Dyeing with onion skins

It’s March Meet The Maker over on Instagram and today’s prompt is How It’s Made. I’m making a gorgeous crochet sweater with some Bluefaced Leicester wool which I’ve dyed with onion skins, so I thought I’d explain how to dye your own wool with onion skins.

The first step is to collect your onion skins. I use the onions with the golden skins rather than the ones with the red or white skins. It’s difficult to say how many you will need but I generally find, when it comes to plant material for dyeing, more is more!

When you have an ample amount of onion skins, pop them in some cold water and slowly heat. Don’t be tempted to give it lots of heat to try to speed up the process. You’ll end up with brown. I test how hot the water is getting by holding my hand against the side of the pan. If it’s too hot to do that, you need to turn off the heat. After gently heating for an hour or two, I turn off the heat, wrap the pan in towels to keep in the heat and leave it for 24 hours.

The next day, I assess the colour I’ve extracted. If I think there is more colour in the skins I repeat the slow heating process and leave the dye pan for another day. Once I think the colour is ready, I pour the mixture through a nylon sieve to remove the soggy onion skins. Leave the skins to drain over the dye pan for a few minutes to catch every last precious drop of colour.

In the meantime, soak your wool in some water for at least a couple of hours. I have slightly acidic water so add a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda to the water to make it slightly alkaline. I also add the bicarbonate of soda to the dye water.

Then I mordant the yarn. This is a step you could skip at home as onion skins produce tanin which acts as a natural mordant. However, as I’m dyeing to sell, rather than my own use, and I want to make sure the colour really lasts, I use alum at around 7-8%. This means 7-8 grams of mordant to 100g of yarn.

Once your yarn is thoroughly wetted, add it to the dye mixture in the dye pan and gently heat again and leave to absorb for 24 hours. If you are using a non super wash yarn, be very careful about moving the yarn about in the warm water as it might felt. You can be more confident once the water has cooled again. You might need to repeat this process a few times to get a good colour. Bear in mind a goodly amount of the colour might run out when you rinse.

Once you are happy with the colour on the yarn, rinse in cool water and leave to dry out of direct sunlight. Then enjoy your natural colour!

Unravel 2019

A week from today, I will be showing my yarn, for the first time, at Unravel, at The Maltings in Farnham.

I can’t tell you how excited I am. For the last few months, I have been naturally dyeing up a storm in my cottage kitchen, trying new to me colours, new to me techniques, endlessly experimenting and learning. I have just one indigo vat to go and I’m ready.

I have also designed three hats to compliment the special qualities of my Saucy Dorset Horn DK yarn (300m/100g) and these patterns will be launched at the show. All three patterns are inspired by my west Cornish ancestry and our family visits to Sennen Cove, a small fishing village about a mile up the coast from Land’s End.

The first of the hats is Gommon, which takes name and its inspiration from the seaweed, thrown up onto the sandy beach, by the wild seas of winter. My children just love the curious, other worldly, shapes of the seaweed. The stitch used in the hat is a super stretchy mix of knit and purl, and an initially nerve wracking, but quickly satisfying, yarn over and drop stitch repeating pattern, ideally suited to the grippy quality of Dorset Horn wool.

The second of the hats is named Hasen (the Cornish word for seed) and is named for the myriad dried seed heads found, in late summer, in the sand dunes above the beach by the tiny hamlet of Vellandreath, about a mile along the sandy bay from Sennen Cove. My ancestors and wider family, lived in three of the seven small cottages at Vellandreath for generations. My mother, when she was alive, told me vivid stories of visiting her great grandparents there, so it’s a very special place for me. It’s wonderful to linger in the dunes, toes in the soft sand, looking for snail shells and listening to the sounds of busy insects and the gentle breeze rustling the dried seed heads. Hasen is a super stretchy rib hat, with an easily memorised twist, and a pretty bobble brim.

Finally, on the cliff path from Sennen Cove to Land’s End, where the land meets the sea, magnificent cliffs of granite endure against the wind and salt spray of the pounding Atlantic waves. These cliffs, and the submerged rocks nearby, have claimed many ships, and are the inspiration for Kleger, the last hat in this short series, which combines simple knit and purl stitches to create a super stretchy, cosy hug of a hat.

If you are visiting the show, I’d be thrilled if you came to say hello. I will be upstairs, in the Barley room. I look forward to meeting you.

Woah for woad

Last week, a friend of mine asked me what woad was. I tend to wander about thinking that everyone has the same information stored in their heads as I do, so am surprised when they don’t.

The short answer is, historically, it is the European source of the blue dye called indigo.

History in Britain

It has a long history of human cultivation and has been grown in Europe since the Stone Age.

Boudicca and the Iceni tribe in East Anglia used woad to colour their faces and, some accounts say, their bodies, before going into battle and in the north, the Picts painted their bodies with woad. Interestingly, it was the Romans who coined the name “Picts” as the word means “painted” in the Celtic language.

As anyone who has ever inadvertently put an ungloved hand in a woad or indigo vat knows only too well, that colour just loves skin. It’s not something your hand will let you forget in a hurry and, for several days, it will leave people who don’t know you well, wondering if you are a smurf in training, or auditioning for a part in an Avatar sequel. So, I’m guessing, this persistent characteristic is one of the reasons why the ancient Britains used it.

Another reason may be that woad can be used as an antiseptic and it may have been used to help to heal the more minor wounds of battle.

Cultivation and Processing

I have been doing quite a lot of reading around how to grow and cultivate woad as I have some seeds to plant next spring.

Woad is grown as an annual, so it is planted and harvested in one year. The leaves give the colour and are chopped up into a paste and shaped into balls. These balls are dried out, and then crushed into a powder. The powder is wetted and allowed to ferment. Once it has dried out again, the fermented powder is added to a vat of urine (or potash). And fermentation continues for another 3 days. Then, the vat is ready to dye your wool, fabric, hands, faces and any other body part.

The process can be speeded up these days through the use of sodium dithionite, instead of the urine vat.

But, the thing that astonishes me, every time I think about it is, how did ancient people’s figure it out? There just feels like too many steps, to have stumbled upon it accidentally. I have such regard for ancient dyers who must have been great experimenters and highly observant.

Woad whiff

Woad is a bit smelly. Actually extremely smelly when it is fermenting. I can attest to this personally as, in the heat of summer I left a mini skein I had rather unsuccessfully tried to over dye with woad, in a little water, in a bowl in my studio, for a little too long, while I pondered what to do with it. I tried washing away the whiff, without success and even though I then moved it directly to the wheelie bin outside, the smell lingered for ages. Weeks later, I thought I kept getting an occasional whiff of it, although that may have just been my imagination.

I can wholeheartedly sympathise with Queen Elizabeth I, who refused to allow it to be cultivated near her palaces because of the smell!

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, 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.

Edinburgh Yarn Festival 2018

I thought I’d share a few pictures of my Edinburgh Yarn Festival experience. I had the most amazing time, bought way more yarn than I should have done and then thought I’d lost it all when it didn’t come off the carousel at Heathrow (it did turn up eventually after someone was sent to hunt in the bowels of the plane 😅). I’ll write about the things I bought in a day or too, but in the meantime, feast your eyes….




Love it Hate it Love it

 

Whilst I have been labouring on my many unfinished wips, I’ve been thinking about why so many have been consigned to the bottom of the wip basket and, have concluded that it’s more than just the delight of casting on with new yarn.


This story will be pretty familiar to anyone who is a crafter but to my non crafting friends, this might come as a bit of a surprise and you’d be forgiven for wondering why I put myself through this all the time.

Almost every project I undertake goes as follows:

  • Buying the yarn or getting yarn in the post “Ooh lovely lovely yarn. Squeeeee. So excited, must cast on”
  • Upon casting on “Oh my goodness this is so amazing, I’m so in love with this”
  • About 1/3 of the way through “So so loving this. Whoo hoooo. Must knit/crochet faster”
  • About 1/2 way through “Hmmm. Is this going to look alright? Is it going to fit? Maybe I should have made something else with this yarn? Hmmm. I’m not sure I even like the yarn any more”
  • About 2/3 of the way through “Ugh. This is awful. I hate it. Why did I ever think this would work? What a colossal waste of time. I can barely bring myself to finish” and, if I’m feeling particularly grim, it’s at this stage that things get relegated to the bottom of the wip basket, never to be seen again (or at least only seen again when I can’t get any more unfinished projects in the wip basket and, like now, have a purge).
  • On completion “I love love love it.”

I know, I know. And let’s not forget, I do this to myself voluntarily.

The plus side of this behaviour is that, once I can bring myself to restart the wip, I’m nearly always pretty quickly into the gratification of completion. So, hurrah for finishing wips is what I say. Here is the latest one I’ve finished – my yarn eating crochet flower rainbow blanket.