button jewellery. I’m not a big jewellery person in general, and rarely wear any unless I’m going out for a special occasion, so I thought I’d make a simple necklace that could be worn with a black top. With pretty delicate buttons like these there’s always a risk of cuteness overload, which I definitely wanted to try to avoid, so I didn’t want anything too sweet or fussy or colourful.

I thought the Victorian Gothic Revival style might be a suitable source of inspiration, romantic but in a dark rather than a sweet way (not sure where exactly this came from, I’m not normally into a Gothic style, perhaps it’s just the dark gloomy season we’re having at the moment).  I made some daisy-style buttons in slate grey, almost but not quite black silk (dyed with black hollyhock flowers) and then joined them together to make a pendant. I didn’t have any suitable ribbons for a chain, so I simply crochet’ed one with the same embroidery thread.

Dorset Button Neclace made with embroidery silk dyed with black hollyhock (height 5cm).

Dorset Button Neclace made with embroidery silk dyed with black hollyhock (height 5cm).

My silk buttons are way too delicate to use in everyday clothing, they are definitely “art  buttons” rather than to be actually used. But one day, if I ever have the spare time to start making my own clothes, I am thinking these buttons, in a smaller size and made with linen tread, might look nice on some simple rustic linen clothing. Another idea for my very long “To Do One Day” list…


Rosy Reds from Surprise Webcap Mushrooms

Finland, my home country, is a land mostly covered with forests and lakes, and in the late summer and autumn those forests are full of berries and mushrooms, so it is not surprising that foraging is deeply embedded in the Finnish genes, and berry picking and mushroom hunting are pretty much a national hobby at the autumn time. Although I have been happily settled here in the UK for a pretty long time, at this time of the year I always miss the Finnish forests and wish I could go there, pick wild berries and enjoy the wind in the trees and the damp mossy smell of an autumn forest.

And this year the urge to go foraging is even stronger than usual – I have just had my first go at mushroom dyeing, with the wonderfully named “Surprise Webcap” (Cortinarious semisanguineus, verihelttaseitikki in Finnish) and I managed to get the most beautiful rosy red colour from it. It’s by far my favourite red that I have ever managed create by dyeing so obviously now I just want to go and pick as many of these little mushrooms as I can possibly find.

Fibres dyed with cortinarius semisanguineus

Wool and silk dyed with Surprise Webcap, Cortinarious semisanguineus (the small skeins at the front are silk, the rest is wool)

Well unfortunately I can’t do that, at least not this year, but luckily I have a few mushroom agents (=my dad and my sister) scouting in the forests of Finland who have promised to be on the look out for some dyeing mushrooms for me. We are armed with a new mushroom dyeing book – Sienivärjäys by Anna-Karoliina Tetri, which is the first ever Finnish language mushroom dyeing book published (until now Finnish dyers have had to rely on Swedish sources). It’s an excellent book, I would warmly recommend it but I know the Finnish language might be a bit of a barrier for most of you.

As with dye plants, there are many mushrooms that will give your various shades of yellow, orange, fawn and brown. Beautiful as those colours are, you can easily get these colours from many plants, so dyers will get mostly excited about the rarer colours of reds, blues and even purples. The blues you get from mushrooms look particularly beautiful, some of them are more greeny blue, others bluey grey, all my favourite colours.

But on this occasion, I focused on the colour red as I had bought,  from Anna-Karoliina Tetri’s shop, some dried surprise webcap mushrooms.

yarn dyed with cortinarious semisanguineus (

Anticlockwise from the front (alum, alum+iron, copper+iron, copper)

I poured boiling water over the dried mushrooms, added some washing soda to the liquid to help the dye extraction process, a tip from Leena Riihelä of the Riihivilla blog (always a great resource on natural dyeing, and,  being a fellow Finn, she writes a lot about mushroom dyeing too). The stems of this mushroom give yellow colour and the cap deep reds, but my dried mushrooms had been dried whole and I didn’t bother separating the stems and the caps so it all went into the same pot. I let them soak properly for about a week, then simmered the pot for an hour, strained away all the bits and then was ready to go.

Finnsheep top dyed with cortinarius semisanguineus

I love the rosy red colour this mushroom gives on alum mordanted wool

silk didn't absorb the colour quite as strongly as wool so most of my silk skeins look quite pink. The copper mordanted silk  looked more like grey, so it's not really a combination I will try and repeat in the future.

silk didn’t absorb the colour quite as strongly as wool so most of my silk skeins look quite pink. The copper mordanted silk looked more like grey than red.
From the bottom: alum, alum+iron, copper, copper+iron and then above these, the same combinations again in a thicker yarn.

A ratio of 2 parts of dried surprise webcap to 3 parts of alum mordanted wool will give you a nice rosy red with a slightly brownish hint. Acid modification washes out the colour a little bit but an alkaline bath intensifies it. Wool mordanted with copper produced more brown shades with a hint of purple in them.

Dyes samples Cortinarius semisanguineus

Alum on wool gives you the stronger reds, copper slightly duller shades. The colours were much less strong on silk, more pink than proper red (the bottom 4 yarn samples on the right)

After my first dyeing session I noticed there was a lot of dye left in the pot, so I kept using the exhaust baths over and over again, getting increasingly light peachy pinks until after the 5th go, the yarn was barely off-white and so I declared the dye bath exhausted.

It took about 5 dyeing sessions to exhaust the dye bath

It took about 5 dyeing sessions to exhaust the dye bath

I had simmered my alum and copper mordanted yarns in separate pots to avoid cross-contamination. As I decided not to use any more copper-mordanted wool after the first bath, I chucked some alum-mordanted wool into the pot that had previously been used for copper-mordanted wool. And this was a happy serendipitous thing to do, because I discovered that this way, the reds I produced had a much bluer undertone that the “non-contaminated” alum yarns. I don’t often use copper as a modifier (to reduce the amount of liquids containing copper I am having to find a way to dispose of) but in this case, just by accident, I discovered a nice colour that I may well want to recreate in the future.

yarn dyed in surprise webcap exhaust baths

The grey yarn at the top left is copper mordanted, the yarns on the right are alum-mordanted yarns dyed in a dye bath that had previously contained copper mordanted yarn (the middle yarns are alum only)

One thing I will want to try in the future is modifying dark red alum-mordanted wool with copper, just to see what that blue/purple shift from copper would look like on darker red yarn. Luckily, I have one more 50g bag of this mushroom left so I can have another go soon.

And, my trusted mushroom agent has already sent an interesting looking parcel containing various little bags of dried dye mushrooms so I will be able to continue my experiments a bit longer. Mushrooms also keep popping up around here at the moment, so I may need to do some research on the dyeing potential of mushrooms growing around here.


More Zen Knitting

knitted t-shirt, neck and sleeve detail (1024x683)Just as the summer drew to a close, my summer knitting project was finally finished. It’s a heavily modified version of the Clearwing pattern that I have used before, this time with linen yarn, short-sleeved and without the pattern at the neckline. It was a bit of an epic knit; knitted on small needles (2.25mm) it took two summers (although I was knitting it on and off in between other projects, and it was hibernating for many months at a time).

I am fully aware it is exactly the kind of knitting a lot of knitters find incredibly tedious. A large-ish project of endless rounds of stockinette stitch, no challenging patterning to provide mental challenge, no colour changes to look forward to, and, perhaps worst of all, in a yarn colour that could be described, in the absence of a better word, as beige. It is the natural linen colour, undyed and unbleached, and being as I always am fond of the natural muted colours that nature provides, I quite like it. It is fascinating to me how the colour changes with different light, mostly it looks more pale grey than beige, although in some lights the beige-ness of it definitely comes out.

So the beigeness of the yarn did not bore me to tears, and neither did the monotony of knitting endless rounds of stockinette stitch. In fact I find this kind of knitting very meditative and soothing, it’s Zen knitting that suits me just perfectly. I always need at least one knitting project on the go that is just simple knitting, no thinking required, just going round and round, giving my mind a chance to either rest, wander off to wherever it wants to go or else give you a chance to chat to someone or watch some telly.

Knitted Linen T-shirt

The yarn is organic linen, beautifully and somehow very appropriately named Sparrow by Quince & Co.  When I bought it, it didn’t come in any others colours, although these days there are several beautiful colours to choose from. It’s a beautiful yarn, not harsh like some linen yarns can be initially (although they do all soften with use). Being a plant-based cellulose yarn, it is of course not stretchy at all, and in the beginning I found it quite hard work to knit – compared to soft wool with its natural stretch knitting linen feels like it takes more effort, especially to keep the tension even and not too loose. After a while, I did get used to it though, but you can see the gauge changing – in the beginning, at the top, it was much looser and more uneven, and towards the end it was much neater and smaller.

I like the finish the i-cord bind-off gives to the sleeves

I like the finish the i-cord bind-off gives to the sleeves

Cotton, although hard to avoid in clothing these days, is not always a very sustainable choice as it requires a lot of water and pesticides to grow. For this reason I quite like the idea of using linen for my summer knitting. And from a quality point of view, I would be very happy to use this yarn again, it just feels smooth and crisp, already you can feel the softness that is going to come out with wear and washing.

But from a sustainability point of view, there’s one big but: Quince & Co Co, based in the US, use Belgian linen so  by the time they have spun the yarn and shipped it to me here in the UK, the yarn has crossed the Atlantic twice, which makes quite a few yarn miles. I think for future linen projects I’d like to try to find a European supplier, if I can just find a yarn that matches the quality of this one. I sometimes think I’d love to grow my own linen, and then spin it, but having done a bit of research on it, it just sounds like a lot of very hard work (as well as some extra equipment to break the plant stems) so it is definitely a project that needs to wait for a year when my energy stores are fully stocked up.

Meanwhile, it is now time for big woolly jumpers so I am on the lookout for new chunky jumper patterns and yarns and this little T-shirt will sadly have to be tucked away in the cupboard to wait for next summer.


Moody and Unstable Colours from Purple Basil

Purple basil leaf

With its sharply serrated leaves that are an ominous shade of very dark blood red, purple basil is a plant that exudes gothic drama. Its sombre and gloomy looks are in contrast with its delightful anise-seed scent and unexpectedly pretty lilac coloured flowers. For such a dramatic looking herb, it is perhaps fitting that, when used for dyeing, it gives moody, unstable and entirely unexpected colours.

The colour of the dye bath – a suitably gothic shade of purple black – may get you excited but the eventual colour you get is completely different. And the dye reacts to pH, so it gives you plenty of opportunities for playing around with colour modifications, but even this process can lead to some frustrating surprises.

Purple basil flower

Growing purple basil is very easy, the only complication for those of us living in colder climates is that it is a tender plant, needing somewhere warm to grow until the frosts are over. I propagated mine in a heated propagator in an unheated greenhouse, but a warm window sill would be perfectly adequate. The seeds germinated well and I got plenty of plants which were growing fast. Although I had intended to transplant them into a flower bed in June, this year it was very chilly even at that point so I ended up leaving them in the greenhouse, where they grew perfectly happily in one litre pots.

Purple basil is of course edible too. It has a distinct anise seed taste, so it is closer to Thai basil than the usual green variety, although I have seen a recipe for a purple basil pesto which I definitely want to try to make one day.

I picked my first harvest in the middle of July, and by now – early September- the plants are pretty large again, ready for a second harvest. I placed the stems and leaves in a pot, poured boiling water over them and simmered for about an hour. The dye bath was a wonderfully dark purple, and I was getting very excited anticipating the colours I imagined I would get.

A few days later I put some alum mordanted wool and silk in the pot, and simmered them for about an hour. Watching the fibres in the pot, I quickly realised, with slight disappointment, that they looked very dark grey, not purple at all.  The biggest surprise, however, came as I lifted the fibres up – the dark colour was just an illusion: as the dye liquid drained away from the fibres, my wool top was very very insipid light grey colour, it was as if the dye was not sticking to the wool at all. Having said that, my silk skeins absorbed the colour very well and were by now very dark steely grey.

In fact, I had been warned about the fact that the dye does not stick to wool very easily, so I just left the fibres in the pot in the sun for a week or so, might even have been two, before proceeding with the modifications. I had also put some of the dye liquid and wool in a solar dyeing jar for the same amount of time, and this seemed to work just as well as the pot that had been simmered, so with this dye it is definitely time that is the important factor, not high heat.

After a few weeks of solar dyeing, my wool skeins and top were light-ish stormy grey, with a hint of blue if you looked very closely. I then did my usual colour modifications with acid, alkali and iron. The acid made wool very slightly greyer but with silk came the most pleasant surprise of all – I got a wonderfully plummy purple colour. Alkaline after-bath turned both fibres greener, the wool in particular became a nice light soft green. Iron on the other hand just made wool even murkier and gloomier, so it wasn’t really worth the effort. With silk iron darkened the grey in a nicer way, so that may well be an effect that one might want to achieve. I didn’t rinse my fibres at this point, as I had read it’s better to leave them to dry unrinsed, and then rinse and wash them a few weeks later.

Alum mordanted Finnsheep top dyed with purple basil

Alum mordanted Finnsheep top dyed with purple basil

I had also dyed some copper-mordanted felt samples, but these became very dull grey, more or less the colour your paint brush rinsing water ends up after a water colour painting session, so it is not really worth bothering with.

Perhaps because this was the first dyeing session of the year, I didn’t label my samples, I really do not know what I was thinking (if anything…).  I think it must have been that at the time I thought I’ll be able to tell the difference (usually a big mistake). Well, after about two weeks, when I got back to my dried samples, the colour differences were not nearly as prominent as they had been straight after dyeing, my little felt sample squares had all become the same slightly murky grey, really could not tell them apart.

And the colours on the other sample fibres did not prove to be very stable either: the lovely purple silk skein was no longer purple, it had become a mottled mixture of grey and fawn. The bluey-grey wool top was no longer very blue, that too had become a slightly murkier grey colour. Only the wool that had received the alkaline treatment was still noticeably light green.

All my sample colours, regardless of the treatment they had had, somehow ended up the same shade of very gloomy and dull grey.

All my sample colours, regardless of the treatment they had had, somehow ended up the same shade of very gloomy and dull grey. And no amount of playing with the white balance setting on my camera made it possible to reproduce those colours accurately.

Unlike wool, silk absorbs purple basil dye easily, giving you some nice steely greys. The purple colour from the acid treatment proved unstable, it is the skein right at the bottom.

Unlike wool, silk absorbs purple basil dye easily, giving you some very nice steely blue-greys. The purple colour from the acid treatment proved unstable, it is the skein right at the bottom which became a slightly mottled mixture of grey and fawn.

Finnsheep top dyed with purple basil. The wool in front - a pale bluey grey - is the unmodified colour on alum mordanted wool. In a wash this lost some of its blueness, and became a bit more green. The two at the back are the more greener versions from an alkaline bath. The light green colour.

Finnsheep top dyed with purple basil. The wool in front – a pale bluey grey – is the unmodified colour on alum mordanted wool. In a wash this lost some of its blueness, and became a bit more green. The two at the back are the more greener versions from an alkaline bath.

The final surprise came as I washed the samples. The grey top, the one that had started blue-grey, became greener, obviously reacting to the pH of the washing detergent. I know dyers are meant to wash their fibres in a “pH neutral detergent”, but I have not yet come across a detergent that is so pH neutral that my natural dye samples wouldn’t react to it (even Synthrapol, the specialist textile detergent dyers use, in my experience shifts dye colours slightly towards the alkaline direction). To balance the alkaline pH of soapy water, it is often recommended that you should add some vinegar to the final rinse of wool. I rarely bother with this, but in the case of purple basil it might be necessary if you want to stop the colour turning green. Having said that, the colours on the whole do not seem very stable and the nice shades I got with acidic baths seemed to disappear by themselves over time.

My yarn skeins ended up various shades of green, although I had not specifically modified them in any way. The one in the front is alum, the darker one at the back has been modified with iron and the lightest yarn is from a second/exhaust bath.

My yarn skeins ended up various shades of green. The one in the front is alum, the darker one at the back has been modified with iron and the lightest yarn is from a second/exhaust bath.

So, all in all, if you want an interesting dyeing session, try purple basil. With wool you will not get dark colours you might initially expect from the colour of the dye bath, but if you, like me, are fond of pale mossy greens and light versions of stormy grey shades, it is definitely worth having a go.

But the best results of all you will get with silk. I am still intrigued by that beautiful plum purple that so quickly disappeared and I am wondering if there is a way of making that colour stick. Given that my plants are ready for a second harvest, I may need to have another go to find out…