Thursday, October 24, 2013

Blue! from Leaves!!!

The Hat has been my main focus for the last few months and I can't blog about it because I hope it will be published. Sorry …
But I can tell you all about another chapter in My Adventures with Indigo. It's a long one; you might want to make a cup of your favourite beverage now, before you start. 

About 12 months ago I ordered both Japanese Indigo and Woad seeds, my cunning plan being to throw cabbages to the wind and grow blue instead. Alas, I have no greenhouse: the bitterly cold winter and late, wet spring put paid to the Japanese Indigo, which even indoors scarcely showed a leaf before giving up the ghost. This isn't the climate it was looking for. Woad, on the other hand, was and still is grown here as a crop, so I expected more of it. To its credit, it delivered. Woad is apparently a gross feeder, in this case meaning that it needs nutrients and lots of them, rather than having no table manners. I fed it regularly with blood, fish and bone, and watered regularly in dry weather. It's biennial; the first year leaves give colour, the second year there is no colour (can't vouch for this yet), but you get seeds to grow more. Harvest the leaves from midsummer on. This post depicts events on July 21, my first pick.

I have both Jenny Dean's Wild Colour (I have an earlier edition) and Rita Buchanan's A Dyer's Garden, both of which give instructions for dying with fresh woad leaves. It's extremely straightforward. 

First grow your woad. I suspect it's important to move as quickly as possible from harvest to hot water, so I set up my kit next to the woad, which is the lowish, bright green, elongated leaves to the right of the cabbages. The net is essential: everything under the net is extremely dangerous is food for the caterpillars of Cabbage White butterflies. If you don't prevent the adults from laying eggs on the leaves, you will have no leaves. Ignore our bike gear, it's just drying out/absorbing UV to kill bacteria.

Basic equipment for an afternoon of fun: well-wetted materials to be dyed blue, plus a large container (I used a jar because I can see the colour of the liquid in it), a large wooden spoon, rubber gloves, a glug or two of household ammonia, a BIG saucepan or stockpot (it will hold only water), with trivet and a thermometer accurate from 0–100°C. For further excitement you'll need a saucepan you don't use for food, and 1 tsp of alum mordant. Read the instructions below to make sure you understand what you'll be doing and why.

Fill the kettle (really full) and put it on for tea. 
Pick the leaves as quickly as possible, and stuff them into a container. A large glass jar is good because you can see the fluid change colour, which is helpful. No need to shred them finely or anything, I just grabbed handfuls, slugs and all, ripped them in half and stuffed them into that large jar. 
The kettle should be boiling by the time you finish: pour the boiling water into the jar, enough to cover the leaves. Make tea with the leftover, if you want any; I opted for squash instead. Leave the leaves to soak. 

If you plan to go straight to dyeing once you've got the indigo from the leaves, at this point you should half-fill a saucepan or stockpot large enough to hold your jar with water at least halfway up the sides, put the trivet in the bottom (to prevent the glass jar from overheating on the metal) and put it on low heat (you're aiming for 100-120°F (38-48°C). If you haven't got a trivet, I use a layer of metal table forks.

The jar of leaves soaking in hot water.

The fluid will change from water-clear to dark sherry-brown as the leaves wilt. After an hour, remove the leaves (I used a kitchen strainer), squeezing out every drop of fluid, and put them carefully to one side. You will use them again.

The chemistry of indigo dyeing is not complicated, but it's important. The dark brown fluid in the jar contains indigo from the woad leaves in the form of indoxyl (more detailed info on Wikepedia, scroll down to Extraction). To extract the indigo from the fluid, add a glug (about 1 tablespoon for this jar) of household ammonia to the fluid. Buchanan says baking soda will also work, I haven't tried it.). Now pour the fluid back and forth between two containers, exposing it to the air as much as possible. You want bubbles and lots of them!

The foam starts yellow but turns a beautiful turquoise as the fluid is oxygenated, transforming the indoxyl into insoluble blue indigo. Once it's as blue as blue can be, it's decision time. You can dye with the fluid and indigo, or you can filter out the indigo particles and save them for another day. Filtering takes longer to do but much less time to describe, so I'll show you that first. If you want to DYE NOW! skip the next section.

Filtering the indigo particles
My reading suggested that coffee filters and such aren't fine enough to trap the bulk of the indigo particles. Some people use proper filter paper, but I didn't have any. Instead I used two layers of extremely finely-woven commercial silk fabric to line a small tea strainer. Straining a smaller volume (I did this with the second batch of woad processed in August) took the best part of two days. Save the filtrate (the filtered fluid): it probably still contains enough indigo to dye something else blue if you follow the instructions for dyeing with the fresh indigo solution, below.

I suspect that's very impure; there's probably a lot of vegetable debris as well, but I see no reason for it not to work. 

I dyed a skein of cotton with the fluid that ran through the silk. A paler blue, but still blue!

Dyeing with the fresh indigo solution
If you decide to go ahead and dye with the solution, from this point the process is similar to a standard chemical indigo vat. Make a solution of reducing agent (thiourea or Spectralite), 1 tbsp in a jar of warm water and add it to the fluid in the jar. The reducing agent absorbs oxygen in the water, which transforms the insoluble blue indigo particles to the yellowish soluble form. In this form they are absorbed by the materials you want dyed. Now, given that you're trying to REMOVE all the oxygen from the solution, once you've added the reducing agent you should take great care not to ADD oxygen (air!) unnecessarily. Stir gently, don't create bubbles. To activate it, the solution must now be heated to 100-120°F (38-48°C) for about an hour. Check the temperature of your water bath and adjust it by adding boiling water or cold water as needed. Put the jar in. Stir it gently from time to time and check the colour of the fluid. It should become yellowish: with luck you can see that the bottom of the bubbles and the fluid is in fact yellowish.

When it looks like that it's ready to use. Take the jar off the heat if it's more convenient. Squeeze excess water from whatever it is you're dyeing and add it to the jar.

Note the bluish tinge to the merino locks, which still contained some air. A hint of what is to come. I left the fibre and yarns (wool and silk) in the jar for about 15 minutes. When removed from the jar oxygen hits the pale green-yellow liquid: it begins to turn blue. First turquoise, then darkening further. 

You can dye more material in the jar until the indigo is exhausted, but remember that each batch adds oxygen. If the fluid becomes more blue than yellow, add more thiourea or Spectralite and repeat the heating process to drive off the excess oxygen, thus reducing the indigo to the soluble yellowish form that dyes.

Different fibres take and hold indigo differently: unlike 'chemical' dyes, in which the dye molecules chemically bond to the material, the soluble yellow indigo penetrates into microscopic cracks and crevices where, with luck, the insoluble blue particles are trapped, wedged firm. Those that aren't trapped firmly will come off on your skin (and everything else) as the indigo blue 'fades' over time. Silk and other very smooth fibres have fewer places to trap indigo, so tend to end up paler than wool or cotton. But when they first come out of the vat, everything is simply glorious blue. In this case, glorious blue FROM LEAVES!!!

Well, not quite everything. That pinkish-brown skein of silk is just as magical, or even more. Remember I told you to save the leaves strained from the initial solution? 

Dyeing with indirubin: Woad 'pink'
If you now treat the woad leaves from which the indigo was extracted as if they were standard fresh plant material, they will yield a totally different colour: woad pink. Mine was more brown than pink, but still absolutely astonishing to get two such different colours from a single leaf. The technique is simple: stir the strained leaves into a pan of water (I used rainwater, in case our very hard water affected the chemistry) and simmer for an hour or so.

Strain off the leaves – this time you can discard them! – and add 1tsp of alum mordant to the dye solution.

Add the material to be dyed and simmer for another 15 minutes or so, then allow the solution to cool with the material in it - leave it overnight if you can - as this yields a deeper colour. Here's a closer view of the silk to show the indirubin colour:

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

A project for the Cotswold.

The 'wrong fibre, wrong place' Cotswold now has ambitions, or more accurately I have an ambitious goal for it. I was whining on Ravelry about lack of desire/inspiration for the 2013 Rampton Project of a Fun and Frivolous Hat when …

(insert wavy lines and flying calendar pages here). 

Some weeks previously Sara Lamb had recommended books by Sheila Paine as of use to someone else; I thought they sounded interesting and worked my way through the travel trilogy (begins with The Afghan Amulet) and then acquired Embroidery from Afghanistan. So naturally I began a search for hatty inspiration by looking for various hats from Afghanistan online. Google images promptly gave me this link, which I posted to Ravelry because one shares the good stuff, right? To cut a long story short, Sara suggested I make a similar hat from fulled handwoven handspun. Good plan, I said, or words to that effect, despite knowing next-to-nothing about how such a thing would be made. An expedition to a local purveyor of New Age crystals and ethnic jewellery proved unexpectedly rewarding: it's a real one. Well-worn and faded: that pale orange was once fluorescent, and the pale grey-green was screaming lime. 

Close examination shows the embroidery almost completely conceals a blue woven cloth. I think a couple of layers of that are lined with other fabric, then quilted and embroidered. Most of the embroidery stitches are worked within the quilting.

As always, I am moved when my hands feel the work of someone else's hands. Work, not art: an item made because the maker or someone she cares for truly needs or wants that thing, or the money that can be made by selling it.  

Although I don't plan my hat to look much like that hat - it's a man's hat, to be worn with a turban wrapped around its sides, and sits foolishly on the top of my head - the women's hats are so ornate that I can't imagine wearing one. I am inspired instead by this child's hat. I doubt mine will look much like that, but it's a starting point. 

To make anything I need cloth, and to make that I need yarn. 

I had about 450g of the sliver, which yielded 171g of singles spun short forward draw. I've put 157m to one side in case I want to submit it as part of my work for the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Certificate of Achievement in Spinning; that weighs 30g, so the remaining 141g should give me about 740m of warp. But what to use for weft? The combing waste was horrible, full of short cuts and nepps, dirt and dark hairs. I surveyed the stash. Not something precious, not my fine shetlands and other soft wools. And it has to full and/or felt, which ruled out the Dorset Horn and Southdown tops. I was looking thoughtfully at the BFL top when I remembered the Falkland. 'Falkland' is the wool clip from the Falkland Islands, originally Corriedale and Romney, now with Polwarth and some merino crosses.  Three minutes with soap and water told me it would full. So I spun a sample from the fold for a more woollen yarn (leave space for the fulled fibres to compact) to roughly the same grist as the warp (it looks thicker in that photo but that's because it's woollen). 

I've only once made a fulled fabric, and that was a tiny sample spun and woven for Stephenie Gaustad's 'Spinning for Historical Reenactment and Museum Replication' class at SOAR. I needed some idea of what these yarns will do together. How much might the fulled fabric shrink? What sett should I use? I used a straightforward sampling tool, another gift from Sara Lamb. When I say I am fortunate and truly grateful for all that my mentors have given me, I am totally serious. All they ask in return is that I use it: so I do, and I pass the knowledge on.
It's foamboard covered with graph paper, with pins along the top edge to space the warp. I use the knitting needle at the bottom of the warp as a heddle stick, holding the threads for one pass of the weft for plain weave; I needle-weave the other pass (using a heddle stick and beating with it gives better, denser fabric than needle-weaving alone). It's faster than you might think. I hemstitched the edges, then hemstitched to isolate 1/3 of the strip to be cut off and kept as a loom-state sample. The other 2/3 I fulled by hand on the kitchen counter this morning.

Although Cotswold will full slightly, the Falklands is much better at it: it's lost 1cm in width. The strips are oriented in the same way, with that slightly denser band down the same side. I like the fabric, I like it a lot. The overall sett is 34 ends/2", which is 17 epi. The denser areas have fulled to a tight plain weave; I have to check the loom-state sample/fragment (it's a very small sample!), but I think that's nearer 20 epi. If I use size to reduce hairiness and sticking in the warp I think I can achieve that lovely even plain weave fabric on the loom. So this tiny sample has told me a lot: my fibres do what I hoped and I have an approximate sett to make a functional fabric. I might put half the fulled sample through the washing machine to see how much denser it becomes after a normal wash cycle... but then again I may not.
 I don't know if this fabric will be ideal for the purpose, but I think it will suffice. It's not so thick and stiff that it will become cardboard when further stiffened by embroidery. It's soft, but feels hardwearing; I can imagine a winter coat or cloak made of this. It's fabric of character. I like it. And I'm so proud that I planned it from nothing and I made it real with my own hands.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The wrong fibre in the wrong place at the wrong time

That's a remarkably vague title, but it's what unites the two topics of this post. First, some spinning fibre: Cotswold sliver.
It doesn't look too bad from a distance. Creamy white, reasonably lustrous… feels relatively soft, not harsh. Could be good, but look at it more closely.
There are inconsistencies, curds of shorter, finer fibre. Also, as you can see, sliver is a carded prep, not combed; the fibres are not parallel, they're interlocked. But this is Cotswold… a long wool. What's going on?
Above are Cotswold locks, unwashed and washed. Below, fibres pulled from the sliver to check staple length (and therefore more parallel, similar to top, than they were in the sliver itself).
Check the staple length: it is long. (With those embedded tufts of finer, shorter wool just waiting to add … character … to the spun yarn.) I did sample it; I can't find the sample to show you, but spun with a point-of-contact long draw I assure you it seemed to me a relatively nasty yarn, hard to draft  (the long fibres run through both slubs and twist-locked thinner areas, so the slubs cannot be drafted unless the twist-locked areas are freed). Definitely characterful and not in a good way. The wrong fibre (Cotswold) in the wrong place (a carding machine) at the wrong time (when it was carding).

So. What to do? I could bin it, but 500g = £12 plus postage and I just can't bring myself to throw the money out. But wait! I don't have to. Gentlemen, we have the technology. We can rebuild him, er, it. With combs.
The fibres are unsorted, so ignore directionality such as butt and tip. Just lash the sliver on, then comb. In general more passes will give better results, assuming you don't stress, weaken and snap the fibres. In any fibre prep, watch what you're doing and if you notice more nepps than when you began, Stop! (And next time, stop before the nepps form.) I don't think this was wonderful fibre to start with; some of the sliver contains a lot of darker hairs and other areas contain dull, short fibres, so I give it only two passes. I have fleeces more deserving of that processing time.
The photo clearly shows that combing has done a good job of separating the long fibres from the short. Diz off the long fibres and:
there is a nest of roughly-combed top. There are still some nepps in it, but I can live with that. Above the top is the combing waste, composed of second cuts plus shorter, finer fibres from the base of the fleece, plus nepps formed from longer fibres broken in the carding process. In the medieval period combing waste was spun woollen to become weft for relatively low-grade cloth that was finished by fulling and perhaps brushing to raise a nap on the surface. I plan to try that with this waste, but if it's too nasty, I'll use some other softer, fullable wool. The top will be the warp yarn for this cloth. It's not too bad. That sheep was not shorn in vain.

Next, another fibre - or rather, fibres - in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Weaving! Janet Phillips showed me a different way to hold the lease sticks for threading, and I thought I'd share it - and my refinement of it - with you. For my first warps I had the lease sticks on lengths of string running from castle to back beam. I found this awkward, so was pleased to hear about Angel Wings, which attach to the Baby Wolf back beam to hold the lease sticks securely in a fixed position. But I found them awkward, too. The cross was a long way behind the heddles. Janet uses string but ties hers much nearer the castle, bringing the cross much nearer the heddles. I couldn't find a good, quick way to try her tying method on the Baby Wolf, then realised I didn't need to: two hooks off the kitchen pot rack would do the job. A loop of thick cord is passed between each end of the lease sticks, then hung from the hook. And, even better, the tube work light I bought for my husband sits across the hooks to shed light on the cross while I'm working. It works really, really well.
 (The light is not so ferociously bright as it appears in the photo.) You may notice some strangely yellow heddles in that shot; they're string heddles, tied to correct a stupid mistake: I miscounted the heddles when setting up to thread. I work from right to left, and the Baby Wolf shafts have a fitting in the middle that prevents heddles sliding across from the left side to the right. I could had pulled all 200-odd threads out, added more heddles, then re-threaded, but why would I want to do that? Far faster to cut some lengths of smooth, shiny mercerised cotton, loop it around the bottom of the shaft, tie two knots to define the heddle eye, then knot the ends loosely around the top of the shaft. Magic! The right fibre (cotton) in the right place (my thrums bag) at the right time (when I need it).
The wrong fibres (remnants of handspun lace yarn in tussah silk, cashmere, camel down) in the wrong place (on a loom) at the wrong time (as an unsized warp). I fear this will end badly, as the soft, blooming ends were catching on each other and causing uneven tension in the warp while I was winding it. I should have sized the warp after winding or, even better, skeined the balls of leftover yarn and sized it before winding the warp. But I was concerned only about the behaviour of the warp while weaving, so planned to size it on the loom. I'll know better next time. I'll persevere with this because dealing with the uneven tension will be educational (ha!) and, well. It's just so pretty…

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Passionate Weavers: thoughts on a great weaving weekend

See? I'm keeping my word. Another post, to share my 'Natural Time Out' weekend weaving with Janet Phillips, and some of my thoughts about it as I drove home. I'll spare you the "oh, why aren't I there yet?" thoughts (four hours on the road is even longer after a long, engrossing weekend).

So. After I returned from the gym on Friday morning I did the dishes, the housework, packed, etc, and started the long drive to Somerset. After three hours of motorway driving at a steady 68mph in deference to the age of my car (the oldest car on the road by a long stretch!) boredom won, and I left the motorway for Chippenham. Southwest for adventure!
Glastonbury Tor in the distance as I drove. Well, as I stopped to take the picture.

I had intended to climb the Tor, but it would have been a rather muddy walk from the car park in the centre of Glastonbury and I was trying to keep my shoes clean, so I settled for a wander around town -  right back to the early 1970s, complete with the same incense! - and a visit to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. I was thinking about pattern and colour as well as history:
Lines and blocks: arches in the ruins

Medieval encaustic tiles, a remnant of the medieval Abbey floor.

The Abbey did not have the atmosphere I'd expected for such a famous centre of mysticism, possibly because it is so thoroughly steeped in patchouli. Crowland Abbey and Rievaulx both made much deeper and longer-lasting impressions on me. Anyway, from Glastonbury it's a straightforward drive to Nether Stowey. Past orchards (Somerset is famous for cider), and some very muddy sheep. I conveniently found the two together here; note the mistletoe on the apple trees. I suspect these are rams; one was definitely Texel, but the others turned their backs on me almost as I clicked the shutter.

I checked into the Rose and Crown (Be warned, mobile reception is almost non-existent in the village. They do have wifi in the bar, but you have to ask.) and the next morning after breakfast I walked up the hill to the remains of Nether Stowey Castle in search of phone signal. 
From the top of the Castle mound or motte looking south over the foundations of the keep to the Quantocks beyond.

And the view north over the village, with the cooling towers of Hinckley Point visible in the distance.

And then it was weaving. I took full advantage of the fact I was Janet's only student on Saturday and Sunday (Tina arrived on Monday, and Amanda on Tuesday). I'd brought samples of my weaving to date, and Janet seemed genuinely impressed by what I'd achieved, particularly with handspun singles. I then laid out one of my favourite problems, an assortment of yarns I'd bought with a view to weaving fabric for a vest or other garment. 

I'd chosen colours to complement some Blue Moon Fiber Arts silk thread, but even with the added lustre of the silk as weft (I don't want horizontal stripes in a garment!) wraps to test warp stripes looked like school uniform fabric. Uninspiring.

I'd thought of adding 60/2 silk in toning or contrasting colours to enliven the warp (sample wrap on left) and it seemed to work, but I wasn't sure how best to do this in a fabric, or whether differential shrinkage would lead to the silk popping out of the wool after washing. Janet said "sample", just like every other experienced weaver of my acquaintance - but this time I had to do as I was told. As I'd asked to wind a warp and warp my own loom because I'd learned what I knew from books and YouTube, I was guided through the process of winding a warp for a 'Colour and Weave Effect' sampler from the yarns I'd brought. Including 60/2 silk where I thought it useful. Beaming is so. much. easier. with someone to reassure me from time to time! Wind on with sticks to start with, then sections of vinyl flooring; I will have to try this again, as it was extremely easy to work with and, although using rough paper for the 'tooth' to hold yarns tightly makes sense, so does using a smooth surface to prevent damage to the yarn and ensure that a badly wound section can be improved by subsequent tight winding. I stayed late to finish the threading only to find I had two spare heddles. A quick check showed that the error, whatever it was, was near the beginning. I left, resolving to come in early to find and correct the error. The morning light revealed I was two ends short of one colour; I left two heddles for the ends and rethreaded the warp in record time. (I was almost genuinely pleased to have the threading practice. Almost.) I couldn't have picked a better mistake to make at this stage, as Janet was able to show me how to add warp threads when needed. So easy! Then tie on, weave a header to check threading and tension (take up slack if necessary) and I was away. 

I used the Ashford 4-shaft table loom at back left, with a stick shuttle. On the dresser at right are cones of yarn and bins of samples, which Janet referred to almost constantly to answer questions or inspire thoughts. 

The sampler on the loom at 28epi. Note the subtle shifts of colour in the warp where silk threads are modifying the dull purple and gold.

Weaving. 0900–1600, every day for the next three days. With breaks for lunch, for quick lessons on the principles of weave design, to admire each others weaving, but still almost all weaving, almost all the time. It was WONDERFUL!

I fell in love with shadow weave. So I had a lesson on how both yarn colour and weave structure can be used to create a change in direction when and where required. And I brought home something to remind me that I want to do this, too.

Hard work, but full of wonders, of little flashes of enlightenment and inspiration. And laughter! We're all concerned that Janet's website photo makes her look entirely too stern :-) Tuesday pm came too soon, but we'll all try to keep in touch and meet at Janet's again.

I arrived home with tangible inspiration: a sampler. Four feet of sampler, including a host of patterns all woven on a straight twill threading. Not yet washed, but Janet's class work with this particular yarn, a tightly spun worsted 2-ply, indicates it will not full and shrinks very little, even when machine washed (on a wool setting). So I will finish this properly once it's hemmed and I've done something about the ends where I've tied in new warp to change some colours, but I am reasonably confident that - with this yarn - shrinkage of the wool won't cause the silk to buckle.

The sampler and the process of weaving it has answered many other questions. 

Not only do I have more confidence winding and beaming a warp (and correcting mistakes!), I know how adding silk thread to the warp will work, and what it adds to the fabric. I know that the silk I planned to use for weft wouldn't work as I thought. I can make a beautiful fabric without it, just by adding silk thread. I have some idea of the best way to add the silk to both warp and weft.

And I totally love what I made.

If you've survived reading this far, here are the thoughts I promised. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have been taught by three amazing weavers, Sara Lamb, Stephenie Gaustad, and Janet Phillips, each of whom has a different style of teaching and seems to be interested in different aspects of the craft of weaving. And yet, driving home, I found myself thinking about what unites them in my mind: their passion for weaving, their love of weaving, and their drive, their deep desire to convey this passion to their students. To me it's this last that defines the very best teachers, because how can we, their students, fail to respond to such a gift?

I will thank them with the work of my hands. I will weave.