Let’s talk about Silk

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but not really daring too. It flies in the face of so much of what I see on social media. Silk is almost universally adored for its lustre and softness. It takes a dye beautifully and for that reason is much beloved of hand dyers. And was much beloved of me too for a long time. But then I learned how silk was produced and I no longer see it as desirable.

So, a quick history lesson:

According to Chinese legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi (there are multiple spellings of her name), was the first person to discover silk as wearable fibre. There are several variations of this legend, all on a theme. But they generally go like this; the Empress was drinking tea under a mulberry tree, and a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. Or she saw a silk worm spinning it’s cocoon whilst out walking in the palace gardens and thought it would be wonderful to be attired in such a fibre. You get the idea.

©wikipedea.com

What is certain is that someone or a group of someones, three thousand ish years ago, discovered the fibre produced by the Bombyx mori silkworm found living on the white mulberry, and developed what is known as Sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom.

Initially, silk was worn exclusively by Chinese royalty, but silk cloth spread gradually throughout the China and then into Asia and Europe. Demand for silk in Europe eventually created the trade route now known as the Silk Road, taking silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wool to the East.

The Chinese wished to maintain their monopoly on this lucrative industry and travellers were searched thoroughly at border crossings with anyone caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons, silkworms or even mulberry seeds out of the country were summarily executed. However, eventually silk production did spread, first to Korea, then to India, Japan and Persia. And silk spinning and weaving became widespread throughout Europe. There is an old silk mill quite near to my home although it is currently closed (reopening August 2018).

© Hampshireattractions.co.uk

Why all the fuss?

Silk is a remarkable fibre. In spite of its delicate appearance, silk is relatively hard wearing. Its smooth surface resists dirt and odours. It is wrinkle and tear resistant, and it dries quickly. It is also a surprisingly good insulator so is great added to wool for winter garments and it can be worn as a second layer underneath to warm without being bulky. It can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp so will absorb perspiration while letting your skin breathe, which makes it great for summer garments too. It’s also the most hypoallergenic of all the natural fabrics thanks to its unique structure.

But the real oooh factor for silk is its unique sheen, which means colours radiate and assume a luminescence.

So what is my issue?

I’ll admit it. So far, this post has sounded like an advert for the silk industry. And this is as far as most people want to go when thinking about silk. But my discomfort comes from the way the silk is made. It’s time for a bit of biology. If you can remember back to your school days, and your lessons on the life cycle of the butterfly, the silk worm is very similar, in that, left to its own devices, the silkworm goes through 4 stages.

© kullabs.com

The first stage is the egg. The female silkworm will lay up to 400 eggs in clusters on mulberry leaves. The female dies after egg laying. The eggs hatch into larvae in around 11 days. This larval stage is the second stage. The larvae eat the mulberry leaves and moult 4 times, growing bigger each time they moult. After the final moult, the larva spins a protective cocoon of silk around itself and turns into a pupa. This is the third stage. Nothing appears to happen at this stage but inside the pupa, the worm is undergoing massive changes called metamorphosis, which change the silkworm larvae into the moth. The moth breaks out of the cocoon and flies off to mate and, in the females’ case, lay more eggs and so repeat the cycle.

However, silk production rudely interrupts the cycle at the third stage, when the silkworm is a pupa. If the silkworm is allowed to hatch out of the cocoon, the silk on the cocoon will be broken into short lengths rather than unwinding in a long single strand. This is not helpful when spinning silk. So, the silkworm farmers, kill the silkworm at this stage by placing the cocoons in boiling water. The heat kills the pupae and, happily for the silk spinners, makes the silk fibre easier to unravel. It is said that the silkworms can then be eaten but I have been unable to find much evidence that they actually are eaten other than out of desperation or as a ‘delicacy’ sold to tourists (although if you are a regular consumer of silkworms, I would LOVE to hear from you.)

© squishfibrearts

So, silk production is terminal to silkworms. And this does not sit well with me. I’m not a vegan, or even vegetarian. But, I don’t eat meat everyday and when I do eat meat it is always high welfare and organic, if I can get it. I also use as much of the meat as I can, making stock for soup and risotto from bones and using up all leftovers. I acknowledge that animals have to die so I can eat meat. This does not make me feel warm and fuzzy inside (how could it?) but it’s something I think about, talk to my children about, and keep under constant review. But, I just cannot get comfortable with the idea that an animal had to die in order to give me a lovely lustrous garment, so I can look good. I just can’t look at silk garments and think they are gorgeous. I look at silk garments and see dead silkworms.

Ah, but what about peace silk? Peace silk (sometimes called Ahimsa silk) is produced from cocoons that are collected after the moths have emerged naturally. This all sound soothingly natural and happily non fatal to the silkworm. However, there are no certification authorities for peace silk and it’s entirely possible for conventional silk producers to label their products as peace silk. Additionally there are no welfare standards for peace silk so the silkworms are still potentially subject to mistreatment, by, for example, being forced from their cocoons too early, or forcing the female moths to lay their eggs on trays rather than on mulberry leaves, and putting males into a refrigerator, bringing them out occasionally to mate and then throwing them away when they were no longer able to mate. In my experience, where there is money to be made and no authorities to check, abuses inevitably follow.

My feelings also apply to recycled silk. This is basically the remnants of conventional silk left over from sari manufacture. It’s a nice way to make sure all the silk is used and not wasted but silkworms still died in order to produce it.

So where does this leave me? Well, here is the thing, in relation to woollen garments, I don’t even need silk. In the last few years, silk has been increasingly blended with that most common of breed wools, Merino, because, despite its supreme softness, Merino doesn’t bear much lustre or strength, and silk gives it both of these. This is how I purchased most of my silk (before I felt out of love with Merino – but that’s a post for another day) and I do own a couple of hand knit sweaters in this blend. But, lately, I found myself wondering why I even need my hand knits to be shiny? What’s that all about? In any event, you only need to look to a breed like Wensleydale for softness and lustre.

So, given I don’t need to wear silk, I’m happy to state that I’m not going to stock it in my shop. You will never see me dye pure silk or a silk blend. No more silkworms will die on my account!

World Wide Knit In Public Day

Just a quickie today, as I want to get something off my chest. Yesterday was World Wide Knit In Public Day 2018, and whilst it was gratifying to see so many pictures of people knitting together on social media, I just don’t see the need for a special day for it.

You see, I knit in public all the time, whenever I want (need) to knit ( basically, always), and I’m not at home, I’m knitting in public. I don’t need permission to do it and I really don’t care if non-knitters (the unenlightened) think it’s weird, or that I’m a bit of a curiosity. Although, in my experience, people are kind and interested and rarely imply that you must be as old as their grandmother who was last seen knitting in 1952. In addition, you are enthralling to small children who beg their mothers to teach them to knit, and their mothers confess to you they tried it once but couldn’t get the hang of it. At which point, you have to bite your tongue to stop yourself reminding them that once upon a time, they couldn’t use a spoon and that to acquire any skill, you have to practice, and so you tell them, if they really want to learn, they can join a knitting group who will happily, patiently and with enormous amounts of encouragement, teach them to knit, more or less for free. Most of the time, you can tell that’s never going to happen but, just occasionally, you’ll spark enough of someone’s interest and they will actually give it a go, and they will become a knitter.

So if you knitted in public yesterday and you don’t normally do it, I invite you to join me in doing so everyday.

Share the love!

Me Made May Martin

Two non yarny things have happened to me this month, which have changed my outlook and will soon be changing my appearance.

The first thing was I went on a “Making the most of your sewing machine” course at the WI training college at Denman, in Marcham, Oxfordshire. The course tutor was May Martin, of The Great British Sewing Bee fame. But, what I didn’t know is, she has been a sewing teacher, of children and adults for over 40 years and what she doesn’t know about sewing, well, it just isn’t worth knowing. We spent one evening, the whole of the following day, and a last morning putting our machines through their paces and absorbing May’s handy hints and tips. Those few hours have totally transformed my feelings toward my sewing machine (which I’ve owned for over 8 years, I might add) from tentative, at best, to completely confident.

The second thing has been Me Made May 2018. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go over to Instagram and take a look at #mmm18. Thousands of women (I’d like to be gender neutral about this but it really is mostly women) taking a selfie of themselves every day in May, wearing something they made themselves. In some cases, they’d made whole outfits, including their underwear and shoes! And this got me thinking, if they can do this, why can’t I?

I learnt to use a sewing machine at around the same time I learned to knit, at my mother’s side, watching, learning, trying and trying again. And in my late teens and early twenties I was too thin for the 10 – 14 ranges in all the late 1980s high street stores (oh how times have changed! Sob!) so I made a lot of my own clothes. But, apart from a few random garments, I haven’t sewn for myself with any real commitment for a long time.

So, now that’s changing. Today, I made this skirt, from fabric in my stash, without a pattern, AND it has an invisible zip (which really is invisible!) and a blind hem. I couldn’t be more thrilled with it. And there is plenty more on the cutting table. By the time Me Made May 2019 comes around, I want to be able to join in with plenty of Me Made outfits.

So, I need help. What are your favourite, go to patterns? The ones you’ve made lots of times, and that you just couldn’t be without? Which are your favourite stores for fabric? I need to make it all!

Sock kits

Kingfishers have arrived on the river by my little mill house. You hear them first, with their noisy chatter, then, if you are lucky, there is a flash of wonderful blue green wings. I keep trying to get a photograph but they are really speedy and I’ve not been lucky yet. But they are such a treat, and their gorgeous colouring has inspired me to dye this sock kit.

The kit contains a main colour and a contrast colour for heels, toes and cuffs. The wool is Blue Faced Leicester and is soft but strong and the high twist on this skein makes them excellent for socks.

Then I realised that sock kits are a joy in themselves, so I dyed up another in gorgeous yellow and grey, to reflect the weather I’m currently experiencing (and if you have visions of me dashing back and forth to the washing line to get my drying yarn in, every time it comes over dark and stormy, then you aren’t too far off the mark ⛈)

And the last colourway is inspired by the metals in Megan and Harry’s wedding rings, gold and platinum. I often look at my own wedding ring and am reminded of the promises I made to my husband, and those he made to me, and as we watched Megan and Harry exchanging their vows on the TV last Saturday, he reached over and gave my hand a little squeeze, and I knew he remembered our promises too.

All are available in the shop now.

Natural plant dyeing

So, if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook (and if not, why not?) you’ll have seen that I’ve been trying out natural plant dyes. And it’s been really good fun. There is something amazing about watching the dye seep out of plant matter and then see it transfer onto your wool.

I’ve tried to do this before – without much success but following a chat with Rita from Hedgeknits at Flockfest, I decided to give it another go. Rita recommended I buy some litmus papers so I could test the pH of my tap water. We live in a hardish water area and have a water softener and it hadn’t occurred to me this would have an impact on my dyeing result, but, low and behold, it did.

What’s your pH?

So, for most plant based dyes, a gentle alkaline medium is best. If I’ve totally thrown you by that statement, panic not! Your water can be made acidic, neutral or alkaline, depending on what is added to it. So first up, fill a pan with water and test it with litmus paper. Litmus paper comes in little strips and you simply dip a strip in your water and it changes colour to tell you the pH. You compare the colour to the chart that comes with the papers. My litmus paper was yellow (it comes in other colours) and so, yellow is neutral, orange through to red is acidic, and green through to blue is alkaline. You are aiming for mid green.

Now it’s time to raid the larder. If your water is acidic or neutral, you’ll need to add bicarbonate of soda to make it more alkaline. If its much too alkaline, then you need to add white vinegar or citric acid, to bring it back more towards neutral. My water is only very slightly alkaline and this probably accounted for my previous natural dyeing failures, so I added some bicarbonate of soda, a spoonful at a time, testing after each spoonful, until I got a good green on the litmus paper.

Making the dye solution

Once you have a gentle alkaline ph, pop in your plant material. In my case, I used avocado pits and skins. I’d been saving these up for a while – each time we ate an avocado, I’d wash the stone and skins in cold water to get any remaining flesh off , leave them to dry, split the stone with a heavy sharp knife (keeping fingers and thumbs well out of way) and then pop it all in the freezer. Once I had the stones and skins of 6 or 7 avocados, and was ready to dye, I took the box out of the freezer to defrost. Once defrosted, I added the stones and skins to my water and gently heated it on the hob. Pretty quickly the stones began to exude the most gorgeous pink colouring. I simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes, then left it for a couple of hours to cool. Then I strained the dye solution, discarded the stone and pits and put the dye solution back in the pan.

Soaking the wool

Meanwhile I soaked my wool in some more water until it was thoroughly saturated. I also soaked some wool in some water with added bicarbonate of soda (remember my tap water isn’t very alkaline) and this did result in a slightly stronger uptake of colour.

The very great advantage with dyeing with avocados is that you don’t need to mordant your fibre before you dye. This is because are high in tannin. A mordant is just a chemical agent that helps the dye stick to the fibre.

Dyeing!

To dye, I simply placed the wool into the pan containing the dye solution (making sure there was enough liquid to cover the wool), gently heated again to simmering point, turn off the heat and leave to cool (leave over night for a deeper colour, if you have the patience), rinse the wool and Voilà!

More experimentation

After my avocado success, I repeated the process with dock leaves. These produce the most wonderful bright yellows through to golden browns depending on heat, pH and whether or not I’d mordanted the wool with alum or just soaked it in water.

I’d say a willingness to experiment and allowing in some serendipity – not having a shade or tone fixed in your mind – are key to successful natural dyeing. It’s better to love what you produce rather than feel dissatisfied when your results don’t match your expectations.

There is also a beautiful subtle quality to the colour of naturally dyed yarn. Because the tone is generally more muted than those produced from acid dyeing with synthetic dye (see my blog post here about starting to acid dye) they seem to naturally co-ordinate with each other. I can see that there will be lots more natural dyeing in my future.

I think I’ll try nettles next (but I need rubber gloves and some copper sulphate first), then coffee, rose, and onion skins, and lots, lots more!

Flockfest goodies

A quick share of my Flockfest goodies.

My first purchase was a gorgeous giant skein of Corriedale chunky from Hedgeknits. My stand was next to Rita’s stand and I’d spotted this giant heap of woolly gorgeousness pretty early on, but was trying to restrain myself. But it’s naturally dyed, and I kept seeing other people pick it up and I couldn’t bear the thought of it going home with someone else AND it goes really well with the purple skein I bought when I last visited Flock on the Plain, so I caved and it has come home with me.

I also bought some funky vintage purple buttons from the lovely display by Hailstone Heritage which will go brilliantly as decoration on the garment I intend to make from the Hedgeknits yarn.

My next purchase was from Mahoodly and I just love the depth of Becca’s colours. I bought a gorgeous deep dark blue 4 ply and a brighter blue mini Skein which will become rib socks with contrasting heel and toe.

I spent a long time mesmerised by Girl’s Own Store’s sock knitting machine. It was a wonder to beyond and I would really love one. But alas, the budget won’t stretch that far and so, instead, I bought a pair of her super cosy socks dyed with onion skins.

From Woolaroo, I bought some lovely balls of Shetland wool which are from a flock near her home and hand spun by a lady living in the village. Such precious wool. I don’t have a project in mind but I think Knit British is going to have a Natural Shades KAL later this year so I’ll save these balls up for that.

I also swopped a skein of my Radical 4ply for this lovely Bonnie Prince Charlie yarn from Somerset Soda. Just look at those colours! I don’t have a project for this yet. I might pair it up with other skeins in my stash and make one of Boyland Knitworks gorgeous sweaters.

So, quite a modest haul by my standards. Did you make any purchases on Yarn Shop Day?

Flockfest, here I come!

So, it’s Yarn Shop Day tomorrow (Saturday 12th May) and I’m exhibiting, along with lots of other dyers and purveyors of buttons etc, at Flockfest at Flock on the Plain in Woodbury in Wiltshire. To say I’m excited, is to significantly understate how I’m feeling.

I thought I’d give you all a preview of some of the hand dye British wool I’m taking with me.

I have totally fallen I love with these Blue Faced Leicester sock weight mini skeins. They are such a lovely pop of colour. They are 80 meters/20g each and are sold in sets of five. They are spun with a high twist so are perfect for socks.

I’m also taking a Blue Faced Leicester/Nylon Sock weight mix with me. Basically this is for the Nervous Nellies who don’t believe a yarn is strong enough for socks without nylon (although I do love it too and am making socks from it at the moment). This is also spun with a high twist and is sold in 100g hanks.

I’m also taking my Audacious base in DK and 4ply weights. This Wensleydale yarn has such a lovely lustre and I particularly love the ply on the 4ply weight. It will be lovely made into shawls. Both the DK and the 4ply are sold in 100g hanks.

Lastly, this is my Saucy DK base. This yarn come from Dorset Horn sheep, a breed listed as threatened on the Livestock Conservancy watchlist, so I’m particularly excited to be showing this. I just can’t describe how well this yarn takes a dye. Look at the pics to see what I mean. I’ve just dyed up a few skeins of this yarn currently but I plan to dye up a some sweater quantities as I think it will make lovely garments.

So, if you are local to Woodborough in Wiltshire do come and squish the yarn. It will be lovely to see you.

March and April makes

Eep! How can it be the second week of May and I still haven’t shown you my March and April makes? To be fair to myself, I’ve had a lot to process emotionally. I’ll tell you all about it in time, I’m just not ready to share it quite yet.

But I will share my makes. First up was my Siri Cardigan. I just adore this. Knitting the textured yoke was hard on the hands but once that was done, it was a speedy knit. I love the patten so much, I’m planning a Siri sweater for next year. The yarn was from Skein Queen but, alas, has been discontinued.

Next to be finished were some socks in my Dad’s team colours (Brentford F.C. Go Bees!) in a fun self striping merino/nylon mix from Devon Sun Yarn. My Dad’s circulation isn’t great due to a long term disability so he was delighted with hand knit socks.

Also finished in March was a hat of my own design for my brother in Ryeland wool. I knew as soon as I cast on with this yarn, that it wanted to be a hat. It’s such a naturally stretchy wool that it’s great for things that need some negative ease. I dyed the hat, after I knitted it and the one consolation to a late Spring was that my brother was able to get some wear out of his hat straight away. He has declared it very warm which is another plus for Ryeland.

I knitted the first of what has now become several Sweater Bunts for my hand dyed yarn business. They are so cute, I love knitting them. This one is in my Brazen DK base which is British Jacob Wool and would make a great full size sweater. You can visit my shop here.

My final finished item in April was my Stronachlachar sleeveless sweater by Kate Davies Designs knitted in Brune by Daughter of a Shepherd. This was the first garment I’d knitted in naturally dark coloured wool and it is lovely; properly sheepy. However, the combination of darker yarn and a pattern that required concentration right to the end meant it wasn’t a particularly easy evening knit.

In April I also cast on a Flukra hap by Gudrun Johnston. In a burst of madness that I can only blame on my overly emotional state, I decided to make the hap square instead of triangular, as in the pattern. Being a novice hap maker, this has meant lots of head scratching and frogging but I’m onto the lace now so I’m hoping it will be relatively straightforward from here on in. I’m knitting it in a Teeswater lace weight yarn. It’s the first thing I have ever knit in lace weight yarn, so on reflection my pattern choice and it’s subsequent adaption now seems even more crazy. It’s slow progress but it’s mindful process knitting (I’m averaging 2 to 3 rows each evening) rather than speedy product knitting. Although I’d be fibbing if I denied doing the mental maths to see how long I will be knitting this for. I’m guessing it will take me until at least the end of May. But the Teeswater is gorgeous with a lovely lustre so it is hardly a chore!

I also don’t have a travel project on the go at the moment so must remedy that by casting on soon. I’m thinking socks. But am in a quandary over which pattern to choose. There are just so many beautiful ones. I have a high twist beautiful Blue Faced Leicester/Nylon mix in a peach shade already balled up. Which sock pattern is your go to favourite for an easy knit?

The Siri Cardigan pattern can be found here

Devon Sun Yarns is here

The hat pattern is available on Ravelry

Sweater Bunts pattern is here

Click here for Kate Davies Designs

Daughter of a Shepherd is here

Gudrun Johnston’s Flukra pattern is on Ravelry

Flockfest

Next Saturday is Yarn Shop Day and I would urge you to visit your local yarn shop and show them some love.

I live in the countryside and, it really does have moments of pure perfection; the annual village fair on a beautiful sunny bank holiday; stopping stock still on a quiet lane while swifts dart all around you; watching the bats swooping over the mill pond on a warm summer evening; seeing the mayflies dancing above the water of the river, and seeing the trout jumping to catch them; children running free across the fields and through the woods.

But, before I make this sound too idyllic, there are, inevitably, downsides including over flowing septic tanks; freezing temperatures but no heating because the oil ran out and it’s going to be a week until the next delivery; squirrels chewing though the pipes to the calor gas tanks at 4pm on Christmas Eve, meaning you can’t cook a Christmas dinner; mud, lots and lots of mud, so your boots, the dog, the kids, your floors and the car are disgustingly dirty for at least 9 months every year; and, a lack of local shops.

It was this lack of shopping alternatives which was the biggest shock when we moved out from London, 8 years ago. For years, I’d worked a stones throw from Selfridges, with Marylebone High Street only a few minutes walk away. And suddenly we couldn’t even pick up milk on the way home from work; our local (community run) shop isn’t open in the evening or on weekend afternoons and popping to the supermarket now involves a 15 mile round trip.

In the past, every village would have had its own shop. I actually live in the building that used to fulfil this role – it was originally a bread and beer shop, then a general store and cafe, for at least a century until it finally closed in 1984. At one time the village also had a pub, a tannery, a mill, a blacksmith and a school. Now, that’s all gone. Even the church is closed. I’m not able to say with absolute certainty, but it not too much to suggest that each and everyone of these enterprises closed because they didn’t make enough money to provide an income (even the weekly church collection didn’t cover the cost of the heating oil for the Sunday service through the winter). Trade dwindled for village and local shops, countrywide, because rather than shopping frequently for the things they needed, in the 1980s, people started doing a big weekly shop in the new and shiny supermarkets. So village and local shops closed, and once closed, the properties were sold and almost, invariably, the amenity was lost for ever.

So, use it or loose it. Which is why I shop small and local as much as I can. And this applies to yarn shops as much as it applies to grocery shops and bakeries. It might be cheaper to buy your yarn online, and the online store might have a better range, but nothing beats going into a store, breathing in the yarn fumes and having a squish, talking to the wise and learned staff, seeing the inspiring samples, and even honing your skills by taking a class or two. And if your local yarn store doesn’t stock the sort of yarn you want to buy, tell the staff what you’d like to buy, and then if they start to stock it, make sure you buy lots of it. Do it next Saturday!

And if you are near Woodborough in Wiltshire, you can come and see me, because I’ll be showing my hand dyed British wool for the first time ever at Flockfest at Flock on the Plain. To say I am totally excited is an understatement! Details can be found here.

So, come and say hi, breath some yarn fumes and squish some delicious wooliness. It’s going to be super fun.

Shop Opening

Squeeeee!

I’m so excited. I think I might burst.

I have news.

I’ve opened an etsy shop selling my hand dyed wool, and as you can probably tell, I’m a little bit thrilled about it.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but it’s a big leap from wanting to do something to summoning the courage and actually taking the plunge.

But I’ve done it.

I’ve been a big supporter of British food for a very long time, shopping small and local, at farmers’ markets, and at the farm gate, as much as I can. And I made a decision at the end of last year, to further support British farmers, by only buying British wool in 2018. I had a passing thought that this might have the added benefit of curbing the growth of my stash. I assumed there would be limited choice. I now realise just how naive I was. Buying British has opened my eyes to the enormous choice and variety in British wool. And its all just so wonderful, and I’ve been having so much fun dyeing all the different breed yarns, seeing how it responds to the dye, trying out different techniques, that I wanted to share.

I’ve started with two bases, Brazen DK which is 100% Jacob, and Audacious DK which is 100% Wensleydale. Both grown and spun in the UK and all hand dyed in my kitchen in rural West Berkshire. In addition to the 100g skeins, I’ve also dyed some 20g mini skeins in these two bases. These are just about the cutest thing ever. I adore them.

I’ll be introducing new bases and weights over the next few weeks; the ever popular Blue Faced Leicester, and after that, I have plans for Dorset Horn, British Falkland Island’s Merino, then Cheviot, Corriedale and ….. the list goes on and on. I think we are going to have a lot of fun exploring all the different breeds.

So pop over to the shop and have a browse, and let me know what you think. Are there any colours you’d especially like to see? Or any breeds you like me to stock? Please do let me know.